Pritikin Longevity Center abridged article (not affiliated with The Vegetarian Site)

Rarely does the media miss a chance to report that olive oil is a “good” fat. A recent 2006 study praised olive oil as heart-healthy – and extra virgin olive oil as especially healthy (1). The problem, though, is that many journalists do not fully dissect the scientific studies on which they’re reporting. Facts get distorted. Qualifiers disappear. Headlines turn sensational. And so does the truth about olive oil. In this article, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center, Jeffrey Novick, MS, RD, responds to the hype about olive oil to help us better understand what’s true about this so-called “healthy” fat – and what’s not.

The Hype: Olive oil will protect you from a heart attack. The Truth: Olive oil is not heart-healthy. Yes, foods rich in monounsaturated fats like olive oil are healthier than foods full of saturated and trans fats, but just because something is “healthier” does not mean it is good for you.

Several human studies have questioned olive oil’s heart-health claims. When researchers from the University of Crete recently compared residents of Crete who had heart disease with residents free of the disease, they found that the residents with heart disease ate a diet with “significantly higher daily intakes” of monounsaturated fats (principally olive oil) as well as all fats.(2)

Data from the Nurses Health Study, an on-going study from Harvard Medical School analyzing the habits and health of nearly 90,000 female nurses, found that those who consumed olive oil were only marginally healthier than those eating a typical high-in-saturated-fat American diet.

Another study investigated how well subjects’ arteries were dilating to accommodate blood flow after they had eaten several meals. Each meal emphasized a different component of the Mediterranean diet. After the meal rich in olive oil, dilation in the arteries was impaired.(3) The meal caused severe constrictions, which can injure the endothelium, the inner lining of arteries, contributing to heart disease. No such problems occurred with the other meals. “The beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet,” concluded Robert Vogel, MD, and colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “appear to be antioxidant-rich foods…” These foods, he continued, “appear to provide some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.” So if you’re not eating fruits and veggies, you’re not getting protection. If you’re pouring olive oil on an already bad diet – one devoid of protectors and full of destroyers like cheeseburgers – you’ve only made that diet worse.

Research recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology also found that “dilation was worse” after 24 people, 12 healthy and 12 with high cholesterol levels, consumed olive oil. Five teaspoons of olive oil swallowed after salami-and-cheese meals did not help the arteries relax and expand.(4) According to Dr. Robert Vogel, this research and other data indicate that olive oil is not heart protective.

Finally, and most fundamentally, pouring a lot of olive oil means you’re consuming a lot of fat. And eating a lot of any kind of fat, including “healthier” ones, means you’re eating a lot of calories, which leads to excess weight, which leads to increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, many forms of cancer, and yes, heart disease.

The Hype: Extra virgin olive oil is especially heart-healthy because it’s rich in polyphenols. The Truth: All plant foods are rich in polyphenols, and many deliver far more polyphenols (and far fewer calories) than olive oil.

Let’s take a look at this new study on extra virgin olive oil: Researchers from Italy and other European countries directed 200 healthy men to use three different olive oils for three weeks a piece. One was an extra virgin olive oil high in antioxidant plant compounds called polyphenols; the other two were more heavily processed “non-virgin” varieties with moderate to low polyphenol levels. At the end of the study, the scientists found that the virgin olive oil showed better heart-health effects – higher HDL “good” levels as well as greater declines in markers that may indicate oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a process that inflames the arteries and heightens the risk of plaque rupture and heart attacks. The researchers credited the virgin oil’s high polyphenol content for the better results. But the problem is: If you’re relying on olive oil for your polyphenols, you’ve got to eat a lot of calories to get a decent amount of polyphenols, and eating lots of calories is just what Americans, with our epidemic rates of obesity, do not need. A hefty 120 waist-expanding calories of olive oil delivers 30mg of phytosterols, a group of polyphenols. By contrast, a mere 11 calories of green leafy lettuce gets you the same number of polyphenols – 30mg, and so much more: Keep in mind what mountains of research over the past several decades have told us. Consistently, the foods linked with healthier, longer, disease-free lives are foods rich in all kinds of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, beta carotene, and so on. Yes, foods like leafy greens. Olive oil, by comparison, tallies up a whole lot of zeros when it comes to most nutrients.

The Hype: Olive oil will lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. The Truth: Olive oil, in and of itself, does not lower LDL cholesterol. In just about every study showing that people lowered their LDL cholesterol levels after starting to use olive oil, including this latest study on extra virgin olive oil, the people used olive oil in place of other dietary fats, often saturated fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats. Of course LDL is going to go down. You’ve gotten rid of the LDL-raising fats.

The point is: It’s not the addition of olive oil that’s improving LDL cholesterol levels. It’s the subtraction of artery-clogging fats like saturated fats and trans fats. That’s precisely what the official health claim allowed by the Food and Drug Administration states. Here are the claim’s exact words: “Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” Unfortunately, what we usually hear in the media and see on olive oil bottles are only the words “heart healthy.”

The Hype: The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet, and it’s rich in olive oil, so olive oil must be heart-healthy. The Truth: The people on this planet with the longest life expectancy and the least heart disease do not eat diets rich in olive oil. They do eat a diet rich in whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Yes, in the 1950s Ancel Keys and fellow scientists observed that people living in the Mediterranean, especially on the isle of Crete, were lean and heart disease-free. And true, their diet consisted of olive oil, but it also had an abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, coarse whole-grain breads, beans, and fish. And they walked about nine miles daily, often behind an ox and plow. But much has changed on Crete – and throughout the Mediterranean – since then. Today, the people of Crete still eat a lot of olive oil, but their intake of whole, natural foods has gone way down, as has their physical activity. The island’s new staples are meat, cheese, and television. Today, more than 60% of Crete’s adult population and an alarming 50% of its children are overweight. And has maintaining an olive oil-rich diet saved them from disease? Not at all. In recent years, rates of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension have skyrocketed. The point here is that olive oil is not the magic bullet that made populations along the Mediterranean in the 1950s so healthy. Olive oil was simply a bellweather, or marker, for other features of the Mediterranean diet, like plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and exercise, that were in fact healthful.

The Hype: Olive oil raises “good” HDL cholesterol. The Truth: Many people with high HDLs have diseased arteries, and many with low HDLs have very clean arteries. One of the “heart healthy” effects of extra virgin olive oil, wrote the authors of the recent study on olive oil varieties, is that it raised levels of HDL good cholesterol more than the non-virgin oils. But HDL is just one number in a risk group of many, and it’s not the most important one. LDL is. Ultimately, we should focus on the big picture – on all the numbers that contribute to heart health. And the fact is: the populations who have the lowest incidences of heart disease in the world, the people living in Okinawa and in other rural regions of Japan, have very low levels of HDL – in the 20s.

The Hype: Certainly, monounsaturated fats are better than saturated fats. The Truth: “Better than” is not “good in and of itself.” The human body has no essential need to consume monounsaturated fat. The only fat our body has an essential need to consume is omega 6 and omega 3 fat. People worry about getting enough omega 3. Olive oil is a poor source of omega 3. You’d have to drink seven ounces of olive oil to get sufficient omega 3. Seven ounces of olive oil is 1,800 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat (yes, a percentage of the fat that makes up olive oil is saturated.) Is olive oil better than butter? Yes. But is it good in and of itself? No.

REFERENCES: (1) Annals of Internal Medicine, 2006; 145: 333. (2) British Journal of Nutrition, 2004; 91: 1013. (3) Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2000; 36: 1455. (4) Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2006; 48: 1666.

Copyright © 2007 Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa. All Rights Reserved. Article used by permission from K. Murphy, 5W Public Relations. Not affiliated with TheVegetarianSite

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