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The Truth About Olive Oil

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I just finished this article and its being released

next week. Thought I would give you a preview.

Comments are welcomed

Thanks & Enjoy


The Truth About Olive Oil

Of late, America seems in love with all things

Italian, from the Sopranos to olive oil. Rarely, for

example, does the media miss a chance to report that

olive oil is a “good” fat. The latest study, which

hit news wires in September, 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 they’re reporting

on. Facts get distorted. Qualifiers disappear.

Headlines turn sensational. And so does the truth.

In this article, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin

Longevity Center, Novick, MS, RD, responds to

the hype about olive oil to help you 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


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.

A “healthier” cigarette (one with less nicotine) still

leads to lung cancer. “Healthier” monounsaturated

fats like olive oil may still lead to diseased

arteries. When scientists fed monounsaturated fats to

monkeys in isolated controlled studies for five years,

the monkeys developed extensive plaque build-up and

coronary artery disease.(2)

Monkey trouble

In fact, “the monkeys fed monounsaturated fat

developed equivalent amounts of coronary artery

atherosclerosis as those fed saturated fat,” wrote Dr.

Lawrence Rudel and colleagues at Bowman Gray School of

Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem,

North Carolina.

In a review, Dr. Rudel warned that the science

supporting claims that monounsaturated fats are heart

protective is weak, based largely on population

studies, not controlled trials. Moreover, these

claims “are questioned by the demonstrated detrimental

effects on atherosclerosis in animal models.” (3)

Several human studies have also 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. (4)

Marginal benefits

“And 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,” states

registered dietitian Novick.

Impaired dilation

Another study investigated how well peoples’ arteries

were dilating (expanding) 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. (5) 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


“The beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet,”

concluded Vogel, MD, and colleagues at the

University of land School of Medicine, “appear to

be antioxidant-rich foods, including vegetables,

fruits, and their derivatives such as vinegar, and

omega-3-rich fish…” 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,” points out dietitian

Novick. “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.”

Not protective

Research just 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 preserve the

elasticity and flexibility of arteries. (6)

This research and other data indicate that olive oil

is not heart protective, Dr. Vogel told

Pritikin Perspective. Vogel, a cardiologist who has

studied heart disease for more than 30 years, counsels

his patients to “feast on fish” and other rich sources

of omega 3 fatty acids instead of olive oil, and to

eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

every day.

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 apiece. 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 –


And so much more. Look at the chart comparing the

nutrients in green leafy lettuce with those in olive

oil. Keep in mind, too, 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.

“Shop for food the way you shop for a car,” suggests

dietitian Novick. “Why get the stripped-down

(nutrient-poor) model if fully-loaded models like

fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are available?

And the price you’ll pay in terms of calories eaten is

far, far less.”

Nutrient Leaf Lettuce Olive oil

Calories 120 120

Protein g 10.8 0

Total Fat g 1.2 13.5

Carb g 22 0

Fiber g 10 0

Calcium mg 285 0

Iron mg 6.8 .08

Magnesium mg 103 0

Phosphorus mg 230 0

Potassium mg 1536 0

Sodium mg 222 0

Zinc mg 1.4 0

copper mg .230 0

manganese mg 1.98 0

Selenium mcg 4.8 0

Vit C mg 142 0

Thiamin mg .55 0

Riboflavin mg .634 0

Niacin mg 2.97 0

Pantothenic acid mg 1.06 0

Vit B6 mg .713 0

Folate mcg 301 0

Vit A IU 58648 0

Vit E mg 2.3 1.94

Vit k mcg 1375 8.1

Sat Fat g .158 1.864

% Sat Fat 1% 14%

MUFA g .048 9.85

PUFA g .649 1.421

Omega 6 G .19 1.318

Omega 3 g .459 .103

6/3 Ratio .42 12.8


Polyphenols mg 301 30

Beta carotene mcg 35189 0

Lutein +

Zeaxanthin mcg 13702 0

The Hype: Olive oil will lower your “bad” LDL


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,”

points out Jeff Novick.

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 (key words underlined

by Jeff Novick):

“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


Unfortunately, what we usually hear in the media and

see on olive oil bottles are only the words “heart

healthy.” Gone are the FDA’s many qualifiers. Gone,

in effect, is the truth.

The Hype: The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy

diet, and it’s rich in olive oil, so olive oil must be


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 T.V. 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,” argues Jeff Novick.

That’s what new research is finding. In a recent

study in the New England Journal of Medicine,

scientists followed for years the diets and health of

22,043 adults in Greece. (7) Adherence to the

traditional Mediterranean diet was assessed by a

10-point scale that incorporated the key facets of the

diet, including an abundance of plant food (fruits,

vegetables, whole-grain cereals, nuts, and legumes),

olive oil as the main source of fat, and

low-to-moderate amounts of fish and poultry.

Though higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet was

associated with significantly lower death rates, olive

oil itself was “associated with only a small and

nonsignificant reduction in mortality,” wrote Dr.

B. Hu of Harvard Medical School in an editorial

accompanying the study. (8)

So don’t reward olive oil with the laurels, agreed Dr.

Alice Lichtenstein, one of the nation’s top nutrition

scientists, at the Human Nutrition Research Center on

Aging at Tuft University in Boston.

In interviews about this study of Greek adults, she

said, “If the main message that Americans get is to

just increase their olive or canola oil consumption,

that’s unfortunate because they will increase their

caloric intake and they are already getting too many


“What Americans need to do is eat more fruits,

vegetables, and legumes and fewer foods rich in

saturated fats.”

Indeed, the people with the highest percentages of

inhabitants who live 100 robust years and beyond, the

citizens of Okinawa, Japan, don’t even use olive oil.

They do eat a lot of fiber-rich,

straight-from-the-earth foods, as do the next four

communities with the highest percentages of

centenarians: the people of Bama, China; Campodimele,

Italy; Hunza, Pakistan; and Symi, Greece.

All five communities eat diets with plenty of fruits,

vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and

low-to-moderate servings of animal protein, usually

seafood or lean meat. It is this diet, not olive oil,

that is the common denominator of these five longevity

“hot spots.”

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


One of the “hearty healthy” effects of extra virgin

olive oil, wrote the authors of the just published

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,”

emphasizes Novick.

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.

Conversely, other people, like some Americans, have

very high levels of HDL – and high rates of clogged

arteries and heart attacks.

What’s critical, then, is not the marker (high HDL),

but the endpoint. “We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘What

happens to people after years and years? Who actually

ends up with less heart disease?’ In every study, the

rural Asians – yes, the people with the low HDL levels

– win. Every time, they are the ones who beat out

populations with higher HDLs, like the populations of

Crete, Greece, and Italy,” points out Novick.

“So just raising HDL does not always equate with

better health. Remember the study that fed monkeys

olive oil for five years? During the study, the

monkeys’ HDL levels went way up. But their endpoint,

after five years, was plaque-ridden, diseased coronary


The Hype: The new study showed that extra virgin

olive oil yielded greater declines in markers of

oxidative stress.

The Truth: Markers are not endpoints.

“As with HDL cholesterol, let’s not confuse markers

with endpoints, that is, what actually happens years

down the line to your coronary arteries. The

scientists in this study did not measure the health of

the artery walls, only the amounts of oxidative

chemicals. We don’t know if years of using olive oil

produces arteries with less inflammation and less

plaque build-up,” points out Novick.

Sure, polyphenols may reduce damaging oxidant

chemicals, and that could well be a good thing, but as

discussed earlier, you can get polyphenols – and many

other vitamins, minerals and other nutrients – with

foods, like fruits and vegetables, that have a lot

fewer pound-producing calories compared to olive oil.

The Hype: Certainly, monounsaturated fats are better

than saturated fats.

The Truth: “Better than” is not “good in and of


“The human body has no essential need to consume

monounsaturated fats from dietary sources,” states

Pritikin Director of Nutrition Novick. “The

only fat our body has an essential need to consume –

‘essential’ means we cannot make it ourselves – is

omega-3 fat. Olive oil, which is largely made up of

monounsaturated fat, is a very poor source of omega


In fact, you’d have to drink seven ounces of olive oil

to get sufficient omega 3s. 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


Interestingly, the American Heart Association recently

lowered the recommended intake of saturated fat to no

more than 7% of total calories eaten each day. Olive

oil is 14% saturated fat. So if you’re using a lot of

olive oil on your food, it’d be hard to have a diet

that’s less than 14% saturated fat, which means your

arteries are being subjected to double the

sat-fat-limit that the AHA recommends.

So, is olive oil better than butter? Yes. But is it

good in and of itself? No.

Bottom Line:

No oil should be considered a health food. Oils are

the most calorie-dense foods on earth. Ounce for

ounce, oil packs even more calories than butter or

bacon. A diet with hefty amounts of oil invariably

produces hefty amounts of body fat, which leads to all

sorts of devastating diseases, including America’s #1

killer: heart disease.

Steer clear of all oils loaded with saturated and

trans fatty acids, such as coconut oil, palm oil, palm

kernel oil. And try to limit your consumption of oils

rich in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats to 1

teaspoon per 1,000 calories daily.

1. ls of Internal Medicine, 2006; 145: 333.

2. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology,

1995; 15: 2101.

3. British Journal of Nutrition, 2004; 91 (6); 1013.

4. Journal of the American College of Cardiology,

2000; 36: 1455.

5. New England Journal of Medicine, 2003; 348: 2599.

6. New England Journal of Medicine, 2003; 348: 2595.

7. Makoto Suziki, Bradley Wilcox, and Craig Wilcox.

The Okinawa

Program. Three Rivers Press: 2002.

8. Sally Beare. Secrets of the World's Longest-Living

People. Piatkus

Books: 2003.

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