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Is olive oil the only healthy oil?

Is olive oil the only healthy oil?

Sometimes I sound like a broken record to myself:

  • Use olive oil
  • Olive oil is the best choice
  • Switch to olive oil
  • Olive oil, olive oil, olive oil!!

Can olive oil really be so uniquely important for health? More so that any other oil? Where does that leave people in geographic regions that have never grown olives or used olive oil? Most of Asia, for example, including India. Is it all marketing hype?

First, the health claims are not marketing hype. They’re valid. I posted about this article about the PREDIMED study and breast cancer over 5 years ago, and the results are still valid.  The PREDIMED study was originally designed to examine the effects of a Mediterranean style diet on cardiovascular disease risk factors.  Subjects are assigned to one of 3 diets:

  1. a Mediterranean style diet plus extra virgin olive oil
  2. a Mediterranean style diet plus mixed nuts
  3. a low fat control diet.

Researchers used the data to assess any effect of these 3 diets on breast cancer risk.  As part of the study, over 4000 women aged 60-80 years old, were followed for 5 years for breast cancer incidence.  Compared to the low fat diet control group, the olive oil group had a 62% lower risk for breast cancer, while the mixed nut diet group had a 38% lower risk.  Conclusion: eating 15% or more of daily calories as olive oil had the most benefit.

What is it about olive oil? First, olive oil is particularly high in monounsaturated fats. Diets high in monounsaturated are linked to lower risk for chronic diseases. Second, extra virgin olive oil is loaded with polyphenols, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Do any other oils have those properties?

Some other oils are high in monounsaturated fats. Avocado and canola oils are two good examples. Safflower and sunflower oil, labeled “high oleic”, are as well. Peanut oil and soy oil are decent sources of monounsaturates. You can find canola, avocado and peanut oil in most grocery stores. It’s a bit trickier to find oils labeled “soy”, “high oleic sunflower” or “high oleic safflower”. Most stores stock “vegetable” oil, which could be anything, or a blend of several oils that varies based on cost. You might find “high oleic” speciality oils in boutique/natural grocery stores. Some foods are also high in monounsaturated, with the added benefits of other nutrients. Avocados, nuts and nut butters are the most significant examples.

Other than some unrefined avocado oils, most other oils are highly purified. Any antioxidants are removed. That’s why it’s important to buy extra virgin olive oil, which still has those healthful phenols. Sadly you might not be able to trust avocado oil. A study from UC Davis found that many of the avocado oils available for purchase were poor quality or adulterated with other cheaper oils. It’s impossible for the average shopper to tell, since avocado oil doesn’t have a unique appearance. So while I’d love to be able to recommend another healthful oil, I’ll wait until there’s better quality control in avocado oil production.

Peanut, canola and soy oils are widely used in other regions of the world, particularly Asia. So the lack of olive oil isn’t a problem. The culinary traditions in those countries are generally more healthful anyway, with a heavy emphasis on plant-sourced foods.

Let’s get back to that PREDIMED study. What does 15% of calories as olive oil look like?  Let’s say you’re a woman with a daily intake of about 1600 calories total.  15% of that would be 240 calories, or about 2 tablespoons.  What are some ways you could consume 2 TB olive oil everyday?

  • One of the most efficient ways to include olive oil is to use it for salad dressing.  You might use 1/2 to 1 TB of olive oil on a large serving of tossed green salad.
  • Instead of buttering bread, dip it in olive oil seasoned with black pepper and herbs.  But be careful.  It’s really easy to soak up a lot of olive oil with bread.
  • Instead of using a non-stick pan, use olive oil to sauté vegetables.
  • Sauté potato slices in olive oil for breakfast or dinner.
  • Cook eggs in olive oil, rather than butter or (gah!) margarine.
  • Toss cooked pasta with olive oil before serving
  • Drizzle olive oil on cooked grains, such as rice.
  • Baste meats and fish with olive oil before grilling
  • Toss vegetables in olive oil before roasting. Good choices: potatoes, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc.
  • When making tuna or egg salad, cut the mayonnaise with olive oil (roughly 1 part olive oil to 2 or 3 parts mayonnaise). Or don’t use any mayonnaise.
  • Substitute olive oil for shortening or butter when baking quick breads or muffins.

If you used 2-4 of these food prep techniques everyday, you’d probably approximate 15% of calories as olive oil, possibly more. If you’re not a fan of olive oil, use one of the other high monounsaturated oils for cooking or salad dressing. You can also add avocado, nuts and nut butters to your diet. Just don’t pile healthy fat choices onto a diet that’s full of other high fat foods like butter, margarine, cheese, high fat sweets and fried foods. Healthy fats can’t cancel out the impact (or calories) of other fats.

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