Olive oil is as American as baseball and apple pie. Its monounsaturated omega-3's have long been touted for being "heart healthy." But if olive oil ready did protect our hearts from heart disease, then why do one out of every three Americans die from it? Perhaps it doesn't really protect our hearts after all. Clever marketing strategies have been very successful in promoting refined oils as being "heart healthy," but as this article by the Pritikin Longevity Center points out, the evidence proves otherwise.
The article, What's Wrong With Olive Oil is a very lengthy and thorough examination of myths and facts regarding olive oil. Are you ready for a little myth-busting adventure? If so, read on...
Myth #1 - "Olive oil will protect you from a heart attack"
Truth: Olive oil is not cardio-protective
- "Foods rich in monounsaturated fats like olive oil may be better than foods full of saturated and trans fats, but just because something is 'better' does not mean it is good for you. When scientists fed a monounsaturated fat–rich diet to monkeys for five years, the monkeys developed extensive atherosclerotic plaques in their coronary arteries. The monounsaturated–fat–rich diet and saturated–fat–rich diet were equally damaging. While olive oil may be less bad than saturated fats and trans fats at least in terms of its impact on blood lipids, that hardly makes it a 'good' or 'healthy' addition to your diet."
- "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 from olive oil) as well as higher fat intake overall."
- Data collected from the Nurses' Health Study which followed 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 people's arteries could dilate (expand) to accommodate increased blood flow after they had eaten several different meals. After the meal rich in olive oil, the ability of people's arteries to dilate was significantly impaired." The olive oil rich meal elevated the blood fats, and damaged the endothelium (the cells lining the inside of the arteries) resulting in a reduction of blood flow.
- "Research has shown that things that impair endothelial function in the short term usually contribute to clogged arteries in the long run."
- "A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology also found that 'dilation was worse' after 24 people consumed olive oil." Consuming olive oil after a high fat meal "did not help the arteries relax and expand."
- "Research has shown in both humans and other primates that diets high in fat and cholesterol promote atherosclerosis. By contrast, research in humans and animals have demonstrated that diets very low in total fat and cholesterol can not only prevent atherosclerosis but actually shrink plaque and reverse atherosclerosis."
- Because olive oil is extremely high in calories, (120 calories per tablespoon), it can easily promote weight gain, resulting in poor heart health. "Weight gain increases insulin resistance in many people and leads to a variety of metabolic changes that promote heart disease, including higher levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as more smaller, denser LDL particles in our blood." The denser LDL cholesterol becomes embedded in the damaged endothelium, causing "artery damage and heart attacks." "While olive oil may be less bad than saturated fats and trans fats at least in terms of its impact on blood lipids, that hardly makes it a 'good' or 'healthy' addition to your diet."
Myth #2 - "Olive oil does not promote inflammation"
Truth: "All high–fat diets promote inflammation"
- Fat-rich meals (including olive oil) increase the fat in the blood which can injure our arteries and promote heart disease by increasing inflammation.
- "In a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, a diet high in fat raised an inflammatory protein (CRP) in the blood by 25%. By contrast, CRP levels dropped by 43% on a low–fat, high–carbohydrate diet."
- "Evidence continues to mount affirming that inflammatory substances in the blood promote plaque growth, rupture, and clot formation, all of which likely increases the risk of heart attacks." Even a single meal high in fat has "been shown to impair blood flow in part because of acute damage to the endothelium, which may explain why angina is often much worse for several hours after each high–fat meal."
- "A new study in the Journal of Lipid Research conducted at the University of Kentucky clearly demonstrated in animals that a high–fat diet promotes the absorption from the gut of lipopolysaccharides (LPS), toxic substances which are part of bacterial cell membranes. High levels of LPS trigger immune cells to increase inflammation."
- "This research also demonstrated that the monounsaturated fatty acid oleic acid (olive oil is 78% oleic acid) resulted in a marked increase in LPS attached to chylomicrons in the bloodstream. Chylomicrons are large, fat–rich lipoprotein particles. After a fatty meal, the blood is so full of chylomicrons that it turns milky. Neither protein nor carbohydrate triggers the production of chylomicrons. Only long–chain fatty acids do, which are what the vast majority of all naturally occurring fats and oils are made up of. More LPS and chylomicrons may help explain the unique role of dietary fat in raising CRP and other inflammatory substances in the blood."
- "Meal after meal, year after year, of high–fat, calorie–dense foods promotes weight gain, which leads to adverse changes in blood lipids as well as increased levels of inflammatory substances in the blood."
Myth #3 - "Olive oil is especially heart–healthy because it's rich in polyphenols and plant sterols"
Truth: "All plant foods are rich in polyphenols and plant sterols, and most deliver far more polyphenols and plant sterols (with far fewer calories) than does olive oil. Polyphenols are antioxidant plant compounds that are linked with better heart health, including less oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a process that inflames the arteries and heightens the risk of plaque rupture and heart attacks. Plant sterols are another plant chemical that interferes with cholesterol absorption from the gut and helps lower LDL cholesterol."
- "If you're relying on olive oil for your polyphenols and plant sterols, you've got to eat a lot more calories to get a decent amount of these phytochemicals, and eating lots of calories is just what Americans, with our epidemic rates of obesity, do not need. A mere tablespoon of olive oil delivers a hefty 120 calories for a mere 30mg of polyphenols/plant sterols. By contrast, just 11 calories of green leafy lettuce gets you about the same amount of polyphenols/plant sterols."
The nutritional profile of olive oil can be seen here.
Myth #4 - "Olive oil will lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol"
Truth: "Olive oil, in and of itself, does not lower LDL cholesterol"
- "In just about every study purporting to show that people or animals lowered their LDL bad cholesterol levels after starting to use olive oil, the subjects used olive oil in place of other dietary fats, often saturated fats like butter, coconut oil, or lard. Well, of course LDL cholesterol is going to be lower when olive oil replaces butter. The total amount of saturated fat and/or cholesterol in the diet takes a tumble when butter is removed."
- "If you replace the olive oil in your diet with beans, your olive oil–enriched diet would end up producing significantly higher LDL cholesterol levels than your bean–enriched diet. Does that mean olive oil raises LDL cholesterol? Yes, compared to beans, but it lowers LDL cholesterol compared to butter. It's not the addition of olive oil to a diet that's lowering LDL cholesterol levels when it replaces butter, Crisco shortening, or coconut oil. Rather, it's the subtraction of artery–clogging fats and LDL–cholesterol raising saturated fats, trans fats, and/or cholesterol. The Food and Drug Administration states: '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.' The FDA appears to agree with data showing that replacing butter with olive oil generally improves blood lipids, but it also recognizes that this improvement might or might not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. There is no convincing evidence at this time that those better–looking blood lipids necessarily lead to a lot less atherosclerosis or fewer heart attacks."
Myth #5 - "The Mediterranean diet is a heart–healthy diet, and it's rich in olive oil, so olive oil must be heart–healthy and the key to a longer life"
Truth: "The people on this planet with the longest life expectancy and the least heart disease do not eat diets rich in olive oil or any other fat. They do eat a diet rich in whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans."
- Those living on the isle of Crete in the 1950's were lean and heart disease–free due to eating a diet consisting primarily of whole vegetables, fruits, whole grains, breads, beans and with the addition of fish and olive oil. They also "walked about nine miles daily, often behind an ox and plow." Times have changed, and although the people of Crete still consume olive oil, their consumption of whole natural foods has plummeted, along with their physical activity. Their once healthy diet has been replaced with rich Americanized foods, resulting in more than 60% of adults and 50% of its children being overweight. Maintaining their olive oil-rich diets have not saved them from developing the same rates of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. These diseases have risen sharply in recent years. The consumption of olive oil in the 1950s is not what made the Mediterranean population healthier than other countries, it was due to the abundance of whole plant foods in their diets.
- "The people most likely to 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."
Myth #6 - "Olive oil raises "good" HDL cholesterol"
Truth: "Many people with high HDLs have diseased arteries, and many with low HDLs have very clean arteries"
- "One of the 'hearty healthy' effects of olive oil, argues the olive oil industry, is that it raises levels of HDL good cholesterol. But higher HDL levels do not always mean better arteries. Remember the study on monkeys discussed at the beginning of this article? The higher HDL levels of the monkeys consuming a diet rich in monounsaturated fat did not prevent them from developing plaque–ridden, diseased arteries." HDL is not the most important number, LDL is.
- "The populations who enjoy the lowest incidences of heart disease in the world, the people living in Okinawa and in other rural regions of Japan, as well as the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, have very low levels of HDL – in the 20s. Conversely, other people, like some Americans, have very high levels of HDL – and still have high rates of clogged arteries and heart attacks."
- "The media have made much of the fact that low–fat diets like Pritikin are problematic because science has shown that HDL levels drop in response to low–fat eating. But science has also found (and the media rarely point it out) that the HDL particles of people on a low–fat diet are working very, very efficiently. It's not the absolute amount of HDL cholesterol in your blood but how efficiently the HDL particles you have are removing excess cholesterol from your artery walls and trucking it back to your liver for disposal." Although those who consume a high-fat diet may still have high HDL cholesterol levels, their numbers look good yet their arteries may still be clogged up.
- "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, the rural Asians beat out populations, like those of Crete, Greece, and Italy, with higher HDLs."
Myth #7 - "Certainly, monounsaturated fats like olive oil are healthier choices than saturated fats"
Truth: "Being 'healthier' than saturated and hydrogenated fats does not mean that adding more of them to your diet makes you healthier."
- "The human body has no essential need to consume oils rich in monounsaturated fat or saturated fat. The only fat our body has an essential need to consume are the polyunsaturated fats (both omega 6 and omega 3), and no more than 2 to 4% of our calories need come from these two polyunsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil is a very poor source of omega 3s. 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." Olive oil has a poor omega 6 to 3 ratio which can be seen here.
- "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."
Therefore, as you have seen from the facts presented above, olive oil is not "heart healthy" like the media and food industry would like for us to believe. The best way to protect our hearts is to nourish it with a diet rich in whole plant foods, and leave the refined vegetable oils on the shelf at the grocery store.
For more information regarding olive oil, or cholesterol, click on the following links: