I kept saying I would write an article focusing on the confusion of olive oil and its health benefits. This may be hard for some people to read, but I just have to break it to you: olive oil is not the magic bullet we believe it to be. Most olive oils, in fact, are just concentrated, rancid fat. They offer no vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fibers, proteins, or carbohydrates. It is no more than your average processed food.
"But what about all of these Mediterranean Diet studies?" Well, what about them? What is the Mediterranean anyway? The Mediterranean is the area of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. In Europe we have Spain, France, and Italy, in Asia we have Lebanon and Israel, and in Africa we have Egypt and Morocco - to name a very short few. That's one heck of an area to name a dietary philosophy off of. Especially when one considers that each country (and continent) has a completely different diet.
Portugal, Southern Italy, Spain, Southern France, Greece (the island of Crete), and parts of the Middle East were studied to determine the benefits of a "Mediterranean diet". Out of all of the countries studied, the island of Crete was the most heavily researched, where over 700 men were tested. All men lived in the countryside, ate little to no meat, rarely had dairy, only had fresh fruit for dessert, and consumed a plant-based diet of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. They also drank two glasses of wine daily, with meals, and replaced all fats with olive oil. They, on average, took in about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil each day.
It's important to understand that the olive oil they were consuming was fresh, local, and unfiltered. It still contained some fiber, antioxidants, and most likely did not become rancid after being shipped thousands of miles over sea, only to sit in a warehouse for many months. More importantly, if their olive oil had turned rancid their plant-heavy diet (namely of fruits and vegetables) provided them with ample antioxidants to counteract any free radical exposure from the oil. Furthermore, the vasodilation that occurs from eating a whole food, plant-based diet would protect the heart by keeping the circulation strong, allowing the arteries to easily repair from any damage, and maintain a good blood flow to the heart.
These men ate very little to no processed sugar and virtually ate no refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates and sugar are more often to blame for high cholesterol than fatty foods themselves. You see, when the carbohydrate is refined (white flour, pasta, bread) it is too potent for the body because it contains too much energy and doesn't have the other factors (fiber, bran, and germ) to slowly release the glucose. The carbohydrates are so easily broken down into glucose that the body has to store all the extra energy as fat, which we know as triglycerides. These triglycerides are then stored in the arteries, which prompts the liver to create more cholesterol to "sweep" the arteries clean. No sugar or refined carbohydrates means a less triglycerides and less cholesterol production.
In addition to this, they also lived very active lifestyles. Many of them were farmers and took part in intense labor daily, with adequate sun exposure and detoxification through sweating. These men exercised every day, lived in the beauty of nature, were primarily vegan, ate fresh, local organic produce (that most of them grew themselves), ate only whole foods, and ate virtually no sugar or refined carbohydrates. As you can see, it wasn't the olive oil that kept their hearts healthy. How could researchers ignore all of these factors and report on the olive oil itself? That is what I considered bad researching, bad reporting, and bad business. There's either a lot of money to be made, since there's been no reduction in heart disease even with the increase of olive oil, or the researchers and doctors are equally as confused as the consumers. I would like to believe the latter.
When you read an article about the health benefits of olive oil, the results are usually cherry picked from an entire lifestyle that is never mentioned, or it's the result of researchers finding benefits in the olives themselves. Once the fiber of the olive is separated from the oil, the antioxidants, plant sterols, minerals, and vitamins are also lost. Studies have, however, proven that olive oil on the skin is very beneficial, but then again all fats are. Fats protect the skin from sun damage and aid in the synthesis of Vitamin D-3 from the Sun. Most of us like to believe that more is better, so we use olive oil in excess because it's proven to be "good for us". I don't know how researchers saw that these men exercised, lived in the country, and ate a primarily vegan diet, yet told the public that olive oil was the reason they were healthy and can be the new miracle bullet for the ever-growing plague of American heart disease.
Dr. Robert Vogel has long proved that olive oil does not equal better health. It was actually found to impede blood circulation and cause damage to the endothelial lining of the arteries. While studying the level of circulation, he was able to see how it was affected after the patient ate different types of food. When olive oil was eaten with a cooked meal (in pasta or as a dip for bread) Vogel found that the blood flow would decrease by 31% and wouldn't return back to normal for up to six hours. However, if olive oil was poured over a salad (the key here is raw vegetables) the blood flow still decreased but not as dramatically and it returned to normal much faster. These results are huge! This proves that the vasodilators and antioxidants found in fresh fruits and vegetables were strong enough to help protect the arteries from the otherwise damaging effects of olive oil. This suggests that the fat literally goes into the arteries and slows down our blood flow. You can read more about his findings here. You can also read some information on the nutritional profile that is lost during the processing of oil here.
I believe that any processed food, when eaten regularly, will eventually build up and cause problems in the body. Processed foods can be better thought of as "potent foods". During processing, one part of the food is concentrated while the rest is discarded. The problem is that all parts of the food make up its digestive, nutritional, and therapeutic abilities. You cannot isolate one part and expect it to work in the body without the other parts.
Olives, for example, contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants. This keeps the fats protected and delivers them to the body in small, healthy proportions. It takes, roughly, forty olives to make one tablespoon of olive oil - talk about a potent food! Most of us would never eat three jars of olives but it's quite easy to eat several tablespoons of olive oil with bread, which comes before the salad with dressing made of olive oil and the entree sauteed, or baked, in olive oil. We are drowning in olive oil! More importantly, the isolated oil doesn't have the antioxidants and fiber to protect it from becoming rancid. This means that most of us ingesting plant oils, raw on salads or heated in cooking, are most likely ingesting rancid fats. In other words, we are drinking a concentrated source of liquid, free radical-laden fat.
The only exception is pure, fresh, cold-pressed flax oil. Flax oil is the only oil that dilates the vessels, helps to reverse heart conditions, and inhibits tumor growth. I recommend Barlean's flax oils because each order is pressed when the store makes it. Other brands are likely sitting around for several months, becoming rancid. Barlean's also sends their product cold and most health food stores know to put it in the refrigerator upon arrival. Their bottle is also important as it is black and has an oxygen-proof cap. This ensures that light will not penetrate the bottle and leach its nutrients, while the cap keeps it from oxidizing and turning rancid. If you don't care for oil (I know I don't) you can use ground flax seeds daily in water, oatmeal, in breads, or sprinkled over salad and meals. Use 2-4 tablespoons each day. The ALA in flax allows vegetarians to turn it into the sought-after DHA and EPA found in most fish products.
My diet isn't always perfect, but I have stayed away from oil since March of this year and I can tell you that whenever I do eat it I have a hard time enjoying it. I never noticed how rancid it was before, or how much it coated my mouth and throat. Fat is very hard to digest, making olive oil a bad combination for salads and other types of food. A lot of raw vegan dishes are full of nuts, salt, and olive oil. I believe this is why many people trying a raw diet have digestive upset with excess bloating and gas. Removing oil from your diet can leave you feeling lighter, may help you lose weight, may assist in clearing up skin conditions, and it may allow you to fill up on whole food calories rather than isolated oil calories.
One tablespoon of olive oil gives us 120 concentrated empty fat calories, a negligible amount of vitamins and minerals, little to no antioxidants, no carbohydrates, no proteins, and no fiber. Whereas 1/4 cup of cooked quinoa gives us 150 calories and is saturated in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, complex carbohydrates (great for balancing blood sugar), easily digestible "complete" protein, and fiber. When we eat whole foods we take in greater amounts, become fuller on less calories, and gain the nourishment that we need.
It is no wonder why nutritionists have coined the term "overconsumptive malnutrition". We are eating hundreds, even thousands of excess calories and getting absolutely no nutrition. The brain is begging for nourishment and we're signaled to keep eating and eating. The only sure way to live a healthy life, while maintaing a healthy weight, is to eat a diet that is plant-based and made up of whole foods. That would include whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Do I think olive oil is healthy? Absolutely not.
What do you think?