Published On: Fri, Sep 14th, 2012

Is olive oil good for you and your heart?


olive oil heart healthy

(Healingtalks) The definitive answer is Yes and No! Confused? Well let’s clarify this issue.

Topic of the week

This past week two people asked me the very same question and I suggested to both of them that, yes, they should continue to use olive oil in their diet. This was based on a gentle “transitional approach.”

The use of olive oil is better than the use of butter and margarine or similar saturated fats. It is a thousand times better than using adulterated trans-fats.  But this doesn’t compare to the much greater health benefits of flax, chia and hemp seed oils. However, if one is in love with the unique and wonderful taste of olive oil (and when absorbed by crusty Italian bread or a pizza crust)  then asking a life-long user to give up olive oil is like asking a baseball catcher to play outfielder, or worse to sit on the sidelines for the rest of the playing season.  It’s not likely to work for them. So I generally advise keeping on with what someone is accustomed to, cutting down a little, and experimenting with other oils as well. Remember you can make a heavenly salad dressing with flax seed oil, garlic, oregano, and a little lemon to satisfy almost anyone’s taste buds. It just takes a creative leap.

Once a person becomes ever more committed to their personal healthy journey, more of such leaps are made. Unfortunately this is often only after a stroke or heart attack. Eventually olive oil needs to be re-examined and re-visted. Yes, it is part of an established Mediterranean diet, but is it really the healthier part of that relatively healthy diet? Saturated fats usually turn solid, clogging arteries. A common example is turkey fat. But the fact that olive oil turns solid in our refrigerators (though not at room temperature) should tell us something about its in between status. So let’s explore this issue.

Pritikin article

This nutritional subject was clearly addressed in an  article by the Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center, Jeffrey Novick, MS, RD when he responded  to the myths promulgated of journalists, dietitians, diet-sales and industry spokespersons and other vested interests.

Myth: Olive oil helps to protect us from a heart attacks.
Naked Truth
: Olive oil is not heart-healthy, nor is it cardiovascular friendly.

Again for a transitional diet point of view, olive oil as  a monounsaturated fat. It is therefore an improvement over eating quantities of saturated or trans fat. But a step up from clearly unhealthy saturated and more so deadly transfats does not equate with a truly healthy fat.

Looked at objectively, past ingrained cultural habits, it is important to remember that ALL oils are processed and condensed foods to begin with. Heat, light and air exposure decay whatever health benefits a fat may have (less so the saturated fats why they are commercially favored , even when unhealthy). Thus fats are best stored in the refrigerator and in dark bottles and consumed within 6 months of extraction. But most oils sit on store shelves unrefrigerated for a very long time. Recently I tried to test different olive oils in a supermarket and I could not find one without a rancid taste. Almost made me want to travel to an olive farm. Oil is also extracted by intense means and out of a whole food. Thus we need to take great care whenever there is any  significant consumptions of this concentrated element. Our bodies will react.

A sample of research studies

  •  University of Crete study – It recently compared Crete residents with heart disease to those without and discovered  found that those with heart disease ate significantly more  monounsaturated fats (principally olive oil).
  • Nurses Health Study – This Harvard Medical School study examined nearly 90,000 female nurses and found that those who consumed olive oil were only slightly healthier than those ingesting a high-in-saturated-fat American diet.
  • Study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology – This looked at how well subjects’ arteries were dilating after certain meals. Each meal looked at  a different component of  the Mediterranean diet. After a meal rich in olive oil, dilation was impaired.  Severe constrictions occurred and which can harm the inner lining of arteries, contributing to heart disease. No such dilation occurred with the other meals, minus olive oil. The study was conclusive.  “The beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet,” stated Robert Vogel, MD, and colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “appear to be antioxidant-rich foods…” – the fruits and veggies in the Mediterranean diet.  They “appear to provide some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.”  Another study in the same Journal 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 dilate.

Bottom line

Eating lots of such mono-unsaturated and saturated fats basically means adding calories, which yields excess weight, which gives you more risk of diabetes, hypertension or high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, and heart disease.

By the way, the one person this week who insisted on continuing to consume olive oil recently had a brain stroke.

The extra virgin olive oil scoop

Myth:  The polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil makes the oil healthy
Naked Truth: All plant foods are rich in polyphenols, and many if not most with far fewer calories.

Researchers from Italy and other European countries got 200 healthy men to use three different olive oils for three weeks. One was an extra virgin olive oil with high polyphenols; the other two not. 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 inflames and deteriorates arteries. The researchers credited the virgin oil’s high polyphenol content.  But an intake of 120 calories of olive oil will yield only as many polyphenols as 11 calories of green leafy veggies. This means you risk significantly adding to your waistline to get these polyphenols, and in the context of an already obese culture. Not very wise.  Mountains of research shows that foods l rich in variety of good  nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, and so on are truly healthy, like leafy greens. Olive oil is minus most of those.

Impact on cholesterol

Myth: Olive oil will lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL
Naked Truth: Olive oil does not necessarily lower LDL cholesterol. Furthermore, many individuals with high HDLs and low LDLs have diseased arteries anyway.  In industry-sponsored studies showing lowered LDL cholesterol levels and with the use of olive oil, the subjects simply replace  saturated fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats. Of course LDL will go down. And in any event, we must note that with the lowest incidences of heart disease,  as with those living in Okinawa, very low HDL levels were noted.  Thus, in any event, these blood markers are not fool-proof guides.

Poor source of omega-3 fats

Myth: Monounsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats and therefore automatically “healthy.”
Naked Truth: Healthier does not necessarily equal healthy.

You would have to eat 7 ounces of olive oil (1800 calories with 30 grams of saturated fat) to get enough Omega 3′s, the truly healthy fats. It’s not going to work to keep either your heart or brain healthy.

Role in the healthy Mediterranean Diet

Myth: The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil,  is a heart-healthy diet, and therefore olive oil is heart-healthy.
Naked Truth
: Any diet rich in fruits and vegetables will generally be heart-healthy, and able to withstand some of its less healthy elements.

Back in the 1950s Ancel Keys observed that some Mediterraneans, especially on the isle of Crete, were lean and heart healthy with their intake of olive oil and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. But that was then or when most exercised briskly in an agriculture-based society. Today things have changed. While the intake of olive oil remains largely the same, but their intake of whole fruits and vegetables have gone down. Physical activity as well. As a result, heart disease rates have skyrocketed. So what does that tell us?  Olive oil happened to come along on the ride, tagging along with the truly healthy ingredients that now have waned in some Mediterranean lifestyles.

But on its own, it clearly does not carry its ” weight”.  Rather it adds to our weight and related health problems.

References

  • Annals of Internal Medicine, 2006; 145: 333.
  • British Journal of Nutrition, 2004; 91: 1013.
  • Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2000; 36: 1455.
  • Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2006; 48: 1666.

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