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Health Benefits of Olive Oil: The Truth about Fats

“Coronary heart disease need not exist, and if it does, it need not progress” - Dr Caldwell B. Esselstyn

The debate around the health benefits of olive oil continues, though most people (even some nutritionists) would adamantly tell you that olive oil is healthy.

Though everybody knows olive oil is a fat, it’s commonly known as a ‘good’ fat. A ‘good’ fat is one which comes from plant sources like avocado, nuts or seeds. So how did olives and olive oil fall into this category?

Well olives come from an olive tree I hear you saying in defiance. But have you ever eaten an olive off a tree?

Neither have I, but I’ve heard it’s extremely bitter. So how do we go about making olives palatable?

The truth is that quite a lot of processing goes into the manufacture of olives and olive oil. Raw olives are processed by one of several curing methods which draw out the bitterness, by using lye or brine for instance. Another method cures them between layers of salt.

The process of making olive oil includes a number of steps such as harvesting, separating them from the leaves and washing, crushing them and then spinning them in a centrifuge to separate the oil (that's just one method) before bottling, labelling, shipping etc.

From an eco-friendly perspective, the whole process takes a lot of energy.

Any refining or processing we do, automatically means it is no longer a whole food.

My opinion is that if we don’t like to eat it in its whole, fresh, natural state, then it’s not an optimal food. So the health benefits of olive oil are questionable, because olive oil is a processed food.

But if you really want to know why olive oil is considered a good fat, or even a ‘heart healthy’ one, is because of the Mediterranean Diet.

What is the Mediterranean Diet and its relation to the Health Benefits of Olive Oil?

This misconceptions about the health benefits of olive oil arose from what is popularly known as the Mediterranean Diet – widely quoted as a heart-healthy diet.  Dr. Joel Fuhrman, in Eat to Live, explains that in the 1950s, on the Mediterranean (especially the island of Crete), people were lean and virtually free of heart disease.

Yet over 40 percent of their caloric intake came from fat, primarily olive oil. If we look at the diet they consumed back then, we note that the Cretans ate mostly fruits, vegetables, beans, and some fish.

Saturated fat was less than six percent of their total fat intake. True, they ate lots of olive oil, but the rest of their diet was exceptionally healthy. They also worked hard in the fields, walking about nine miles a day, often pushing a plough or using other manual farm equipment.

Americans didn’t take home the message to eat loads of vegetables, beans, and fruits and do loads of exercise; they assumed that olive oil is a heart healthy food.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: The birth of the Lyons Diet Heart Study

The assumption that the health benefits of olive oil led to the greater health of the Cretans fuelled a study known as the Lyons Diet Heart Study, conducted by a group of French scientists headed by Dr. Michel de Lorgeril of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble.

Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, known as the world’s leading authority on heart disease reversal, explains that participants on the study reduced their overall fat consumption and increased their consumption of fruit, fresh salads, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting their consumption of dairy products and meat.

Their diet thus included an average of 30% of calories from fat, what the American Heart Association describes as comparable to what is typically consumed in the United States.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: Results of the Lyons Diet Heart Study

Researchers found that the participants (all of whom had suffered a first heart attack) were doing much better than the control group (who continued eating as before).

In fact, those on the experimental diet were 50-70% less likely to experience the cardiac ailments the researchers recorded.

The study’s results were attractive to mainstream media and spawned a media furore about the health benefits of olive oil, including cookbooks where olive oil as an ingredient featured, as well as extensive coverage on radio, in magazines and newspapers.

However, what the media ignores is that by the end of the Lyon Diet Heart Study, nearly four years after its start, fully 25% of the subjects on the Mediterranean Diet had either died or experienced some new cardiovascular event.

Dr. Fuhrman points out that today, more than half the population of both adults and children in Crete is overweight and heart disease has skyrocketed. The Cretans still eat large amounts of olive oil, but their consumption of fruit, vegetables and beans is down.

Meat, fish and cheese are their new staples and their physical activity level has plummeted.

The Mediterranean Diet looked better than ours because of the increased consumption of vegetation, not because of the oil, Fuhrman concludes.

People who use olive oil generally put it on vegetables such as salads and tomatoes, so its use is correlated with higher consumption of produce.
Their diets were better in spite of the oil consumption, not because of it.

Even two of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Mediterranean diet, epidemiologist Martin Katan of the Wageningan Agricultural University in the Netherlands and Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, concede that the Mediterranean diet is viable only for people who are close to their ideal weight.

How can a diet revolving around a fattening, nutrient-deficient food like oil be healthy? asks Fuhrman.

Still want more information of the health benefits of olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet? Check out the video below by Jeff Novick.

Heath Benefits of Olive Oil: Are there any?

Ounce for ounce, olive oil is one of the most fattening, calorically dense foods on the planet. The bottom line is that oil will add fat to our already plump waistlines, heightening the risk of disease, including diabetes and heart attacks, says Dr. Joel Fuhrman.

Dr. Esselstyn agrees, stating that between 14 and 17% of olive oil is saturated, artery-clogging fat, every bit as aggressive in promoting heart disease as the saturated fat in roast beef.

They (oils) contain saturated fat which immediately injures the endothelial lining of the arteries when eaten. It doesn’t matter whether it’s olive oil, corn oil, or any other kind of oil”, he says.  

And while a Mediterranean style diet that allows such oils may slow the rate of progression of coronary heart disease when compared with diets even higher in saturated fat, it does not arrest the disease and reverse its effects. In other words, we can do better.

Dr. Colin Campbell, author of the The China Study, when asked to compare to results of the Lyon Diet Study with those he found when studying health and nutrition in rural China (where coronary heart disease is practically nonexistent) said the following:

The Mediterranean and rural Chinese diets are practically the same, I would say the absence of oil in the rural Chinese diet is the reason for their superior success”.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: Nutrients and the importance of a low fat diet

Nutrient analysis of one teaspoon of olive oil

Source: Eat to Live- Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.

Dr Joel Fuhrman, in Eat to Live, certainly does not promote the health benefits of olive oil. He explains that olive oil does not contain the nutrients and phytonutrients that were in the original olive. The oil has little nutrients (except a little vitamin E) and a negligible amount of phytochemical compounds, he continues.

You can add a little bit of olive oil to your diet if you are thin and exercise a lot. However, the more oil you add, the more you are lowering the nutrient-per-calorie density of your diet—and that should never be your objective, as it does not promote health.

Caldwell Esselstyn, in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, cites a patient who had undergone a quintiple coronary bypass and had been carefully following a plant-based nutrition programme.

His weight had fallen from 210 pounds to 156, but by mid-2004 he was experiencing a recurrence of angina (severe chest pain caused when your heart muscle doesn't get enough oxygen-rich blood).

He called Dr. Esselstyn for advice, who admits to being baffled as the patient maintained he was eating whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the patient disclosed that he was consuming “heart healthy” olive oil at every lunch and dinner and in salads. Esselstyn advised him to give up the oil and within seven weeks his angina had completely disappeared.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: The importance of a low fat diet

Olive oil is simply not beneficial for the heart, it’s just not as bad as the other fats it might be replacing (such as butter and margarine). Of 15 studies reviewed by Joel Furhram, researchers found that olive oil raises LDL cholesterol and causes increased coronary heart disease.

And in a talk that stunned the nutrition world at the American College of Cardiology, University of Maryland heart specialist Robert Vogel, MD warned that (even uncooked) olive oil could be as dangerous to your heart and arteries as a Big Mac or a giant piece of cheesecake.

Dr. John McDougall is another physician who has been teaching about the importance of low fat diet to health. He lived in Hawaai on a sugar plantation and met first, second, third and fourth generation Filipino’s, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.

He noticed that his patients from the first generation of immigrants who ate the worst diet according to traditional principles (ie no dairy products or meat) seemed trim and fat and avoided all the disease common to Western society today, living till their eighties and nineties on a diet of rice and vegetables.

But as the succeeding generations became more westernised so they became sicker.

Says McDougall: “To clean up your arteries (reverse atherosclerosis), a very low-fat, no-cholesterol diet must be followed strictly. Immediate benefits, such as relief of chest pains (angina) and tolerance for more exercise, are seen within days.”

Meanwhile, Dr Dean Ornish is one of many doctors (as seen in resources below) recommending a diet where daily fat intake is no more than 10%.

Dr. Attwood, a longtime pediatrician and author of Dr. Attwood's Low-fat Prescription Diet for Kids: A Pediatrician's Program of Preventive Nutrition, observed that 70% of American children have fatty deposits in the arteries, precursors of heart disease, giving us pause for thought as to what kind of health we are feeding to the next generation.

For more information on some of the world's longest-living cultures and their dietary fat intake visit The Longevity Diet.

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: The effect of a single high-fat meal

Another study cited by Esselstyn is one by Dr. Robert Vogel, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, who researched what a toxic effect a single meal can have on the endothelium.

Dr. Vogel used an ultrasound to measure the diameters of the brachial arteries of a group of students. Then he inflated blood pressure cuffs on the student’s arms, stopping blood flow to their forearms for five minutes.

After deflating the cuffs, he used the ultrasound to see how fast the arteries sprang back to their normal condition.

One group of students then ate a fast-food breakfast that contained 900 calories and 50 grams of fat. A second group ate 900-calorie breakfasts containing no fat at all.

After they ate, Dr. Vogel again constricted their brachial arteries for five minutes and watched to see the result, which was dramatic. Among those who consumed no fat, there was simply no problem, their arteries bounced back to normal just as they had in the pre-breakfast test.

But the arteries of those who had eaten the fat-laden fast food took far longer to respond.

Says Esselstyn: “The reason lies in the effect of fat on the endothelium’s ability to produce nitric oxide. Dr . Vogel closely monitored endothelial function of subjects and found that two hours after eating a fatty meal there was a significant drop".

Jeff Novick agrees that the health benefts of olive oil are debatable. As he demonstrated in the above video, a meal containing olive oil as a fat source reduces blood flow by 31%.

"It took nearly six hours, in fact for the endothelial function to get back to normal", continues Esselstyn. "If a simple meal can have such an impact on vascular health, imagine the damage done by three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – for decades".

Still convinced of the health benefits of olive oil? Dr. Nick Delgado's video below, How to become diabetic in six hours, demonstrates the further consequences of eating fatty meals.

The Health Benefits of Olive Oil: The Link between Nutrition and Disease

There is a beautiful simplicity to the (epidemiological) evidence, states Dr. Esselstyn, explaining how he became interested in researching the link between nutrition and disease.

You look at a map of the world, and almost all chronic ailments like coronary disease are crowded into the western countries. Then there were all these other countries, like Asia and Africa, where these diseases hardly showed up at all.

For example, women in the US were twenty times more likely than women in Kenya to develop breast cancer. And in Italy, where they fervently believe in the health benefits of olive oil, people have twice the chance of getting breast cancer as in Japan, where they have a significantly lower fat intake, says Fuhrman.

Esselstyn concludes: “A close look at all the cultures with the lowest rates of breast cancer showed an obvious common denominator: a low intake of dietary fat and correspondingly low cholesterol levels. The same was true for cancers of the colon, prostate, and ovary, and for diabetes and obesity”.

“I don’t understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open” - Dr. Dean Ornish

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: Conditioning your skin and your hair

By this point, you must be wondering if the health benefits of olive oil exist at all?

Of course, olive oil has health benefits - as long as you don't ingest it!

Olive oil is a wonderful moisturiser for your skin, and even be used to shave instead of soap. What's more, it's also a great treatment for your hair, providing deep conditioning to replace all the natural oils lost from using shampoo.

However, I tend to steer towards organic coconut oil instead (for all these purposes). It has the same nourishing and moisturising properties and goes through far less processing, making it that much more eco-friendly.

I think we can safely conclude that the health benefits of olive oil are negligible. So, take a step towards saving your heart and your health. Stop buying olive oil today!

Health Benefits of Olive Oil: Resources

If you're interested in knowing more about heart-healthy diets and some of the fascinating research out there, I highly recommend you read the following books.

As my sources for the above article, and for my own diet and lifestyle change, I have these wonderful doctor's to thank in my journey to the health and vitality I've acheived today.

Click on any of the books to purchase it via Amazon or find it in your local library or bookstore. Most of these come in E-book format so you can help save the environment too.



Related Articles:


What is a Vegan: In this fascinating article (stacked to the brim with further readings and resources), you'll learn everything you'd ever want to know about becoming a vegan.

Raw Vegan Diet: A raw vegan diet is not a diet; it's a lifestyle filled with fabulous health, joy and an abundance of fruit and vegetables.

Raw Food Health: Get passionate about raw food health and nutrition, learn how cooking food destroys its nutrients and how illness and disease becomes a thing of the past with a raw food lifestyle.

Benefits of a Raw Food Diet: Get inspired! Learn what the top 15 raw food diet benefits really are.

Raw Food Weight Loss: Imagine feeling full and satisfied all the time, and dropping weight! Learn how to eat right, be inspired by raw food diet weight loss success stories and get the top weight loss tips and guides.

Save the Earth with a Raw Food Diet: Adopt a raw food diet and reduce your carbon and water footprint instantly, leading to a more sustainable way of living that will ultimately save the earth.

The Human Omnivore or Carnivore Myth: Find out whether there is such a thing as a human omnivore or carnivore in this article.

The Longevity Diet: The longevity diet gives you a blueprint for health, happiness and long-lasting life. Discover the diet and lifestyle similarities between the world's longest-living tribes.

Raw Food Travel Tips: At last, Raw Food Travel Tips allows you to travel as a raw vegan without worrying that you're going to fall off the wagon. Find out the best strategies for remaining committed to raw food, anytime, anywhere.

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