Olive Oil Is Junk Food!

Late­ly, many peo­ple have been tout­ing olive oil as some sort of “health food.” Sad­ly, olive oil is junk food, one of the worst junk foods there is. It’s emp­ty calo­ries that pro­vide prac­ti­cal­ly no essen­tial nutri­ents.

At rough­ly 9 calo­ries per gram, olive oil is packed with calo­ries, all of them from fat. Most of the fat­ty acids in olive oil are a monoun­sat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acid called ole­ic acid. You don’t need to get any monoun­sat­u­rat­ed fat what­so­ev­er from your diet, and monoun­sat­u­rat­ed fats have no known role in pre­vent­ing chron­ic dis­ease. About 14% of the fat­ty acids in olive oil are sat­u­rat­ed. You don’t need to get any sat­u­rat­ed fat what­so­ev­er from your diet, and a high intake of sat­u­rat­ed fat has long been known to con­tribute to coro­nary artery dis­ease.

There are only two kinds of fat­ty acid that are essen­tial in human nutri­tion, which means that you have to get them from the diet. One is an omega-6 fat­ty acid called linole­ic acid, which accounts for some­where between 3.5% and 21% of the fat­ty acids in olive oil. Since linole­ic acid is com­mon­ly found in nuts, seeds, and grains, most peo­ple get far more of it than they need. Olive oil con­tains van­ish­ing­ly small amounts of alpha-linole­ic acid, the essen­tial omega-3 fat­ty acid that is in rel­a­tive­ly short sup­ply in most people’s diets.

Too much fat of any kind will make you fat. Excess fats of all kinds also tend to build up in your arter­ies, thus lead­ing to heart attack and stroke. Fats of all kinds also tend to pro­mote insulin resis­tance, thus lead­ing to type 2 dia­betes in some peo­ple. 

Olive oil has been get­ting good press because it is con­sid­ered to be part of the “Mediter­ranean diet.” Pop­u­la­tion stud­ies had shown that rates of heart dis­ease were much low­er in some of the coun­tries that bor­dered the Mediter­ranean Sea than they were in Scan­di­navia and the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, most peo­ple ignore the fact that the peo­ple in the Mediter­ranean coun­tries were eat­ing a more heav­i­ly plant-based diet than the peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and Scan­di­navia. Plants have no cho­les­terol, and the fiber they con­tain helps to car­ry cho­les­terol out of your sys­tem. Instead, peo­ple have been focus­ing on the fact that peo­ple in the Mediter­ranean coun­tries eat some olive oil.

Fat peo­ple in Mediter­ranean coun­tries tend to eat a low-carb, high-fat diet, with olive oil being the pre­dom­i­nant fat.  One study found that fat peo­ple in Spain had been get­ting 35% of their calo­ries from car­bo­hy­drate and 43% from fats, 55% of which were from monoun­sat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acids. So much for the the­o­ry that eat­ing fats instead of carbs makes peo­ple lose weight, or that olive oil has some sort of bel­ly flat­ten­ing mag­ic!

Don’t Buy the Snake Oil, Or the Butterfat!

I wrote this as a let­ter to the edi­tor of Moth­er Earth News, which is a gen­er­al­ly good pub­li­ca­tion that some­times pub­lish­es bad dietary advice:

In The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet (August/September 2011 of Moth­er Earth News), Oscar H. Will, III, pro­vides dan­ger­ous­ly mis­lead­ing dietary advice. Sat­u­rat­ed fat does not “do a body good.” You don’t need to get any sat­u­rat­ed, monoun­sat­u­rat­ed, or trans fat­ty acids what­so­ev­er from the diet. Only two fat­ty acids are essen­tial, which means that they must come from the food. One is an omega-6 fat­ty acid called linole­ic acid. The oth­er is an omega-3 fat­ty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. How­ev­er, the dietary require­ment for these fat­ty acids is so small that you can find true cas­es of defi­cien­cy only in extreme sit­u­a­tions, such as peo­ple who were being fed noth­ing but sug­ar intra­venous­ly. For those patients, the require­ment for essen­tial fat­ty acids could be met by rub­bing a small amount of veg­etable oil on the skin. Fat defi­cien­cy is prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent because even a diet based on low-fat grains and veg­eta­bles pro­vides enough of the essen­tial fat­ty acids

The usu­al prob­lem is that the per­son is eat­ing too much fat. Excess fat of any kind pro­motes obe­si­ty, ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis, dia­betes, and oth­er chron­ic dis­eases. The omega-3 fat­ty acids tend to have a blood-thin­ning effect, which off­sets some of the effect of their con­tri­bu­tion to ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis. An excess of the polyun­sat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) has been linked to an increased risk of can­cer, pos­si­bly because of their effect on the immune sys­tem.

Even veg­e­tar­i­ans and veg­ans often eat too much fat, and they tend to eat a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large amount of omega-6 rel­a­tive to omega-3 fat­ty acids because of a large intake of nuts and oils. The obvi­ous solu­tion to this prob­lem is to restrict the over­all fat intake and add a small amount of ground flaxseed to the diet. Flaxseed is an excel­lent source of the rel­a­tive­ly scarce omega-3 fat­ty acids.

Con­ju­gat­ed linolenic acid is found almost exclu­sive­ly in foods of ani­mal ori­gin. Yet nutri­tion­al epi­demi­ol­o­gy stud­ies show that those foods pro­mote the sorts of dis­eases that the dairy indus­try is claim­ing that con­ju­gat­ed linolenic acid is sup­posed to help pre­vent.