Olive oil is often sold to us as a health food...but is it actually healthy? Plant-based nutrition science suggests it's something to keep out of your diet. Get the scoop.
The Full Story
There are a lot of similarities between the vegan and whole-food plant-based diets. Neither lifestyle choice includes animal products (including eggs, dairy, and meat). They both promote conscientiousness on the part of the participant. They both offer a range of research backed health-and-wellness benefits, such as improved energy and mood and reduced risk obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. But despite these similarities, there are some key differences between veganism and the whole-food plant-based diet.
And one of those differences has to do with oil.
Don’t get us wrong; it’s no secret that vegans and whole-food plant-based dieters are both going to naturally avoid any fat or oil that comes from animal sources — that’s beginners’ class stuff. However, where veganism ends, whole-food plant-based takes things further. This means no heavily processed foods of any kind, and that includes oil. Whole-food plant-based dieters are instead encouraged to cook without using oil (it’s actually pretty easy to do), and to turn to non oil-based salad dressings to spruce up those greens.
But what about olive oil? Is olive oil healthy, or, like its animal-based cousins, is it more trouble than it’s worth?
The short answer: It’s oil. That means it’s heavily processed. And that means, no, it’s not healthy. It may not be as bad as, say, bacon grease, but it’s certainly not doing your body any favors, either. The bottom line is that if you avoid olive oil, you’ll be better off for it.
Now, if you’d like a more in-depth answer, read on.
Healthy fat, the oxymoron that started it all
Why do people claim that olive oil is good for you? Well, it all comes back to the idea of healthy fats, also known as monounsaturated fats. Olive oil is extremely rich in Monounsaturated fats. These fats are different from the archetypal ‘fat’ (otherwise called saturated fat) that tends to comes to mind when we think about foods. Animal meats, dairy products, many snack foods, and even certain plant oils (like palm oil and coconut oil) are all high in saturated fats, and these fats really are bad news. Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to high blood cholesterol levels and poor blood lipid profiles, potentially leading to a number of associated health problems, such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
But monounsaturated fat is different; it has a different chemical build than saturated fat, and it effects your body in a slightly different way. Research has even linked monounsaturated fats to lower blood cholesterol levels. That’s good, right?
Not really, because when it comes to the impact that certain foods have on your body, there’s more options than just “good” and “bad.”
Monounsaturated fat, the so-call “healthy fat,” should really be called the “slightly healthier-than-saturated-fat fat,” because that’s all it really is. Sure, monounsaturated fats aren’t quite as bad as saturated fats, so if it comes down to a choice between the two, go with the monounsaturated fats. But all that means in this case is that monounsaturated fat, such as what’s found in olive oil, is the lesser of two evils. It doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to consume it in large amounts, it just means that there’s something worse out there.
Research has linked diets high in monounsaturated fats to heart disease in much the same way as saturated fats. In one study, monounsaturated fat diets produced lower LDL bad cholesterol levels and higher HDL “good” cholesterol levels than the saturated fat diets, but in the end both diet groups experienced increased atherosclerotic plaque build up (the most common cause of heart disease) in their arteries.
Simply put, too much fat — of any kind — is a problem.
Olive oil nutrition: Just the fats
We’re not saying you should never eat monounsaturated fat. Nuts, avocados, and olives naturally contain monounsaturated fats which your body can put to good use. The difference here is that the oil hasn’t been extracted, processed, and refined. When you eat the oil in its natural state, your also getting vitamins, fiber, and nutrients — the whole package. Processing strips away those nutrients, leaving you with just the fats, and in amounts that your blood isn’t prepared to handle.
And there’s another issue to consider. While the refinement process may cut out the nutrients and fiber, it manages to leave in the calories, and boy are there a lot of them.
Now, we generally don’t advocate structuring your life around nutrition labels or obsessively counting calories, but take a moment and consider some olive oil nutrition facts. One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains roughly 120 calories. To give you an idea of how much that is, the same amount of refined white sugar only has about 50 calories. Oil is some of the most calorie-dense food there is. So, if calories are a concern for you, then olive oil should be too.
So, just to be clear, is olive oil healthy?
Is olive oil good for you? Well, unless you’re getting it in small amounts by consuming whole olives, the answer is a resounding no.
Olive oil is a processed, calorie-heavy, nutrient-deficient fat source. And even if it’s a little bit better for you than the oils in animal products, it’s still not a whole food, and it isn’t included as part of the whole-food plant-based lifestyle.
Leave the olive oil in the olives where it belongs. Olive oil is not a healthy food, and that’s all there is to it.