Olive oil is the great uniter of the dietary tribes. While your Ray Peatians might grumble at the 10% PUFA content and hardcore carnivores will balk at its vegetal origins, the vast majority of dietary camps—vegans, vegetarians, paleo, Primal, keto, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers, etc.—consider olive oil to be a healthy fat. I have it on good authority that Walter Willet oils his mustache with Croatian olive oil, Dean Ornish conditions his hair with Cretan olive oil, and Peter Attia keeps a bathtub full of Damascan olive oil behind a secret panel in his library that only unlocks if you complete a tabata session on his Peloton. I even saw Shawn Baker sneaking sips from a flask with green oily fingerprints when we recently hung out. Everyone likes olive oil. There are almost no exceptions.
This is about where I usually step in to make a contrarian claim about the super-popular food, citing some arcane study or pointing out an evolutionary argument against it.
Not with olive oil. As much as I love my avocado oil, I see no reason to question the legitimacy of extra virgin olive oil as a valid member of your diet. Personally, I include both. Here’s why….
Healthy Components of Olive Oil
Its MUFA content. Monounsaturated fats are pretty much universally lauded. Almost as resistant to oxidation as saturated fats, they raise HDL and lower LDL. Cellular membranes and mitochondria with a lot of monounsaturated fat function better than ones with more polyunsaturated fats. They’re the rock of the fatty acid world.
Its polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are the plant nutrients that act as antioxidants in the plant—protecting it from predators and oxidative stress and heat and light. They act as minor toxins in us, provoking an adaptive hormetic response that makes us stronger, fitter, and healthier. Polyphenols get mixed reviews from different dietary camps. Carnivores often call them outright toxins with no benefit. Conventional skeptics usually miss the whole “hormesis” thing altogether and assume proponents think polyphenols are antioxidants that directly block oxidative stress in us. My nuanced take is that polyphenols can be pretty useful, but that there’s likely a U-shaped relationship: Too little is suboptimal, and too much is too much, just like with exercise, sun exposure, and any other type of adaptive stress we experience.
Its prominent role in classic Mediterranean cuisine. Olive oil has been eaten (and used in cosmetics, to cleanse gladiator champions, etc.) in the Mediterranean (including areas of Africa, Europe, and Asia) for thousands of years. It’s got a good track record of human use.
Those are all good theoretical reasons to use olive oil. What do human studies say?
Research Supporting Olive Oil Consumption
- Overweight women ate one of two breakfasts for a year. The first was supplemented with soybean oil. The second was supplemented with extra virgin olive oil. Both breakfasts were identical save for the fat source. At the end of one year, those who ate the EVOO breakfast had higher HDL, lower inflammatory markers, better blood pressure, and lower body weight.
- Type 2 diabetics with bad blood lipids either took a statin or EVOO. The statin was slightly better at reducing LDL and increasing HDL, but not by much, and the EVOO didn’t impair any physiological pathways or cause any undesired second order effects. I’d take the EVOO every time.
- Among a Mediterranean population, high EVOO consumption was linked to a reduced risk of fractures and osteoporosis. High consumption of regular olive oil was not.
- Extra virgin olive oil, but not corn oil, reduces postprandial oxidative stress.
- Women who ate high-polyphenol EVOO every day for 8 weeks enjoyed reduced oxidative damage to their DNA.
- Dietary EVOO reduced the number of oxidized LDL and increased HDL in proportion to the phenolic content of the oil; the more phenolics, the greater the effect. Tested LDL was also more resistant to oxidation after being removed from subjects and exposed to oxidative stress. Similar effects were found in a more recent study, in which men were given either EVOO with high phenolic content or refined olive oil with zero phenolics present. Men consuming high phenolic EVOO had less oxidized LDL and more phenolics present in LDL, indicating that olive phenolics reach serum LDL and exert antioxidant effects in real live actual humans.
Tips For Incorporating Olive Oil
There aren’t many foods you can’t make better by topping off with a little olive oil. The flavor of a good olive oil is nuanced enough to elevate the simplest dishes, and that’s what I enjoy about it.Think everything from marinated nuts and olives to a light dinner of Cacio e Pepe zoodles.
Cream of garlic (or cream of anything) soup? Better with a drizzle of olive oil before serving. Savory Labneh yogurt? Also better “finished” with olive oil. And don’t forget olive oil sauces. I just shared one of my favorites this week: pesto. It’s a totally modular sauce you can make with your favorite oil, nuts and herbs, but extra virgin olive oil remains the traditional choice.
And salads? Like extra virgin avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil is good with anything you throw together, this Turkish Salad being one great example. Sardine Nicoise Salad is another. Speaking of canned fish, choosing those packed in genuine extra virgin olive oil can be a flavorful option. No need to discard the oil here, especially if you incorporate the oil into the dish itself like this Olive Oil Packed Tuna and Seared Tomatoes recipe does.
Okay, so drizzling extra virgin olive oil across your dinner salad is healthy, but isn’t olive oil sensitive to heat? Aren’t you supposed to avoid cooking with it? Actually, no. Extra virgin olive oil is resistant to low and medium heat.
Despite being heated at 180 ºC (356 ºF) for 36 hours, two varieties of extra virgin olive oil exhibited strong resistance to oxidative damage and retained most of their “minor [phenolic] compounds.” Another study added olive phenols to vegetable oil, then heated it. Adding the olive phenols made the vegetable oil more resistant to oxidation and preserved the vitamin E content, offering more protection than even a synthetic antioxidant designed to do the job.
It’s not just that nothing bad really happens when you cook with EVOO. It’s also that uniquely good things happen when you cook with it.
When you cook sofrito, that Spanish staple of sauteed onions, garlic, peppers, and tomato that forms the basis of many recipes, with olive oil, it gets healthier. Cooking sofrito using olive oil has been shown to protect and enhance the polyphenols found in the various vegetables increase the bioavailability of the polyphenols. The same thing happens to other vegetables cooked in olive oil. Tomato lycopene content, too, is enhanced after cooking with olive oil.
Now, how do I use olive oil?
How I Use Olive Oil
I’ll occasionally take a teaspoon straight up, if it’s good stuff (and I only have good stuff). I really relish that peppery bite you get in the back of your throat—that’s the polyphenol burn.
I drizzle it on cooked lamb—often marinated in nothing but the same olive oil—and follow with flaky salt. Lamb stands up well to more complex marinades, but it’s also great grilled plain and drizzled with good EVOO and salt. Nothing else.
Tomato and cucumber salad. Tomato, cucumber, EVOO, balsamic vinegar, salt. Nothing fancy.
If you haven’t noticed, I like to use good EVOO where I can taste it.
I love preparing fish with olive oil. There’s even evidence that olive oil and fish fat have a synergistic effect on blood lipids and oxidative stress, combining to exert greater benefits than either fat alone or through simple addition.
To sum up…
Olive oil is great for eating cold and dressing salads. This really brings out the flavors and preserves the polyphenols.
But olive oil is great for many cooking methods, too. Olive oil is resistant to heat damage in low and medium heat applications like slow roasting, baking and light sauteing, thanks to the stability of the fatty acids and antioxidant capacity of the polyphenols. It preserves and even enhances nutrient content of vegetables when used to cook.
Olive oil has been around for millennia, and it will continue to stick around. I happen to love Mediterranean food, so you’ll always find it in my kitchen.
In fact, when researchers tried to justify replacing EVOO with canola oil as the primary fat in the Mediterranean diet, they couldn’t do it. Wanted to, but couldn’t. Can you imagine? You’re on your honeymoon, traveling through Tuscany. You stop at a rustic vineyard. The proprietor, Giancarlo, wants to show you his prized homegrown oil, just pressed. He brings in a cask of the finest canola oil; you can still smell the hexane residues.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you like olive oil? How do you use it? What’s your favorite way to consume it?
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