Is Olive Oil Healthy?

We have all been told it is. Let us look at the facts.

Please Read

We found this response from a reader on a site we follow that lays out the case for why we shouldn't have oil in our diets. This explains in laymen's terms how oil contributes to our diet. I know to many olive oil is one of those sacred cows. Shari and I used it a lot, based on just what we heard in the media. Olive oil is healthy, so said the media, but healthy compared to what? This article lays out that research and leaves it for you to decide.

Even though it may be hard to hear, or in this case read, peer reviewed research is your friend.

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To My Sister.

By Leslie Cunningham on McDougall Friends FB

I wrote this to my sister, when she said a friend who is a nutritionist said that olive oil is healthy. I thought I'd post it here to see what people think. It's long, so go ahead and skip through.

The problem is people stop at the industry funded studies, and don’t look more in depth. For example, the Mediterranean diet studies. Health improves because people eat more fruits and vegetables. If they leave out the olive oil, there are even more improvements. Extra virgin olive oil does contain a tiny amount of the anti-inflammatory phytonutrients found in the olive itself. But like anything else, the whole food is different (better) than a refined part of it. Virgin olive oil was found to have LESS of a deleterious effect than regular olive oil, but it was not found to have any beneficial effects. In the Largest Cohort Study to assess the relationship between olive oil and coronary heart disease events, neither regular nor virgin olive oil was found to significantly reduce heart attack rates! This study was in the British Journal of Nutrition. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that, contrary to popular opinion, olive oil was found to IMPAIR endothelial function after consumption. Studies that show that olive oil does not promote endothelial impairment have not separated out the positive effects of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Fruits and vegetables and balsamic vinegars, with their anti-oxidant properties, actually provide protection against the ADVERSE effects of olive oil. Thus, any improvements in health are IN SPITE OF, and not because of olive oil. Adding fruits and vegetables may partially improve arterial function and blood flow that are negatively affected by fats, including olive oil. So imagine what happens when you leave the oil out all together. You get all the benefits of the whole foods, and none of the deleterious effects of oils. (This info was mostly obtained from Dr. Greger.)

One needn’t be a PhD to read and understand these studies. But one actually must READ the data to reach an intelligent conclusion.

Here are some quotes from this site: (Capitalizations are mine, for emphasis):

"The Hype: Olive oil will protect you from a heart attack. The Truth: Olive oil is not heart-healthy. Yes, foods rich in monounsaturated fats like olive oil are healthier than foods full of saturated and trans fats, but just because something is “healthier” does not mean it is good for you.

Several human studies have questioned olive oil’s heart-health claims. When researchers from the University of Crete recently compared residents of Crete who had heart disease with residents free of the disease, they found that the residents WITH heart disease ate a diet with “significantly higher daily intakes” of monounsaturated fats (principally olive oil) as well as all fats.(2) ((if olive oil were healthy, this WOULD NOT have been so-my words))

Data from the Nurses Health Study, an on-going study from Harvard Medical School analyzing the habits and health of nearly 90,000 female nurses, found that those who consumed olive oil were only MARGINALLY healthier than those eating a typical high-in-saturated-fat American diet."

And: "Another study investigated how well subjects’ arteries were dilating to accommodate blood flow after they had eaten several meals. Each meal emphasized a different component of the Mediterranean diet. After the meal rich in OLIVE OIL, dilation in the arteries was impaired.(3) The meal caused SEVERE CONSTRICTIONS, which can INJURE the endothelium, the inner lining of arteries, contributing to heart disease. No such problems occurred with the other meals. “The beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet,” concluded Robert Vogel, MD, and colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “appear to be antioxidant-rich foods…” These foods, he continued, “appear to provide some protection AGAINST the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.” So if you’re not eating fruits and veggies, you’re not getting protection. If you’re pouring olive oil on an already bad diet –one devoid of protectors and full of destroyers like cheeseburgers – you’ve only made that diet worse.”

And: "Research recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology also 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 relax and expand.(4) According to Dr. Robert Vogel, this research and other data indicate that OLIVE OIL IS NOT HEART PROTECTIVE.

Finally, and most fundamentally, pouring a lot of olive oil means you’re consuming a lot of fat. And eating a lot of any kind of fat, including “healthier” ones, means you’re eating a lot of calories, which leads to excess weight, which leads to increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, many forms of cancer, and yes, heart disease.”

And: "The Hype: Olive oil will lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. The Truth: Olive oil, in and of itself, does not lower LDL cholesterol. In just about every study showing that people lowered their LDL cholesterol levels after starting to use olive oil, including this latest study on extra virgin olive oil, the people used olive oil IN PLACE OF other dietary fats, often SATURATED fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats. OF COURSE LDL is going to go down. You’ve gotten rid of the LDL-raising fats.

The point is: It’s NOT the addition of olive oil that’s improving LDL cholesterol levels. It’s the SUBTRACTION of artery-clogging fats like saturated fats and trans fats.”

And: "The Hype: The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet, and it’s rich in olive oil, so olive oil must be heart-healthy. ((An example of a false premise-my words)) The Truth: The people on this planet with the longest life expectancy and the least heart disease DO NOT eat diets rich in olive oil. They DO eat a diet rich in whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Yes, in the 1950s Ancel Keys and fellow scientists observed that people living in the Mediterranean, especially on the isle of Crete, WERE lean and heart disease-free. And true, their diet consisted of olive oil, but it also had an abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, coarse whole-grain breads, beans, and fish. And they WALKED about nine miles daily, often behind an ox and plow. But MUCH HAS CHANGED on Crete – and throughout the Mediterranean – since then. TODAY, the people of Crete still eat a lot of olive oil, but their intake of whole, natural foods has gone way down, as has their physical activity. The island’s new staples are meat, cheese, and television. TODAY, MORE THAN 60% of Crete’s adult population and an alarming 50% of its children are overweight. And has maintaining an olive oil-rich diet saved them from disease? NOT AT ALL. In recent years, rates of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension have skyrocketed. The point here is that olive oil is not the magic bullet that made populations along the Mediterranean in the 1950s so healthy. Olive oil was simply a bellweather, or marker, for other features of the Mediterranean diet, like plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and exercise, that were in fact healthful."

And: "The Hype: Olive oil raises “good” HDL cholesterol. The Truth: Many people with high HDLs have diseased arteries, and many with low HDLs have very clean arteries. One of the “heart healthy” effects of extra virgin olive oil, wrote the authors of the recent study on olive oil varieties, is that it raised levels of HDL good cholesterol more than the non-virgin oils. But HDL is JUST ONE NUMBER in a risk group of many, and it’s NOT the most important one. LDL IS. Ultimately, we should focus on the big picture – on all the numbers that contribute to heart health. And the fact is: the populations who have the LOWEST INCIDENCES of heart disease IN THE WORLD, the people living in Okinawa and in other rural regions of Japan, have VERY LOW LEVELS of HDL – in the 20s."

And: "The Hype: Certainly, monounsaturated fats are better than saturated fats. The Truth: “Better than” is not “good in and of itself.” The human body has NO ESSENTIAL NEED to consume monounsaturated fat. The only fat our body has an essential need to consume is omega 6 and omega 3 fat. People worry about getting enough omega 3. Olive oil is a poor source of omega 3. You’d have to drink seven ounces of olive oil to get sufficient omega 3. Seven ounces of olive oil is 1,800 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat (yes, a percentage of the fat that makes up olive oil is saturated.) Is olive oil better than butter? Yes. But is it good in and of itself? NO.”

REFERENCES: (1) Annals of Internal Medicine, 2006; 145: 333. (2) British Journal of Nutrition, 2004; 91: 1013. (3) Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2000; 36: 1455. (4) Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2006; 48: 1666.

If you want a good, healthy source of omega 3s: "purslane is a nutritious food rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.” J Am Coll Nutr. 1992 Aug;11(4):374-82.

So, if you can look at all this data and still conclude that olive oil is healthy, well, I can’t understand that, but it’s your health. And if you portray yourself as a nutritionist, as your friend does, you certainly should take the time to actually read the relevant studies, peer reviewed and journal published.


Shari and I decided to use a joint email to address health issues instead of having just our two work emails. You can, of course, still write to those emails. In case you receive an email from our new email address, we didn't want you deleting it.

Our new email is: