The Good, The Bad and The Ugly About Olive Oil

After asking where do we get our protein, I think the second most popular question asked of those of us who eat whole food, plant-based is why no olive oil? After all, we hear from just about every dietitian and nutritionist out there that olive oil is a healthy oil. And it's a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, which has until this year been considered the best diet overall by dietitians and nutritionists. It was displaced this year by the DASH diet, which does severely limit use of olive oil. But why are we in the whole food, plant-based movement opposed to olive oil?

Let's take a look at the good, the ugly and the bad and then I'll tell you what I do.

The Good About Olive Oil

I'll start by talking about how olive oil got its designation as a healthy fat, and then we'll take it from there. It all started back in 1958 when the Seven Countries Study was launched. This study looked at just under 13,000 men between the ages of 40 and 59 living within 16 regions of 7 countries. These countries were Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, United States and Yugoslavia. Out of this study came the Mediterranean diet. One of the first to write about that was Ancel Keys, inventor of K-rations, a memorable food if there ever was one for our troops overseas. He wrote a book in 1975 called How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way.

And the study's findings related to the Greek isle of Crete were primarily responsible for the development of the Mediterranean diet. There, it was found that they had the longest life expectancy and the least heart disease of any of the other regions being studied. And in fact, later on, when Dan Buettner discovered the Blue Zones, Crete was identified as a Blue Zone. Over the years, Crete has become recognized for this remarkable health. In 2012, the New York Times wrote an article about Crete titled, "The Island Where People Forget to Die." Seems like ripe material for figuring out how they eat. And when you look at how they eat, you find that it's largely fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil.

To make things even more interesting, Crete is not the healthiest and longest-lived of the Blue Zones. Okinawans in Japan were found to have lived longer, and then longest living of all are the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Both populations also cook with oil. So, it would appear from the studies that olive oil has not harmed their health or longevity. Truly, if I were to live as long as those in the Blue Zones and stay as healthy as they have at the same time, then I will feel that I have been successful with my health.

Beyond that fact that the healthiest and longest-lived populations use olive oil, is there any science to support its health benefits? Based on what the Mayo Clinic has published, olive oil is a monosaturated fat and monounsaturated fats have been found to improve risk factors against heart disease, thus lowering our risk of heart disease. This is one reason for why nuts have also been identified as a staple food among healthy, long-lived populations, including both Cretians and the Seventh Day Adventists. Nuts are also high in monounsaturated fats. Mayo Clinic also states that monounsaturated fats may help to better control insulin levels and sugar levels, thus decreasing chances of Type II diabetes according to some studies. And finally, a little fat on a salad can help with absorption of fat soluble vitamins. Of course, in all these cases, nuts and avocados can provide that added and necessary monounsaturated fat.

That's the good. Now, let's look at the ugly and the bad.

The Ugly About Olive Oil

I'll start by going again back to that Seven Countries Study that provided the basis for the Mediterranean diet and discovered the island of Crete, which later became known as a Blue Zone. There are a number of faults associated with that Seven Countries Study. You may have noticed one of them when I said the study looked at just under 13,000 men. You got it! I said "men." There were no women in the study. You may not believe this, but physiologically men and women are different. And differences between the sexes can come up in more places than arguing over the family budget. They can show up in nutritional studies as well.

So, the first ugly is that the study wasn't really a broad-based study. In fact, not only did it only look at men, but it also was narrow in terms of age groups (nutritional needs for the senior population over the age of 65 will differ from those in their infancy or even from those in middle age years).

Secondly, it's an epidemiological study, which means we're looking at correlations, and we all know the drill right: Correlation does not mean causation. In fact, it's quite possible that the food in these populations had nothing to do with life expectancy and chronic diseases. One reason to think it might be something else is that the average cholesterol level for the men in Crete was 206.9 mg/L, and yet that was the population with practically no heart disease at all and lived the longest. So, if it isn't the food, what might it be? A significant indicator of health could be how sedentary a population is. And if that's the case, those of us who sit on a computer all day or watch a lot of TV or read a lot books are likely in trouble. That's one reason, Dr. Greger walks on a treadmill when working at his computer. It's why, in my working years, I had a stand-up desk. And why I run, walk, hike, do yoga and bicycle now. We just don't know for sure which behavior it is from the Seven Countries Study or the Blue Zones that causes us to have or not have good health.

And this actually brings up a major flaw in the Seven Countries Study. When it looked at the isle of Crete, it didn't take into consideration one major aspect of its lifestyle. And that is, because of the religion of the people of Crete, they fast 180 days out of the year. On those days, they eat no olive oil or fish at all. They eat only fruits, vegetables and nuts. So, for half the year, the people of Crete are pretty much entirely whole food, plant-based. The study never took that into account unfortunately, so we don't know how much of their health is due to fasting and abstaining from olive oil and fish versus how much it is due to the overall diet.

One other ugly is the potential for bias, which does exist. We all have biases in us. It doesn't matter if the study is done by the olive oil industry, the dairy industry, the author of books on the Mediterranean diet, the author of books on the whole food plant-based way of eating, an independent researcher who has her own opinions on food and diet or whoever it is that is doing or funding the study. We all have our biases. What I want to emphasize is, the fact that the researchers doing a study or the group funding a study is biased is not a reason to reject the study. If that were the case, then every scientific study ever done would have to be rejected. And even if the peer review is biased in the author's favor, that's still not a reason to reject the study. The only reason to reject a study is to review or replicate the study and decide for yourself on the basis of the study's content. But beware, your own biases, as well as your own ability to understand the data, will affect your interpretation of the data as well. And that's why it's all so ugly.

The Bad About Olive Oil

Two years ago, on the Holistic Holiday at Sea "vegan cruise" I sat in the theater listening to a panel of our doctors answer questions. These included Dr. Campbell, Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. Greger and a couple others that I apologize for that I don't remember offhand. The question came up about oil and they passed the microphone down from one end of the table to the other with each one saying loudly and emphatically into the microphone, "No oil!" And I believe that is the stand of every individual whole food, plant-based doctor today. At least as far as I'm aware.

For many people, that's all they need to decide to abstain from oil. But for me, it's not. And I suspect if you're reading this then it's not for you either. We need to understand why they say no oil when the rest of the health industry says yes to extra virgin olive oil. Is it possible that everybody else is out of step and we're the only ones in step?

So, let's look at why the WFPB doctors say loudly and forcefully "No oil." And recognize that when they say no oil, that also means no Vegenaise, the largest ingredient of which is canola oil or Earth Balance, which is a vegetable oil blend of palm oil, canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed oil and olive oil. No oil is no oil.

One reason is that olive oil is a fat without a lot of nutritional value. The nutrients and fiber of the olive have been stripped away. Thus, olive oil is in line with sugar as being empty calories. So, if you need to eat 2,000 calories a day to meet your nutritional needs from the foods you eat then adding olive oil to that need increases the number of calories you need each day by 9 calories for each gram of fat you add. In the case of olive oil, that's an additional 119 empty calories for each tablespoon that you add to your diet. As Chef AJ has pointed out, olive oil is the most calorie-dense food on the planet. Thus, as Dr. McDougall says, "The fat you eat is the fat you wear." Eating olive oil may hamper your ability to lose weight or even cause you to gain weight. And for many of us, our weight is maybe even more important than our longevity. Our weight is what we can see and feel every day and it can make us feel good or bad about ourselves on a daily basis. If it goes up or if we fail to lose when we are really trying, then it can discourage us significantly. It can cause us to not stay with this way of eating if that's what happens.

Just as there were issues with the studies supporting olive oil and the Mediterranean diet, there are issues with the studies supporting monounsaturated fats. Who knew! The studies were conducted by humans in both cases. But we can go back to the island of Crete and look at another more recent study that found that heart disease was highest among those who had the highest amount of monounsaturated fats floating around in their blood. And Dr. Esselstyn has two excellent videos that explain that whole process.

The conclusions drawn by Dr. Robert Vogel, MD at the University of Maryland (my alma mater) School of Medicine were that the healthy components of the Crete  or Mediterranean diet "appear to be antioxidant rich foods, including vegetables, fruits and their derivatives such as vinegar and omega-3 rich fish..." Dr. Michael Greger has said this same thing. Dr. Greger has suggested that the Crete diet is healthy despite the olive oil, not because of it. Dr. Greger has suggested that it's the large amount of vegetables and fruits eaten by those in Crete and by people following the Mediterranean diet that is the reason for their health (I'll add the caveat for as much as its food that affects that health).

Another issue with olive oil, or with any oil is the high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the oil. Our bodies need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They are considered essential to get from our diets; that is the body does not manufacture them. But when the ratio gets out of whack, it creates inflammation in the body. And inflammation is generally recognized as the precursor for major chronic diseases that we get. In general, a 1:1 ratio is ideal. A 4:1 ratio is acceptable. Olive oil is 11:1.  As a side note, this argument against olive oil could be made even moreso against cashews and almonds but not against walnuts or flaxseeds (meaning that when choosing nuts and seeds to include in your diet, walnuts and flaxseeds win out big time over cashews or almonds).

What I Do

And this all brings me to what I believe. But before I answer that question, I want to make the point that we each need to make our own decisions. I can lay out the positives and minuses for you, which I hope I have done here, but then you have to decide. You know what your own goals are. You know how your body reacts to different foods and lifestyles. You know your own health's history better than anybody. And we're all different. Our genetic makeups are different. Our ages and genders can be different. Our lifestyles are different. Our nutritional needs are different. Eating a whole food, plant-based diet is a dietary pattern; it is not a prescribed set of specific foods that each person must eat or not eat.

When I started eating whole food, plant-based, I continued to use olive oil for about a year into it. One reason I did was because in the early years our doctors were not as strong against it, and I believed there was some benefit to doing so. Measuring the benefits versus the risks, I decided the benefits outweighed the rest.

But as I got more into eating whole food, plant-based, I reconsidered my use of olive oil when eating at home. One of the strongest arguments against it for me was the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. I think that ratio is important. While the ratio isn't super high in olive oil, it's still high, and I've come to believe that one of the major issues with processed foods is the high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios.

I don't believe that the Blue Zone populations have lived the longest and stayed healthy the longest because of the oil they ate. I believe as Dr. Greger says that they were healthy despite the oil. I also think that in large part, they lived and stayed healthy as long as they did because they were not sedentary people. I believe that sedentariness plays a major role in chronic disease, maybe as much or more than food itself does.

I believe the best we can do is to eat a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet. That's my diet at home. The bigger minefield when it comes to oils is when going out to eat. My experience has been that even if you say to use low oil, their interpretation of that can be different than my interpretation. I don't eat out that often, so it's not a major concern to me. If I traveled a lot or ate out a lot because of work or lifestyle then I might consider it a more important issue to me.

I hope that I have helped with understanding of why the whole food, plant-based doctors say "No Oil." People struggle with that. It's one of the things that I think causes people not to accept our way of eating. It helps if we understand why. Hopefully, I've given some understanding of that in today's posting.

J Lanning Smith
January 10, 2018