Olive oil has become a universal sign of fine dining. The waiter brings a basket of freshly baked bread, places a dish on the table, and with a flourish, pours a stream of oil onto the plate for dipping. Who can resist? Soon the basket and plate are empty.
Although this ritual is clearly many steps better than slamming down a bacon cheeseburger and fries at a fast-food joint, it does raise the question: are oils actually good for us? And how much is too much?
1. How much fat is OK?
In the past 40 years, the amount of fat in our diet from added oils has skyrocketed, from about ten pounds per year to over 50 pounds a year. The American Heart Association recommends that total dietary fat intake should be less than 35% of our daily caloric intake and saturated fats found (mainly in animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy) should account for less than 7% of our daily calories. Perhaps you've seen popular “healthy” diets recommending that 40% of our daily calories come from fat. (Some even recommend eating a diet as high as 70% fat!)
My advice? As a cardiologist with over 30 years of experience, I hope you'll remember that heart disease, which is often associated with a high-fat diet, kills more people than any other chronic disease. Stick to a diet high in plants and aim to get no more than 25% of your calories from fat. If you are trying to reverse heart disease or adult diabetes, shoot for the 10% in studies by Drs. Ornish, Esseltstyn, McDougall and Barnard.
2. Wait… don't we need fats?
Like proteins and carbohydrates, fats are essential to our diet. It's only a matter of what kind and how much. There are only two fats that we need to have in our diet: Omega-3s (alpha-linolenic) and Omega-6s (linoleum).
Omega 3s are typically found in plant-based products like algae, flax, chia, and hemp seeds, but as fatty fish eat algae-based omega-3, they serve as a middleman to supply this essential fats. Most of us are getting more than enough Omega-6 fats. Vegetable oils (found in processed foods and baked goods) are high in Omega-6 and account for the excess in the Western diet. Organic canola oil is highest in omega-3 and may be preferred if oil is used. Peanuts are another source of pure Omega-6 often eaten in excess.
3. How much essential fat do we need?
The National Academy of Sciences indicates that the amount of Omega-3 we need daily is 1.1 grams for a woman and 1.6 grams for a man. This is about 2% of total daily calories. If you ate only green leafy vegetables all day, you'd exceed this amount.
4. Where can we get essential fats?
Diets rich in colored vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains with adequate calories provide sufficient essential fats. A tablespoon of ground flax seed has 1.8 grams of Omega-3 and 0.4 grams of Omega-6. (Unlike flax oil, ground flax maintains all of the fiber of whole flax and more of the nutrients.)
5. I thought fish was the best source of good fat?
Fish have gotten some great PR in recent years as being a great source of essential fats. Actually, fish do not produce the essential fats we need, but get them from plants. Also, fish are high in cholesterol, saturated fat, mercury, PCBs, dioxin, and other environmental pollutants. That's why plant-based sources of essential fats are better for you.
6. Can we process whole food sources of essential fats?
Essential fats in food sources like ground flax seed are processed through several steps before ending up as EPA and DHA, the end product used by cells. Toxins and poor health may slow this process, but most of us who eat a balanced, whole food, oil-free diet convert enough to meet all of our needs. If there's any question, a blood test called an Omega index is available in many doctors' offices, including mine.
7. Why not just take a lot of Omega-3 fats?
Modern diets overwhelm our bodies with Omega-6 fats from vegetable oils, meats, and processed foods. The optimal ratio of Omega 6: Omega 3 (of 4:1) can rise to 25:1 with Western diets. Lower ratios have shown to be associated with less cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. The goal is to reduce the additional Omega-6 sources mentioned here.
8. But olive oil is healthy, right?
Olive oil is not a rich source of the essential fats we need and you'd have to eat almost 2,000 calories of this pure fat to meet our daily Omega 3 needs. Olive oil contains active chemicals called polyphenols, which may be good for you, but there are many better sources of this. For example, 10 berries will give 10 calories and zero fat and as many polyphenols as 1 teaspoon of olive oil with 120 calories and 13 grams of fat.
9. Is the Mediterranean Diet healthy?
Yes, the Mediterranean Diet is healthy despite the olive oil. The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and wine, limits meat and dairy, and eliminates processed foods. This is a healthy mix. Olive oil may be a better choice than butter and lard. Keep in mind, however, that when university cardiologists looked at how olive oil affects arteries, they found that it reduced blood flow in vessels by a whopping 31% (actually, canola oil had a neutral effect).
At the end of the day, all oils are processed food sources dense in calories and pure fat. Oils have no fiber and many of the nutrients found in the original whole food source are removed. Adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed a day is an insurance policy to reach daily needs for essential fats for our health.
Diets with no added oil have been used in patients with heart disease to halt and reverse blocked arteries, a powerful testimony to the potential of reducing oils in our diet. Learning to prepare foods with vegetable broths, juices, wine, and vinegars can greatly reduce the added fat that is so common in our diet.
“Oil's well that ends well” was a famous episode of the Three Stooges but food science would conclude that “No oil ends well.” So take it from the heart doc, eat the 100% whole grain bread and pass on the oil next time you dine. Or, better yet, ask for a plate of freshly chopped vegetables.