Is Olive Oil Healthy? (A Nutritionist Weighs In)
By Miriam Alter, RDN.
With all the controversy about fats, it's challenging for a consumer to determine if fats are healthy, which fats are healthy, and what those health benefits might be. While this article is definitely not comprehensive, I hope it will give you a better understanding of whether olive oil is a healthy choice for you!
Fats as a whole don’t have great street cred. The reason? I think it must be because they pack a powerful calorie punch. As an isolated nutrient, fats are the most calorie-dense per gram, more than double that of pure protein or carbohydrate. However, do calories determine health? No. Calories are just a unit to measure the energy that a food provides and are separate from nutrients – the health benefit that a food bestows.
However, when a person chooses to consume calories from fat, it's wise to understand which fats are in fact a healthy source of calories and thus “budget” accordingly. The nutrient profile of olive oil is that of a heart healthy fat in that it's high in unsaturated fats. It also provides vitamin E and K and is a medium through which the fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – are absorbed by the body. Olive oil does contain protective antioxidants. It also is thought to contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in good balance to each other, though this research is not strong as of this writing. Refined olive oil will have the same fatty acid and vitamin content to that of extra-virgin olive oil, though some antioxidants may not survive the refining process.
The thing is, many liquid oils (not solid fats) have a similar basic nutrient profile to olive oil. It is posited that much of the health benefits specific to olive oil are due to the powerful antioxidants that it contains, and this does definitely differentiate it from other oils. From reading the current research, it seems to me that what olive oil has going for it is its association (no causation proven here!) as a key food in the Mediterranean diet, which is linked to positive health outcomes. However, it is unlikely that consumption of pricey olive oil is the only healthy habit of such a consumer. Therefore, it is wise to assume that while choosing olive oil over other oils may be a somewhat healthier choice, olive oil alone does not a healthy diet make.