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Isn't Olive Oil Fat, Too?

A deeper look at beneficial fats

By: Pam Smith, RDN


Pam, I’ve seen that a lot of your recipes include olive oil and I saw your last post saying that you support a Mediterranean diet, which seems to almost always include olive oil. But isn’t olive oil fat, too? Shouldn’t I try to eliminate all fat from my diet if I don’t want to gain weight? Thank you for your help! - Amy


Amy, what a great question! Although the age-old saying is that “it is fat that makes you fat,” there are different types of dietary fats and not all are created equal – some are beneficial and many are detrimental.

Let’s talk about the detrimental ones first. Saturated fats and trans fats are the most dangerous types and are linked to a higher risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal foods and dairy products, but also in processed foods, snacks and other foods that use coconut, palm and other cooking oils. Most saturated fats raise blood cholesterol by increasing the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol; in fact, they can raise blood cholesterol levels more than high-cholesterol foods.

Trans fats are vegetable oils that are made more solid by a chemical process called partial hydrogenation. Trans fats are found in many products, especially vegetable shortening, margarine, French fries, and many processed foods. Trans fats lead to clogged arteries even more than saturated fats because they also lower the body’s level of protective HDL-cholesterol and contribute to persistent inflammation. But omega-3’s from fish and seafood, flaxseed and nuts and monounsaturated fats (“MUFAS”) found in olive oil lower blood LDL cholesterol when substituted for saturated fats in the diet. While all cooking oils are 100 percent fat and contain about 40 calories per teaspoon, some are better than others. One reason why the rate of heart disease is lower in countries like Greece and Italy is because monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet. One cholesterol benefit to MUFAS is that they help lower LDL cholesterol levels, and do it without also lowering high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol. In addition, when incorporated into LDL, monos are less likely to be oxidized, and oxidized fatty acids of LDL are responsible for its deposition into the walls of arteries.

The Anti-Aging Magic of Olive Oil

Several studies have looked at the link between olive oil and life expectancy. The benefits for health go way beyond just reducing levels of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. Numerous studies have connected olive oil – the main fat in the Mediterranean diet – to improved cardiovascular health and protection from certain types of cancer, dementia and premature aging.

A new review on the health benefits of olive oil, published in the journal Pharmacological Research, is a timely “pulling together” of the biological and clinical studies of the healthy effects of olive oil-rich diets on cholesterol, blood pressure, heart disease, and chronic inflammation. It shows extra virgin olive oil to be quite a nutritional star, in large part due to its rich content of polyphenols and MUFAs. There is also some exciting research that points to better fat burning (particularly of abdominal fat cell!) from diets that are rich in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. Always good news!


It’s good for you, but don’t go overboard; olive oil is still a fat, and thereby still caloric. Limit total oil consumption to 7 teaspoons daily on a 2,000-calorie diet; 5 for a 1,600-calorie plan.

  • Make salad dressing with one part olive oil and three parts balsamic vinegar.

  • Use olive oil instead of butter or margarine.

  • Lightly coat your favorite vegetables with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400° F until done.


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