In the previous post, I attempted to bring some perspective to the Mediterranean diet. A discussion of this popular diet came up in the midst of profiling monounsaturated fats because of its copious use of olive oil which is 70% monounsaturated fat. (Oleic acid)
So let’s look at monounsaturated fat in general and then specifically at olive oil. As I’ve already mentioned monounsaturated fat is distinguished by one carbon to carbon double bond. In addition to olive oil, foods high in monounsaturated fats include avocados, macadamia nuts, canola oil and believe it or not lard (fat from a pigs belly). Diets higher in monounsaturated fats vs. carbs, trans fats, other processed fats or omega 6 fats are healthier for what they remove. Some who study a “Paleolithic” approach to nutrition have argued that earliest man was a scavenger who used tools to crack skulls and long bones which were left over from a kill. Because of this, they ate lots of marrow and brains which are loaded with monounsaturated fat. The implication is that we have adapted to eat lots of this kind of fat which could be another reason for the Mediterranean diet’s success.
What about olive oil? While not living up to some of its hype, olive oil does have several positive qualities especially when compared to vegetable oils. When cold pressed, it is not “processed” in the bad sense of the term. (Cold pressed means the olives are put through large metal rollers and the oil is squeezed out without using heat.) It is thus a real food unlike some of the chemically processed food like substances (margarine, crisco, powdered eggs) that have been promoted as healthy. We do insist on “extra virgin olive oil” which is the product of the first pressing as it contains more antioxidants and other nutrients and has a better flavor. Olive oil is relatively stable and does not go rancid easily unlike vegetable oils which contain more chemically extracted polyunsaturated fats. Both the antioxidants and lack of an additional double bond help keep it stable. Olive oil is therefore stable for low heat cooking. Mixed with vinegar it makes an excellent salad dressing and aids the absorption of many of the salad’s nutrients. Another great use is for sautéing vegetables which really brings the flavor out and also maximizes certain nutrients. Olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E which is a commonly deficient vitamin that we have not been successful supplementing. (Likely due to attempts to use synthetic vitamin E and a lack of needed cofactors contained in food.) Finally, it contains an additional phytonutrient called hydroxytyrosol which reportedly helps protect the cells that line our blood vessels (endothelial cells). For this reason and others, it lowers inflammatory markers such as thromboxane A2 and CRP. So, olive oil can be a healthy part of our daily diet if not over consumed. Remember, it contains 120 calories per tablespoon and like grass fed butter or cream can be overeaten if not taken in “mindfully”.
In summary, monounsaturated fats can be a very nutritious and tasty part of our diets when consumed in real foods like olive oil, avocados and nuts and combined with other natural fats. Next time, I will tackle the complex and fascinating topic of polyunsaturated (essential) fatty acids.