Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hard, Cold-Pressed Truths: the Problem with Olive Oil

I'm going to tell you all something, and I would like you to remain calm and not throw things at your computer screen.  Olive oil is not health food.  You don't need it in your diet.  It's not really that good for you.

Are you still reading?  Have you closed the window and walked away?  I can feel you glaring these words as you read them.  It's okay, I felt the same way you do.  What I'm saying goes against every magazine article, every sloppy evening news story, every piece of Mediterranean ancient wisdom that you've encountered in the last 10 or 15 years.

Usually the magazine articles go something like this: "Studies have discovered that olives/sunflower seeds/walnuts/avocados contain large amounts of healthy, good fatty acids, which have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disearse and a reduction in  LDL cholesterol.  We recommend adding a few tablespoons of olive/sunflower/walnut/avocado oil to your daily diet to gain these benefits.  Keep in mind that olive oil is high in calories, so don't eat too much of it!"

Well, what's wrong with that?  The science is accurate, studies really have found those things to be true about olives, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and avocados.  But there is a leap of logic here.  And it's the same leap of logic that causes people to read stories about the health benefits of cacao beans, and then go delve into a box of Godiva chocolates, believing that they're doing something good for their health.  The problem (and solution) with fats is the form in which we eat them.

Olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados are full of healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  As Dr. Joel Fuhrman says, they have nature's protective packaging with them.  Whole, plant-based fats are necessary for our diets.  They provide nutrients, essential fatty acids, and they make us feel full and satisfied.  The problem with oils is that they aren't whole fats.  Oil is a processed product.  Olive trees exist.  Olive oil trees do not.  Olives whole.  Olive oil processed.

But is there really always a problem with eating processed food?  Are there actually specific health problems with consuming oils? Well, different oils pose different problems, but they all share the common problem of being very high in calories and very low in nutrients.  This means that oils take up space in your diet that could be used for foods that contain healthy fats along with a plethora of nutrients.  They are essentially junk food.  One tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories, and little in the way of nutrients.  You would need almost a cup of olives to get up to the same amount of calories, and along with it you would be getting fiber, beta carotene, vitamin E, calcium, iron and more.  As we're focussing on olive oil, it's worth mentioning that at least one study has found that meals rich in olive oil impair the dialation of arteries after said meal, a problem which can contribute to heart disease. 

So why has olive oil got such a good reputation?  Well, for one thing, there are health benefits that arise from switching from saturated or trans fat to olive or canola oil.  That shouldn't come as any shock.  But this means replacing butter or lard or hydrogenated oils with an equal amount of olive oil, and ensuring that you aren't consuming any more calories in the process.  It does not mean dipping cheese laden white bread into olive oil and claiming that you're now European.

Now, I can hear you thinking, that plenty of cultures have consumed plenty of olive oil for plenty of years, and these cultures tend to have much lower rates of heart disease and other "diseases of civilisation" than other countries.  Which is true.  A little.  Much has been made of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, without anyone stopping to question which of 20 plus countries with different diets we're talking about, and we've generally interpreted these health benefits to mean that we should add olive oil, fancy cheese, and red wine to our diets without altering anything else.  C'mon.  The thing is, the reason that some traditional (note the word traditional, not necessarily current) Mediterranean diets are good for you isn't because of single ingredients like wine or oils.  The diets that have shone in research have been rich in veggies, fruits, beans and other legumes, and whole grains.  The people eating these diets also walked about 9 miles a day.  So a little wine and olive oil wasn't going to hurt them. 

So, what does this mean in practical terms?  Do I avoid oil in my own diet?

I love olive oil.  I cook with it all the time.  But I've definitely changed my own cooking practices since learning more about its inflated health reputation.  For general, everyday use, I've limited the amount of oil I use to one tablespoon per dish (not portion), and I usually use less than that, actually.  When I've been able to remove the oil without compromising the taste or texture of my dish, I have.  I've also had a lot of success in cooking in just a little bit of oil, and some water.  But I do fry in lots of oil, once in a blue moon, because it just makes life happier.  And for a special meal, I use as much oil as I please.

And for you?  Well, this information is most vital to those who are undergoing serious health issues related to heart problems or obesity.  For those people, I wouldn't consume more than one teaspoon a day.  And if you are someone who eats a generally healthy diet based on wholefoods and is fairly active but you can't seem to lose weight (assuming your goal isn't unrealistic or unhealthy), you might want to try limiting or cutting out oil.  Try cooking in water or even a little vegetable stock instead.  For salad dressings, try nut butters or tahini, or pureed nuts instead of oils.  You'll be getting more nutrition, fewer calories, and more taste.

Fuhrman, Joel, MD, Eat to Live, Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Fuhrman, Talia, "It's About Time the Olive Oil Myth was Laid to Rest", Diseaseproof.com, 2012
"The Truth About Olive Oil", Pritikin.com, 2012

Vital Vittles

Super Simple Beet Soup with Cashew Cream

I find that soup is particularly good for oil-free cooking.  As the title suggests, this is a very fuss-free soup that looks as nice as it tastes.  The cashew cream is a vegan substitute for sour cream.  It doesn't really taste that much like sour cream, but it's still delicious, and adds some nice whole fat into our oil free soup.  I would serve this soup with a bean or lentil salad, or some nice dark rye or pumpernickel bread.

1 onion, chopped
1 beetroot, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
1 potato, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
1 tart apple (granny smith or cox), peeled and cut into 1" pieces
4-5 cups of veggie stock, or water with two stock cubes
salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup raw cashews
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup water
salt to taste

Peel and chop the vegetables and apple and chuck them into a soup pot.  Put enough water or stock in to cover the vegetables and simmer until the beetroot pieces easily with a fork about 20-30 minutes.  Add the remaining stock/water and stock cubes and heat until simmering.  Take off the heat and blend with a hand-held blender until completely smooth.  Season to taste.

Add the cashews, lemon juice and water into a blender (if you only have an immersion or handheld blender, just use a tall container).  Blend until creamy, adding water if necessary. Salt to taste.

Serve into bowls and add a spoonful of cashew cream to each bowl, and swirl it around to make it pretty as you please.

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