Just add a little olive oil

Special to The Times

Olive oil can now officially boast what proponents of the Mediterranean style of eating have long contended -- it may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

That’s because olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids, which lower the dangerous type of blood cholesterol known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Polyunsaturated fat, such as safflower oil, does the same, but it also lowers protective cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Olive oil doesn’t affect HDL levels. It also appears to reduce the inflammation tied to artery damage and it seems to keep the inner lining of arteries calm and less likely to contract in a dangerous way.

So earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration granted the oil a “qualified health claim.” But before you start drizzling olive oil on everything but your breakfast cereal, here’s what experts advise:

* Swap, don’t add. All fat has nine calories per gram -- more than twice the amount per gram found in either protein or carbohydrates. The FDA’s health claim lists just 23 grams of olive oil -- about two tablespoons daily -- as possibly beneficial in preventing heart disease. The intent is for olive oil “to replace a similar amount of saturated fat,” not increase the total number of calories consumed daily. Doing that could boost weight, itself a risk factor for heart disease.


Because one tablespoon of olive oil has 120 calories, adding two tablespoons of oil to your daily diet would increase your caloric intake by 240 calories. Over a year, that’s an extra 20 pounds.

“The issue is keeping calories in balance,” says Meir J. Stampfer, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Olive oil is a fat, it’s not a low-fat food.”

* Measure, measure, measure. If you freely pour olive oil on your salad, pasta or in a skillet “you have no idea how much you put in,” says registered dietitian Cathy Nonas, director of diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in New York City. Just a half-cup of olive oil has 1,000 calories -- nearly a day’s worth for many people.

And that practice of dipping bread in olive oil at restaurants? That’s easily “four tablespoons of olive oil -- 480 calories -- before the bread,” Nonas notes.

* Make olive oil part of an overall smart food regimen. “It’s not just one thing that makes a diet healthy,” says Valentin Fuster, director of the cardiovascular institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “It’s important that people don’t take this as the answer to all the dietary problems or have olive oil and then eat everything else that they want.”

Focus first, he said, on eating fruit, vegetables and whole grains, then add the olive oil -- as well as other healthful foods, including beans, fish, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, lean meat and poultry without the skin. It’s this combination of food found in the Mediterranean diet -- as well as more physical activity -- that appears to lower heart disease risk.

* Use olive oil to enhance other healthful foods. Odds are you probably won’t be replacing butter or margarine with olive oil on your breakfast toast. But a little olive oil on pasta or rice is a good idea. Drizzle olive oil on salad for great taste; this may help you and your family eat more salad. Ditto for broccoli, spinach and other vegetables. Not only does it encourage vegetable consumption, olive oil also helps increase absorption of vitamins A, E and K.

* Look to other healthful oils. Which ones? Canola, soybean and safflower oils are also heart-healthy choices, says Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and chair of the American Heart Assn.'s Nutrition Committee.


Other sources of healthful fat include fish, nuts and, of course, olives. But you’d have to eat a lot of them -- an estimated 23 jumbo olives, about 280 calories -- to get the equivalent amount of healthful fat found in those 2 tablespoons of olive oil.