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Women’s Health: Olive oil is no magic elixir

Nutritionist challenges the notion that this calorie-dense food is good for you

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Olive oil, touted in recent years as a good fat, is now the target of a nutritionist who questions its reputation as a health food and a substance that can lower cholesterol.

“What doctors should tell patients is olive oil is not a good thing,” says James Kenney, a nutrition researcher at the Pritikin Longevity Centre & Spa, a health resort in Aventura, Florida. “It’s calorie-dense and nutrient-poor.”

Pound for pound, like all refined oils, olive oil has more than 4,000 calories. And 13 to 14 per cent of the calories in olive oil come from saturated fat. Compared with lard (38 per cent saturated fat) and butter (63 per cent) it is the better alternative, but that does not mean we should be freely pouring it on our salads, pasta and bread.

“People who switch from butter to olive oil do see a drop in their cholesterol levels but that’s not because the olive oil is lowering it, it’s because they’ve eliminated a lot of saturated fat, trans fat or cholesterol that was in the butter,” Kenney says.

Most of the fat in olive oil is in the form of monounsaturated fatty acids, and researchers have long known that this form of fat neither raises nor lowers cholesterol levels, Kenney explains. “Nothing has changed in all these years except people have gotten the impression olive oil can lower cholesterol when it cannot – except when it is replacing things that are worse.”

Kenney says he is speaking out against olive oil because he is concerned about how liberally people use it. He says a little olive oil can be OK if, for example, it encourages you to eat a big salad you would otherwise not eat. But when he sees people in restaurants dipping their white bread into olive oil rather than spreading butter on it, he worries. “The (absorbent) bread actually sucks up more fat and has more calories than if you spread butter on it.” He suggests using hummus as a spread, which usually contains a small amount of olive oil but a much greater amount of fibre-rich chickpeas.

He recommends people think about olive oil as they would think about salt: You can use a little to add flavour to your food. For olive oil, choosing the more flavourful extra-virgin variety and using a spray pump will reduce the amount you use.