Olive Oil: The Fat That
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If fats were fashion, olive oil would be the classic
little black dress. It's the go-to fat of choice for heart-healthy chefs; it
promotes the production of youth hormones, which keep you looking young and
gorgeous; and with varieties like "Virgin" and "Extra Virgin," it's also the
most provocative-sounding item in your cupboard. Here's why it's the Queen of
Oilsand how to use it to your best advantage.
You know we don't hate fatdietary fat.
We're always telling you that 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories should
come from the stuff. (See #3, above, in Steve's article.) You need it to
transport essential vitamins like A, D, E, and K throughout your body, keep
your skin supple, and cushion your organs, among other things. But you also
know that fat is very high in calories. Oils are 100 percent fat. A tablespoon
of oil has around 13 grams of fat. At 9 calories a gram, that's a whopping 120
calories per tablespoon.
Which is why you want to consume mostly good
fats. Saturated fat is bad. Trans fat is very bad. Unsaturated fat? Good.
Monounsaturated? Best of all. (Here's a hint to help you remember the bad ones:
they have "t" as one of the first three letterssaTurated
and Trans fatand "T," as the song goes, stands for trouble.)
The oil with the most good fatmonounsaturatedis olive oil, good for you inside
Heart healthy. Heart disease is the leading cause of
death in this country for both men and women, but there are ways to reduce the
risk. In addition to not smoking and getting plenty of exercise, we can also
improve our diet to keep our arteries clear, our weight down, and our blood
- Avoid saturated and trans
fats. This goes a long way toward helping prevent fat deposits from
accumulating on our artery walls. You've heard of "bad" cholesterol, LDL
(low-density lipoprotein), and "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density
lipoprotein). HDL is good because it seems to protect against fatty tissue
(plaque) accumulating in our arteries, while LDL increases that risk. The bad
fats (saturated and trans fat) increase the level of "bad" cholesterol in our
blood and decrease the level of "good" cholesterol. Even worse, most saturated
fats are animal fats that also contain cholesterollike bacon drippings, butter,
cheese, eggs, lardand we certainly don't need any more of that. Our bodies
already make all the cholesterol we need.
The majority of trans fat results from
hydrogenation, in which hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to turn them
into solids at room temperature. It makes foods last longer and stabilizes
their flavor (mostly commercial baked goods, like cookies, crackers, candy
bars, and other snacks), but raises our LDL level, just as saturated fat does.
We don't really know exactly how bad it is for us, but we do know the liver
doesn't metabolize commercially produced trans fat the same way it does other
fats. Manufacturers are now required to list trans fat on food labels, making
it easier to avoid foods that contain it. (Check out Denis Faye's article on
labels and Steve Edwards'
911 focus on food
labels for more information.)
It's recommended that no more than 10 to
20 percent of our daily calories come from saturated fatno more than 7
percent if you're already at risk for heart disease. And it's best just to
avoid trans fat altogether!
- Choose unsaturated fats. Fat from plants tends
to be liquid and unsaturated (except for tropical oils like coconut and palm
kernelthose are saturated fats). The two types of unsaturated fat are
polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Both are good insofar as they lower the
level of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol in the blood, but polyunsaturated fat also
lowers HDL levels, the "good" cholesterol. Monounsaturated fat, on the other
hand, lowers the bad cholesterol and increases the good kind. Nuts, seeds, oily
fish, veggies, and olives are all good sources.
Here's a list of some common oils and
how they stack up against butter and margarineolive oil is highest in
heart-healthy monounsaturated fat:
|Data per 100 grams, from
Elixir of youth. Fat also
plays a role in regulating hormones, including the so-called "youth" hormones
that promote the body's ability to repair and regenerate cells. The production
of these hormones starts declining in our 20s, and goes down 10 percent every
decade from there, leaving cells at the mercy of free radicals, which hasten
cellular breakdown. A diet loaded with saturated fat decreases the production
of youth hormones even more, as saturated fat increases stress levels, causing
insulin to spike, which inhibits the release of growth hormones.
Reducing stress and "bad" cholesterol through dietary
changesnamely, cutting down on saturated fatwon't magically turn back the clock
and make you look like Scarlett Johansson or Wentworth Miller, but it will make
it easier for your body to produce youth hormones and stand up to those free
Increasing your level of HDL cholesterol is
also key to producing more youth hormones. We already know olive oil is best at
raising good cholesterol, but it's also rich in antioxidants (vitamin E and
polyphenols), which fight free radical damage and have anti-inflammation
properties as well. The "Mediterranean diet" is no fluke. People who eat olive
oil as a dietary staple in addition to fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and
lots of fruits and vegetables and breads and other cereals have a much lower
rate of heart disease and live longer than people who consume lots of saturated
So which kind of olive oil should
you use? Extra virgin. It comes from the first pressing of the olives
and so retains the most benefits. "Virgin" olive oil comes from the second
pressing, so is less flavorful. "Refined" means chemicals were used. "Pure"
olive oil is actually a blend of virgin and refined oil, while "Extra Light,"
though it sounds healthy, is heavily processed, and so has the weakest olive
flavor and fewest benefits.
If you're going to cook with it, it probably
doesn't matter much if you use virgin or extra virgin olive oil, as heat will
damage the flavor of extra virgin anyway. (Hint: It's best to spray the oil on
the pan instead of pouring it, as you'll use less.) But if you're going to
sprinkle oil on salads or use it in marinades, go with extra virgin.
And be sure to store it in a cool, dry
place, as it's volatile and can go bad if left exposed to heat and air. You can
even store olive oil in the refrigerator if you wantbut that will make it
cloudy and solidify, so before you use it, run it under warm water or allow it
to liquefy at room temperature first.
Just remember: olive oil has about 120
calories per tablespoon, the same as any other oil. It has many benefits and is
way better for you than any other fat, but it's a fat. So go easy!