It's official: Under a "qualified health claim" granted last week by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), bottles of olive oil can now boast what proponents of the Mediterranean style of eating have long contended: Olive oil may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
That's because olive oil contains mono-unsaturated 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. Neither affects the "good cholesterol" (high-density lipoprotein, HDL). But olive oil 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.
But before you start drizzling olive oil on everything but your breakfast cereal, read the fine print of the new claim -- it's based on "limited and not conclusive scientific evidence," says the FDA -- and listen to what experts advise:
Swap, don't add. All fat has nine calories per gram -- more than twice the amount found in protein or carbohydrates. The health claim, which can be put on olive oil labels as well as on labels of foods rich in olive oil, designates just 23 daily grams of olive oil -- about two tablespoons -- as possibly beneficial in preventing heart disease. The FDA's intent is for olive oil "to replace a similar amount of saturated fat" -- not to increase the total number of calories consumed. Doing that could boost weight, itself a risk factor for heart disease.
Let's do the math: Two tablespoons of olive oil have 240 calories. If those are added to the diet rather than replacing other foods, that could add an extra 20 pounds to a person's weight in a year.
"The issue is keeping calories in balance," said 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." So use it to replace saturated-fat-rich butter, some margarines or unhealthy salad dressings, but not to add fat.
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," said registered dietitian Cathy Nonas, director of obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York. Just half a cup of olive oil has 1,000 calories -- nearly a day's worth for many people. And that popular practice of dipping bread in olive oil at restaurants? That's easily "four tablespoons of olive oil -- 480 calories -- before the bread," Nonas notes. "So portion out your olive oil, no matter how heart-heathy it is. Eating olive oil is healthy, but obesity is not."
Make olive oil part of an overall smart food regimen. "It's not just one thing that makes a diet healthy," said Valentin Fuster, director of the cardiovascular institute at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a past president of the American Heart Association. "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 healthy foods, including beans, fish, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, lean meat and poultry without the skin. It's this combination of foods in the Mediterranean diet -- as well as more physical activity -- that appears to lower heart disease risk.
Use olive oil to enhance healthy 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. Top a salad with olive oil for great taste; this may help you and your family eat more salad. Saute lean meat, fish, poultry or even your grilled (preferably low-fat) cheese sandwich in olive oil instead of butter. Ditto for broccoli, spinach and other vegetables. Not only does it boost flavor, but olive oil also helps increase absorption of vitamins A, E and K.
Look to other healthy oils. Which ones? Canola, soybean and safflower oils are also heart-healthy choices, notes Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and chair of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee. Some margarine-like spreads, such as Take Control and Benecol, contain plant stanols and sterols that have been proven to help lowerLDL by as much as 6 percent. Other food sources of healthy fat include fish, flaxseed, avocados, 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 healthy fat found in those two tablespoons of olive oil.
Share Your Tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail email@example.com anytime.
New To The Club? The Lean Plate Club is devoted to healthful eating and boosting activity. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub.