Is Olive Oil Good For You? How Does It Affect Your Cholesterol?

Years ago, there was a common idea that all fat was bad for you.  People were told that they should be on a very low-fat or even no fat diet.  However, over time it started becoming known through many studies that there are several types of dietary fat and not all of them are bad and one can even be considered good for you.  Since olive oil is a fat and is commonly used in cooking we all want to know, is olive oil good for you?  How much should you have and in what way does it affect your cholesterol levels?

The three major types of fat

Is Olive Oil Good For You?  How Does It Affect Your Cholesterol?

Image by Xin Li 88 via Flickr

Dietary fats are composed of fatty acid which are molecules made up of long chains of mostly carbon and hydrogen.  There are three major groups that fats are grouped in – saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.  All three interact with the body in different ways so it is important to learn what they do and whether or not they are bad for you.

Saturated Fats

Technically, saturated fats get their name because all of the carbon atoms in the long chain that make up the molecule have four single bonds connecting them to the atoms around them – except for one end of the chain, in which the last carbon atom has one double bond with an oxygen atom.

We don’t really need to know the chemistry behind saturated fats, but it is important to note that this type of fat is not good for you.  You should limit that amount of saturated fat as much as you can.  No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from this type of fat, though you should try to limit it to much less than 10%.  The reason why saturated fatty acids are bad for you is because they raise total cholesterol levels.  Not only that, but they raise the total levels by increasing LDL cholesterol, which is the bad cholesterol.  While it does also raise the good cholesterol (HDL), the fact that it raises LDL makes it bad for your health and may increase your heart attack risk.

Since we are talking about olive oil, lets consider what similar types of foods contain saturated fats.  The biggest culprit is butter.  Some others include palm oil, coconut oil, and lard.  All of these foods should be used sparingly as they are extremely high in saturated fats.

Polyunsaturated Fats

When talking of the chemistry that makes up polyunsaturated fats, or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), the long chain of carbon atoms that make up the molecule contains two or more carbon atoms that have double bonds with the carbon atoms next to them.

Common oils that contain mostly polyunsaturated include corn oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil.

Along with monounsaturated fats, discussed below, polyunsaturated fats are considered good for your health.  An important study in the Netherlands has shown that a diet that replaces carbohydrates with unsaturated fats (poly and mono) can increase HDL levels while decreasing LDL levels, which can lead to a lower risk of heart disease.

Monounsaturated Fats

Next is monounsaturated fat, or monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA).  The name comes from the fact that there is one double bond between two carbon atoms in the middle of the long chain.  This one double bond gives it the name ‘mono’unsaturated.

Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat – 74%.  Other oils that contain a lot of monounsaturated fat include vegetable oil, canola oil, and peanut oil.

As noted above, a diet that replaces carbs with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids while low in saturated fats can increase good cholesterol and decrease bad cholesterol.  On top of that, a recent study also indicates that a diet that replaces carbohydrates specifically with monounsaturated fats can lead to lower blood pressure and a reduced heart disease risk.

Besides the positive effects that olive oil may have on your cholesterol levels, it also may decrease the risk of breast cancer (Karolinska Institute).

How much olive oil can I eat?

By saying that olive oil can improve your cholesterol levels as well as provide other benefits, including lowered heart disease and breast cancer risk, it is not an open invitation to eat as much olive oil and you can.  It is extremely important that olive still contains a lot of calories.  One of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy body is to prevent weight gain and to manage a healthy weight.  Therefore, it is important to understand that while you want to incorporate more monounsaturated fats into your diet, specifically olive oil, you want to do it by replacing other foods such as carbohydrates and saturated fats.  You do not want to increase your calorie consumption just to include some olive oil in your diet.

Overall, 30% or less of your calories should come from all fats combined.  Less than 10% of your total calories should come from saturated fats (hopefully much less than 10%).  The remaining fats should then come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

If you find that olive oil is not regularly in your diet, you can make an effort to include it by replacing butter with olive oil.  If you cook with butter just use olive oil instead.  When serving bread with dinner, don’t add butter but rather dip the bread in some olive oil that includes herbs and spices.  With a little effort it can be easy to include more olive oil within your diet.

So, is olive oil good for you?  While it is hard to give a definite answer to a question like that, the research indicates that it is good for you.  Not only does it help you maintain good cholesterol numbers, but it may also reduce some cancer risk.  Just be careful that you do not overdo it since it is high in calories.