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This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
Last week in “5 Reasons to Ditch the Oils,” I examined the reasons why whole food, plant-based (WFPB) experts recommend we reconsider the use of cooking oils in our diet. Are oils explicitly prohibited in the Word of Wisdom? Of course not. The Lord gave us dietary principles and allows us to use our own judgment and the Spirit to decide how to apply them. He does not spell out all the details for us, nor do our Church leaders, nor will they. Like keeping the Sabbath Day holy, we get to exercise our agency in how we respond to His counsel. The dietary principle that appears most relevant for oils is found in D&C 10–11. It may profit us to study these verses prayerfully.
Note: In these articles, I share what the WFPB experts have to say because they have shown the wisdom and courage to promote a diet in harmony with the Word of Wisdom and no other diet has demonstrated greater clinical success. Given these facts, I think their perspective is worth our consideration. I realize some readers don’t agree with this approach, and that is fine. We each have the marvelous privilege to work these things out for ourselves.
What About Olive Oil?
Even if most processed oils are not good for our bodies, is olive oil (especially cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil) an exception? What about all the health benefits it has been proven to have? Unfortunately, based on the evidence, olive oil is no health food. And yes, I feel as sad about that as the next person.
I grew up loving ranch dressing, something I thought tasted good on virtually anything! So I was not happy to learn that ranch dressing is not exactly a health food. A year or two before I discovered whole food, plant-based nutrition I had finally switched to using olive oil dressings because everyone agreed they are the best choice for good health. At first, I didn’t like the new dressings and really missed the ranch, but over time I got used to them. By the time I switched to eating whole plant-based foods, I was finally loving the new olive oil dressings and feeling so proud of myself for using the “healthy” stuff.
So, no, I was not happy when I heard WFPB experts tell me that even olive oil is not good for us. But they were so right about so many other things, and the diet they recommended was so in harmony with the Word of Wisdom, I felt I needed to listen to their case. I’m glad I did. Once I set aside my prejudices and studied the topic with an open mind, I could see that the evidence against olive oil is frankly overwhelming.
Here are some of the reasons WFPB experts recommend we reconsider the use of olive oil. I encourage you to check the references in footnote 2 for more details.
- Olive oil is calorie dense and promotes weight gain.
Like all cooking oils, olive oil is 100% fat. It contains a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon (twice the calorie density of table sugar). Like all oils, it delivers more calories per volume than any food on earth. If we were in desperate need of calories, this would be a big bonus. Unfortunately, the last thing most of us need is more calories!
Where do excess calories go? Our body is happy to store them. It thinks the next famine might be just around the corner. All oils, including olive oil, are easily stored as fat on our bodies. Even in the Mediterranean, where olive oil first gained notoriety as a health food, olive oil is contributing to ever-increasing rates of obesity and disease. According to the research, “Today, more than 60% of Crete’s adult population—and an alarming 50% of its children—are overweight.” Over 60% of the population in Greece is also overweight. A study of obese women in the Mediterranean found that 55% of the fat in their diet came from olive oil.”
- Olive oil is a processed food, almost devoid of nutrients. Whole plants provide whatever nutrients are in olive oil, without any of the downsides.
It may be worth consuming excess calories if that is the only way to get needed nutrients. But in the case of olive oil, it does not have any nutrients that we cannot easily get from foods that have far more nutrients and far fewer calories.
What nutrients does olive oil contain? It is devoid of protein and devoid of carbohydrates, including fiber. It is 100% fat, including 72% monounsaturated, 14% polyunsaturated, and 14% saturated fat. The main fat in olive oil, monounsaturated fat, is non-essential, meaning we have no dietary need for it, and the saturated fat in olive oil is demonstrably harmful. Only omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential. Omega-6 is already plentiful in American diets, but to get enough omega-3 from olive oil, we’d have to consume 8 ounces of oil. That’s 1900 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat. This is obviously not a good source for omega-3 fat.
Olive oil advocates like to point out that extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) contains high levels of polyphenols and plant sterols. First note that most of the olive oil used in cooking is not rich in these healthful phytonutrients. More importantly, ALL whole plant foods are rich in these micronutrients, so we can easily get them without the extra calories in olive oil. Compared to whole foods, EVOO is a very poor source of phytonutrients:
A mere tablespoon of olive oil delivers a hefty 120 calories for a mere 30mg of polyphenols/plant sterols. By contrast, just 11 calories of green leafy lettuce [about four leaves] gets you about the same amount of polyphenols/plant sterols.
Click on this link to view a chart comparing olive oil to green leafy lettuce. Note how few nutrients are found in olive oil compared to a whole plant food. Olive oil comes up empty for almost all nutrients and the vitamins it does contain (E and K) are readily found in many whole plant foods (including green leafy lettuce), so there is no need to consume them packaged in so much fat.
In this 5.5 minute video, registered dietician Jeff Novick explains why olive oil is even more of a junk food than sugar: “Oil to Nuts: The Truth About Fats.”
- Olive oil has an immediate and long-term negative impact on our bodies.
Not only is olive oil calorically dense and nutrient poor, it has demonstrable negative effects on our bodies. Here is where some of the research gets confusing, as quite a number of studies show a positive effect of olive oil on, for example, heart disease. But studies that show positive benefits of olive oil (like lowering LDL cholesterol) occur only when the olive oil displaces an even unhealthier fat, like saturated fat. In other words, the positive health benefit is a result of trading one bad fat for a less bad fat. Even the Food and Drug Administration has stated that to achieve the “possible benefit” of monounsaturated fat, olive oil must “replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.”
The fact that olive oil is a “less bad fat” does not make it a “healthy fat.” Consider this analogy: if we did a study where we replaced the cigarettes people were smoking with ones low in nicotine and other toxic chemicals, the study may show positive results compared to a group smoking the more toxic cigarettes, but that would not make the less toxic cigarettes “healthy.” Olive oil is no more “heart healthy” than less toxic cigarettes are “lung healthy.”
Smoking less toxic cigarettes may lead to less lung disease, but why not just eliminate the tobacco altogether? If consuming cooking oils was a dietary necessity, it would be important to know that people who consume olive oil have less heart disease than people who consume other fats. But we can easily eliminate oils and get all the fats we need by adopting a whole food, plant-based diet. By doing so, we don’t just reduce our chances of getting heart disease, we virtually eliminate our risk of getting this deadly disease.
The negative effect of olive oil is immediately and dramatically seen when studies measure the rate of blood flow through the arteries after the consumption of olive oil. When the endothelial lining of our arteries are healthy, it produces a chemical called nitric oxide. This is a natural vasodilator that widens our blood vessels and keeps the blood flowing smoothly. When the endothelial cells are damaged, the blood flow is compromised, and this is exactly what happens when people consume foods containing olive oil.
Modern technology can detect, in real time, the damage olive oil does to the endothelial lining of our arteries by measuring the arterial blood flow in people who have just consumed it. In one study, olive oil was found to create a 30% reduction in flow-mediated dilation. Olive oil damages the endothelium and blocks the artery’s ability to produce nitric oxide. This triggers plaque build-up, or atherosclerosis, stimulating inflammation and chronic disease.
Watch this 3-minute video by Dr. Michael Greger on “Olive Oil and Artery Function.”
While it is true that replacing animal fats (saturated fats) with olive oil reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, that does not necessary lead to less disease. In one important study, when monkeys (who metabolize fat in the same way as humans) were fed a monounsaturated fat (like olive oil) they too showed lower levels of LDL cholesterol and higher levels of HDL cholesterol, but autopsies show that they developed just as much coronary artery disease as those who consume saturated fat.
Heart disease is just the most obvious way olive oil negatively impacts our health. Like all other oils, olive oil contributes to a high fat diet, and high fat diets play a significant role in most chronic diseases. See “5 Reasons to Ditch the Oils” for more details on over 20 health problems linked to a high fat diet.
What About the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is widely considered one of the healthiest diets ever studied. Due primarily to marketing, when we think of the Mediterranean diet, we think of olive oil . . . and wine. For Mormons, it is easy to dismiss the idea that wine is somehow central to a healthy diet; we realize that whatever antioxidants and other nutrients are in wine are found even more abundantly in whole plant foods, but when it comes to olive oil, we are more likely to buy into the hype.
Studies of the Mediterranean diet have demonstrated remarkable reductions in disease, particularly heart disease. A healthy Mediterranean diet may indeed slow down the rate of heart disease, but as Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn has demonstrated, a whole food, plant-based diet can virtually eliminate this #1 killer. Why reduce heart disease when we can eliminate it? (See this 4-minute video: “The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?”)
In this 10-minute video, registered dietician Jeff Novick explains that the Mediterranean diet is healthier than the Standard American diet NOT because of the added wine and olive oil but because of the abundance of vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains: “Olive Oil is NOT Health Food but Sick Food.” Novick reports, “They’ve actually gone back to the Isle of Crete . . . to see what’s going on there right now . . . and they found 254 patients, half had heart disease, half didn’t . . . The group that had heart disease had the highest intakes of . . . olive oil. The ones who didn’t have heart disease had the highest intakes of carbohydrates, fiber, and folate [which are found in] plants. And it turned out the more . . . olive oil [they ate], the more heart disease they had.”
Isn’t Olive Oil Biblical?
The fact that olive oil is in the Bible and even the fact that Jesus probably consumed some olive oil during His mortal ministry does not make olive oil a healthy food in the 21st century. Let’s remember that Jesus (and probably most of the prophets and good people in the Bible) drank some wine. That does not mean we should do the same in our day.
Not only is there a huge difference in the quality, but also the quantity of the olive oil consumed by Biblical peoples. Ancient methods of cold pressing the olives were much less damaging than the highly efficient mechanized processes used today, so the quality of the oil was better. Just as importantly, the effort to create oils was extremely labor intensive and very inefficient. With a great deal of effort, they were able to harvest only a fraction of the oil that we can today. This made olive oil a precious commodity. It was not like today when we can stop at the local store and buy several tall bottles and liberally apply it to our foods.
Rich foods can play a small role in an otherwise healthy diet, but in a day and age when we are surrounded with rich foods, we have to use more than taste, availability, and marketing hype to determine what is best to eat. Perhaps one reason the Lord did not give the Word of Wisdom to previous generations is that they had little choice about what to eat. Their main challenge was consuming enough calories. Obviously, we live in a very different time period with very different challenges. The Word of Wisdom is designed for our day. In it, we find nothing about “heart healthy” olive oil. Instead the focus is on “wholesome” plants used with “prudence” (D&C 89:10–11). Let’s make that our standard!
What Can I Put on My Salad?
Just as it was not easy for me to switch to an olive oil salad dressing, it was not easy for me to switch to a no-oil dressing. At first, I didn’t like any of the ones I tried. But over a few short weeks, my tastes changed dramatically. Now, I love a wide variety of oil-free dressings and enjoy my salads as much as ever! In fact, they are even more enjoyable because I know they are not drenched in a food that is contributing to weight gain and disease.
Check out Discovering the Word of Wisdom Topics A-Z to find oil-free salad dressings and sauces and also more resources on olive oil. Here are tips for “Reducing Fat in Your Diet and Cooking Without Oil.”
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 Thomas M. Campbell and T. Collin Campbell, “The Breadth of Evidence Favoring a Whole Foods, Plant-based Diet: Part I Metabolic Diseases and Diseases of Aging,” Primary Care Reports 2012; 18(2): 13-23; and “The Breadth of Evidence Favoring a Whole Foods, Plant-based Diet: Part II Malignancy and Inflammatory Diseases,” Primary Care Reports 2012; 18(3): 25-35.
 For more on this topic, see “olive oil” in Discovering the Word of Wisdom Topics A-Z.
 Eugenia Killoran, “Olive Oil Nutrition – What’s Wrong With Olive Oil?” Pritikin.com.
 “Obesity in Greece,” Wikipedia.org
 John A. McDougall, “NEJM Study Promotes Olive Oil and Dismisses Low-fat Diet,” McDougall Breaking News, McDougall.com (2013).
 “FDA Allows Qualified Health Claim to Decrease Risk of Coronary Heart Disease,” News Release, FDA.gov (November 1, 2004).
 Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (New York: Avery, 2007).
 Robert A. Vogel, et al., “The postprandial effect of components of the mediterranean diet on endothelial function,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 36(5), no. 1 (November 2000): 1455–1460.
Arteriosclerosis Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 1995 Dec; 15(12): 2101-10.
 “Cooking Oil,” Encyclopedia.com (1994).