Should You Still Be on Team Olive Oil? Here Are the Facts

flckr user Caleb Maclennan
POPSUGAR Photography | Annie Gabillet
flckr user Caleb Maclennan
POPSUGAR Photography | Annie Gabillet

Recent years have seen the rise in popularity of coconut and avocado oils, with our old friend olive oil being cast aside — and, some argue, quite unfairly. Olive oil has been an important part of a balanced diet for thousands of years, dating back to Ancient Greece, and there is no reason to cut it out of your diet just because pop culture has found a new oil darling.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, has no carbohydrates or protein, and is cholesterol- and sodium-free. According to the American Heart Association,"Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body's cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of."

Even with this endorsement, is olive oil really that good for us? Sources say yes; the old standby still has a (big) place at the table. And here's why.

Let's Talk About Fat, Baby

In the pursuit of better overall fitness and health, sometimes the word "fat" becomes the "F" word. Despite the negative association, we have to face facts — we need fat in our diet to thrive. Dietary fat serves as an important energy source and is essential for vitamin absorption (vitamins A, D, E, and K especially).

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as not enough fat. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends between 20 and 35 percent of our daily calories come from fat sources.

What constitutes as healthy and unhealthy fat sources can get a little confusing, especially as food trends can be based more on hype than science. "Bad fats" have been known as the saturated kind, the ones that stay solid at room temperature, such as butter, lard, and everyone's new favorite, coconut oil. "Good fats" have been touted as the mono or polyunsaturated kind, the ones that stay liquid or near liquid at room temperature, such as olive and canola oils.

Studies over recent years have highlighted the importance of not looking only at the sources of fat or its content, because the type of saturated fat can make a difference in its nutritional value. Case in point, the saturated fat in coconut oil is different than that in animal sources and is therefore less "bad" than you may think.

But remember, just because something is a "good fat" doesn't mean it shouldn't be moderated, as overeating of any fat can create health issues and lead to weight gain.

How Much Is Too Much?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. In order to achieve the possible benefit, though, the FDA explains that the olive oil should replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.

Translation: swap out your butter for your olive oil and don't go crazy on the rest of your calories just because of one small change.

Does that mean you have to ditch your new love for coconut or avocado oil? According to nutritionist Amy Giustino-Talbot, we don't need to be so strict. Giustino-Talbot told POPSUGAR that "all oils are not created equal. That said, the health benefits of one oil do not negate the health benefits of another. Different oils, like the foods they are derived from, have different tastes and have various uses. Dependent on your needs for cooking, taste, viscosity, or fatty acid content, you may choose a distinct oil."

Making an Informed Oil Choice

Giustino-Talbot shared that olive oil can be healthy, but not all olive oils are the same. Her ideal source is organic, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO).
Cold pressing is a technique where olive oil is extracted without the use of heat or other chemical additives, an actual squeezing of the olive to juice it. Cold relates to the temperature of the olive when it is pressed, which is important because heat affects the nutritional value of the oil. The more processing the oil undergoes (with heat, purifying, or blending with other oils), the more of its natural phenols (aka antioxidants) are lost.

The purest olive oils are made from the same kind of olives from the same region. These single-source olives produce the highest quality of olive oil and are also often the most expensive. When debating your options, though, Giustino-Talbot told POPSUGAR, "The most important thing to remember is to always read your labels. The only ingredient on an oil label should be the specific oil you are buying."

The Bottom Line

Giustino-Talbot advises that in oils, as in all things, balance is the key to healthy living. When she counsels clients, she assures them that no one food, oil, or supplement is a cure all. Since your body requires a variety of healthy fats, use what you like — which can include olive oil — but do so in moderation.