By Simone Stromer, MD, CHC [AADP]
If I were to define the most essential ingredient in any dish, it would undoubtedly be olive oil—made from the crushing and pressing of olives. One tablespoon of olive oil contains approximately 125 calories, and is an adequate amount to add to your entire salad or stir-fry. If that sounds like a lot of calories, consider how may calories in your typical store-bought salad dressing or sauce, together with the incredible amount of added sugar and artificial ingredients that it may contain. Olive oil is not only a superfood for the heart, but a way to naturally add flavor to vegetables, meats, grains, and bread. I always emphasize to my clients that food and eating is not only a physical act, but a spiritual act because it provides comfort and enjoyment. When you use olive oil in your cooking, you are definitely adding to the spiritual component of the meal, by connecting with one of Israel’s native fruits, and with an ancient ingredient in the Jewish culture.
Olive oil’s well-studied health benefits surpass that of other so-called vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, canola, soy, or corn). Olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, a type of fat that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood. In contrast, saturated and transfats (such as butter, animal fats, and partially hydrogenated oils) increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total and LDL cholesterol levels. Olive oil contains high levels of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that also can promote heart health. The Mediterranean diet, of which olive oil is a central component, has long been associated with numerous health benefits, including decreased risk of stroke, heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, and some dementias. But don't overdo it, consuming more than two tablespoons at a meal (or per day if you are trying to lose weight) may induce free radial damage and contribute too much total fat to your diet.
When you shop for olive oil, you will notice that many different grades are available, including extra-virgin, fine virgin, refined and pure. "100% Pure Olive Oil" sounds like a high-end product, but in fact is often the lowest quality available in stores, as it’s a blend or refined and unrefined oil. Extra-virgin is the unrefined oil derived from the first pressing of the olives, and being the least processed it has the most delicate flavor (the lease overall acidity) and is the most heart healthy. Virgin is also derived from the first pressing of the olives, but has a higher acidity level than extra-virgin olive oil (as well as less phytonutrients and a less delicate or more subtle taste). So I recommend extra-virgin oil (cold-pressed if possible) as your first choice, making sure to store it away from the stove and replacing it every 3 to 4 months to ensure its healthy nutrients remain at their maximum.
Simone Stromer, MD, CHC [AADP]
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