Olive oil: What are the health benefits?

All fats are dense in calories, but not all need to be shunned by those following a healthy eating plan. In fact, some fats — such as olive oil — are considered to be heart healthy. Why is this?

The main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil is called monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are considered a healthy dietary fat. You may gain certain health benefits if your diet replaces saturated and trans fats with fats that are mostly unsaturated, such as MUFAs. Saturated fats are found in meat, high-fat dairy products, and tropical oils, such as palm-kernel oil. Fats that are “partially hydrogenated,” including some types of margarine and shortening, contain trans fats. Trans fats are also found in processed foods like salad dressings, cookies, snacks and fried foods.

By replacing the type of fat that you usually cook with — or spread on or pour over food — with olive oil, you’re making a good decision.

“Monounsaturated fat such as olive oil helps lower your risk of heart disease by improving related risk factors,” says Donald Hensrud, MD, an associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at Mayo Clinic and medical editor-in-chief of The Mayo Clinic Diet. “For instance, MUFAs have been found to lower your low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol levels when substituted for saturated or trans fats in your diet. And some research shows that MUFAs may also benefit insulin levels and blood-sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.”

Just remember that even healthy fats, such as those in olive oil, are high in calories, so use them only in moderation. Choose MUFA-rich foods such as olive oil in place of other fatty foods — particularly butter and stick margarine — not in addition to them. Use olive oil conservatively to enhance the flavor of foods, such as roasted vegetables and stir-fries, or in marinades or dressings for salads. And remember that you can’t make unhealthy foods healthier simply by adding olive oil to them.

Food energy density: Feel full on fewer calories

Energy density is just another way to say caloric density — after all calories provide energy. In a nutshell: It is the number of calories in the amount or weight of food you eat. Foods that don’t have a lot of calories packed into each bite — like fruits and vegetables — are low in energy density. They also tend to be low in fat and high in water or fiber content. Foods high in energy density pack a lot of calories into a small volume of food; these include fatty foods, such as many fast foods, and foods high in sugar, such as sodas and candies.

Eat more low-density foods

How full you feel is determined by the volume and weight of food — not by the number of calories you consume. If you choose foods with low energy density — few calories for their bulk — you can eat more volume but consume fewer calories because of two key factors:

Water. Most vegetables and fruits contain a lot of water, which provides volume and weight but few calories. For example, half of a large grapefruit is 90 percent water with just 50 calories.

Fiber. The high fiber content in foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains adds bulk to your diet, so you feel full sooner. Fiber also takes longer to digest, making you feel full longer. Adults need about 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, but the average adult consumes much less. Increase your fiber gradually while you increase the fluids in your diet.


Use these visual comparisons to help guide your selections.

For about 300 calories, you could have…
High-density meal: A single large glazed doughnut
Low-density meal: A bowl of bran flakes with skim milk, blueberries and a slice of whole-wheat toast with peanut butter


For about 275 calories, you could have…
High-density meal: A candy bar
Low-density meal: A warm bowl of soup, loaded with fiber-rich beans and vegetables


For about 600 calories, you could have…
High-density meal: A bacon cheeseburger
Low-density meal: A sandwich with soup, fresh fruits and veggies, and a few crackers


High-density snack: 1 ounce of potato chips
Low-density snack: 3 1/2 cups of air-popped popcorn

As you can see, you can eat fewer calories yet feel more satisfied by choosing foods that are low in energy density — in other words, you can have more food. Try reducing the fat and increasing the amount of fiber-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in your favorite dishes.