By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
I came across the videos of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center, one of the pioneers of a plant-based diet. I believe in Dr. Esselstyn's work and have been a near-vegetarian for some time now.
But one of the things that really gave me pause was Dr. Esselstyn's unwavering advice toavoid all oils. "No oil", he reiterates again and again, not even so-called good oils or heart healthy oils such as olive oil.
The Case for Olive Oil
We know the case for olive oil very well by now. Olive oil is an unsaturated oil. Doctors have long believed that only saturated oil --- the type that is a solid at room temperature --- causes heart disease, arteria blockage and stroke. The use of unsaturated oils such as olive oil, canola oil have been encouraged as "heart healthy".
There literally are hundreds of studies touting the cardiovascular benefits of the Mediterranean diet. That diet features olive oil, vegetables, especially green vegetables, grains and very little meat. exposure is the most important factor in causing skin cancer. Olive oil is believed to be a major cause of the health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet.
Here, for example, are the findings of a 2014 study led by researchers from University Hospital of Saint Joan de Reus and Harvard School of Public Health.
They studied 7,216 men and women aged 55 to 80 for an average of 4.8 years. During that time, 277 cardiovascular events and 323 deaths occurred.
Comparing the diets of those who had heart attacks with those who did not, the study found a strong correlation between the amount of olive oil consumed and the chances of a heart attack. Those ho consumed the most extra virgin olive oil had 39% fewer heart attacks.
This study is typical of the reported strong relationship between olive oil and your heart. Nothing but good news, right? Wrong.
The Case Against Olive Oil Is the Story of Three Monkeys
The case against olive oil leads us to the story of three groups of monkeys. The study was led by Dr. Lawrence L. Rudel of Wake Forest School of Medicine and Dr. John S. Parks and published in 1995 in the American Heart Association Journal.
Okay, so once upon a time, there were three groups of monkeys...
The scientists started with three groups of African green monkeys. All the 44 monkeys had the same cholesterol profiles at the start of the study.
The first group was fed monounsaturated oil such as olive oil with their diet. The second group was fed polyunsaturated oil such as corn oil with their diet. And the third group, presumably the unluckiest of all, was fed artery-clogging saturated oil (palm oil).
At the end of the study, the animals differed in the total cholesterol found in their blood. But after the animals were sacrificed and autopsied, the scientists discovered something surprising.
All three groups of monkeys had plaques in their arteries. All were on their way to heart disease.
The moral of the story of the three monkeys is that consuming olive oil may help your cholesterol profile. But it won't keep you from developing plaques in your arteries and coronary disease.
It turns out that it may not be the type of oil that makes a difference. The brains behind Bill Clinton's campaign kept reminding each other, "it's the economy, stupid". We can borrow that phrase and modify it a bit to say that, when it comes to reducing your risk of heart disease, "It's the oil, stupid."