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All About Olive Oil

Tips for using this healthy, flavorful oil

A Smart Fat continued...

The potential health benefits of olive oil don't stop at heart disease.

Recent studies have suggested that, of all the fats we can choose -- aside from the omega-3s found in fish -- monounsaturated oils are the least likely to promote cancer.

And monounsaturated fat isn't the only thing olive oil has going for it nutritionally. Some olive oils come with phytonutrients that may offer their own disease protection benefits (still, it's not clear whether most of us can take in enough of these phytonutrients without going overboard on olive oil, says Joyce Nettleton, DSc, RD, researcher and editor of the PUFA Newsletter).

And, of course, olive oil is a key component of the well-studied Mediterranean diet, the others being a bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Several studies have shown that this type of diet may have many health benefits, from adding years to the lives of healthy older adults, to lowering the risk of metabolic syndrome.

Nettleton prefers to use both olive and canola oil for cooking, depending on what she's making.

"I think that much more has been claimed for olive oil than the [scientific] data permit," she explains. "And having some plant omega-3s in the diet (which canola oil helps provide) is probably desirable, in part because it displaces the relatively large amount of omega-6s we now consume."

Ideally, our intake of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids would be balanced. But Americans tend to eat too much omega-6, which is found in corn oil and some other vegetable oils. Too much omega-6 can raise blood pressure, lead to blood clots, and cause other health problems.

Moderation Is Key

It's important to remember that any oil -- even a "healthy" oil -- contains plenty of calories.

The popular Italian-restaurant practice of dipping bread in olive oil is an easy way to enjoy some olive oil, but don't get too dip-happy. Armed with enough bread, you can easily consume 3 tablespoons of olive oil. That's a total of 360 calories, not including the bread!

Calories from fat add up to fat on your body, according to dietitians from the Environmental Nutrition newsletter. The easiest way to limit foods that are high in total fat as well as in "bad fats" is to eat fewer processed foods and more whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, they say.

Storing and Using Olive Oil

How long you can store olive oil depends on how you store it.

In the worst-case scenario -- unfiltered, late-harvest olive oil bottled in clear glass and sold from a supermarket shelf above hot deli foods -- you can store it for about three months. In the best-case scenario (early-harvest, filtered oil in a sealed tin or dark bottle and stored in a cool, dark place - it will stay good for about two years.

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