Olive Oil, Nuts, Seeds, and Salad Dressings: Very High Calories with Difficult Portion Control

Nuts, seeds and oils which are part of the Mediterranean region has gathered an immense appeal among Americans. Fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, nuts, and last but not least, the ultimate Mediterranean food–the almighty extra virgin olive oil.

One diet after another has tried to imitate the Mediterranean way of eating. Every cooking show seems to tell us that we too could be thin and healthy, drinking a glass of red wine every night, and putting extra virgin olive oil on everything we eat. However, many of these so-called healthy eating gurus leave out all of the other foods that make up the Mediterranean diet.

Olive Oil: Health Tonic or High Calorie Additive?

Olive oil has become the 21st century’s “health tonic,” the cure for everything from heart disease, stroke, cancer, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, aging, and with its high Vitamin E content, the “over the counter” Viagra.

However, olive oil is only one component of the Mediterranean lifestyle. We conveniently forget to include more fresh vegetables and fruits, and to eat much smaller portions of food. A real Mediterranean diet is very limited in the consumption of eggs, meat, and many of the dairy products that we like. A huge difference is the consumption of sugars. They eat very little candy, very little chocolate, and usually about half of the Mediterranean people prefer cheeses and fruits over sweet desserts. Let’s also not forget that there are a lot more people that do physical labor as farmers, construction workers, bakers, fisherman, and craftsman. Sedentary jobs are the minority around the Mediterranean Sea.

“It is widely believed to be one of the most healthful traditional diets, yet much of what we know about it is based on studies of people living in the 1950’s on the island of Crete—people who in many respects led lives very different from our own. Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and even more fish than meat. But they also did more physical labor. As followers of the Greek Orthodox church, they fasted frequently. They ate lots of wild greens—weeds. And, perhaps most significant, they ate far fewer calories than we do.“

—Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, 2008.

The reality is that only a few people living in the U.S. will ever benefit from the Mediterranean diet. Nobody here includes all the necessary elements of this diet. It is a common mistake to adopt only a few appealing elements of the Mediterranean diet without making all the other necessary changes that constitute a healthy Mediterranean lifestyle. There are not too many Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, McDonald’s, and Starbucks around the Mediterranean either. After all, Greeks do not fill up their SUVs at Costco®, Sam’s Club® or B.J.’s®, nor do they eat at the Cheesecake Factory®.

How the National Institutes of Health Started the Olive Oil Craze

Olive Oil CaloriesHow did Americans get fooled into thinking that eating nuts or dousing everything with olive oil would significantly increase their health? And how did we come to the conclusion that if something is considered “healthy” we do not need to worry about it’s caloric impact? The International Tree Nut Council, the North American Olive Oil Association and the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) have successfully lobbied the FDA to release statements based on very little conclusive evidence that “good fats” (the monounsaturated oils) reduce the risk of heart disease. There is no mention about weight loss. People have widely quoted and often misinterpreted the statement below.

“Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that consumers can reduce their risk of heart disease by consuming two tablespoons of olive oil. To achieve this benefit, olive oil is to REPLACE a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the number of calories you eat…”

–Food and Drug Administration 2004 Qualified Health Claim

The keys to this FDA statement are the words “not conclusive,” “suggests,” and most importantly, “replace a similar amount of saturated fat.” What has clearly happened to millions of dieters trying to lose weight is that the “bad fats” have not been replaced. Consequently, olive oil (or nuts) becomes a source of excess calories.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil Nutritional Information:

  • 125 calories per tbsp.
  • 14 grams of fat
  • 10 units of Vitamin E

A simple vitamin pill can supply you with 100% of your Vitamin E needs for zero calories. You can obtain fats from many other sources.

Almonds, Walnuts and Other Nuts

The U.S. has seen a marked increase in the consumption of nuts and olive oil. Last year, the average American ate more than one pound of almonds and put almost two pounds of olive oil on his or her food.

“Nuts are generally healthy. They’re a good source of protein and vitamins. But the tricky thing about nuts is that they’re only healthy if you can eat just one serving… the problem with peanuts is that most people don’t eat half a cup and walk away. Once you get started it’s hard to put down a jar of peanuts.”

–David Levisky, PhD (2005)

Almonds Calories

The label below is for 1 oz. of raw, unsalted almonds. Note the calories are 160 and protein is only 6 grams.

Dr. Levisky is among the few weight loss experts beginning to recognize the dangers of eating nuts. Because of their high caloric levels and difficulties with portion control, they contribute to weight gain. Twenty almonds, or approximately one ounce, have 160 calories. The amount of protein they contain is not nearly as high as one might think. It is only 6 grams of protein for those 160 calories. Compare this to a high-protein, low-cab “diet” shake. These contain 17 grams of protein and only 110 calories. Adding to the shake’s advantage is its easy portion control.

The truth is, when on a diet, nuts make a poor snack choice. Most people gain a lot of pleasure from eating nuts. Many of them tell me that they feel like they are almost “addicted” to them. Especially the toasted and salted ones. Once you start down that road it is very hard to stop eating them.