In many ways, an athlete’s best nutrient friend should be extra virgin olive oil. This ancient edible oil has at long last re-emerged to beat the pretenders, vegetable oil and canola oil. One reason is because olive oil is an unprocessed ancient method of squeezing this amazing fruit. The result is a fruit juice that happens to be oil. But it is much more; something that has served the health and well being of mankind for 6,000 years. By 400 BC Hippocrates wrote extensively of the health benefits of olive oil.
Since the days of the ancient Greek Olympics, great athletes have relied on olive oil. As they fought and as they competed, it was olive oil – not some chemically produced gel or artificially colored drink – that helped them through the grueling athletic events. Our ancestors were fueled by natural foods. One of those essential foods, olive oil, is as crucial for athletic nutrition today as it was thousands of years ago.
The victorious athletes in the first Olympic games of 776 BC were crowned with an olive wreath; such was the importance of olives in ancient society. Ancient Greek athletes knew that a large source of their energy came from fats. Then as now, metabolized fats fuel both endurance and high intensity sports. Fat is the body’s largest gas tank for continuous low intensity sports such marathons and distance swimming, but it’s just as important for high intensity training and performance as well.
The right carbohydrates remain the first fuel for high intensity sport output. However, it is the right fats that trigger the release of carbohydrate-charged energy. The primary fat for sport nutrition comes from saturated fats, mostly found in animal fats. But olive oil brings many other benefits to athletes, in part because it is highly digestible, and in part because it tastes so good. After all, swallowing cod liver oil is a struggle while swallowing olive oil is a pleasure.
Critically important for athletic recovery
As any elite athlete knows, intense training and athletic injury go hand in hand. Olive oil helps tremendously in post exercise recovery and reduction of inflammation. Most of the critical repair to muscle, joint, and nerves kicks in over night as nutrients go to work. It is at this time of recovery that an athlete’s muscles repair, rebuild, and grow after the micro-tears to muscle tissue. As you sleep, the body’s response to post exercise inflammation is aided by the digestion of olive oil.
This fabulous green oil was popularized by Mediterranean cultures, and despite the American food industry’s push for corn oil, usually referred to as vegetable oil, olive oil sales are booming. In spite of the massive advertising for corn oil and now for canola (rapeseed) oil, many athletes rely on olive oil to help fight inflammation. The monounsaturated fats of olive oil become anti-inflammatory substances that help to reduce muscle and joint pain, but even help to lower the risks of both asthma and arthritis. It is the remarkably potent antioxidants of olive oil that combat dietary free radical oxidants.
After thousands of years of regular consumption by humans, these antioxidants come in an easily digestible form, not from pills or a supplement. The potency of olive oil’s antioxidants can be tasted, that slight peppery taste in the throat. The scientific community regularly supports the role of olive oil antioxidants in health. One landmark study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition supports the role of dietary olive oil for athletes, especially its role as a “diet rich in antioxidants.”1 Interestingly, the researchers found that this diet of antioxidants was superior for athletes than taking antioxidants in supplement form.
Olive oil plays an irreplaceable role in post-workout recovery. Research shows that olive oil contains oleocanthal, one of the many anti-inflammatory substances that function much like ibuprofen, the widely used pain reliever for athletes. One study found that four teaspoons of olive oil provides the same results as a 10% dosage of ibuprofen. Although this doesn’t seem like much, when consumed daily, the participants in the study reported reduced muscle pain and stiffness.2
A clinical study by Hurtado de Catalfo demonstrated how olive oil assists cells to absorb cholesterol and convert it to testosterone more effectively than other dietary sources of fat.3Clearly this is far from the potency of illegal testosterone injections. But olive oil is a food, something that makes salad taste great. Here is a simple and safe way to impact testosterone levels through diet so as to aid the body’s recovery, muscle building process, as well as increasing energy levels.
Olive oil is something to consume every day, at least one tablespoon. It should be consumed room temperature such as in salad dressing, or moderately heated to cook such as making an omelet. There are competing schools of thought about heading olive oil for cooking. It is, after all, an oily fruit juice that is susceptible to oxidative damage when exposed to the elements (heat, oxygen, and light).
Heating food does destroy enzymes, denature proteins, caramelize sugars and reduce water, but that is irrelevant because olive oil contains practically none of those substances. A recent study by Susana Casal pointed out that olive oil has unique resistance to oxidative damage from cooking.4 It does, however, break down and oxidize when heated too high. It smokes at 200 degrees whereas chemically refined safflower oil can be heated to 230 before smoking. Consuming oxidized fat is an invitation for free radicals to damage cell membrane causing muscle and joint irritation.
To get the most from your olive oil, cook with moderate heat, and also use it at room temperature. Store it air tight and away from light. For high heat cooking, use saturated fat (bacon fat or lard) or coconut oil. No matter how you use it, get extra virgin olive oil. This means it comes from the first cold pressing of the olives. It lasts for months as you use it a little each day.
A long list of health benefits for athletes
Olive oil is a vital source of energy during workouts and an aid to overcome soreness after a workout. It helps raise insulin sensitivity in muscles, decrease body fat, decrease post-exercise muscle soreness, and decrease inflammation from injuries. Its anti-inflammatory agents reduce muscle and joint swelling at the same time as the oil’s strong dose of polyphenols aid in lifelong joint and bone health.5
The chemical properties of olive oil that reduce oxidative stress on the body are its two dozen pheonolic compounds. Hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol are important phenol compounds important to an athlete’s management of muscular and joint stress. Every 10 grams of olive oil has about 5 mg of polyphenols. In comparison, most other nut and seed oils have no polyphenols.6
Most of the progress an athlete makes in conditioning comes long after exercise, the time of rest and recovery. Here is the time when the body repairs itself and adapts to the increased workload placed on body systems. Muscles grow, strength improves, and the neurological system recharges itself. It is imperative to provide the body with the right environment during recovery – fuel, rest, and deep sleep. Olive oil is essential in this effort. Not only does it simply deliver antioxidants to the muscles, joints, and nerves, olive oil provides extensive benefits to aid in other bodily functions during the recovery process.
The harder you work in competitive sports, the more chronic stress placed on joints. This is where much of the breakdown happens in an athletic career. However, the combination of oleic acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids in olive oil work to help build this tissue. This is vital for the athlete whose body is consistently in a state of pounding joints and intense work. It is through recovery, fueled and aided by olive oil that you can get up the next day and withstand yet another hard workout.
An important dietary objective of every athlete would be to counter the negative effects of our modern diet that is horribly out of balance. Today, mankind’s reliance on grains and processed foods has led to a dietary crisis.
We consume 20 times as much Omega 6 oils (linoleic acid) as we do Omega 3 (linolenic acid). The omega numbers (in this case 3 and 6) refer to where the hydrogen atom joins the fat molecule. The omega name is chemistry lingo to help us select those fats which are best. Extra virgin olive oil is an unprocessed mixture of mostly Omega 6. Although this may seem like something to avoid, there are many other factors involved in the equation.
For an athlete, the best choice is the fatty acid that aids in physical performance. You should seek the fats that give you more strength and help you recover. As I pointed out in The Speed Power Diet, “This is of particular importance for a speed/power athlete as Omega 3 oils are thinner viscosity – more like sewing machine oil – and permit more absorption within brain cells. An optimally functioning and stimulated CNS is absolutely essential for a speed/power athlete and the tool to get this is Omega 3 fatty acids.”7
Omega 3 fatty acids are particularly high in oily fish such as salmon as well as range fed livestock. There is currently debate about how much Omega 3 versus Omega 6 we should have in the diet. According to the Merck Manual, essential fatty acids should make up 1- 2% of the dietary calories for adults with a suggested ratio of 10:1 for Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids.
Many people believe that there is too much Omega 6 in olive oil to make it worth it. Olive oil is on average 10% linoleic acid (Omega 6) and less than 1% linolenic acid (Omega 3); therefore the ratio is 10:1 on average. This works out to about two tablespoons of extra virgin oil providing less than three grams of problematic Omega 6. But to put this in perspective, that’s less Omega 6 than the poultry fat in a big organic chicken dinner. And the Omega 6 dominance gets many times worse with grain fed chicken.
When consumed in the wrong ratios, a diet of about 20:1 Omega 6 oils tend to aggravate inflammatory processes in your body, rather than inhibit them. This is the standard ratio in the American diet. You need some inflammation to protect yourself from infections and trauma, and Omega 6 fatty acids help you engage these mechanisms. However, too many polyunsaturated fatty acids found in Omega 6 contribute to chronic inflammation. This is an open invitation for pulling a hamstring or worse.
Therefore, olive oil in and of itself should not be considered the solution to the omega imbalance in diet. Repairing that imbalance should come from avoidance of grains and consumption of more fish and range fed animal. By making an effort to consume more high quality dietary Omega 3 fatty acids, you give olive oil a chance to do what it does best – help you perform better and recover better.
And now for the bad news
Olive oil comes with a caloric count (119 calories per tablespoon) that is problematic in excess. Remember, athletes need to keep their macronutrient intake within a balance in order for the body to perform optimally. If you are involved in high intensity interval training, your fat intake needs to be balanced with protein intake, and then balanced to carbohydrates (the right ones) to fuel ultra high energy output. With a disproportionately high intake of fats, you would need to balance this with high intake of protein and carbohydrate, perhaps exceeding your ability to metabolize this quantity into burnable energy. Anything leading to excess body mass can potentially make the body slower to move and react. This can be a formula for athletic disaster.
It gets worse. In his book Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tom Muller writes of the dark underground world of the olive oil industry.8 Since the time of the Phoenicians, growers around the Mediterranean have dealt with counterfeit olive oil. Today as in the past cheap and rancid oils are often disguised as extra-virgin olive oil. Doctoring old, inferior and rancid oils into a high priced bottle is a profitable business.
What if the expensive imported Italian oil you bought actually came from counterfeit olive oil? In fact, very often the imported oil has been found to be made from a high percentage of leftovers that were squeezed from low quality olives and kept from rotting with chemical preservatives. The stench of this garbage oil is often so bad that toxic chemicals are used to cover up the smell then the resulting sludge is tinted with artificial color to give it a luscious green appearance.
A study conducted by the University of California at Davis in 2010 revealed that 69% of imported “extra virgin” olive oil failed tests for virginity. Of the 186 brand samples tested, more than two-thirds were found to be rancid or adulterated with chemically treated oils. By far the best olive oils found in this study came from local sources.9
Counterfeit olive oil is extracted from olive cake (the solid gunk that remains after production of olive oil) through the use of high temperature and high pressure. They are chemically deodorized, treated with chlorophyll, artificially color treated to give a lush shade of green, and then labeled with images of ancient life and health. Labels use marketing catch words such as “cold pressed” or “100 percent pure” and sold as the finest extra virgin. Unsuspecting consumers in the U.S. buy and use chemically tainted olive oil that is sold at prices that are lower than wholesome pure olive oil. The good olive oil producers are underpriced and driven out of business by unscrupulous ones.
This story has a happy ending that comes from the hills and valleys of California. The best olive oil found in the University of California study turned out to be from California. And of the major brands tested, the best major brand was found to be Costco’s Kirkland brand.
Unfortunately, there is a problem of perception, as Mediterranean olive oil is thought to be of better quality than California olive oil. The U.S olive oil industry is tiny and toothless compared to the European olive oil barons. Italian olive oil is cheaper and thought to be more authentic than the American competition. The competition battle is quite similar to that of the California wine industry’s efforts to gain acceptance decades ago. But the mislabeling and outright counterfeiting of many European olive oil importers who dominate U.S. sales mostly harms those consumers looking for better health. The olive oil that is found to be consistently chemical laden is then sold to those seeking to be chemically free.
California producers jokingly suggest that labels on imported oil say “extra rancid” rather than extra virgin. In the meantime, I will be sure to buy Kirkland Extra Virgin Olive Oil at Costco.
Just for the record, I don’t get anything, not even a free jug of olive oil for this plug.