Chances are, you have olive oil sitting in your pantry right now. It’s one of those basic kitchen staples that you can use to top salads, cook chicken, or drizzle over pasta-and you always make sure to stock up when you’re running low.
But if olive oil is a source of fat, is it as healthy as you think it is? We talked to sports dietitians Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D. and Lori Nedescu, M.S., R.D.N. to see how often you should actually be using it-and how much is okay.
Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils because of its heart-healthy fats, making it one of the most popular choices when it comes to cooking or dressing up meals.
One serving-or 1 tablespoon-of extra-virgin olive oil contains the following:
Monounsaturated fats-omega-6s in the case of olive oil-are important because they help boost heart health. This is important for helping prevent health issues such as cardiovascular disease or stroke. Athletes like cyclists also stress their heart out more than the average person, according to Jones, so it’s beneficial to add nutrients to your diet that protect it. Monounsaturated fats are also anti-inflammatory, which helps with muscle recovery. Working out can cause micro-tears in your muscles, which can lead to inflammation, muscle pain, and soreness, but anti-inflammatories can help calm that reaction.
Plus, vitamin E is an antioxidant that the majority of Americans don’t get enough of, Jones says. This nutrient helps boost your immune system and protect your body against heart disease and certain types of cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, antioxidants protect your cells against damage, especially those in your muscles and lungs, which are extremely important when it comes to your performance on the bike.
Vitamin K is important for absorbing fats like the monounsaturated ones in olive oil. If you don’t get enough of this vitamin, your body will have trouble using it effectively.
Olive oil is great for using on the daily as a dressing or cooking with, according to Jones. And Nedescu cites it as a component of one of the healthiest diets: the Mediterranean diet, which can include up to 4 tablespoons of olive oil a day and has been studied to be among the healthiest of eating styles, she says. (It’s also worth noting that the Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish, and lean meats and dairy in moderation.)
“When you’re doing endurance exercise, you need healthy fats to fuel your body,” she says. “One quarter of your calories should come from fat, and I recommend including [fats] in every meal and snack in small amounts.” This will help you feel satiated as the day goes on.
And while she advises that most of your fat should ideally come from whole foods-such as fish or nuts, you don’t have to shy away from cooking oils. Just don’t go overboard to the point where your food is dripping in oil, she says.
That said, there are a few factors that go into choosing the healthiest form of olive oil out there. For one, make sure you’re reaching for extra-virgin olive oil on the grocery store shelf as opposed to other options like virgin or refined.
“Extra-virgin olive oil is the closest to nature and the least refined,” Jones says. “The more refined your olive oil is, that’s where you’re not sure how it’s been processed. It could be treated with chemicals or treated with high heat, which may damage its antioxidants.”
EVOO tends to be thicker, darker or greener in color, and have the most flavor, too.
Another thing to pay attention when buying olive oil is whether or not it comes in a glass bottle or plastic one. As a general rule of thumb, glass is a safer choice because it keeps the oil more stable, Jones says.
“The biggest thing with plastic is that it contains chemicals-the longer something sits in plastic, the more chemicals could be released into it,” Jones says. “Plastic could be okay if it’s room temperature or cooler, but you might not be aware of what happens in the factory.”
Something that’s not a huge thing to worry about? Olive oil’s smoke point-where it will start to smoke and break down when you cook with it. The hotter a food gets (and the longer you heat it), the more nutrients are lost. What’s more, if a food that contains fat reaches its smoke point, it could create pro-oxidants-rather than antioxidants-that could damage your cells, Jones says.
According to the North American Olive Oil Association, extra-virgin olive oil’s smoke point is anywhere between 350 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit and lighter olive oils start smoking between 390 and 470 degrees Fahrenheit.
But Jones says that while many people refrain from cooking with olive oil for this reason, there hasn’t been much research done to prove that there are any negative effects. For instance, a 2018 study published in the journal Acta Scientific Nutritional Health found that when olive oil was heated up to a temperature of 240 degrees Celsius (464 degrees Fahrenheit) and exposed to 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit) for six hours, it didn’t degrade.
And Nedescu agrees. “Olive oil is completely safe to consume when heated,” she says. “There have been speculations that heating oil destroys heart-healthy compounds and creates polar compounds that have been linked to various health conditions. However, olive oil has been studied against other oils and found to be one of the most heat stable oils-even beating out canola and coconut.”
If you cook with oil, choose a ‘pure’ or ‘virgin’ olive oil, Nedescu recommends. If you prefer to drizzle it over foods without using heat, choose ‘extra virgin’ varieties.
In short, there’s not a whole lot of evidence against using a moderate amount of olive oil-or about 2 to 4 tablespoons daily-in any way you see fit. It contains good-for-you fats and other vitamins that help boost your cycling performance and keep you healthy in your everyday life. Of course, everyone is different, so check with your doctor or a dietitian who can tailor amounts to your specific needs or health concerns.