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Increase your vegetable intake by adding Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Increase your vegetable intake by adding Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil makes everything taste better, especially vegetables.  This is a useful health promoting strategy given that surveys consistently say that  most Americans do not eat enough vegetables. There are studies showing that people will eat more vegetables when they use extra virgin olive oil to prepare them, which is probably due to the improved taste. My rule of thumb is using 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil per cup of vegetables.  I recommend people use at least 2 tablespoons a day and preferably 2 tablespoons at both the lunch and dinner meal, for a total of 4 tablespoons a day.  This naturally leads to more vegetables being eaten. 


The health benefits are only found in extra virgin olive oil so it is important that you use extra virgin.  Only extra virgin olive oil naturally contains compounds called phenols that act as antioxidants and have been shown to have other health promoting properties.  Adding extra virgin olive oil to your vegetables will also improve the health promotion of the vegetables.  The dark color in vegetables is due to their carotenoid content.  Higher blood levels of carotenoids have been related to a lower risk of some cancers, which is why health organizations often recommend dark vegetables.  However, studies have shown that carotenoids need to have dietary fat present when the carotenoid containing food is consumed for the carotenoid to be absorbed (1) and other studies show cooking vegetables into fat leads to higher blood levels of carotenoids compared to just adding fat to them (2).  As extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest oil and there is a large science literature showing it to be a healthy fat, using extra virgin olive oil to cook your vegetables will give you the health benefits from the oil and allow you to absorb the cancer fighting components in the vegetables.  In addition, the more extra virgin olive oil you use to cook your vegetables, the healthier the vegetables will be as the phenols in the extra virgin olive oil will be absorbed into the vegetables as they cook (3) 


Plant-based recipes that include extra virgin olive oil can be easily prepared in advance and in bulk.  Lunches are especially easy to make.  The recipe “template” per serving is: 

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

2 cups of vegetables 

2 to 3 ounces of starch, which is complex carbohydrates and is the food group that contains all grain products (breads, pasta, rice, quinoa, barley, etc, potatoes, and legumes)   


The amount of starch you would use depends on your overall calories for the day.  As a general rule, smaller people (women) need around 1500 calories for a day, so that would mean a lunch that is approximately 500 calories.  At this calorie level, you would use 2 ounces of starch,(for example, 2 slices of bread, 2 ounces dry weight of a grain, o6 ounces of potato, or ½ to 1 cup of cooked legumes) which would be 150- 200 calories from the starch.  For larger people with a higher daily calorie intake, lunch would be 600-700 calories and 3 to 4 ounces of starch (for example, 3 to 4 slices of bread, 3 to 4 ounces dry weight of a grain, or 9 to 12 ounces of potato, or 1 ½ to 2 cups of cooked legumes).   


The combinations that you can make with this basic list are endless.  For starch-based salads, you could use cooked pasta, potatoes, quinoa, bulger, barley or any grain for the starch.  Then add whatever you like for vegetables.  Cut the vegetables into pieces that are bite-sized so they are easy to eat.  Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per serving.  You could vary the extra virgin olive oil type you use for a delicious change in taste and add fresh or dried herbs.  Season with salt (sea salt tends to have more flavor and you can better control the amount you use as the particles are easily seen) and black pepper.   In colder weather, you could use the above combination for soup.  I start with ½ cup (8 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil in a soup pan; add up to 8 cups of vegetables to the extra virgin olive oil; stir and cook on medium low until the vegetables are cooked.  Season with salt and pepper.  Using frozen vegetables will take less time to cook.  Frozen vegetables are kept on the plant until they are ripe so compared to retain fresh (what you would buy in a food store), frozen vegetables have the same vitamin content but contain higher amounts of phytonutrients (4; 5) which are the compounds in plant products that improve risk factors for chronic diseases  When the vegetables are cooked, add prepared or boxed soup broth (beef, chicken, vegetable).  You can add as much broth das you want so you either have a hearty soup (less broth) or a thinner one (more broth).  You can also add canned diced or pureed tomatoes, which will count towards your vegetable intake.   


A meal that is plant-based and made with extra virgin olive oil is also less expensive than using meat, poultry, or seafood.  A comparison of 7 days of a plant-based, olive oil meal plan that included 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil day to the least expensive meal plan of the United States Department of Agriculture found the olive oil diet cost $14.36 less per week per person or $756 less per year (2012 data) (6).

View article references

  1. Brown MJ, Ferruzzi MG, Nguyen MLet al.(2004) Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings as measured with electrochemical detection. Am J Clin Nutr 80, 396-403. 
  2. Fielding JM, Rowley KG, Cooper Pet al.(2005) Increases in plasma lycopene concentration after consumption of tomatoes cooked with olive oil. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 14, 131-136. 
  3. Ramirez-Anaya Jdel P, Samaniego-Sanchez C, Castaneda-Saucedo MCet al.(2015) Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques. Food Chem 188, 430-438. 
  4. Rickman JC BC, Barrett DM (2007) Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables II. Vitamin A and carotenoids, vitamin C, minerals and fiber.Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture87, 1185-1196. 
  5. Rickman JC BD, Bruhn CM (2007) Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.  Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds.Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture87, 930-944. 
  6. Flynn M, Schiff, AR (2015) Economical healthy diets (2012): Included lean animal protein costs more than using extra virgin olive oil.  .J Hunger & Environmental Nutrition10, 467-482.