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Best Way to Cook Vegetables is with Olive Oil

Sharon Palmer

Isn’t it fabulous when good health intersects with good taste? Such is the case with preparing your vegetables. Health experts once thought that boring, zero-fat, steamed veggies was the way to go, but more research points to the advantages of cooking your vegetables with a drizzle of delicious extra virgin olive oil. Increasingly, research shows that foods rich in healthy fats—namely olives—are good for you in so many ways. And it looks like the best way to cook vegetables is with olive oil, for flavor and health. 

Farmers Market Pasta Salad

Vegetables and Olive Oil Science

A recent study published in Food Chemistry showed that vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil contained phenols (antioxidant compounds found in plants) transferred from the oil, plus the antioxidant capacity of the vegetables was even greater than in raw form. These findings mirror other research results, which have shown that extra virgin olive oil is rich in many phenolic compounds, and that certain antioxidant compounds and nutrients in some vegetables become more bioavailable to your body in the presence of olive oil. And those antioxidant compounds help fight the damaging effects of free radicals and inflammation in your body’s cells and tissues, thus helping to protect you against the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Dates, Figs, and Pistachios

Let’s not forget that a body of science backs up the health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet, which includes a generous dose of extra virgin olive oil, in addition to a diet filled with minimally processed foods, such as grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, herbs, nuts, and seafood. The PREDIMED Study found that each increase of 10 grams per day of EVOO in the diets of people who followed a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 10% reduction in risk of cardiovascular events. Now, that’s impressive!

What’s so special about the golden nectar that is extra virgin olive oil? Because extra virgin olive oil is minimally processed, it still retains many of those phenolic compounds present in the olive. And it is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. No wonder that EVOO has been linked with many health bonuses, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, improving the management of type 2 diabetes, and even breast cancer prevention.

Mushroom Bomb Lentil Pasta

The Formula for Vegetable Success

So, what’s the best way to cook your vegetables with olive oil? Remember, start with the real deal—extra virgin olive oil—which is completely acceptable to use in household cooking, such as sautéing, pan-frying, roasting, or grilling. When you choose EVOO, that means you’re getting the least refined type of olive oil filled with those health-protective compounds which are not present in more refined olive oils.

How much is enough? The PREDIMED Study found benefits related to consuming 57 grams—about 4 tablespoons—per day. So that means you can enjoy a little more than a tablespoon per meal drizzled over your foods as your source of additional fat.

But don’t fall for the myth that more is better. At 120 calories per tablespoon, EVOO is concentrated stuff. If you dump ¼ cup of it over your salad or pasta, you’re adding an extra 480 calories to your meal, which most people simply can’t afford. And that extra weight gain will quickly allow those potential health benefits of olive oil to vanish, considering the health risks of weight gain. It’s also important to consider that the simple application of olive oil to an unhealthy diet can’t possibly make up for the benefits of eating a diet rich in whole plant foods.

Maple and Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Tips for Preparing Veggies with Olive Oil

Here are some easy ways to pump up the flavor and health quotient of veggies with the help of extra virgin olive oil:

  • Fill a sauté pan or skillet with any vegetable—leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or carrots—drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a twist of lemon juice, your favorite pinch of spices and herbs, and sauté until just crisp-tender to make about four servings.
  • Line a baking dish with sliced vegetables—eggplant, Brussels sprouts, beets, or sweet potatoes—drizzle on about 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, freshly minced garlic and herbs, and a pinch of sea salt and black pepper and roast at 400 F until golden and tender to make about four servings.
  • Fill a salad bowl with one bunch of freshly chopped greens, such as romaine, spinach, kale, chard, or Mache, and toss with 1 tablespoon EVOO and balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to make about four servings.

Reference: Ramirez-Anaya J et al. Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques. Food Chemistry. 2015:88(1);430-438.

Image: Cauliflower Steaks with Puttanesca Sauce, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

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3 thoughts on “Best Way to Cook Vegetables is with Olive Oil

  1. I’ve been following Chef AJ for a while now and saw you on her show. In fact that’s how I learned about you in the first place and have been enjoying your emails. The idea of cooking with oil would be anathema to her, or for that matter to Drs. Esselstyn, MacDougall, Goldhamer, and many more. How does this information square with the other research saying any oil is bad, especially for heart disease?

    • Yes, there are some plant-based experts—whom I greatly admire—that believe in the principle of no added oils. I am not one of those experts. In fact, I wrote a whole article explaining why I don’t believe you need to remove moderate amounts of healthy oils, like EVOO from your diet. You can find that article here and here. In my mind, there is much more research supporting the use of healthy oils and fats than against it. Please check out my articles and let me know your thoughts.

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