Olive oil, that glorious golden liquid born of the Mediterranean, contains some fatty acids that are healthy in moderation but not any DHA or EPA fat. But don’t fret, because one of the fatty acids in olive oil can be made into DHA and EPA by your body. If you really want to get your fill of DHA or EPA directly, you’ll need to stock up on fish oil or eat fish.
DHA and EPA
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fat that accumulates primary in your brain and eyes. It’s essential for nerve function and combating inflammation, among other things. DHA deficiency is linked to cognition problems, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression. EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, is also an omega-3 fat. It also ensures that inflammation doesn’t get out of hand, and it produces compounds that inhibit unnecessary platelet aggregation. Reducing the tendency for blood platelets to clot inside of arteries helps prevent atherosclerosis or clogged arteries.
Sources of DHA and EPA
The best sources of DHA and EPA are fish oil supplements, such as cod liver oil, or eating so-called oily fish -- such as salmon, cod, bluefish and mackerel. For example, 100 grams of baked salmon contains up to 1,500 milligrams of DHA and up to 1,000 milligrams of EPA. Other types of fish rich in these fatty acids include herring, menhaden, sardines, anchovies and caviar. Interestingly, fish do not naturally produce DHA or EPA but obtain them from eating algae. Consequently, if you are a vegetarian, you can do the same by eating edible seaweed such as kelp or by taking blue-green algae supplements.
Fats in Olive Oil
Olive oil is great for your diet because it contains healthy fats like oleic and palmitic acids and omega-3 fats such as linolenic acid. Olive oil contains alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. Once consumed, your body transforms ALA into EPA, then into an intermediate called DPA and finally into DHA. In each step, the molecule is elongated, which is why ALA is called a short-chain fatty acid and EPA and DHA are called long-chain fatty acids. The proportion of ALA that's converted to EPA and DHA varies between females and males and is influenced by dietary and other factors. Olive oil is not the richest source of ALA, as oils from flaxseed, canola, soybean and walnut contain much higher percentages.
For a few decades, there has been speculation by nutritionists and researchers that olive oil consumption may be the key ingredient for explaining why Mediterranean people have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and intestinal problems compared to Americans. The fact that Europeans in that region drink more red wine and eat more fresh vegetables is also important, but olive oil contains a wide spectrum of healthy fats and numerous powerful antioxidants such as vitamin E, carotenoids and compounds called oleocanthal and oleuropein. Antioxidants help eliminate free radicals, which are products of chemical reactions that can harm blood vessels and other tissues.
- PDR for Nutritional Supplements; Sheldon Hendler and David Rorvik
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Contemporary Nutrition: Functional Approach; Gordon M. Wardlaw et al.
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.