March 15, 2021

Nutritional Biochemistry

#153 – AMA #21: Deep dive into olive oil, high-intensity exercise, book update, and more

“Think of diets like one would ever believe that there is one drug that should be used by everyone for everything.” —Peter Attia

Read Time 19 minutes

In this “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) episode, Peter and Bob take a deep dive into olive oil. They explore the history of olive oil, discuss observational data that led to the hypothesis that olive oil is a healthier alternative to many other fats, and they explain the classification of olive oil types —including what to look for in a high-quality “extra virgin” olive oil. Peter and Bob round out the discussion with a “two-minute drill,” in which Peter answers questions from subscribers. They cover zone 5 training, an update on Peter’s book, lactate meters, standing desks, massage guns, electrolyte supplementation, and more.

If you’re not a subscriber and listening on a podcast player, you’ll only be able to hear a preview of the AMA. If you’re a subscriber, you can now listen to this full episode on your private RSS feed or on our website at the AMA #21 show notes page. If you are not a subscriber, you can learn more about the subscriber benefits here.

AMA #21 Sneak Peak:

We discuss:

  • The early history of olive oil and the Mediterranean diet (2:15);
  • The three broad categories of fats: SFA, MUFA, and PUFA (6:25);
  • Exploring the hypothesis that olive oil is healthy (10:30);
  • Comparing olive oil to the makeup of other common oils (30:00);
  • Defining “extra virgin” olive oil, what to look for when purchasing, and Peter’s favorite brand (34:30);
  • Update on Peter’s book (47:15);
  • Zone 5 training: Peter’s approach to zone 5 training, and other anaerobic training protocols (49:30);
  • Advantages of using a standing desk compared to sitting (55:30);
  • Lactate meters and strips (57:45);
  • Electrolyte supplementation during fasting and keto, and why uric acid may increase (59:30);
  • The usefulness of massage guns, foam rollers, and professional massage for muscle pain and tightness (1:01:30); and
  • More.


The early history of olive oil and the mediterranean diet [2:15]

Background on the idea that olive oil is healthy

  • We always hear that olive oil is really healthy for us—that it’s heart-protective—Is it truly cardio-protective? 
  • At the surface, the idea is pretty straightforward, but the “further you get from shore, the deeper the water gets”

So where does this perceived benefit of olive oil come from? 

  • First and foremost, it stems primarily from the observational data of the mediterranean diet
  • Ancel Keys was the first to champion the diet in the 1970s and promoted heavily in the 1990s
  • Keys was the first utilize and incorporate an assay for measuring serum blood cholesterol
  • In the early 1950s, Keys and his wife traveled abroad and began observing societies, and asking a very simple question, “Does the total serum cholesterol correlate with heart disease?
    • The answer was ‘yes it did’
  • Of course, as time would go on and we would learn that there were different fractions of cholesterol—LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol, etc. and we would refine that thinking
  • But at the simplest level, when you took the bottom five percentile of people’s total cholesterol and the top five percentile of people with total cholesterol, you could predict those with higher cholesterol had more heart disease
  • With that, the idea that what you ate could influence total serum cholesterol became the next and obvious thing to look at
  • The way Keys presented his data would suggest that the more saturated fat that was in the diet, the higher the cholesterol, the higher the incidence of heart disease (but it turns out the devil is in the details)
  • By the 1970s, Keys was really coming to an observation that a diet that was high in a different type of fat from a saturated fat called a monounsaturated fat would actually be more heart healthy
  • Keys believed that food sources that were high in saturated fats were the problem, whereas those that were high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats were going to be cardio-protective


The three broad categories of fats: SFA, MUFA, and PUFA [6:25]

⇒ See Bill Harris episode about fatty acids 

1-Saturated fats

2-Monounsaturated fats

3-Polyunsaturated fats

Saturated fats (SFA)

  • They are “saturated” with hydrogen
  • SFA are a long single chain of carbon atoms all hooked together (single bonds)
  • The number of those single bonds will differentiate between different types of saturated fat (palmitic acid versus stearic acid, for example — image)

Monounsaturated fats (MUFA)

  • These have the same long carbon chain as SFA (It can be 12, 14, 16, 18 carbons long)
  • But there’s one double bond in a monounsaturated fatty acid (image)
  • When there’s a double bond in a molecule, it now has a point of unsaturation

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA)

  • Instead of one double bond, now we have two or more double bonds (image)
  • The same long carbon chain with now two or three typically double bonds
  • PUFA is going to be more unsaturated than a monounsaturated fat

The nomenclature is important, says Peter

  • An SFA called palmitic acid, for example, is referenced a certain way based on it’s structure
  • We wouldn’t expect people to remember the structure of palmitic acid, so we would denote it 16:0
    • It’s got 16 carbons in it, and it has zero double bonds (Therefore, you know it’s a saturated fat)
  • Stearic acid, another SFA, is 18:0, so you would know that it’s got 18 carbons and zero double bonds
  • Contrast that with oleic acid
    • Oleic acid now has another designation—18:1—So it’s 18 carbons and one double bond
    • But you have to add an additional piece of information, which is: where is that double bond?
      • It’s denoted N9, which means that it’s the ninth carbon
    • Well which side are you counting from?
      • Because the 9th and the 10th carbons‚ even though right next to each other, could each be considered the ninth carbon depending on which side you count from
      • The answer is that you always count from the carboxylic side
  • Suffice it to say there’s a clear nomenclature for which side you begin the counting and, therefore, you can have an 18:1 N7 and an 18:1 N9 that are both monounsaturated fats of the same length, but they’re going to have different properties because the double bond is in a different place


Exploring the hypothesis that olive oil is healthy [10:30]

What were some of the observations that suggested a health benefit of olive oil?


{end of show notes preview}

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  1. #153 – AMA #21 I was hoping you talked about omega 3, omega 6 ratios as it relates to olive oil. It seems like a planned omission.

    • That’s because there’s not much to say. The levels of omega-3 in olive oil are negligible, and in most olive oils (it depends on cultivar and climate) the levels of omega-6 very modest compared to most oils: in 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the regular US supermarket, there are 9.8 g monounsaturates, 1.9 g saturates, and 1.3 g omega-6.

    • Having now listened to the full episode, they didn’t talk about omega-3 or the omega 3:6 ratio, presumably for the reason I gave — but actually did talk about omega-6, particularly during the discussion of ripeness. Many listeners may have missed this because they referred to it as “n-6”, which is more common in the scientific literature, whereas the health-conscious popular lit tends to use the older “omega-6” nomenclature; also, they said repeatedly “linoleic acid,” which is the almost exclusive omega-6 fatty acid in olive oil and other plant oils.

  2. Your killing me putting a book update in an AMA. Maybe I will have to re-consider becoming a member, or hope you push the update out to Instagram or Twitter.

  3. So relieved to hear that olive oil still passes muster in the Attia worldview, since I go through a ridiculous amount of it!

    It is possible to buy great olive oil with a pretty short supply chain if you use subscription services. One I’ve used for a long time as a happy customer is, and I’m sure there are others. Press date is usually within 3 months of delivery. You mentioned not having tasted a grassy extra virgin, but I think once you taste lighter oils through this sort of program you’d clearly taste it. And of course there are also super bold super spicy ones, and everything in between.

    For higher volume cooking oils, you can often find a Whole Foods house brand California extra virgin with a press date <12 months ago, which is about as good as one can hope for at retail.

  4. No mention of avocado oil. With it’s high smoke point it is a good cooking fat.

    • I was just looking at this AMA specifically for Avocado Oil as it’s my default for cooking. A physician who does her own cooking show recommended Sunflower (I’m assuming high oleic?), Avocado or Safflower oil for cooking.
      Anyone know about the MUFA vs PUFA vs SF in Avocado oil?

      • I am surprised at the use of Sunflower and Safflower oils which are “vegetable” oils and known to be very unhealthy. They are part of the “Hateful 8” (i.e. industrial seed oils),

  5. To address the ” is sitting the new smoking?”. Prolonged sitting does cause some consistent changes in the human body, notably three: loss of ankle dorsiflexion, loss of hip extension, and loss of thoracic mobility.

  6. “PUFA is a carbon chain that has at least two sources of saturation…” – don’t you mean “unsaturation”?

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