Tonga's Shirtless Flag Bearer Drops Knowledge About Health Benefits of Oil

Pita Taufatofua sure knows his oil. 


So much has happened since the Olympics began last Friday, but Pita Taufatofua, Tonga’s notoriously shirtless flag bearer, is arguably still the Winter Games’ greatest sensation. While he turned heads at the Opening Ceremony when he marched, bare-chested, waving his country’s flag in subzero temperatures, he more recently charmed the press at the Tongan cross-country skiing news conference on Wednesday.

Of particular interest is what the cross-country skier has to say about oil. Taufatofua, who is not only famous for being comfortable shirtless but also for doing so with gleamingly oiled-up skin, sure seemed to know a lot about it when a reporter at the press conference held up a bottle of olive oil, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

“Olive oil is not good for the body. It’s only good for my salad,” he said, stressing the superiority of coconut oil. He had been engaged in a conversation about doing pushups while waiting for eggs to fry.

There’s a lot to unpack here, as it’s not immediately clear whether he is talking about using the oil for consumption, for frying eggs, or for slicking all over his body. But taking into account the fact that, last Saturday, he told Matangi Tonga Online that “Coconut oil kept me warm” during the opening ceremony, we can assume that he means that olive oil is not good for smearing on one’s bare skin but is good for dressing greens.

While skincare experts may disagree with his take — at least one Greek company uses olive oil in its ‘Ancient Greek’ moisturizing formula — he’s right about olive oil being a good match for the inside of his body.

Taufatofua’s comment inadvertently touched on a debate that’s been ongoing among health-conscious cooks for years: which is better for the heart, coconut oil or olive oil? In 2017, coconut oil’s reputation for being healthy took a hit when the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report warning that coconut oil is one of the most unhealthy fats because of its high concentration of saturated fatty acids — the kind more likely to solidify at room temperature and drive up levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, promoting heart disease.

Perhaps these facts bore reminding because a 2017 poll showed seven out of ten Americans incorrectly believe that coconut oil is “healthy.” In reality, it’s actually got more saturated fats than butter and lard. While some studies show that coconut oil consumption can lead to increased levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, the AHA maintains that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs.

Olive oil, meanwhile, remains one of the heart-healthiest oils around because it’s low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In an interview with the New York Times in 2017, registered dietitian and AHA spokeswoman Annessa Chumbley said: “Between the two, olive oil is a better choice, since monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet.” Olive oil, along with grains, vegetables, and moderate amounts of red wine, is a key part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

Like all food guidelines, the AHA’s rules about coconut oil and olive oil require that you exercise moderation while eating either of them: no food is healthy in excessive amounts, and likewise no food needs to be avoided entirely. Taufatofua, however, is clearly a man of extremes, and if he prefers to reserve 100 percent of his coconut oil for slathering over his gleaming, golden body, it’s safe to say that nobody will complain.

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