What You Need to Know about Olive Oil: One of the Healthiest Fats in the World

olive oil
Written by Maria Hilger

For years, a low-fat diet has been advised as a way to improve health and reduce the risk of a multitude of diseases. But when you reduce your fat intake too drastically, you can end up with the very health issues you were trying to prevent. In all likelihood, you cut back on both good and bad fats. Adding olive oil to your grocery list adds a good fat to your diet. 

A healthy amount of fats in our diet is vital for overall health. Did you know that your brain is 60-percent fat? Fatty acids help our bodies function down to the cellular level. The World Health Organization recommends that fats make up 20-35 percent of our total calories per day. But you don’t want to eat just any fat — you need quality fats. One of the healthiest sources of fat is olive oil.

What is olive oil?

Olive oil is an omega-9 fatty acid high in healthy, monounsaturated fat, particularly in oleic acid. Oleic acid has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Intake of oleic acid has been proven to lower blood levels of C-Reactive Protein, an inflammatory marker showing the level of inflammation within the body. The monounsaturated fats lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) ― bad cholesterol levels in the blood — and raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) ― or good cholesterol levels.

It also contains oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory compound. It has a potency similar to ibuprofen and works in a similar way. Both are strong anti-inflammatories and pain relievers. The amount of oleocanthal you ingest from olive oil is much less than the corresponding dosage you’d get from ibuprofen, but long-term consumption is still believed to reduce your risk of many diseases. A diet rich in this oil delivers health benefits comparable to non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory medications.

You’d be hard pressed to find an oil as healthy as olive oil. There are countless studies proving the vast health perks associated with this oil.

Heart Health

The anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering effects of olive oil play a key role in lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease. Ingesting this oil every day may even lower your risk of high blood pressure. One study done at the University of Vienna found that the risk of all-cause mortality is lowered by 11 percent, cardiovascular death by 12 percent, cardiovascular event by 9 percent and stroke by 17 percent for those who ingested more olive oil compared to those who ingested less.

Ischemic heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, with stroke coming in second, according to WHO. Ischemic heart disease occurs when there isn’t enough oxygen and blood getting to your heart due to excess plaque build-up, combined with inflammation in the vessels. A stroke is an interruption in blood supply to the brain, likely also due to the same events within the vessels to the brain.

Preventing these disease processes is vital to knocking these off the No. 1 and 2 spots on the WHO chart. Add olive oil into your cooking and meals for a healthy dose of fat and heart disease prevention.

Anticancer

A growing body of evidence shows that consumption of this oil has anticancer benefits. In fact, olive oil has compounds which induce anticancer activity for breast, digestive, skin and bone cancer. A 2015 study published in the journal Molecular & Cellular Oncology found that when cancer cells were exposed to oleocanthal ― the anti-inflammatory compound in olive oil― cell death occurred as soon as 30 minutes after treatment. It was also not toxic to non-cancerous cells.

While more research is needed in this area, these are promising results. Eating a healthy diet that includes this oil may be helpful in reducing your risk of cancer.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is when your blood sugar levels rise higher than normal. This is due to the pancreas being unable to produce enough insulin to keep your blood sugar level in check. Before full-on type 2 diabetes occurs, your pancreas will attempt to keep up with the increased blood sugar levels. But over time it cannot keep up, and that is when your body begins to use insulin improperly resulting in insulin resistance.

The antioxidant polyphenol that is present in olive oil improves blood sugar (or glucose) levels in people who are pre-diabetic. Meanwhile, olive oil and the Mediterranean diet decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, improved glucose metabolism and improved fasting glucose. The Mediterranean diet is one that includes a lot of fruits and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil as the main source of fat, a moderate consumption of red wine and a reduced intake of proteins from red meat.

Brain Health

Alzheimer’s disease is a significant cause of dementia in the elderly. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles develop in the brain, causing a progressive decline in memory, skill  and functioning. There is, unfortunately, no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

There is good news, though. The natural phenols in olive oil counteract the amyloid plaques and reduce neuro-inflammation. This shows us that these natural phenols are not only antioxidants, but they may also be able to target multiple processes that lead to Alzheimer’s. A study performed at the University of Navarra in Spain showed that following a Mediterranean diet rich in this oil results in better cognitive function.

Weight loss

Losing weight can be a real struggle. You may think that a low-fat diet is the key to weight loss, but the key may, in fact, be incorporating a healthy amount of high-quality fat into your diet — like olive oil.

According to WHO, in 2016, 39 percent of all adults aged 18 and over were overweight and 13 percent were obese. But there is much less obesity among Mediterranean people compared to the rest of the world. A diet rich in olive oil has shown to reduce weight, decrease waist circumference and lower BMI — proving it can be an important part of overall weight loss.

Bone health

Consuming olive oil can even help the health and strength of your bones. As we age, we can lose bone mass and density, resulting in bones that are more prone to breaking. A study done on Spanish women found women with a higher dietary intake of olive oil had a significantly higher bone density in two types of bone tissue. So something as simple as adding olive oil to your diet may help.

Digestive health

Feeling bloated and having trouble passing stool? Olive oil might give you some relief from constipation. The fatty nature of olive oil allows things to get moving without the side effects of laxatives. It may also act as a stool softener.

Don’t guzzle the bottle down, however — keep it to one or two tablespoons of olive oil. It’s also worth noting that if you’re already having trouble with constipation, you should increase your water intake and bulk up your fiber intake on a daily basis.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation in the joints that gets progressively worse, causing deformities and immobility of the affected joints. There are treatments, but no cure. It’s common for it to occur in the wrists, hands, ankles and feet.

Olive oil’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are crucial to its role in alleviating some of the symptoms of RA, according to research published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition in 2017. A study done on mice showed that incorporating olive oil into your diet may help prevent RA by reducing cartilage destruction, joint edema and arthritis development.

Pregnancy and childhood

Pregnant women play a key role in their child’s development. What they eat, their baby eats. These choices can follow the child even after birth.

One Spanish study concluded that a Mediterranean diet with olive oil should be advised for pregnant women before, during and after pregnancy for a healthier mom and baby. It also found that consuming 5g/day of olive oil by a pregnant woman lowers her risk of having a baby who is small for gestational age (SGA). A baby that is born underweight has an increased risk of childhood morbidity and chronic diseases in adulthood such as respiratory infections, diabetes mellitus, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and psychiatric disorders.

Another study in Spain showed that a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil during pregnancy has a protective effect on wheezing during a child’s first year of life.

Appearance

Olive oil is used in many hair, skin and beauty products. The products usually highlight the oil’s antioxidants, moisturizing effects and various vitamins ― lauding the benefits to skin and hair. There just isn’t much research backing up some of these claims. But that doesn’t mean that an olive oil-infused lotion bar doesn’t feel pretty darn good on your skin.

Finding quality olive oil

There’s a lot of fraudulence in the olive oil industry. A highly publicized 2010 study by the University of California- Davis Olive Center found that two-thirds of all oils don’t meet legal standards. Six years later, studies still found that the majority of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) in the U.S. was mislabeled. In fact, the top five imported extra-virgin olive oil brands in the U.S. reportedly don’t meet legal standards 73 percent of the time. That means you’ve probably purchased fraudulent olive oil at some point and had no idea.

Some bottles on the shelf of your local supermarket claiming to be pure olive oil may just be knockoffs. They could be diluted with various other oils. Not only is this wrong, it could also be dangerous if you have an allergy to certain seed oils.

When buying olive oil you need to know where it’s coming from. Buy from a local grower or even buy the olives yourself and get them pressed. You could even buy a press and do it yourself.

If that sounds a bit intimidating to you, there are other options. In the U.S., look for a certification seal from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). Olive oils with this seal have been chemically analyzed and sensory tested after every harvest to ensure the oil is of the highest quality. Their website has a list of oils that have passed the test.

Ideally, olive oil is best used within 18 months from the date of harvest, but expiration dates may be 2-3 years from the harvest date. This is why it’s so important to know the harvest date. Olive oil should also always be stored in a dark, preferably glass bottle.

Cooking with olive oil

Olive oil can be delicious all on its own, but if you’re not quite there yet, here are some ideas and tips: 

  • Drizzle on toast or pasta
  • Add a spritz of lemon to a spoonful of oil
  • Add to roasted vegetables and meats
  • Make a salad dressing with olive oil
  • Use it in baking as a substitute for vegetable oil
  • Sauté veggies over medium heat, which works best for most olive oils

It’s easy to see why olive oil may be one of the healthiest fat choices around. Go ahead and get a bottle of a high-quality olive oil and see what all the fuss is about. You never know — it might just help to change your health for the better.

 

 

About the author

Maria Hilger

Maria Hilger is a freelance medical copywriter and a Registered Nurse. She has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and has been a nurse for over 10 years. She hopes to empower others through her writing by helping them make informed healthcare decisions.

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