Nutritionists and dieticians have long touted olive oil for its heart-healthy weight loss properties. But there is more to this Mediterranean diet staple than just improved heart health and lower weight.
Olive oil is considered one of the world’s healthiest oil thanks to its antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and monounsaturated fat content.
Its numerous benefits also include fighting cancer, supporting brain health, lowering inflammation, battling depression, and lowering the risk of diabetes.
There are many different types of olive oil in the markets including regular olive oil, virgin olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil. Research shows that extra virgin olive oil is the best for health.
Let us learn more about olive oil and its health benefits.
What is olive oil?
Olive oil is derived by mechanical extraction of whole olives. Olives are the fruit of the Olea Europaea tree that grows in the Mediterranean region, mostly in Italy, Spain, and Greece.
Factors like the climate, soil and the way it is harvested and pressed affect the character of olive oil. Its flavor, color, and smell can vary according to where the olives are grown and how it is processed. It is used in cooking, cosmetics, medicine, and soaps.
The US Department of Agriculture grades olive oil according to its color, flavor, absence of defects and acidity.
1. Extra virgin olive oil
This variety of olive oil is unrefined and the highest quality of the olive oil you can buy. It retains true olive taste and has more vitamins and minerals as compared to other varieties of olive oil.
2. Pure olive oil
Pure olive oil, also known as regular olive oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Pure olive oil is of lower quality than extra-virgin olive oil. It is lighter in color and has a neutral flavor.
3. Light olive oil
Light olive oil is refined oil and is neutral in flavor and has a higher smoke point. It is not lower in calories.
4. Olive pomace oil
This olive oil is made from the remaining liquid of the leftover olive pulp. It is extracted using chemicals. Avoid using this olive oil.
Nutrition facts of extra virgin olive oil
Olive oil is mostly made up of monounsaturated fatty acids(MUFA). The predominant fatty acid in olive oil is oleic acid, which helps reduce inflammation.
One tablespoon of this oil contains (1) –
- Calories: 119
- Fat: 14 grams (9.8 of which is unsaturated)
- Vitamin K: 8 mcg
- Vitamin E: 2mg
Health benefits of extra virgin olive oil
1. Protects against heart disease
The predominant fatty acid in extra virgin olive oil is oleic acid, which is monounsaturated fat. Several studies have shown that monounsaturated fatty acids lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol and lower triglyceride (2).
Extra virgin olive oil also contains polyphenols, which help reduce inflammation and protect the heart. According to a 2009 study, olive oil helps lower high blood pressure as it makes nitric oxide more bioavailable, which keeps arteries dilated and clear (3).
Mediterranean diet, which is rich in alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) from olive oil, reduces the risk of reoccurrence of coronary heart disease in patients by 50 to 70 percent. It also reduces the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent (6).
2. Prevents weight gain
When you include healthy fats into your diet, it controls excess insulin, a hormone that is programmed to turn excess blood sugar into belly fat.
Consuming healthy fats also helps in reducing cravings, which is why diets high in healthy fat and low in carbs work better than diets that are low in fats.
The Basel Institute for Clinical Epidemiology, Switzerland, reviewed five trials including 447 individuals. The researchers found that individuals assigned to low-carbohydrate diets had lost more weight than individuals randomized to low-fat diets (7).
University of Navarra, Spain, conducted a 3-year study with 187 participants to analyze the influence of a Mediterranean diet on plasma total antioxidant capacity.
The results showed that the Mediterranean diet rich in virgin olive oil is associated with higher levels of plasma antioxidant capacity and reduction in body weight (8).
During a 2002 study, researchers assigned breast cancer survivors either a low-fat diet or an olive oil-enriched diet for eight weeks. The results showed that olive oil-enriched diet brought about more significant weight loss than that low-fat diet (9).
3. Fights cancer
People in Mediterranean counties have a lower risk of cancer. According to researchers, the high use of olive oil in Mediterranean cuisine may be the reason for this (10).
According to a study from the German Cancer Research Centre, Heidelberg, olive oil contains antioxidants in abundance. It contains hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, secoiridoids, and lignans.
It also contains substantial amounts of anticancer agents like squalene and terpenoids as well as peroxidation-resistant lipid oleic acid (11).
4. Improves brain function
Extra virgin olive oil protects memory and learning ability. During a study from the University of Navarra, Spain, 522 participants were given Mediterranean diets with either extra olive oil or nuts and a low-fat control diet.
The results showed that intervention with Mediterranean diets improved cognitive function when compared with the low-fat diet (14).
Extra virgin olive oil also reduces the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, which are the classic markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
According to a 2013 study, extra virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal, a phenolic compound that reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that is characterized by the accumulation of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain (15).
5. Slows the aging process
The aging process includes several changes that occur at the cellular and molecular levels and brings about a decline in the physiological function.
Extra virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols that can slow down the process at cellular and molecular levels.
The phenols in extra virgin olive oil can cause epigenetic changes, regulate nutrient sensing alterations and stem cell function associated with aging.
Extra virgin olive oil contains secoiridoid polyphenols which suppress gene expression related to the Warburg effect, a process related to the cancer formation. It also prevents age-related changes in skin cells (16).
Cooking olive oil at high heat can lead to the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which can have the opposite effect and can lead to aging.
6. Reduces risk of diabetes
Replacing trans fatty acids and saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and are likely to minimize the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Polyphenol-rich extra virgin olive oil can reduce insulin resistance and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
According to a 2011 study, Mediterranean diets without calorie restriction are effective in preventing diabetes in subjects that have a high cardiovascular risk (17).
7. Fights depression
Several studies have shown that a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats in the diet are linked with a reduction in the risk of depression. Healthy fats have anti-inflammatory and hormone balancing effects which can prevent neurotransmitter dysfunction.
8. Treats arthritis
Extra virgin olive oil has phenolic compounds and monounsaturated fatty acids that have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Olive oil prevents chronic diseases, particularly those with an inflammatory etiology like rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease and cancer.
During a study, 49 patients with active rheumatoid arthritis were given either fish oil or olive oil. When clinical evaluations were performed six weeks later, researchers observed both fish oil and olive oil groups showed improvement in tender joints, though fish oil showed better improvement (19).
Another study showed that when patients with rheumatoid arthritis took fish oil along with olive oil, they showed more precocious and accentuated improvement in clinical parameters (20).
9. May prevent stroke
According to the American Academy of Neurology, consuming olive oil may prevent stroke in older people.
Researchers looked at the medical history of 7,625 people above the age of 65 years. They found that people who regularly used olive oil for cooking and as dressing had a 41 percent lower risk of getting a stroke as compared to the people who never consumed olive oil (21).
The researchers also suggested that older people should consume olive oil as a cheap and easy way to prevent stroke.
10. Protects against liver damage
The liver is susceptible to various injuries like steatosis, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, and ischemia-reperfusion injury.
Extra virgin olive oil can protect the liver from oxidative damage, inflammation, endoplasmic reticulum stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and insulin resistance, allowing the prevention or resolution of liver damage (22).
According to a study published in Nutrition and Metabolism, when rats with liver damage were fed a diet containing olive oil, it partially protected them from liver damage (23).
How to buy and use extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is considered the healthiest variety of olive oils. To make sure that you are purchasing the right kind of oil, check the label and the ingredient list carefully.
- Buy oil that is cold pressed, or expeller pressed.
- Extra virgin olive oil is generally more expensive and may cost around $ 10 or more.
- Look for the seal of International Olive Oil Council on the label.
- Buy olive oil that comes in a dark glass bottle as it protects the oil from becoming rancid.
- Pure olive oil solidified when it is refrigerated.
- Olive oil has a low smoke point. So avoid cooking on high heat with this oil.
Extra virgin oil is the highest grade of olive oil, and it is obtained by cold mechanical extraction, without the use of chemicals. It is packed with antioxidants and healthy fats that offer many health benefits.
It improves heart health, prevents cancer, helps in weight loss, improves brain function, slows aging, treats arthritis and fights depression.
While purchasing this oil, read the label carefully to ensure that you are getting pure oil. Avoid using this oil for high heat cooking.