Olive Oil Benefits and Nutrition
Olive trees themselves have been around for many thousands of years. With a long history dating back to ancient civilizations, olive oil is even considered to be one of the most important Bible foods. It’s a staple of the Mediterranean Diet and has been included in the diets of some of the world’s healthiest, longest-living people for centuries — like those living in the blue zones. Why? Because olive oil benefits are extensive and amazing.
Real, high-quality extra virgin olive oil has well-researched anti-inflammatory compounds, antioxidants, and numerous heart-healthy macronutrients, which explains why there are so many olive oil benefits. Extra virgin olive oil benefits include lowering rates of inflammation, heart disease, depression, dementia, and obesity. But with all of that in mind, unfortunately, not all olive oil is created equally — not even all of the “extra virgin” kinds have the requisite olive oil benefits!
Olive oil is made from the fruit of the olive tree, which is naturally high in healthy fatty acids. There are several types of olive oil on the market today, including extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, and regular olive oil — but research shows that extra virgin olive oil benefits are more abundant than the other varieties.
Something that many people don’t realize is that it’s common for “extra virgin olive oil” purchased in most major grocery stores to be laced with GMO canola oil and herb flavors. Many store shelves are lined with fake olive oil options. A CBS report found that up to 70 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold worldwide is watered down with other oils and enhancers, thanks to the Mafia corruption involved in the production process. (1) (Yes, you read that correctly.)
How to Buy and Use Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil harvesting dates back thousands of years, but today, the large, international commercial olive oil industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. To ancient populations, this source of satisfying healthy fat was considered a precious commodity and used for its many healing capabilities. Aside from cooking with olive oil, it was also a key component in lamps, soaps, skincare, and cosmetics.
After first making its way to North America in the mid-1500s, olive trees spread quickly to many other nations. Today, olive oil is cultivated largely in Italy, Mexico, the U.S. (mainly California), Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Why does the specific type of oil you buy matter so much? One of the biggest dangers surrounding olive oil is that it has a low smoke point and begins to decompose at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When olive oil is heated repeatedly or to a very high level, it can oxidize and become rancid or toxic.
There are a few main classifications for olive oil that determine how it was harvested and manufactured. You’re likely to come across these types when grocery shopping:
- Extra virgin olive oil is produced by cold-pressing and does not use chemicals for refinement. It also avoids high-heat manufacturing processes that can destroy the delicate fatty acids and nutrients in the oil.
- Virgin olive oil comes from a second pressing after extra virgin is created. It might also be derived from riper olives. While extra virgin is the preferred type, this is still considered good quality.
- “Light” olive oil or oil blends are made with refined olive oil and sometimes other vegetable oils. This normally means they’ve been chemically processed and are a mix of rancid, low-quality oils that have reacted badly to high heat manufacturing methods.
Always look for bottles indicating that the oil is extra virgin and ideally cold-pressed or expeller-pressed. Here are several other useful tips for recognizing and picking out the real thing:
- You get what you pay for! If any oil is less than $10 a liter, it’s likely not real. You might spend more on a quality product, but it comes loaded with the many olive oil benefits, tastes better and should last you some time.
- Check the label for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council (IOC), which certifies the type of oil used.
- Shop for olive oil that comes in a dark glass bottle that can protect the light from entering and damaging the vulnerable fatty acids. A dark bottle that is green, black, etc., protects the oil from oxidation and becoming rancid. Avoid oils that come in a plastic or clear bottle.
- Look for a harvesting date on the label to know that the oil is still fresh. According to The Olive Oil Times, as long as your oil is stored away from heat and light, an unopened bottle of good quality olive oil lasts for up to two years from the date it was bottled. Once the bottle is opened, it should be used within a few months — and again, keep it in a cool, dark place.
- Also, keep in mind that a clue that you have a good product is if it solidifies when it’s cold and refrigerated. This has to do with the chemical structure of the fatty acids. You can put it in the refrigerator and it should become cloudy and thicken, but if it remains liquid then it’s not pure extra virgin.
When it comes to cooking with extra virgin olive oil, you’re better off using other stable oils or fats instead to avoid eating rancid oil. Extra virgin olive oil is ideal for drizzling onto foods or using in salad dressings or dips since this requires no cooking.
So what are the best oils for cooking? Because olive oil isn’t as stable as other sources of fats, other great oil options to cook with instead include: coconut oil (which is also best when it’s cold-pressed and virgin), organic pastured butter/ghee (which contain healthy short-chain fatty acids that have a higher heat threshold), or red palm oil (stable under high heat and great for cooking or baking). Coconut oil is my personal favorite choice since the list of coconut oil benefits is long — acting as an antimicrobial, energy booster and fat-loss tool. In addition, red palm oil does have some concerning sustainability issues, which is why it’s important to only get RSPO-certified palm oil if you choose to go that route.
Other healthy options for high-heat cooking include ghee oil and avocado oil.
How can you use extra virgin olive oil in uncooked dishes? To make a quick and versatile dressing for salads, vegetables or whole grains, combine it with several tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and a small amount of dijon mustard. You can also roast, grill, sauté or steam vegetables and then add seasoning and olive oil when they’re finished cooking. Using extra virgin olive oil in pesto, hummus spreads, raw soups and dips is another option.
Precautions for Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The biggest barriers to enjoying this oil in a healthy way are finding the right kind, storing it properly and using it the right way in recipes. Just remember that it’s worth the splurge to buy a high-quality product considering how beneficial it can be for you. Also be sure to store it properly, use it within several months of opening and avoid cooking with it.
There is at least one report that using olive oil topically may dry out the skin. Some people use it as a carrier oil with essential oils, so if you do so, try not applying it to the same spot on consecutive days. Do not use it on children or infant skin. (18)
Final Thoughts on Olive Oil Benefits
To get the most benefits of healthy fats from your diet overall, rotate other sources of healthy fats for olive oil, including coconut oil, ghee, organic grass-fed animal products, nuts and seeds, palm oil, and wild-caught fish.
Major olive oil benefits include the way it:
- Protects heart health
- Helps fight cancer
- Helps with weight loss and obesity prevention
- Supports brain health
- Fights mood disorders and depression
- Naturally slows aging
- May help lower the risk of diabetes
- Is associated with lowered breast cancer risk
There are a couple of things to note about using extra virgin olive oil. First, make sure to get oil in a darkly colored, glass jar, labeled as an extra virgin (cold-pressed) olive oil from Italy to get the best olive oil benefits. Cheap options, plastic bottled oils and anything in a clear bottle is more likely to be stuffed with fillers like other rancid oils and may be more likely to go rancid faster and counteract the olive oil benefits.
Second, you should not use olive oil in high-heat cooking, as it creates advanced glycation end products that can speed the aging process. Instead, opt for coconut oil or other healthy options when cooking, and use olive oil in salads and after cooking for taste in order to get all the wonderful olive oil benefits.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Nutrition Facts
Olive oil is mainly made up of mostly monounsaturated fatty acids, the most important of which is called oleic acid. Oleic acid is known to be extremely heart-healthy and capable of fighting free radical damage (or oxidative stress), which has numerous health implications. This is especially true when compared to compounds found in more refined vegetable oils, trans fats or hydrogenated fats.
Diets high in extra virgin olive oil, including the famous Mediterranean diet, are associated with “a lower incidence of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer,” according to a large review of clinical studies. (2) Most recent interest has focused on the biologically active phenolic compounds naturally present in virgin olive oils. Olive oil phenolics have positive effects on certain physiological parameters, including plasma lipoproteins, oxidative damage, inflammatory markers, platelet, and cellular function, and antimicrobial activity.
One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains: (3)
- 119 calories
- 14 grams fat (9.8 of which is monounsaturated)
- Zero sugar, carbs or protein
- 8 micrograms vitamin K (10 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams vitamin E (10 percent DV)
How much extra virgin olive oil should you aim to consume daily in order to benefit your health? While recommendations differ depending on your specific calorie needs and diet, anywhere from one to four tablespoons seems to be ideal to gain these olive oil benefits.
8 Extra Virgin Olive Oil Benefits
1. Protects Heart Health
Studies have found that high monounsaturated fat diets lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides better than lower-fat, higher-carb diets do. (4) Thanks to powerful antioxidants known as polyphenols, extra virgin oil is considered an anti-inflammatory food and cardiovascular protector. When someone’s immune system essentially begins to fight her own body as a result of a poor diet, stress or other factors, inflammatory responses are triggered that lead to dangerous, disease-causing inflammation.
The purpose of inflammation is to protect us against illnesses and repair the body when needed, but chronic inflammation is extremely harmful to arterial health and linked to heart disease, autoimmune diseases and more. Extra virgin olive oil helps reverse inflammatory along with age- and disease-related changes to the heart and blood vessels, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. Research shows olive oil is beneficial for lowering high blood pressure because it makes nitric oxide more bioavailable, which keeps arteries dilated and clear. (5)
The protective effects of a Mediterranean-style diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from olive oil have been shown in many studies, with some finding that this type of higher-fat diet is capable of decreasing the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent! (6)
2. Helps Fight Cancer
According to a 2004 study published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, olives and olive oil contain antioxidants in abundance. (7) They are some of the best high antioxidant foods. Olives (especially those that have not been subjected to high-heat processes) contain nucleosides, hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and phenyl propionic acids. Both olives and olive oil contain substantial amounts of other compounds deemed to be anticancer agents (e.g., squalene and terpenoids) as well as the peroxidation-resistant lipid oleic acid.
Researchers feel that it’s probable that high olive and olive oil consumption in southern Europe represents an important contribution to the beneficial effects of cancer prevention and health in the Mediterranean diet.
3. Helps with Weight Loss and Obesity Prevention
Eating plenty of healthy fats is a key element in controlling excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, makes us gain weight, and keeps the weight packed on despite us cutting calories and exercising more. Fats are satiating and help reduce hunger, cravings, and overeating. This is one reason why numerous studies have found that diets low in fat don’t result in weight loss or weight maintenance as easily or often as balanced, higher-fat diets do.
After reviewing five trials including a total of 447 individuals, researchers from University Hospital Basel in Switzerland found that individuals assigned to higher-fat, low-carbohydrate diets lost more weight than individuals randomized to low-fat diets. There were no differences in blood pressure levels between the two groups, but triglyceride and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol values changed more favorably in individuals assigned to the diets higher in fat. (8)
Because diets with ample amounts of healthy fats are more satisfying, people are much more likely to be able to stick with them. A 2002 study published in the Women’s Health Journal, for example, found that an olive oil-enriched diet brought about greater weight loss than a lower-fat diet in an eight-week comparison. Following the eight weeks, the participants also overwhelmingly chose the olive oil-enriched diet for at least six months of the follow-up period. (9)
4. Supports Brain Health
The brain is largely made up of fatty acids, and we require a moderately high level on a daily basis to perform tasks, regulate our moods and think clearly. (10) Like other sources of healthy fats, olive oil is considered a brain food that improves focus and memory.
Olive oil may help fight age-related cognitive decline, as it’s part of the Mediterranean diet and offers monounsaturated fatty acids associated with sustained brain health. (11)
5. Fights Mood Disorders and Depression
Healthy fats, including olive oil, have hormone-balancing, anti-inflammatory effects that can prevent neurotransmitter dysfunction. Low-fat diets are often linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Mood or cognitive disorders can occur when the brain doesn’t get a sufficient amount of “happy hormones” like serotonin or dopamine, important chemical messengers that are necessary for mood regulation, getting good sleep and thought-processing.
One 2011 study conducted by the University of Las Palmas in Spain found that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat intake had an inverse relationship with depression risk. At the same time, trans-fat intake and depression risk had a linear relationship, showing that higher trans-fat consumption and lower PUFA and MUFA could up the chances of battling mood disorders and treating depression. (12)
6. Naturally Slows Aging
An anti-aging diet should have plenty of healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil is a great example. It contains a type of antioxidant called secoiridoids, which help activate gene signatures contributing to anti-aging and a reduction of cellular stress.
Secoiridoids in olive oil may also suppress gene expression related to the Warburg effect, a process related to the formation of cancer, and helps to prevent “age-related changes” in skin cells. (13)
Just remember that olive oil shouldn’t be cooked at high heat, or it could have the opposite effect. Cooking with olive oil produces advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which contribute to “the multisystem functional decline that occurs with aging.” (14, 15)
7. May Help Lower Risk of Diabetes
Fatty acids influence glucose metabolism by altering cell membrane function, enzyme activity, insulin signaling, and gene expression. Evidence suggests that consuming polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated fats (the kind found in olive oil) has beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and is likely to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. (16)
While carbohydrates elevate blood sugar by providing glucose, fats help stabilize blood sugar levels and regulate insulin. Even when you eat something high in sugar or carbs, adding extra virgin olive oil to the meal can help slow down the impact on your bloodstream. Consuming olive oil is also a great way to feel more satisfied after meals, which can help prevent sugar cravings and overeating that can lead to diabetes complications.
8. Is Associated with Lower Breast Cancer Risk
A case-control study conducted in Italy in 1995 discovered that over 2,564 cases of breast cancer, higher consumption of olive oil was correlated with a lower risk of developing the disease. (17) While there aren’t clear reasons for this, there is often an assumed interaction between healthy fats and hormone function, which could be one possible explanation.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Recipes
Olive oil shouldn’t be used for cooking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be part of delicious meals. Here are some of my favorite extra virgin olive oil recipes:
- Pear Cranberry Salad Recipe with Olive Oil Dressing
- Goat Cheese and Artichoke Dip Recipe
- Raw Veggie Salad Recipe
- Homemade Pomegranate Lip Balm with Olive Oil