Olive trees themselves have been around for many thousands of years, and 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 also 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 quite extensive.
Real, high-quality extra virgin olive oil has well-researched anti-inflammatory compounds, antioxidants that fight free radicals and numerous heart-healthy macronutrients.
Extra virgin olive oil benefits include lowering rates of inflammation, heart disease, depression, dementia and obesity.
However, 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!
What Is Olive Oil?
Olive oil is made from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea), which is naturally high in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).
What is olive oil good for? 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 2020 review of clinical studies.
Most recent interest has focused on the biologically active phenolic compounds naturally present in virgin olive oils.
According to the Summary of the III International Conference on Virgin Olive Oil and Health Consensus Report, “there is widespread opinion that extra virgin olive oil should, indeed, be the fat of choice when it comes to human health and sustainable agronomy.”
Olive oil phenolics have positive effects on certain physiological parameters, including:
- plasma lipoproteins
- oxidative damage
- inflammatory markers
- platelet and cellular function
- antimicrobial activity
There are several types of olive oil on the market today, including extra virgin, virgin and regular olive oils. Something that many people don’t realize is that unfortunately, it’s common for “extra virgin olive oil” purchased in most major grocery stores to be full canola oil and herb flavors.
Many store shelves are lined with fake olive oil options, but below you’ll find tips for choosing the best types when shopping.
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, skin care 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.
Here’s more about the many health benefits of olive oil:
1. Protects Heart Health
Many studies, including a 2018 review focused on olive oil’s cardiovascular benefits, have found that high-MUFA diets help lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides better than lower-fat, higher-carb diets do.
Thanks to powerful antioxidants known as polyphenols, extra virgin oil is considered an anti-inflammatory food and cardiovascular protector. It also has vasodilatory effects that contribute to lower atherosclerotic risk.
Extra virgin olive oil helps reverse inflammatory reactions 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 it is beneficial for lowering high blood pressure because it makes nitric oxide more bioavailable, which keeps arteries dilated and clear.
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 diet is capable of decreasing the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent.
2. Helps Fight Cancer
According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, olives and olive oil contain high levels of antioxidants, such as polyphenols, and “polyphenols are believed to reduce morbidity and/or slow down the development of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases as well as cancer.”
Olives (especially those that have not been subjected to high-heat processes) are full of antioxidants, such as acteosides, hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol and phenyl propionic acids, as well as lignans and flavones. They also provide you with compounds that positively affect the immune system — along with with 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 cancer prevention and health in the Mediterranean diet.
3. Aids Weight Loss and Obesity Prevention
Olive oil consumption seems capable of contributing to healthy insulin sensitivity and reducing excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and can make us gain weight.
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 diets do.
After reviewing five trials including a total of 447 individuals, researchers from one study found that adults following 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.
Similarly, a study published in the Women’s Health Journal 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.
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. It makes sense then olive oil is considered a brain food that improves focus and memory.
Olive oil may help fight age-related cognitive decline by defending against free radicals. A part of the Mediterranean diet, it offers MUFAs associated with sustained brain health.
5. Combats Mood Disorders and Depression
Olive oil is thought to have hormone-balancing, anti-inflammatory effects that can prevent neurotransmitter dysfunction. It may also defend against 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 found that higher MUFA 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 intake could up the chances of battling mood disorders and treating depression.
6. Naturally Slows Aging
Extra virgin olive oil contains a type of antioxidant called secoiridoids, which help activate genes that contribute to anti-aging effects and a reduction of cellular stress.
A 2019 analysis concluded that “exclusive olive oil intake (vs. no use of olive oil) was significantly associated with higher scores on the successful aging index (SAI) particularly among those aged older than 70 years.”
Just remember that olive oil shouldn’t be cooked at high heat, or it could have the opposite effect. Cooking with this oil at high temperatures changes its chemical structure and produces advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which contribute to “the multisystem functional decline that occurs with aging.”
7. May Help Lower Risk of Diabetes
Olive oil may positively influence glucose metabolism by altering cell membrane function, enzyme activity, insulin signaling and gene expression.
Evidence suggests that consuming MUFAs and PUFAs has beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and is likely to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes.
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
Some studies have found that higher consumption of olive oil is correlated with a lower risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast cancer. While there aren’t clear reasons for this, there is often an assumed interaction between MUFAs and hormone function, which could be one possible explanation.
Olive oil is mainly made up of monounsaturated fatty acids, the most important of which is called oleic acid.
One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains about:
- 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 to Buy/Use
How much olive oil should you consume daily?
Is a spoonful of olive oil a day good for you? While recommendations differ depending on your specific calorie needs and diet, anywhere from one to four tablespoons seems to be ideal to gain thee olive oil benefits mentioned above.
Why does the specific type of oil you buy matter so much? Is “regular” olive oil healthy?
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.
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. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Manufacturers do this in order to make the fake oils taste more like real olive oil, but in fact, they’re far inferior products with way fewer health benefits than the real thing. In fact, consuming this type of modified olive oil can actually pose some real risks to your health, so you’ve got to know which kind is the best to buy in order to get the most olive oil benefits you can.
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 oil that comes in a dark glass bottle that can protect 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. If it remains liquid then it’s not pure extra virgin.
How should you cook with it?
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.
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.
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)
- red palm oil (stable under high heat and great for cooking or baking)
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.
Olive oil shouldn’t be used for cooking, but it certainly still can 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
Risks and Side Effects
Why might olive oil be bad for you? 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 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.
- Olive oil is made from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea), which is naturally high in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids.
- Based on dozens of studies, benefits of olive oil include fighting inflammation and damage due to free radicals, supporting heart and cognitive health, defending against depression, supporting healthy aging, and protecting against diabetes and obesity.
- There are different classes/grades of olive oil, with extra virgin the healthiest kind. It’s best not to cook with it at high temps, since this can damage its protective nutrients and change its chemical composition.
- When it comes to cooking with extra virgin olive oil, you’re better off using other stable oils 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.