The health benefits of olive oil are well known thanks to the popularity of the Mediterranean diet. If you are not familiar with the types of olive oil or its positive effects in the human body, keep reading to learn more.
What is olive oil
Olive oil is made by pressing olives. Because olives are fruits that grow in Mediterranean countries, olive oil is a staple in Mediterranean diets, despite the fact that they differ from region to region. Traditionally, olive oil is used cold and for cooking. (1)
Olive oil composition
The actual composition of olive oil varies depending on the extraction method, etc. In general, the health benefits of olive oil come from the following components:
- Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. Monounsaturated fatty acids are less susceptible to oxidation than polyunsaturated fatty acids (1). Note that olive oil also contains polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids, in lower proportions.
- Other compounds (more than 200), including sterols, carotenoids, triterpenic alcohols and phenolic compounds (2, 3)
- Vitamin E, an antioxidant (4)
Types of olive oil
- Virgin olive oil: obtained by mechanical or physical means under conditions that don’t alter the oil (3)
- Extra virgin olive oil (evoo): is the first oil extracted from olives (1)
- Virgin olive oil: is the result of subsequent pressing of the olives (1)
- Common olive oil: mixture of virgin and refined oil with fewer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds (4)
Health benefits of olive oil
People who consume olive oil have a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality, cardiovascular events and stroke (4, 5).
The antioxidant properties of olive oil may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by preventing LDL oxidation. In addition, olive oil may help reduce hypertension (1).
The bioactive compounds in extra virgin olive oil can increase HDL-cholesterol, improve endothelial function and improve glucose metabolism, among other beneficial effects related to diabetes (6).
Phenolic compounds in olive oil have been shown to have antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage and inhibit cancerous cell growth and activity (1).
Specifically in colon cancer, olive oil seems to prevent the formation of carcinogenic substances when used for cooking protein-containing foods (1).
Similarly, women who consume olive oil seem to have less incidence of breast cancer (1).
Some phenolic components of olive oil can combat bacteria that produce intestinal and respiratory infections, including Helicobacter pylori (1).
Olive oil can reduce inflammation thanks to its antioxidant effects. Thus, it can provide relief for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (1).
A common feature of these conditions is oxidative stress. Thus, olive oil has the potential to help prevent cognitive decline and neurodegeneration (2).
Both the monounsaturated fatty acids and phenolic compounds in olive oil can help diminish the rate of ageing. The mechanisms here include antioxidant activity and the modulation of gene expression (7).
This is why Prof Valter Longo and other longevity experts recommend a Mediterranean-style diet that includes generous amounts of olive oil.
Can you cook with olive oil?
Storage and heating of olive oil (or any other oil) produce fat oxidation, which diminishes the healthiness of the oil. Oxidised fats have been associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, due to the monounsaturated fatty acid and antioxidant content of olive oil, it is more stable than other cooking oils. This is particularly true if the oil is not reused multiple times (1).
- Choose extra virgin olive oil (evoo) instead of virgin or common olive oil
- Beware of food products (e.g. tuna) that claim to contain “olive oil”. Read labels to ensure it is 100% evoo.
- Use evoo in salads, to toss over cooked vegetables or to cook with
- If cooking with evoo, don’t expose it to high heats for long periods of time (e.g. deep-frying) and don’t reuse the oil
- Buy evoo in smaller, dark containers to prevent oxidation
- Keep evoo in a cool, dark place
- Buy local oil when possible, as it is likely fresher and has been exposed to less temperature changes that might occur during transport and storage. Moreover, imported products might be adulterated if the industry in the country of origin is not well regulated.
- Adding evoo to a bad diet won’t make it healthy
- Remember evoo contains mostly fat and thus is high in kilojoules (read more in my post about macros)
- Waterman E, Lockwood B. Active components and clinical applications of olive oil. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic. 2007;12(4):331-42.
- Angeloni C, Malaguti M, Barbalace MC, Hrelia S. Bioactivity of Olive Oil Phenols in Neuroprotection. International journal of molecular sciences. 2017;18(11):2230.
- Souza PAL, Marcadenti A, Portal VL. Effects of Olive Oil Phenolic Compounds on Inflammation in the Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease. Nutrients. 2017;9(10).
- Guasch-Ferre M, Hu FB, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Fito M, Bullo M, Estruch R, et al. Olive oil intake and risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in the PREDIMED Study. BMC Med. 2014;12:78.
- Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lipids health dis. 2014;13:154.
- Schwingshackl L, Lampousi AM, Portillo MP, Romaguera D, Hoffmann G, Boeing H. Olive oil in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies and intervention trials. Nutrition & diabetes. 2017;7(4):e262.
- Fernandez del Rio L, Gutierrez-Casado E, Varela-Lopez A, Villalba JM. Olive Oil and the Hallmarks of Aging. Molecules. 2016;21(2):163.