Olive oil, with its herby flavor, silky texture, and host of health benefits, is like liquid gold. From weight loss to heart health, olive oil adds holistic support to your wellness regimen.
What is olive oil?
We’ve all seen olive oil, whether in the grocery store or our own kitchens. But what exactly is it, and where does it come from? As the name suggests, olive oil is juice pressed from olives, the fruit of the olive tree. Its use dates back to 6,000 years ago, originating in the Middle East before traveling to the Mediterranean, where it has become a cultural staple — as in the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is made in extra-virgin, virgin, and light varieties.
- Extra virgin olive oil (a.k.a. EVOO) comes from the first press of the olives; it has a low acid content and is typically more expensive than the other two varieties. EVOO has a distinct green color and strong olive flavor, which makes it an ideal base for salad dressings.
- Virgin olive oil is of slightly lower quality than EVOO, but it’s still quite good. It’s an unrefined form of olive oil extracted using the cold-pressing technique. Its smoke point is too low for high heat cooking, but it’s suitable for low-heat cooking.
- Light olive oil is further refined to remove all color and flavor. With this in mind, don’t be fooled into thinking light olive oil is “light” in calories. The word “light” in the oil’s name refers to its color and flavor only, and it has just as many calories as the other types.
While each oil provides benefits, EVOO is the least processed variety and is often considered to be the healthiest type. A single tablespoon (or about 14 grams) of extra virgin olive oil contains:
- Calories: 119
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Saturated fat: 14 percent total calories
- Monounsaturated fat: 73 percent total calories (mostly oleic acid)
- Polyunsaturated fat: 11 percent total calories
- Vitamin E: 13 percent daily value
- Vitamin K: 7 percent daily value
Though olive oil has a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, its total amount of polyunsaturated fats is relatively low. Of course, if this is cause for concern, consult with your healthcare provider.
What are the heart health benefits of olive oil?
According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, consuming ½ a tablespoon of olive oil per day is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality. In another study led by experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, participants who consumed olive oil daily experienced 14 percent reduced risk for heart disease and an 18 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease. Considering heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, this is good news. Here is a deeper look at a few of olive oil’s myriad benefits.
It has anti-inflammatory properties.
Chronic inflammation is thought to be the leading culprit behind a number of immune system issues and diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Olive oil, which is loaded with anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats and heart-healthy antioxidants (like oleocanthal), can help to regulate inflammation. Additionally, research suggests that the main fatty acid in olive oil (oleic acid) can reduce levels of vital inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP). So, the consumption of olive oil strengthens your protection against inflammation.
It improves blood pressure and LDL cholesterol
Believe it or not, roughly 70 million Americans have high blood pressure (known medically as hypertension) — that’s one in every three. High blood pressure is something that should be managed sooner rather than later because it forces the heart to work much harder to pump blood to the rest of the body. As a result, the lower left heart chamber can start to thicken, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and sudden cardiac death.
In short, high blood pressure is hard on the heart and is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and more. Certainly, olive oil won’t reverse high blood pressure on its own, but the polyphenols in this cooking oil can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. Cooking with high-quality olive oil won’t prevent or cure hypertension, but it can lend a helping hand.
Any other benefits?
Although olive oil is widely known for its ability to promote heart health, supporting your ticker (and dressing your salad) isn’t the only advantage of this beneficial oil.
Olive oil supports brain function.
Dietitians agree that oxidative stress is implicated in the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Thankfully, olive oil’s polyphenols — namely oleocanthal — function as powerful antioxidants that may help counter this effect.
It may reduce the risk of certain cancers.
While there’s no such thing as a magic bullet for cancer prevention, experts believe olive oil consumption may be one major reason cancer rates tend to be lower in Mediterranean countries. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, regular intake of olive oil appeared to play a role in the death of cancer cells and free radicals.
It supports bone health.
Olive oil may also support bone health. A 2018 study found that women who had the highest intake of olive oil experienced increased bone density and lowered bone oxidation. While much more research is needed, scientists speculate that the oil’s anti-inflammatory polyphenols may trigger mechanisms that help combat bone breakdown and boost bone formation.
It promotes gut health.
Your gut microbiome — the community of microbes (like bacteria and yeast) that live in your gastrointestinal system — influences everything from digestion, mood, and immunity to your skin’s appearance. In other words, keeping your gut healthy is of the utmost importance. One way to do this is to consume olive oil. According to the National Library of Medicine, the polyphenols found in olive oil may reduce inflammation in the GI tract and foster the growth of friendly bacteria. When the good bacteria in the gut thrive, it impacts your health as a whole.
Note: If you’re thinking about adding this heart-healthy oil to your diet, check with your doctor first to ensure it’s a safe choice for you. While olive oil is generally safe, consulting a doctor or dietician is especially important for those with underlying medical conditions or a daily prescription medications protocol.
The Final Word
Want healthy skin and hair? Use coconut oil. Looking for something with a higher smoking point? Opt for avocado oil. Don’t want to break your morning fast? Try MCT oil. For anything heart-related, however, reach for the olive oil. It’s delicious and heart-healthy, and new evidence suggests that olive oil provides additional benefits like improved cognitive function and gut health. In short, olive oil isn’t just a kitchen staple — it’s a superfood that can provide numerous benefits to the entire body, including the heart.