By Joe Leech, Dietitian Authority Nutrition
There are many disagreements about fats in the diet.
However, pretty much everyone agrees that olive oil, especially extra virgin, is good for you.
Here are 11 health benefits of olive oil that are supported by scientific research.
1. Olive Oil is Rich in Healthy Monounsaturated Fats
Olive oil is the natural oil extracted from olives, the fatty fruit of the olive tree.
About 24% of the oil is saturated fats and omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (1).
But the predominant (73%) fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is extremely healthy.
Oleic acid has been linked to reduced inflammation and shown to have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer (2, 3, 4, 5).
Monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil are also quite resistant to high heat, making it a healthy choice for cooking.
Bottom Line: Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated oleic acid. This fatty acid is believed to have many beneficial effects, and is a healthy choice for cooking.
2. Olive Oil Contains Large Amounts of Antioxidants
Extra virgin olive oil is fairly nutritious.
Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of Vitamins E and K.
But olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants.
These antioxidants are biologically active and may help fight serious diseases (6, 7).
This includes antioxidants that can fight inflammation and help prevent the cholesterol in our blood from becoming oxidized, both crucial steps in the heart disease process (8, 9).
Bottom Line: Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with antioxidants, some of which have powerful biological effects.
3. Olive Oil Has Strong Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Chronic inflammation is thought to be among the leading drivers of many diseases.
This includes cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even obesity.
Olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits.
The main anti-inflammatory effects are mediated by the antioxidants. Key among them is oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug (10).
Some scientists estimate that the oleocanthal in 50 ml (3.4 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil has a similar effectiveness as 10% of the adult dosage of ibuprofen (11).
There are also studies suggesting that oleic acid itself, the main fatty acid in olive oil, can reduce levels of important inflammatory markers like CRP (2, 3).
One study also showed that olive oil antioxidants can inhibit some genes and proteins that drive inflammation (12).
Bottom Line: Olive oil contains nutrients that can fight inflammation. This includes oleic acid, as well as the antioxidant oleocanthal.
4. Olive Oil May Help to Prevent Stroke
Stroke is caused by a disturbance of blood flow to the brain, either due to a blood clot or bleeding.
In developed nations, stroke is the second most common cause of death, right after heart disease (13).
The relationship between olive oil and the risk of stroke has been studied extensively.
A large review study that included over 841,000 subjects found that olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat associated with a reduced risk of stroke and heart disease (14).
These findings are supported by another large review study, this one with 140,000 participants. Researchers found that those who consumed olive oil were at a much lower risk of stroke (15).
Bottom Line: There are many large studies showing that people who consume olive oil have a much lower risk of developing stroke, the second biggest killer in developed countries.
5. Olive Oil is Protective Against Heart Disease
Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the world (16).
Observational studies conducted a few decades ago showed that heart disease was rare around the Mediterranean Sea.
This led to extensive research on the Mediterranean diet, which has now been shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (17, 18).
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the key features of this diet, and protects against heart disease via numerous mechanisms (19).
It lowers inflammation, protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation, improves the function of the lining of the blood vessels, and may help prevent unwanted blood clotting (20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
Interestingly, it has also been shown to lower blood pressure, which is one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease and premature death. In one study, olive oil reduced the need for blood pressure meds by 48% (26, 27, 28).
The truth is that dozens, if not hundreds, of studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil has powerful benefits for the heart.
If you have heart disease, a family history of heart disease, or any other major risk factor, then you might want to consider including plenty of extra virgin olive oil in your diet.
Bottom Line: Olive oil has numerous benefits for heart health. It lowers blood pressure, protects LDL particles from oxidation, and has beneficial effects on many other risk factors.
6. Olive Oil Does Not Cause Weight Gain and Obesity
Eating fat does not make you fat, and olive oil is no exception.
Numerous studies have linked Mediterranean dietary patterns, rich in olive oil, with favorable effects on body weight (29, 30, 31).
In a 2.5 year study of more than 7000 Spanish college students, consuming a lot of olive oil was not linked to increased weight (32).
In other words, high intake of olive oil is not linked with weight gain or obesity in observational studies.
A 3-year study in 187 participants found that a diet rich in olive oil increased levels of antioxidants in the blood and caused weight loss (33).
Bottom Line: Consuming large amounts of olive oil does not appear to increase the likelihood of weight gain. It may even be beneficial for weight loss.
7. Olive Oil May Help Fight Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world.
One of its key features is a buildup of so-called beta amyloid plaques inside brain cells.
One study in mice showed that a substance in olive oil can help remove these plaques from brain cells (34).
Another study, this time in humans, showed that a Mediterranean diet with olive oil had beneficial effects on brain function (35).
Bottom Line: Some studies suggest that olive oil can help fight Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed to confirm this.
8. Olive Oil May Reduce The Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Olive oil appears to be highly protective against diabetes.
Several studies have linked olive oil to beneficial effects on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity (36, 37).
A randomized clinical trial of 418 non-diabetic participants recently confirmed the protective effects of olive oil (38).
In this study, a Mediterranean diet with olive oil reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by over 40%.
Bottom Line: Both observational studies and clinical trials suggest that olive oil, combined with a Mediterranean diet, can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
9. The Antioxidants in Olive Oil Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in the world.
People in Mediterranean countries have a lower risk of some cancers, and many researchers believe that olive oil may have something to do with it (39).
The antioxidants in olive oil can reduce oxidative damage due to free radicals, which is believed to be one of the leading drivers of cancer (40, 41).
Many test tube studies have shown that compounds in olive oil can help fight cancer cells (42, 43).
Whether olive oil can actually help to prevent cancer needs to be studied properly in humans.
Bottom Line: There is preliminary evidence that olive oil may help prevent cancer, but this needs to be studied properly.
10. Olive Oil Can Help Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease characterized by deformed and painful joints.
The exact cause is not well understood, but it involves the body’s immune system attacking normal cells by mistake.
Olive oil supplementation appears to improve inflammatory markers and reduce oxidative stress in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (44, 45).
Olive oil appears to be particularly beneficial when combined with fish oil, a source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
In one study, olive oil and fish oil significantly reduced joint pain, handgrip strength and morning stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis (46).
Bottom Line: Olive oil can help reduce joint pain and swelling from rheumatoid arthritis. The beneficial effects are greatly increased when combined with fish oil.
11. Olive Oil Has Anti-Bacterial Properties
Olive oil contains many nutrients that can inhibit or kill harmful bacteria (47).
One of these is Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that lives in the stomach and can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer.
Test tube studies have shown extra virgin olive oil to be effective against eight strains of this bacteria, three of which are resistant to antibiotics (48).
A study in humans showed that 30 grams of extra virgin olive oil can eliminate Helicobacter pylori infection in 10-40% of people in as little as 2 weeks (49).
Bottom Line: Extra virgin olive oil has anti-bacterial properties, and has been shown to be particularly effective against Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer.
Make Sure to Get The Right Type
The importance of getting the right kind of olive oil can not be overstated.
Extra virgin olive oil is the only type that contains all the antioxidants and bioactive compounds. It is the only olive oil we recommend.
But even so, there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market, and many oils that have “extra virgin” on the label have been diluted with other refined oils.
Therefore, do some research and make sure that you’re actually getting real extra virgin olive oil. There are quite a few good ones on Amazon.
Take Home Message
At the end of the day, quality extra virgin olive oil is super healthy.
It may just be the single healthiest fat on the planet, and one of the few fats that can be classified as a “superfood.”