Olive Oil Health Benefits

The health benefits of olive oil are mostly derived from monounsaturated fats and polyphenols. However, not all olive oils are created equally.

By Daniel Dawson
Dec. 10, 2022 09:05 UTC
8K reads

Olive oil has long been con­sid­ered the health­i­est fat around. The Greek poet Homer called it liq­uid gold,” while Hippocrates, widely con­sid­ered the father of med­i­cine, referred to it as the great healer.”

However, not all olive oil is cre­ated equally. Most cel­e­brated health ben­e­fits of olive oil belong to a sin­gle grade: extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO).

Extra vir­gin olive oil is made solely by mechan­i­cal meth­ods, with­out heat or pow­er­ful petro­chem­i­cal sol­vents used to pro­duce refined olive oil and nearly every other edi­ble oil. As a result, extra vir­gin olive oil retains the com­pounds that endow its numer­ous health ben­e­fits.

See Also:The Health Benefits of Coconut Oil: Facts and Fiction

Thousands of stud­ies have been pub­lished link­ing extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion with a wide range of ben­e­fits, from its well-known heart-healthy qual­i­ties to more obscure ones, such as increas­ing testos­terone in men with insuf­fi­cient lev­els.

But what is it that makes extra vir­gin olive oil bet­ter than the rest? And why exactly is Homer’s liq­uid gold” good for you?

Monounsaturated fats pro­mote heart health

For thou­sands of years, the peo­ple of the Mediterranean basin have con­sumed olive oil as the main source of dietary fat.

Anecdotal evi­dence sug­gested they lived longer and health­ier lives than their ani­mal-fat-con­sum­ing neigh­bors to the north and across the Atlantic.

In 1958, Ancel Keys, a phys­i­ol­o­gist at the University of Minnesota, pos­tu­lated a cor­re­la­tion between people’s diets and the observed inci­dents of coro­nary heart dis­ease.

Keys’ land­mark Seven Countries Study was the first to sug­gest that not all dietary fats are cre­ated equal.

The study’s find­ings showed that Greeks had lower rates of heart dis­ease despite their high-fat diet, with olive oil being the main source of fat.

Other coun­tries with high-fat diets from meat had higher rates of heart dis­ease, sug­gest­ing that the type of fat con­sumed made a dif­fer­ence. The find­ings pro­pelled the Mediterranean diet to pop­u­lar­ity and fame out­side of the Mediterranean basin.

See Also:MedDiet News and Updates

Olive oil is about 73 per­cent monoun­sat­u­rated fat by vol­ume. The other 25 per­cent is sat­u­rated fats (14 per­cent) and polyun­sat­u­rated fats (11 per­cent).

Monounsaturated fats are fat mol­e­cules with fewer hydro­gen atoms bonded to their car­bon chain and a curved dou­ble-car­bon bond, which makes them liq­uid at room tem­per­a­ture.


All fats – from sat­u­rated and trans to monoun­sat­u­rated and polyun­sat­u­rated – help the body absorb vit­a­mins and min­er­als, build cell mem­branes and are essen­tial for the mech­a­nisms that cause blood clot­ting, mus­cle move­ment and inflam­ma­tion.

Substituting sat­u­rated and trans fat with monoun­sat­u­rated fat helps to lower low-den­sity lipopro­tein (LDL) cho­les­terol, also known as bad cho­les­terol,’ which reduces the risk for heart dis­ease and stroke.

In short, the fat type of extra vir­gin olive oil is mostly com­prised is par­tially respon­si­ble for its car­dio­vas­cu­lar health ben­e­fits.

Polyphenols are the pow­er­ful antiox­i­dants that make EVOO supe­rior

While its monoun­sat­u­rated fat con­tent is cer­tainly one of the main dri­vers behind olive oil’s heart health, its myr­iad of other ben­e­fits are ascribed to its phe­no­lic con­tent.

Polyphenols are attrib­uted to 99 per­cent of olive oil’s health ben­e­fits, accord­ing to Nasir Malik, a plant phys­i­ol­o­gist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s research ser­vice.

Polyphenol is an umbrella term for a class of organic chem­i­cals found in sev­eral types of plants and works as a pow­er­ful antiox­i­dant. More than 8,000 polyphe­nols have been iden­ti­fied, and EVOO has 25 dif­fer­ent polyphe­nols.

Hundreds of stud­ies over the years have shown that polyphe­nols are respon­si­ble for a range of ben­e­fits from low­er­ing the risk of prostate and breast can­cer to mit­i­gat­ing the effects of demen­tia.

What does the lat­est research say about the health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil?

New research on the health ben­e­fits of olive oil is con­stantly being pub­lished by both pub­licly funded and pri­vate enti­ties. We’ve included some of the most salient points below to help parse the vast amount of infor­ma­tion avail­able on the topic.

Extra vir­gin olive oil and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease

According to the World Health Organization, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease is the lead­ing cause of death glob­ally.

In 2019 alone, an esti­mated 17.9 mil­lion peo­ple died from car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases, includ­ing heart attacks and strokes. The World Health Organization esti­mated car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease was respon­si­ble for nearly one-third of global deaths that year.

See Also:Olive Oil One Factor in Extraordinary Longevity of Some Sardinian Residents

However, an April 2020 study pub­lished in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology con­cluded that con­sum­ing just a half-table spoon (8.8 mil­li­liters) of olive oil daily could lower the risk of con­tract­ing heart dis­ease by 14 per­cent. Researchers arrived at this result after mon­i­tor­ing health and diet data from 93,000 adults for 24 years.

Although the researchers told Olive Oil Times that it was impos­si­ble to know what grade of olive oil the par­tic­i­pants con­sumed (i.e., refined, vir­gin or extra vir­gin), they said that the ben­e­fits were more likely to have come from EVOO.

Extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion helps to lower the risk of con­tract­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease in a few key ways.

EVOO improves endothe­lial func­tion

One small-scale study pub­lished by the Yale-Griffin Prevention Center at Yale University in February 2021 found that high-polyphe­nol extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion improved endothe­lial func­tion in adults at risk of con­tract­ing type 2 dia­betes.

Endothelial func­tion mea­sures how well blood ves­sels expand when blood is pumped through them and is an inde­pen­dent pre­dic­tor for car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

The polyphe­nols in the extra vir­gin olive oil mod­u­lated oxida­tive stress in the blood ves­sels, low­er­ing inflam­ma­tion, a com­mon symp­tom in many heart dis­ease and stroke patients.

Extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion reduces blood pres­sure

A sep­a­rate study from researchers in Australia found that con­sum­ing four table­spoons (60 mil­li­liters) of high-polyphe­nol extra vir­gin olive oil sig­nif­i­cantly reduced” periph­eral and cen­tral sys­tolic blood pres­sure.

Previous research pub­lished in The Lancet demon­strated that low­er­ing sys­tolic blood pres­sure reduced car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, coro­nary heart dis­ease, stroke and heart fail­ure risk.

EVOO low­ers bad’ cho­les­terol and raises good’ cho­les­terol

Cholesterol is a waxy sub­stance that cir­cu­lates in the blood and helps to con­struct cells, make vit­a­mins and pro­duce hor­mones. There are two types of cho­les­terol: LDL or bad’ cho­les­terol and high-den­sity lipopro­tein (HDL) or good’ cho­les­terol.

High LDL cho­les­terol lev­els are bad for the car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem because they con­tribute to fatty buildups in the arter­ies – known as ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis – which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

On the other hand, HDL cho­les­terol car­ries LDL cho­les­terol away from the arter­ies and takes it to the liver to be bro­ken down and removed from the body.

As pre­vi­ously men­tioned, the monoun­sat­u­rated fat in extra vir­gin olive oil also helps to lower LDL cho­les­terol.

However, a 2015 study deter­mined that the polyphe­nols found in extra vir­gin olive oil also play a sig­nif­i­cant role by pre­vent­ing HDL cho­les­terol from being dam­aged by oxida­tive stress, which improves its abil­ity to trans­port LDL cho­les­terol away from the arte­r­ial walls.

Extra vir­gin olive oil helps reg­u­late blood glu­cose lev­els

An esti­mated 422 mil­lion peo­ple have dia­betes glob­ally. Of these, about 90 per­cent have type 2 dia­betes.

Type 2 dia­betes is caused when cells in the body do not nor­mally respond to insulin, so the pan­creas con­tin­ues to pro­duce more of it to try and elicit a response.

This causes blood sug­ars to rise to unhealthy lev­els, lead­ing to other health prob­lems such as heart dis­ease, vision loss and kid­ney dis­ease.

There is no cure for dia­betes, but extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion has been linked to some ben­e­fits in dia­betic peo­ple.

See Also:Olive Oil and the Keto Diet

A 2017 study found that par­tic­i­pants who con­sumed high lev­els of polyphe­nols had a 57 per­cent lower chance of devel­op­ing type 2 dia­betes over two to four years.

One of the rea­sons why the con­sump­tion of polyphe­nols low­ered the chances of an individual’s devel­op­ing type 2 dia­betes may be that polyphe­nols help stim­u­late insulin secre­tion, which moves sugar from the blood­stream and deposits it into cells. This keeps blood sugar lev­els sta­ble.

Furthermore, a 2017 meta-analy­sis of four cohort stud­ies com­pris­ing 15,784 par­tic­i­pants found that peo­ple who con­sumed the high­est lev­els of olive oil had a 16-per­cent reduced risk of type 2 dia­betes com­pared to those who con­sumed the low­est amounts.

Polyphenol-rich diets are linked to lower fast­ing blood sugar lev­els and higher glu­cose tol­er­ance, reduc­ing the risk of con­tract­ing type 2 dia­betes.

Olive oil and can­cer pre­ven­tion

Along with car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, can­cer is one of the lead­ing causes of death world­wide. According to the WHO, 10 mil­lion peo­ple died from can­cer in 2020.

However, land­mark research in 2015 demon­strated that oleo­can­thal, a polyphe­nol found in extra vir­gin olive oil, can dis­rupt and even kill can­cer cells.

Oleocanthal does this by caus­ing a rup­ture in part of the can­cer­ous cells, which releases an enzyme that causes the cel­l’s death with­out harm­ing healthy cells.

EVOO-based treat­ments show promise in fight­ing breast and colon can­cer

This study had a snow­balling effect in the can­cer research world and has led to the devel­op­ment of oleo­can­thal-based treat­ments against cer­tain forms of breast can­cer.

Researchers at the University of Louisiana-Monroe pre­vi­ously found that an oleo­can­thal-based treat­ment may sup­press the ini­ti­a­tion and pro­gres­sion of triple-neg­a­tive breast can­cer, the most deadly kind.

Previous epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies of Mediterranean pop­u­la­tions fol­low­ing a tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet rich in extra vir­gin olive oil found lower cases of breast can­cer and colon can­cer than other European or North American pop­u­la­tions.

A study pub­lished in 2014 demon­strated that in a lab­o­ra­tory set­ting, hydrox­y­ty­rosol, sec­oiri­doids and lig­nans, three types of polyphe­nols, inhib­ited the growth of colon can­cer cells.

The polyphe­nols did so by mim­ic­k­ing the sig­nal sent by estro­gen recep­tor β, which is the body’s nat­ural defense against the growth of can­cer cells in the colon. The dis­ease only begins to pro­lif­er­ate when the sig­nals this recep­tor sends fade.

According to the WHO, breast can­cer is the most com­mon type of can­cer and the fifth-most deadly. Colon can­cer is the third most com­mon and sec­ond most deadly.

Mediterranean diet asso­ci­ated with lower risk of blad­der and prostate can­cer

Since the dis­cov­ery of the role of polyphe­nols in fight­ing can­cer devel­op­ment in the mid-2010s, plenty of research has been ded­i­cated to the role of the Mediterranean diet in fight­ing can­cer.

Along with EVOO, the Mediterranean diet includes con­sum­ing plenty of fruits, veg­eta­bles, seeds and whole grains, many of which con­tain other polyphe­nols.

A meta-analy­sis of 13 stud­ies con­ducted in 2019 found that medium to high adher­ence to a tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet appeared to have a pro­tec­tive effect against blad­der can­cer.

See Also:Mediterranean Diet Reduces Risk of Uterine Cancer

While the researchers could not iso­late any par­tic­u­lar food that appeared to be hav­ing the desired effects against blad­der can­cer, experts sug­gested how the foods com­bined dur­ing diges­tion and their anti-inflam­ma­tory prop­er­ties played a role in yield­ing the results.

Consuming a Mediterranean diet has also been asso­ci­ated with a decreased risk of prostate can­cer in men. Diets high in trans fats and sat­u­rated fats lead to oxida­tive stress in blad­der cells, lead­ing to DNA dam­age. This DNA dam­age may lead to cell muta­tions, caus­ing can­cer­ous tumors.

However, the polyphe­nols found in EVOO and other foods of the Mediterranean diet have the oppo­site effect, pre­vent­ing oxida­tive stress in these cells and, there­fore the devel­op­ment of can­cer­ous tumors.

Extra vir­gin olive oil and demen­tia

Researchers warn that by 2050, more than 153 mil­lion peo­ple could have demen­tia world­wide, nearly triple that of 2019.

However, lower lev­els of demen­tia have been observed in pop­u­la­tions liv­ing in the Mediterranean region for many years.

Observational and con­trolled tri­als have shown that adher­ence to the Mediterranean diet and extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion is asso­ci­ated with improved mem­ory and cog­ni­tion in the elderly.

Alzheimer’s dis­ease is the most com­mon type of demen­tia. It begins to occur when deposits of beta-amy­loid pro­teins form plaque in the brain that even­tu­ally dis­rupts nerve cell func­tions and causes neu­rons to die.

Laboratory and ani­mal exper­i­ments have both demon­strated that oleo­can­thal pro­motes the pro­duc­tion of two other pro­teins that play an impor­tant role in pre­vent­ing plaque buildup in the brain.

Further research also showed that oleo­can­thal mod­u­lates the com­ple­men­tary pep­tide C3a recep­tor 1 (C3AR1).

In Alzheimer’s patients, C3AR1 over­works and causes inflam­ma­tion that impairs the func­tion of the innate immune sys­tem. The oleo­can­thal’s anti-inflam­ma­tory prop­er­ties pre­vent C3AR1 from over­work­ing and reduce the inflam­ma­tion linked to Alzheimer’s and other neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.

EVOO has other health ben­e­fits too

While extra vir­gin olive oil’s health ben­e­fits are most widely asso­ci­ated with mit­i­gat­ing the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and demen­tia and pre­vent­ing can­cer, numer­ous other stud­ies show a range of ben­e­fits from its con­sump­tion for other parts of the body.

For exam­ple, a 2021 study found that fol­low­ing the Mediterranean diet may delay the onset of Parkinson’s dis­ease by up to 17 years for women and eight years for men.

Parkinson’s dis­ease is a degen­er­a­tive dis­ease of the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem that has no cure. Researchers said that the polyphe­nols found in extra vir­gin olive oil pro­tect against the dis­ease by reduc­ing oxida­tive stress in the brain.

See Also:Mediterranean Diet Linked With Long-Term Health Benefits for Teenagers

Another study pub­lished last year showed that diets high in monoun­sat­u­rated fast, such as the Mediterranean diet, boosted testos­terone lev­els in men with insuf­fi­cient amounts. Low lev­els of testos­terone in men have been linked in pre­vi­ous stud­ies to depres­sion, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, dia­betes and demen­tia.

Researchers in Spain also pub­lished a study in 2021 that found sys­temic lupus ery­the­mato­sus patients who fol­lowed the Mediterranean diet expe­ri­enced an improve­ment in the course of the dis­ease.

Lupus, an autoim­mune dis­ease, has no cure, but patients who fol­lowed the Mediterranean diet had lower rates of obe­sity and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, both of which are com­mon comor­bidi­ties for patients.

This arti­cle sec­tion could be extended into a book, if not an ency­clo­pe­dia. Some stud­ies link adher­ence to the Mediterranean diet with lower lev­els of rheuma­toid arthri­tis in smok­ers, decreased risk of the small for ges­ta­tional age con­di­tion in new­borns, improved stress man­age­ment and restored healthy gut bac­te­ria in the diges­tive tract, which helps with weight loss.

Summing it all up

Extra vir­gin olive oil’s monoun­sat­u­rated fat con­tent and its polyphe­nols pro­vide innu­mer­able health ben­e­fits.

EVOO is the key­stone ingre­di­ent of the Mediterranean diet. It is no coin­ci­dence the eat­ing pro­gram was just named the best over­all diet for the fifth year run­ning by U.S. News & World Report.

Consuming between one and four table­spoons (18 and 70 mil­li­liters) of EVOO per day will begin to pro­vide the many health ben­e­fits asso­ci­ated with Homer’s liq­uid gold.”

However, EVOO is far from a sil­ver bul­let. To enjoy its health ben­e­fits, EVOO con­sump­tion should be part of a nour­ish­ing diet along with plenty of exer­cise and other healthy lifestyle choices (i.e., drink­ing alco­hol in mod­er­a­tion, not smok­ing and find­ing ways to destress).

Where to find the best extra vir­gin olive oil

The retail finder on the Official Guide to the World’s Best Olive Oils makes it easy to find award-win­ning extra vir­gin olive oils near you or through online retail­ers.

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