Olive oil was Athena's gift to the ancient Greeks, but it's only more recently that the full value of this precious gift has been understood. It turns out that olive oil—especially extra-virgin olive oil—is quite good for your health and has several health benefits, from heart health to preventing cancer to weight loss to aging well. But not all olive oils are created equally and one type will benefit more than the others.
Prevents Heart Disease
Olive oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also found in wild (as opposed to farm-raised) oily fish such as salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in preventing cardiovascular disease; the body transforms these acids into prostaglandins, substances that can block inflammation and help regulate heart, liver, and kidney function.
Recent research has shown that in order to derive the maximum benefit from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, you need to ingest them in the proper ratio, which is 1 part omega-3 to 10 parts omega-6. Coincidentally, that is the ratio in which they are present in olive oil. By comparison, many other foods in the Western diet offer ratios between 20 and 50 to 1.
In addition, olive oil is an anti-inflammatory which contributes to heart health. Olive oil also can lower LDL cholesterol (the kind that clogs the arteries) and raise HDL cholesterol (which is beneficial) while lowering triglycerides, all factors that help keep our hearts in good shape.
Helps Fight Cancer
Olive oil is a high antioxidant food. Antioxidants reduce the negative effects of free radicals, which contribute to the development of disease. Olive oil also contains a significant amount of anti-cancer agents (such as squalene and terpenoids). One study in Italy showed that there was a direct correlation between high consumptions of olive oil and a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Although there is no scientific proof as to the cause, the assumption is there is a connection between healthy fats and hormone function.
The predominant monounsaturated fat in olive oil is oleic acid, making up almost 3/4 of the oil content. Studies have shown that oleic acid is an anti-inflammatory compound that has been compared to ibuprofen in terms of its profile and potency. It is suggested that this acid may be able to help fight cancer as it has beneficial effects on the genes linked to cancer cells.
Supports Brain Health and Fights Depression
The brain requires somewhat high levels of fatty acids to function properly and efficiently. Since olive oil is high in good fatty acids, it assists in helping us to perform tasks and think clearly. It also improves our focus and memory. Olive oil also may help in warding off age-related cognitive decline.
It has been shown that healthy fats have the ability to help balance hormones, which, along with anti-inflammatory properties, prevent neurotransmitter dysfunction. This, in turn, helps regulate our moods and ward off depression.
Helps With Weight Loss
Insulin is not just a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, it also causes us to gain weight and keep that weight on. Healthy fats found in olive oil help control excess insulin and therefore help in controlling our weight. These fats also reduce hunger, keep us feeling satiated, and assist in controlling cravings and overeating. Studies have shown that a diet low in fats does not help in weight loss while diets including healthy fats and reduced carbohydrates were more successful.
Lowers Risk of Diabetes
Studies have shown that consuming the type of fats found in olive oil has beneficial effects on a person's sensitivity toward insulin and may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fats actually help regulate insulin and stabilize blood sugar levels and can slow down the effect sugar has on your bloodstream. Enjoying olive oil will also make you feel more satisfied after meals and possibly ward off sugar cravings.
Slows the Aging Process
Olive oil may contribute to our well-being in old age as it helps preserve cognitive functions in the elderly. According to an article published in Neurology, a group of people aged 65 to 85 was studied over a period of 10 years. It was found that those who consumed 1/3 cup of olive oil per day tended to live longer and better than those who did not, while those who consumed 1/2 cup per day were significantly less likely to develop dementia.
It is the antioxidant called secoiridoids, present in olive oil, that assists in activating gene signatures that are responsible for reducing cellular stress and anti-aging.
Consuming Enough Olive Oil
According to the US FDA, eating 2 tablespoons per day will certainly do you good, in many ways. But the kind of olive oil you are consuming, and how it is used in recipes, does matter greatly. Extra-virgin olive oil has higher concentrations of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, so you are getting more bang for your buck. But if you are thinking about how you can't fry with extra-virgin, that is actually a good thing; when olive oil is cooked at high heat it can actually have negative effects on aging.
Not all extra-virgin olive oils are created equal and you need to check the label to make certain the oil is estate-pressed and -bottled (there is considerable fraud in the olive oil industry). The oil should be green, though not too brilliant a green, and don't be put off by cloudiness, which just means that it's unfiltered. Be wary, on the other hand, of oil in cans that you cannot see, and also of very pale oils, or yellow oils—pale oils have certainly been filtered and may have been cut with other less healthy oils, whereas deep yellow oils might be old and/or rancid.
So, what is the easiest way to consume your 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily? The most obvious answer is to drizzle on a salad or over a slice of crusty bread. But there are plenty of other options, such as on bruschetta, when marinating cheese, in a lemon sauce for seafood, or part of a bean soup. This healthy oil is also the perfect finishing touch for a wide variety of dishes. Try it drizzled over a bean salad, warm soups, a tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad, and raw or cooked vegetables.