Health Benefits of Olives

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on January 17, 2023
4 min read

Olives are the fruit of the olive tree, Olea europaea, meaning “European olive.” Olive trees are grown throughout the Mediterranean Basin as well as in South America, South Africa, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the United States.

Olives of various varieties are a main ingredient in Mediterranean dishes and a significant export crop for Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Morocco. The most common olives in the United States are green and black, though kalamata olives are also popular.

They are often sliced or used whole in recipes or pressed into olive oil, which is also a major agricultural export in the Mediterranean region.

Eating olives whole or using olive oil for certain meals may help protect against various health problems.

The vitamins and antioxidants found in olives may provide important health benefits. For example, some studies have shown that olives may protect against osteoporosis, in which bones become brittle or weak.

Olives are also rich in vitamin E, which can improve skin health and help your immune system.

In addition, olives may provide health benefits like:

Heart health 

Numerous studies have shown that consuming olive oil, especially the extra-virgin variety, may reduce the risk of heart disease and death in people who have a high risk of this condition.

Cancer risk reduction

Olives contain the compound oleocanthal, which researchers have shown can kill cancer cells in petri dish experiments. Other studies in humans have shown a link between consuming olive oil and reducing the risk of cancers, including breast cancer. 

Lower risk and treatment of cognitive diseases

The oleocanthal in olives and olive oil is also linked to a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other brain-related diseases. This compound also increases the activity of the drug donepezil, which is used to treat dementia. 

Diabetes prevention

Research shows a link between consuming olive oil and preventing type 2 diabetes by helping the body regulate glucose (sugar). Unregulated glucose can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. 

Reduce chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation plays a key role in many diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Olives are packed with antioxidants, which have been shown to help with chronic inflammation.

Two kinds of antioxidants found in olives, hydroxytyrosol and oleanolic acid, have been effective in reducing inflammation in animals. Animal studies have also shown oleanolic acid’s health benefits in promoting liver health and regulating fat levels in their blood.

Olives are rich in vitamin E and other antioxidants, which may help reduce the risk of health conditions like cancer, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

Olives also contain:

  • Vitamin A
  • Copper
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Vitamin E

Nutrients per serving

Five large black, pitted olives contain:

  • Calories: 25
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 2 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 1 gram
  • Fiber: 0.4 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Health risks of eating olives

Olives provide many health benefits, but they are still relatively high in fat. Canned olives are often packed in brine, which makes them high in sodium (salt). Just one green olive contains 62.4 milligrams of sodium, so salt content can add up quickly. The CDC estimates that 90% of American adults get too much sodium.

A high-sodium diet can contribute to cardiovascular (heart-related) disease. The CDC recommends that adults get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.

Fresh olives are a healthier choice if you are watching your sodium intake. Pay attention to portion sizes when eating canned olives, and make sure to balance your sodium intake by eating foods that are rich inpotassium.

You can buy olives in many forms at most grocery stores. You can find them canned or bottled in a salt solution or water. You may be able to find fresh olives at a grocery or local Mediterranean specialty store.

Olives can be served whole, and often are when they make an appearance on a charcuterie board or cheese plate.

It is possible to extract the oil from olives to make your own olive oil, but this process is complex. If you want to try, you’ll need to gather several pieces of equipment:

  • A millstone or another grinder
  • An immersion blender
  • A weight such as a brick or heavy book
  • A clean surface for pressing
  • Bottles
  • A funnel

The basic steps include cold-pressing olives to extract the olive oil and then discarding the remainder. Cold-pressing allows you to extract oil without using heat, which leaves the oil as intact as possible.

Here are some other ways to use olives and olive oils in recipes:

  • Drizzled on hummus
  • As a cocktail garnish or ingredient
  • As a salad dressing base
  • To replace less healthy oils in baking recipes
  • Chop up to use in a tapenade
  • Slice and use as a pizza topping
  • Add to pasta dishes
  • Slice and use as a sandwich topping
  • Stuff large olives with soft cheese and serve as an appetizer