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Are There Health Benefits to Using Olive Oil?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 28, 2020

Humans have enjoyed and praised olive oil for thousands of years. Homer called it "liquid gold," and Hippocrates, the father of medicine, referred to it as "the great healer." Today, olive oil is still a prized ingredient used around the world.

Olives contain up to 30% oil. Just as the ancient Greeks did, olive oil is made by crushing the fruit. Oil that is obtained manually, without chemicals or heat, is called extra - virgin olive oil. When heat and/or chemicals are used to extract the oil, it can decrease some of its nutrients, including antioxidants known as polyphenols.

Olive oil is a major component of the Mediterranean diet, which scientists say is good for heart health. It’s often used in salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. A drizzle of olive oil can also provide a delicious finishing touch to many foods.

Nutrition Information

A one-tablespoon serving of olive oil contains:

  • Calories: 126
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 14 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Olive oil is a good source of:

Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil

Experts regard the Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest ways of eating. Scientists have struggled to isolate which parts of the diet are responsible for the health benefits. Large portions of fruit and vegetables play a part, but studies have also found that some benefits likely come from using olive oil instead of less healthy fats.

Heart Health

Olive oil is a monounsaturated fatty acid, sometimes called a MUFA. Researchers have found that MUFAs in the diet lower total cholesterol and LDL, the "bad" cholesterol. The polyphenols in olive oil could be responsible for this effect. 

Brain Health

Olive oil appears to prevent mild cognitive impairment. In one study, participants were put on a Mediterranean diet with olive oil, a Mediterranean diet with nuts, or a low-fat diet. The group that used olive oil showed less impairment of thinking after 6.5 years.

Vascular Health

One study found that olive oil had a positive effect on the vascular system, which includes the blood vessels that carry blood through the body. It matched a group on a Mediterranean diet with one on a low-fat diet. Those on the Mediterranean diet used at least 4 tablespoons of olive oil daily. After one year, they tested better on several measures of vascular health.

However, a different study found that replacing olive oil in the Mediterranean diet with canola oil had a positive effect on vascular function. More research is needed to understand olive oil’s potential benefits on vascular health.

Diabetes Prevention

A Mediterranean diet with olive oil could offer some protection against diabetes. In one study, a group using olive oil had fewer new cases of diabetes when compared to two other groups. 

Cancer Prevention

Several studies have shown a reduced risk of cancer for those eating a diet high in olive oil. The best evidence was for the prevention of breast cancer and cancers of the digestive system. The evidence was inconclusive for many other types of cancer. Olive oil contains antioxidants that could be protective against some cancers.

Potential Risks of Olive Oil

The benefits of olive oil don't apply to all individuals. Consider these health risks when consuming olive oil:

Obesity

Olive oil is a high-calorie food that can contribute to obesity, defined as a body mass index of 30 or more. Obesity has several health risks. For some individuals, cutting fat, even olive oil, can be a better strategy for their health.

Overconsumption

Eating too much olive oil can be harmful for anyone. Remember that one serving is just one tablespoon. The benefits of the Mediterranean diet come from several factors — not just olive oil. The diet is high in fish and seafood, low in red meat, and rich in fruits and vegetables.

Simply adding olive oil to your existing eating habits doesn’t mean you’re eating a healthy diet. You may need to make more changes in the way you're eating to get all the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Annals of Internal Medicine: "Prevention of diabetes with Mediterranean diets: a subgroup analysis of a randomized trial."

BMC Medicine: “Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: views from experts around the world.”

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon: "Oil, olive, extra virgin, Natural Oils."

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Extra Virgin Olive Oil Polyphenols Promote Cholesterol Efflux and Improve HDL Functionality."

Food Research International: "In the ancient world, virgin olive oil was called “liquid gold” by Homer and “the great healer” by Hippocrates. Why has this mythic image been forgotten?"

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: Mediterranean Diet."

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "The postprandial effect of components of the Mediterranean diet on endothelial function."

Lipids in Health and Disease: "Olive oil intake is inversely related to cancer prevalence: a systematic review and a meta-analysis of 13800 patients and 23340 controls in 19 observational studies."

Mayo Clinic: "Why I should choose olive oil over other types of fat?"

Nutrients.: “Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Lesson from Nutrigenomics.”

PLOS Medicine: "Mediterranean diet and endothelial function in patients with coronary heart disease: An analysis of the CORDIOPREV randomized controlled trial."

The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging: "Virgin olive oil supplementation and long-term cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomized, trial."

World's Healthiest Foods: "Olive oil, extra virgin."

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