For many years we have heard about the benefits of olive oil to help lower the risk of heart disease, but its connection to decreasing risk of death has been less clear. A recent study of approximately 92,000 US men and women examined whether olive oil is associated with total and cause-specific mortality (death from a particular illness).
During 28 years of follow-up, the research showed that participants who consumed the highest amount of olive oil (greater than 1/2 tablespoon, or 7 grams, per day) had a 19% lower risk of early death compared to people who never or rarely used olive oil. For cause-specific death, those with higher olive oil intake had a 19% lower risk of heart disease death, 17% lower risk of cancer death, 29% lower risk of dying from neurodegenerative disease (such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's), and an 18% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease.
When the study authors looked at substitution of certain fats with olive oil, results showed that by replacing 10 g (about 2 teaspoons) of margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or dairy fat with the same amount of olive oil, there was an 8% to 34% lower risk of total and cause-specific death.
Even a modest amount of olive oil has health benefits
Of note, the new research showed there are health and longevity benefits from olive oil even when consumed in smaller amounts than in Mediterranean countries. In a study done in Spain, participants in the PREDIMED trial consumed an average of about 3 tablespoons or 40 grams of olive oil at baseline. Even though people in the US do not consume as much olive oil as people in the Mediterranean countries, there is still a strong health benefit to consuming modest amounts.
Why does olive oil work to reduce the risk of many diseases?
One reason is that olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids. When substituted for saturated fat, monounsaturated fats help lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. Olive oil's main anti-inflammatory effects are from antioxidants, one of which is oleocanthal. This antioxidant has been shown to work like ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. In addition, the antioxidants in olive oil can reduce oxidative damage due to free radicals, believed to be one driver of cancer. Research has also shown that oleic acid, which is the main fatty acid in olive oil, can reduce levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
Will using olive oil make me gain weight?
No, fat itself does not make you fat. Eating or drinking more calories than you need from any source, whether it's fat, protein, or carbohydrates, can result in weight gain. Data over the past 40 years has shown that the percentage of calories that Americans eat from fat has decreased, while overweight and obesity rates have significantly increased. Sugary soft drinks don't contain any fat, but have been associated with the obesity epidemic in our country.
Tips for using olive oil in your daily meals
- Extra virgin olive oil can be expensive. So for cooking and baking, use virgin olive oil. Save the extra virgin olive oil to use in making a salad dressing, dipping bread, preparing a sauce, or when using as a finishing oil.
- Serve olive oil at the table. Instead of using butter or margarine on your bread, dip it in olive oil.
- Use olive oil as your base in a salad dressing. Try this recipe: 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp grainy mustard, 1 crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp honey, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper. Combine all ingredients in a small jar and shake well.
- Use olive oil in stir-frying, pan-frying, and roasting vegetables, fish, and chicken.
- Use olive oil as a finishing oil: drizzle into creamy soups, mix into homemade hummus, add to whole-grain bowls or whole-grain side dishes.
- Make a pesto sauce for whole-grain pasta or to spread on whole-grain crackers or bread. Try this recipe: In a food processor, add 2 cups fresh basil leaves and 1/2 cup pine nuts and pulse. Add 3 minced garlic cloves and 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese. Pulse a few more times. Slowly pour in 1/2 cup olive oil and keep the processor running for about 1 minute. Turn off, scrape down sides, add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
The bottom line
Olive oil has strong research to demonstrate health benefits — but most importantly, it tastes delicious and can enhance the flavor of many family dishes.