Olive oil, often called “liquid gold,” is a natural oil derived from the pressing of whole olives, a fruit native to the Mediterranean region. The flavour of olive oil varies depending on its country of origin, ranging from mild to peppery or even bitter. The extraction process results in different grades of olive oil, classified as refined or unrefined. Unrefined olive oils are pure and untreated, free from heat or chemicals, offering a purer taste. Refined olive oils, on the other hand, undergo treatment to remove flaws, resulting in a lighter colour and milder taste.
Discovering the Health Benefits of Olive Oil
- Rich in Mono-Unsaturated Fats
Olive oil is primarily composed of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), particularly oleic acid, which is exceptionally resistant to oxidation. This makes olive oil a healthier option for cooking methods like frying, grilling, or baking, compared to poly-unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn oil.
- Protective Properties Against Chronic Disease
Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), contains over 30 plant defence chemicals known as polyphenols, including oleocanthal and vitamin E. These compounds are believed to offer protection against chronic diseases, including heart disease and certain cancers.
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Inflammation plays a significant role in chronic health issues like Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. Olive oil, with its anti-inflammatory effect attributed to antioxidants like oleic acid, can help reduce inflammation and markers like C-reactive protein (CRP). Oleocanthal, a component of olive oil, exhibits natural anti-inflammatory properties, potentially benefiting individuals with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Helps Manage Body-Fat Composition
Research suggests that consuming a diet rich in MUFA, like olive oil, can prevent the accumulation of central body fat and improve insulin sensitivity. Central body fat is closely linked to obesity-related conditions, including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Improves Heart Health
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, known for its health benefits. This diet emphasises fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, and moderate consumption of dairy, fish, red wine, and less red meat and processed foods. EVOO is particularly beneficial in promoting heart health.
- Improves Blood Pressure
A Mediterranean diet that includes olive oil is associated with better blood pressure control. Polyphenols in olive oil may contribute to enhanced blood vessel relaxation, leading to improved blood pressure levels.
- Helps Manage Cholesterol
Consumption of olive oil may lead to favourable changes in cholesterol levels. The high levels of oleic acid and the protective effects of polyphenols make olive oil a wise choice for heart health.
- Reduces the Risk of Stroke
Comprehensive studies have shown that olive oil, rich in MUFA, is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Improves Mood
Including olive oil in a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and oily fish may lower the risk of depression. Recent research suggests that EVOO can have a positive impact on severe depression.
- Enhances Brain Function
A 2015 study revealed that older individuals following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts experienced improved cognitive function compared to those on a low-fat diet.
Is Olive Oil Suitable for Everyone?
Olive oil is a dietary staple for many healthy populations worldwide and is generally considered safe for most individuals. However, rare reports of olive tree pollen allergies exist, which should not be confused with reactions to the oil itself. Due to its calorie density, olive oil should be consumed in moderation, replacing other fats in the diet.
Should You Incorporate Olive Oil into Your Diet?
Yes, olive oil can be a valuable addition to a balanced and healthy diet. Its high MUFA content and rich polyphenol profile, especially in EVOO, offer numerous health benefits. If you are contemplating significant dietary changes, especially if you have a specific medical condition or are taking medication, it is advisable to consult your GP to ensure that such changes are safe for your health.