From the 1970s, 80s and beyond, we were nagged into cutting back on our dietary fat intake as a way to reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic ailments.
Yet at the same time studies showed one of the healthiest lifestyles on the planet could be found on the Greek island of Crete, where the inhabitants eat a diet high in fat.
It took until 2015 for the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to finally end its 40-year war on fat. Now they implore us to focus on the type of fat we eat, not on the total amount.
You see the Cretans don’t just eat any fat. They eat olive oil. 80% of their fat intake comes from this single food source which is believed to be responsible for their excellent health and long life.
The benefits are so tremendous you could almost call it a medicine. And if you think you already know all about olive oil, I guarantee you don’t – keep reading. . .
Members of the European Union science panel were so convinced of olive oil’s benefits, since 2012 they’ve allowed sellers to make health claims for it. If you don’t know the ins and outs of regulation, let me explain: It’s practically unheard of for governments in the “free” world to allow a marketer or manufacturer to say or even imply that a food can treat or prevent a disease.
What moved these anti-natural-medicine characters to bend a little?
Dramatic Reduction in Heart Disease and Stroke Risk
The evidence for olive oil’s benefits is simply overwhelming.
A study of over 40,000 Spanish participants found those with the highest olive oil consumption reduced their risk of death from any cause by more than a quarter (26%) and lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease by nearly half (44%) compared to people who don’t consume olive oil.
7,216 men and women at high risk of cardiovascular disease were assigned to one of three groups: (1) a Mediterranean diet (fruit, veg, whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry, herbs, spices, limited red meat) supplemented with nuts, (2) the same diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil, or (3) a low-fat diet.
After nearly five years follow up, those in the olive oil group had a 39% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and the risk of dying of heart disease fell by almost half (48%) compared to the low fat eaters.
In another study involving 7,625 people from France, regular olive oil users enjoyed a 41% lower risk of stroke compared to non-users.
Lead study author Cécilia Samieri, Ph.D., said, “Our research suggests that a new set of dietary recommendations should be issued to prevent stroke in people 65 and older. Stroke is so common in older people and olive oil would be an inexpensive and easy way to help prevent it.”
Lowers The Risk of Many Other Diseases
Olive oil has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, which improves blood sugar regulation and reduces the risk of diabetes.
The combination of olive oil with green salad leaves and green vegetables produces compounds called nitro fatty acids which can lower blood pressure.
A diet enriched with olive oil significantly slowed the progression of brain plaques. This offers hope that olive oil can reduce the risk of dementia. Vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are both much lower in those who follow a Mediterranean diet.
There is convincing evidence that olive oil can also lower the risk of a number of cancers including breast, respiratory, gastrointestinal and esophagus.
The Health Factors in Olive Oil
Unlike the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products and the unsaturated fats found in vegetable and seed oils, the predominant fat in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. This has been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and may increase HDL (good) cholesterol. (For the record, I don’t think cholesterol levels make much difference to health.)
In the body, olive oil is also broken down in a different way from other fats and is less likely to increase body fat. Indeed, it may even have a role in weight reduction. A chemical in olive oil called hexanal gives a feeling of fullness so you don’t eat more than you need.
Hexanal is just one of 200 different plant chemicals in olive oil. Others with established antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits include oleocanthal, lubricin, squalene, tyrosol and oleuropein.
Because oxidation and inflammation are common to almost all chronic diseases – cancer, heart disease, dementia, arthritis – the simple choice to add olive oil to the diet is one of the most important moves we can make.
Which Olive Oil to Buy
Refined oils remove many of the healthy constituents. The only way to be certain of obtaining the oil’s health benefits is to buy extra virgin and consume at least one tablespoon every day.
The aromas and flavors of different olive oils vary from soft and fruity to pungent and peppery. It’s best to buy a variety that you like and will continue to use, but an oil which smells grassy and has plenty of bitterness is likely to have more healthy components than a mild oil.
Such an oil will also have a smoke point – the temperature at which it degrades – above 210º which is higher than is reached in almost every type of cooking. As long as you cook “low and slow” – at low temperatures — olive oil won’t form the toxic compounds characteristic of “burned” oils. So it’s fine to cook with it (unless the oil is unfiltered, in which case coconut oil is a better choice).
Of course, unheated olive oil is the most healthful.
Quality can vary enormously. Usually a more expensive oil that’s fresh, packed in dark containers and is manufactured by small or medium sized producers will be the best option.
The olive oil market is kind of a jungle. There’s an absolutely excellent website on how to buy a high quality olive oil at www.truthinoliveoil.com.
Quite a few so-called extra virgin olive oils are diluted with cheaper oils, and many olive oils – perhaps most – are not fresh. So at least make sure you look at the sell-by date, which should be as far in the future as you can find. If the sell-by date is two years from now it’s a good indication the oil was just bottled.