You may have heard the claim that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest on the planet and yes, it lives up to the hype. This is in no small part because it includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables and – of course – the almighty olive oil. The fact that olive oil is good for the heart and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease is well established at this point, but are you familiar with some of the lesser-known health benefits of olive oil?
- It is anti-inflammatory
Researchers have found that newly pressed premium extra virgin oil sometimes leaves a subtle stinging sensation in the back of the throat when you taste it. This is actually a good thing, since it means the oil is rich in oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory chemical which has the same effect on the body as ibuprofen. The chemical inhibits the activity of certain enzymes that cause inflammation, which could be one of the main reasons why people who eat a Mediterranean diet appear to be healthier.
- It may reduce the risk of breast cancer
The vast majority of the fat in olive oil comes from monounsaturated fatty acids, which appear to help protect women, or more specifically postmenopausal women, against breast cancer. A study of over 4000 women aged 60-80 years showed that those who included 1 liter of extra virgin olive oil per week had a 62 percent lower risk of getting breast cancer compared with the women in the control group, who were advised to follow a low-fat diet. And with olive oil, it turns out that less is not more. The women whose olive oil consumption made up at least 15 percent of their daily caloric intake had a significantly lower breast cancer risk than those whose consumption was less than 5 percent.
- It may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease
New research suggests that extra virgin oil may help our bodies clean out toxic substances that otherwise build up in the nerve cells and contribute to cognitive disorders. According to one study on mice, animals whose diets were supplemented with extra virgin oil had more functional brain connections and better memory at the end of the trial compared with mice in the control group. They were also less susceptible to cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- It can help you maintain or lose weight
For many years, fat was considered the nemesis of a healthy body weight and weight loss gurus and the government alike prescribed a low-fat diet. Today, the tables have turned and research has shown that fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat, especially if you choose healthy unsaturated fats. One study showed that a Mediterranean diet rich in virgin olive oil even can make you lose weight.
- It may help prevent and control Type 2 diabetes
There is substantial evidence that olive oil has a preventive effect on Type 2 diabetes, possibly due to its high concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols, natural compounds found in plants that are believed benefit human health. Olives and olive oil are also the only dietary sources of oleuropein, a substance that helps regulate blood sugar levels and metabolism by telling the pancreas to release insulin.
Researchers keep finding more health benefits of olive oil and many physicians now recommend eating it daily. But before you run to the store to stock up on the liquid gold of the Mediterranean, let’s make clear that not all olive oils are created equal. There is lower quality olive oil and there is extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO as it’s known in the food industry. To reap all the health benefits of olive oil, make sure you choose a high-quality or even premium or ultra premium EVOO (learn more about the difference here). Beware that some of the healthy compounds in the oil start to break down at high temperatures, so if you want to preserve all the nutrients, it’s better to eat the oil cold on salads or with bread, or add it to the food after it’s already cooked, as a flavour enhancer.