Extra virgin olive oil is well known for its health benefits due to antioxidants that protect your cells from damage and anti-inflammatory compounds that may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Just be aware of its high calorie content if you want to maintain a healthy weight.
Although extra virgin olive oil contains healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, too much of it can result in weight gain.
All About Olive Oil
Olive oil is the natural juice derived from the fruit of the olive tree, but depending on the processing method, not all varieties are the same. The nutritional content can vary significantly from one brand to another, so it's wise to choose one with high antioxidant levels.
Olive oil varieties produced through manual extrusion and pressing are usually characterized by stronger color intensity, weaker aroma and a higher content of phenols, according to a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in March 2018. Refined oil, which purifies the extracted oil, is devoid of vitamins, polyphenols, phytosterols and other nutrients.
Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil and the most expensive. Naturally produced without heat or chemicals, this food usually has the terms "first-pressed," "cold-pressed" or "cold extracted" listed on the label.
Regular olive oil is a blend of refined oil and virgin olive oil. It may be labeled as "classic" or "pure." Brands with the least amount of added virgin oil are often called "light flavor" or "light tasting" olive oil.
Olive Oil Benefits Your Health
Fat is important in your diet. You need fat for energy and to develop and maintain your cells. This nutrient also helps your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. Also, your body needs fat for blood clotting and muscle contractions as well as for fighting inflammation, says Harvard Health.
The fat in extra virgin olive oil consists mostly of healthy unsaturated fatty acids, primarily monounsaturated fats, such as oleic acid. One tablespoon contains 9.8 grams of monounsaturated fat and 1.4 grams of polyunsaturated fat, according to the USDA. Of the monounsaturated fatty acids, 55 to 83 percent is oleic acid.
Monounsaturated fats have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and olive oil contains about 75 percent by volume, according to Harvard Health. When substituted for saturated fat, monounsaturated fats may help improve blood cholesterol levels by reducing LDL ("bad") cholesterol and increasing HDL ("good") cholesterol levels.
How Much Should You Consume?
Extra virgin olive oil is heavily marketed for its ability to ward off heart disease. This may be largely due to the proven health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, in which olive oil is a key component. According to a clinical review published in Circulation Research in February 2019, evidence supports the association of the Mediterranean diet with better cardiovascular health outcomes, including reduced coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke rates.
However, that doesn't mean that olive oil alone is a magical potion that you should drizzle over your salad with abandon or gulp down by the mouthful. Like other fats, it's high in calories. Consuming too much olive oil can result in excess calories, with each tablespoon providing 119 calories. If you are on a calorie-restricted diet, moderating your intake of olive oil could prevent unwanted weight gain.
Olive oil calories come from fat. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 20 to 35 percent of your total calories should come from fat if you eat 2,000 calories a day. That equals about 40 to 70 grams per day. Since one tablespoon of olive oil provides 13.5 grams of total fat, consuming four tablespoons a day would rack up 54 grams, which accounts for a large portion of your allotment, even if you cut out all other sources of fat in your diet.
The Food and Drug Administration recognizes the benefits of olive oil and states that this product is a heart-healthy alternative to animal-based fats for cooking and food preparation. Scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about one and a half tablespoons of oil containing high levels of oleic acid may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
To achieve this possible benefit, oleic acid-containing oils should replace fats and oils higher in saturated fat without increasing the total number of calories you eat in a day.
Polyphenols in Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil contains a phenolic compound called oleocanthal that may have potential therapeutic effects against many chronic inflammatory diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative and joint degenerative disease, according to a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in July 2014.
The study reported that oleocanthal shares unique anti-inflammatory characteristics with ibuprofen, which could make it effective for reducing pain and inflammation. Researchers suggested that the oleocanthal content in 3.4 tablespoons, or 50 milliliters, of virgin olive oil taken daily, would have a similar effect as 10 percent of the adult dosage of ibuprofen.
Additional research published in Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders - Drug Targets in 2018 reviewed scientific evidence that associated regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil to a reduced risk of chronic inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus and psoriasis. The report attributes these beneficial effects to phenolic compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-assisting properties.
In addition to polyphenols, olive oil contains vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect from disease by neutralizing harmful free radicals in your body. Free radicals are byproducts of metabolic processes, such as digestion, or result from environmental sources, such as pollutants.
In addition to boosting your immune system, vitamin E helps widen your blood vessels, which may help prevent blood clots. Olive oil delivers 13 percent of the daily value (DV) for vitamin E per tablespoon.
Olive Oil and Your Brain
A strong risk factor for the development of dementia and cognitive decline is oxidative stress and vascular impairment. A clinical trial published in JAMA Internal Medicine in July 2015 compared a Mediterranean style diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil — 1 liter per week — to a reduced-fat control diet.
Results of the study included follow-up cognitive tests on 334 participants after four years. The conclusion was that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil (or nuts) may counteract age-related cognitive decline in an older population. Evidence suggested that the Mediterranean style of eating may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Since your brain consists of 60 percent fat, primarily in the form of polyunsaturated omega fatty acids, olive oil may play a role in pathophysiologic disorders. A French study published in Frontiers in Physiology in August 2018 reviewed the effect of fatty acids on brain afflictions, such as anxiety and depression.
Researchers concluded that low levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids may have a negative effect on mood-related behavior and suggested that PUFAs may be beneficial in developing non-pharmacological treatments for mental disorders.
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Plant Polyphenols"
- Michigan State University: "Olive Oil 101"
- Harvard Health: "The Truth About Fats: the Good, the Bad, and the In-Between"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Facts for Olive Oil"
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Current Disease-Targets for Oleocanthal as Promising Natural Therapeutic Agent"
- Circulation Research: "The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health"
- Dietary Guidelines: "Daily Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- US Food and Drug: "FDA Completes Review of Qualified Health Claim Petition for Oleic Acid and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease"
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Oleocanthal, a Phenolic Derived from Virgin Olive Oil: A Review of the Beneficial Effects on Inflammatory Disease"
- Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders - Drug Targets: "Anti-inflammatory Activity of Extra Virgin Olive Oil Polyphenols: Which Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Diseases?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin E"
- The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: Rehability Info Portal: "The Human Brain"
- Frontier in Physiology: "Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Randomized Clinical Trial"