The “Mediterranean diet” may just be the world’s healthiest diet.
If you’re not familiar with the Mediterranean diet, it entails following a diet akin to those who live in certain regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. If Americans ate more like these folks, we’d probably be a whole lot healthier—a meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults found that following the Mediterranean diet was associated with better cardiovascular health and longer lifespans.
One major component of the diet? Olive oil. It might sound surprising, but olive oil seems to possess some magical qualities when it comes to health. We’ll get into those, but let’s first look at the basic nutrition facts for a serving of olive oil (one tablespoon):
119 calories, 14 grams of fat, 1.9 grams of saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 0mg sodium, 0mg potassium, 0 grams total carbohydrate, 0 grams of fiber, 0 grams of sugar, 0 grams of protein
Olive oil also doesn’t contain any of the standard “vitamins and minerals” you see on the bottom of most nutrition facts labels—meaning no vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, magnesium, iron or calcium.
These nutrition facts don’t inspire a lot of optimism. Despite the relatively small volume, there’s a lot of fat and calories packed in there. There’s also a lot of zeroes for nutrients we know to be important—such as protein and fiber. But to understand the true nature of olive oil’s nutritional benefits, we’ve got to dig a little deeper.
For example, the high fat content of olive oil may actually be one of its biggest benefits. That’s because roughly 70 percent of the fat found in olive oil are monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. According to the Mayo Clinic, MUFAs are considered a healthy dietary fat. In moderation, monounsaturated fats help reduce blood pressure, protect against heart disease and battle inflammation. They can also help the body better absorb vitamins and more efficiently use protein.”Olive oil [is a good choice for athletes] because its monounsaturated fat elicits anti-inflammatory benefits (and athletes) put a lot of stress on their bodies,” says Katie Patton, RD at the Cleveland Clinic.
Olive oil—particularly extra-virgin olive oil—is high in a type of antioxidant known as polyphenols. These polyphenols are believed to play a huge role in olive oil’s nutritional powers. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is made by simply cold-pressing olives and gathering the resulting liquid. This is why EVOO is the healthiest and most antioxidant-packed type of olive oil available.
Existing research has connected the polyphenols in olive oil to several positive health outcomes. Examples include improved bone health, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, protection against oxidative damage and a reduced risk of certain types of cancer. It appears many of olive oils’ health benefits can be attributed to two things that simply don’t show up on the nutrition label—high amounts of oleic acid (the type of MUFA most prevalent in olive oil) and high amounts of polyphenols.
“Traditionally, the health effects of olive oil were attributed to its high content in oleic acid. Nowadays, scientific knowledge has demonstrated that these effects must also be attributed to the phenolic fraction of olive oil,” write the authors of a 2013 review published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.
You may have heard it’s dangerous to cook with olive oil. This is largely false. The antioxidants in olive oil help protect it from damage when exposed to high heats. One study found almost all of the important compounds in extra-virgin olive oil exhibited “high stability against oxidation” despite being heated at 356°F for 36 continuous hours. “We can conclude that despite the heating conditions, (extra-virgin olive oil) maintained most of its minor compounds and, therefore, most of its nutritional properties,” wrote the authors. EVOO has a smoke point somewhere around 375-420°F, making it perfectly suitable for many cooking methods (such as sautéing).
So, is olive oil actually healthy? Yes—but only when used responsibly. That means you shouldn’t start guzzling olive oil in addition to your existing diet, but rather integrate it in with healthy foods and meals in place of other oils or fats. “The high-energy content of all oils represents the main limitation on recommendations for the increased consumption of any particular oil. The recommendations should not be to consume olive oil in addition to the usual diet, but to substitute other lipids with extra-virgin olive oil, always aiming to strike a balance between energy intake and expenditure,” write the authors of the previously cited review.
Remember, you’re going to want to buy extra-virgin olive oil if you want to unlock all the health benefits olive oil can offer. However, there is one more complexity to acquiring quality olive oil—fraud. It’s shockingly common in the olive oil world. A certification from the California Olive Oil Council or the Australian Olive Association is a great sign your olive oil is the good stuff. If you need more guidance, this manual can help lead you in the right direction. Once you do get your hands on some nice olive oil, you’ll want to make sure to store it in a dark, cool cupboard far away from heat. This will help it retain maximum freshness and nutrient levels.