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Health Benefits

Thanks to its status as a spotlight food in the Mediterranean Diet, and thanks to extensive research on its unique phytonutrient composition, olive oil has become a legendary culinary oil with very difficult-to-match health benefits. Among its extensive list of phytonutrients, no single category of nutrients is more important than its polyphenols. The polyphenol content of this delicious oil is truly amazing!

Digestive Health Benefits

Benefits of olive oil for the digestive tract were first uncovered in research on diet and cancers of the digestive tract. Numerous studies found lower rates of digestive tract cancers—especially cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the stomach and small intestine—in populations that regularly consumed olive oil. Studies on the Mediterranean Diet were an important part of this initial research on olive oil and the digestive tract. Protection of the lower digestive tract (for example, protection of the colon from colon cancer) is less well-documented in the olive oil research, even though there is some strongly supportive evidence from select laboratory animal studies. Many of these anti-cancer effects in the digestive tract were believed to depend on the polyphenols in olive oil and their antioxidant plus anti-inflammatory properties. One particular category of polyphenols, called secoiridoids, continues to be a focus in research on prevention of digestive tract cancers.

Recent research has provided us with even more information, however, about olive oil, its polyphenols, and protection of the digestive tract. One fascinating area of recent research has involved the polyphenols in olive oil and the balance of bacteria in our digestive tract. Numerous polyphenols in olive oil have been shown to slow the growth of unwanted bacteria, including bacteria commonly responsible for digestive tract infections. These polyphenols include oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and tyrosol. Some of these same polyphenols—along with other olive oil polyphenols like ligstroside—are specifically able to inhibit the growth of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium. This effect of the olive oil polyphenols may be especially important, since overpopulation of Helicobacter bacteria coupled with over-attachment of Helicobacter to the stomach lining can lead to stomach ulcer and other unwanted digestive problems.


File this under “no surprise:” A recent study from eight European countries has shown evidence that children who consume a Mediterranean diet may be 15 percent less likely to be overweight or obese.

The results of the study conducted by Dr. Gianluca Tognon from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden were first presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Sofia, Bulgaria last June.

Researchers examined data gathered from the IDEFICS study, a European project that lasted from September 2006 to February 2012 with the goal of assessing the problem of obesity in children.

Data from IDEFICS included height, weight, body fat percentage and waist circumference from children in Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Estonia and Sweden. In relation to the children’s diets, parents filled out a questionnaire supplied from IDEFICS that defined the frequency with which 43 common foods were consumed. Dr. Tongon’s team gathered additional dietary data by interviewing a sample of parents from the IDEFICS study.

Children were then scored on their adherence to foods considered to be staples of a Mediterranean diet, including fish, vegetables, fruits, cereal grains and nuts. A single point was given for every Mediterranean food group eaten, and another point was given if children had a low intake of foods not considered typical of the Mediterranean diet like meat and dairy.

The results of Dr. Tognon’s study showed that children with a higher number of points were 10 to 15 percent less likely to be overweight or obese compared to children with a lower number of points. These children were also less likely to go through major changes on the BMI scale or gain body fat.

The study also showed that Italian children were the most likely to consume a Mediterranean diet and in Sweden, where the children had the highest frequencies of intakes of

cereal grains, fruit, nuts and vegetables.

The take home message,” Dr. Tognon said, “is that there is a need to recommend to children a dietary pattern, particularly in the Mediterranean countries where people might still be convinced that they are following a diet like this, which is often not true anymore.”


Body weight, cholesterol, blood pressure (BP), glucose/insulin status and function, oxidative stress and inflammation are all cardiometabolic risk factors that can be influenced by an individual’s choice of dietary pattern. The Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) is considered one of the healthiest dietary patterns and is characterized by high consumption of vegetables, fruit, olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish and poultry.

Currently, the world is experiencing epidemic proportions of individuals diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is predominantly a lifestyle disease and a metabolic condition that is accompanied by many of the above metabolic factors, which greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular issues. According to the American Heart Association, “at least 68 percent of people age 65 or older with diabetes die from some form of heart disease; and 16 percent die of stroke.”

In recent years, an important advancement in nutritional science has recognized that an individual’s dietary pattern is more important than selective nutrients. A dietary pattern filled with many combinations of nutrients and compounds, such as the MedDiet pattern, can provide an overall synergistic effect that can greatly reduce health risks and provide beneficial health advantages.

A recent review in Endocrine, looked at the MedDiet pattern in relation to a variety of cardiometabolic factors for type 2 diabetes risk and treatment and, compared to control diets, has found the following:

For prevention of type 2 diabetes, a higher adherence to the MedDiet pattern can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 18-40 percent. For those following a MedDiet, the probability of remission of the metabolic syndrome is 34-74 percent. In relation to glycemic control, compared to control diets the MedDiet reduced Hba1c by 0.30-0.47 percent. And following a MedDiet with carbohydrate content below 50 percent, patients saw a higher rate of complete remission 14.7 percent at year one, 5 percent at year six, compared to 4 and zero percent for a low-fat diet.

In relation to cardiovascular risk factors, overall the studies show a decreased waist circumference of 42 cm, decreased total cholesterol of 5.4 to 8.9 mg/dl, decreased triglycerides of 6.14 mg/dl, increased HDL cholesterol of 1.17 mg/dl, decreased systolic BP by 2.35 mmHg, and decreased diastolic BP by 1.5 mmHg. Following a MedDiet reduces overall body weight by 0.29 to 2.2 kg compared to control diets. Overall people who follow a MedDiet over an average period of 4.8 years have a 28-30 percent reduced risk of clinical cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction, stroke and death.

The proposed mechanisms for the beneficial effects of the MedDiet on type 2 diabetes cardiometabolic risk factors are the anti-inflammatory and antioxidative nature of the dietary pattern. The switch from low-quality food sources such as refined sugars, starches, trans fats, and high-calorie foods; to high-quality food sources that contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, influences the immune system in a beneficial way, reducing oxidative stress and the inflammatory cascade.

Inflammation is linked to increased insulin resistance, which is not only a precursor to type 2 diabetes diagnosis, but is an ongoing challenge facing those already diagnosed with diabetes as well. Many studies have shown that the circulation of proinflammatory molecules is reduced in those who consume a MedDiet pattern, which may, in turn, improve insulin sensitivity and endothelial function at the vascular level. Improvements in endothelial function have also been shown in diabetics that follow a MedDiet pattern.

Another interesting point is that the benefits achieved by those following a MedDiet pattern appear to be sustained benefits compared to those following control diets such as low-fat diets.

Blood pressure

The second report in the series “Olive Oil as Medicine” by the University of California at Davis Olive Center recommends consumption of extra virgin olive oil to lower high blood pressure. The first report, published in March 2015, looked at the impact of EVOO on blood lipids and lipoproteins.

For the purpose of this latest report the authors, Mary Flynn and Selina Wang, looked at human studies published in PubMed carried out from 1998 through July 2015 on olive oil and its effect on high blood pressure and found only seven studies that met their stringent established criteria.

The first study, conducted in 2000, found that daily consumption of 40 to 30 grams of EVOO by 23 hypertensive individuals for six months was more effective in lowering blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic) than sunflower oil. In fact, 35 percent of the participants were able to discontinue their hypertensive medications after consuming EVOO daily for six months.

The other studies found that EVOO with a high phenolic content was more effective in lowering either systolic or diastolic blood pressure in comparison to sunflower oil, soybean oil, or refined olive oil with low phenol content.

Only one other study conducted on young women with high blood pressure found that consumption of EVOO with high phenolic content for eight weeks was more effective in lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure than refined olive oil. This study further reported that phenol-rich EVOO was more effective in lowering blood pressure than that reported from a DASH study. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet recommended consumption of about nine serving of fruits and vegetables daily to reduce blood pressure.

The DASH diet, effective in lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels in blood, is recommended for patients with high blood pressure in the US, where the incidence of high blood pressure or hypertension is particularly high.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high blood pressure affects one in three Americans. Making dietary and lifestyle changes could be effective in preventing complications that arise from high blood pressure such as increased risk of heart attack, stroke, chronic heart failure, and kidney disease.

In this latest report, the University of California Davis Olive Center aims to provide clinicians with practical advice backed by scientific evidence on the effectiveness of olive oil in lowering blood pressure.

The report summarizes that a daily consumption of at least two tablespoons of phenol-rich EVOO can be effective in lowering blood pressure. The authors recommend further research to determine specific EVOO phenols that have blood pressure lowering effect.

Cardiovascular benefits

Many different cardiovascular problems—including gradual blocking of the arteries and blood vessels (called atherosclerosis)—have their origin in two unwanted circumstances. The first of these circumstances is called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress means too much damage (or risk of damage) from the presence of overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules. One of the best ways to help avoid oxidative stress is to consume a diet that is rich in antioxidant nutrients. The second of these circumstances is ongoing (chronic) and undesirable low-level inflammation. Undesirable and chronic inflammation can result from a variety of factors, including unbalanced metabolism, unbalanced lifestyle, unwanted exposure to environmental contaminants, and other factors. One of the best ways to help avoid chronic and unwanted inflammation is to consume a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients. Any food that is rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients is a natural candidate for lowering our risk of heart problems, because it contains the exactly right combination of nutrients to lower our risk of oxidative stress and chronic, unwanted inflammation. Many foods contain valuable amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, but few foods are as rich in these compounds as extra virgin olive oil, and this fact alone accounts for many of the research-based benefits of this culinary oil for health of our cardiovascular system.

In terms of antioxidant protection for our blood vessels, olive oil has been shown to lower risk of lipid peroxidation (oxygen damage to fat) in our bloodstream. Many of the fat-containing molecules in our blood—including molecules like LDL—need to be protected from oxygen damage. Oxygen damage to molecules like LDL significantly increases our risk of numerous cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis. Protection of the LDL molecules in our blood from oxygen damage is a major benefit provided by olive oil and its polyphenols. Equally important is protection against oxygen damage to the cells that line our blood vessels. Once again, it's the polyphenols in olive oil that have been shown to provide us with that protection.

One process we don't want to see in our blood vessels is too much clumping together of blood cells called platelets. While we want to see blood platelets clump together under circumstances like an open wound, where their clumping together acts to seal off the wound, we don't want this process to occur in an ongoing way when there is no acute emergency. Several of the polyphenols found in olive oil—including hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein and luteolin—appear to be especially helpful in keeping our blood platelets in check and avoiding problems of too much clumping (called platelet aggregation). There are also two messaging molecules (called plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 and factor VII) that are capable of triggering too much clumping together of the platelets, and the polyphenols in olive oil can help stop overproduction of these molecules.

Olive oil is one of the few widely used culinary oils that contains about 75% of its fat in the form of oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid). Research has long been clear about the benefits of oleic acid for proper balance of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol in the body. When diets low in monounsaturated are made high in monounsaturated fat (by replacing other oils with olive oil), research study participants tend to experience a significant decrease in their total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and LDL:HDL ratio. Those are exactly the results we want for heart health. In addition to these cholesterol-balancing effects of olive oil and its high oleic acid content, however, comes a new twist: recent research studies have shown that olive oil and its oleic acid may be important factors for lowering blood pressure. Researchers believe that the plentiful amount of oleic acid in olive oil gets absorbed into the body, finds its way into cell membranes, changes signaling patterns at a cell membrane level (specifically, altering G-protein associated cascades) and thereby lowers blood pressure.

Interestingly, a recent laboratory animal study adds one note of caution for anyone wanting to bring the unique cardiovascular benefits of olive oil into their diet. This study found that cardiovascular benefits from olive oil and its polyphenols were not realized when the laboratory animals consumed too many calories and too much total food. This result suggests that olive oil—outstanding as it is in polyphenol protection of our cardiovascular system—needs to be integrated into an overall healthy diet in order to provide its expected benefits.

Anti-cancer Benefits

The polyphenols found in olive oil are a natural for helping us lower our risk of certain cancer types. Many types of cancer only get initiated when cells are overwhelmed by oxidative stress (damage to cell structure and function by overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules) and by chronic excessive inflammation. Since the polyphenols in olive oil act both as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules, they are perfectly suited for lowering our cells' risk of oxidative stress and chronic unwanted inflammation. Research studies have shown that as little as 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil per day can lower our risk of certain cancer types, including cancers of the breast, respiratory tract, upper digestive tract, and to a lesser extent, lower digestive tract (colorectal cancers). In some research studies, the anti-cancer benefits of olive oil do not show up until the diets of routine olive oil users are compared with the diets of individuals who seldom use olive oil and who instead consume added fats that are more saturated in composition (for example, butter).

While most of the anti-cancer research on olive oil has focused on its polyphenols and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, several studies have uncovered other fascinating ways in which olive oil provides its anti-cancer benefits. These other ways include the improvement of cell membrane function in a way that lowers risk of cancer development and the altering gene expression in cells in a way that enhances their antioxidant defense system. A final important mechanism linking olive oil intake to decreased cancer risk involves protection of our DNA. The antioxidants in olive oil appear to have a special ability to protect DNA (deoxyribonucleic acids)—the key chemical component of genetic material in our cells—from oxygen damage. DNA protection from unwanted oxidative stress means better cell function in wide variety of ways and provides a cell with decreased risk of cancer development.

There is also encouraging research on the potential for olive oil to help with control of certain cancers once they have already developed. For example, improvement of breast cancer status has been an area of particular interest in olive oil research. Here some of the research has focused on the secoiridoids in olive oil (especially oleocanthal), and its ability to help keep breast cancer cells from reproducing. Another example involves the ability of hydroxytyrosol (HT) in olive oil to trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) in colon cancer cells. HT may be able to accomplish this anti-cancer effect by helping block the enzymatic activity of fatty acid synthetase (FAS). These cancer-controlling properties of olive oil and olive oil constituents are generally referred to as the "antiproliferative" properties of olive oil. We expect to see more future research in this area.

Bone Health Benefits

Support of overall bone health is another promising area of olive oil research. While most of the initial study in this area has been conducted on laboratory animals, better blood levels of calcium have been repeatedly associated with olive oil intake. In addition, at least two polyphenols in olive oil—tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol—have been shown to increase bone formation in rats. A recent group of researchers has also suggested that olive oil may eventually prove to have special bone benefits for post-menopausal women, since they found improved blood markers of overall bone health in female rats who had been fed olive oil after having their ovaries removed. Taken as a group, the above studies suggest that bone health benefits may eventually be viewed as an important aspect of olive oil intake.

Stress benefits

A new study has revealed that extra-virgin olive oil can protect the liver from oxidative stress.

As part of the study, scientists exposed rats to a moderately toxic herbicide known to deplete antioxidants and cause oxidative stress, finding that those rats fed on a diet containing the olive oil were partially protected from the resulting liver damage.

Mohamed Hammami from the University of Monastir, Tunisia and King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, worked with a team of researchers to carry out the experiments in a group of 80 rats.

He said, “Olive oil is an integral ingredient in the Mediterranean diet. There is growing evidence that it may have great health benefits including the reduction in coronary heart disease risk, the prevention of some cancers and the modification of immune and inflammatory responses. Here, we’ve shown that extra virgin olive oil and its extracts protect against oxidative damage of hepatic tissue.”

The study appeared in BioMed Central’s open access journal Nutrition and Metabolism.

The researchers separated the rats into a control group, an olive oil group, and 6 groups that were exposed to the herbicide ‘2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid’ with or without either whole olive oil, or one of two oil extracts – the hydrophilic fraction or the lipophilic fraction. All rats given the herbicide showed signs of significant liver damage.

However, extra virgin olive oil and hydrophilic fraction intake induced a significant increase in antioxidant enzyme activity and a decrease in markers of liver damage.

Speaking about the results, Hammami said, “The hydrophilic fraction of olive oil seems to be the effective one in reducing toxin-induced oxidative stress, indicating that hydrophilic extract may exert a direct antioxidant effect on hepatic cells. However, more detailed studies about the effect of antioxidant compounds separately and/or their interactions are necessary to substantiate these observations.”