Why Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is the Healthiest Fat on Earth
By Kris Gunnars
Dietary fats are highly controversial, with debates about animal fats, seed oils, and everything in between in full force.
That said, most people agree that extra virgin olive oil is incredibly healthy.
Part of the Mediterranean diet, this traditional oil has been a dietary staple for some of the world's healthiest populations.
Studies show that the fatty acids and antioxidants in olive oil can offer some powerful health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
This article reviews why extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest fats.
What Is Olive Oil and How Is It Made?
Olive oil is oil that has been extracted from olives, the fruits of the olive tree.
The production process is incredibly simple. Olives can be pressed to extract their oil, but modern methods involve crushing the olives, mixing them together, and then separating the oil from the pulp in a centrifuge.
After centrifugation, small amounts of oil remain in the pomace. The leftover oil can be extracted using chemical solvents and is known as olive pomace oil.
Olive pomace oil is generally cheaper than regular olive oil and has a bad reputation.
Buying the right type of olive oil is crucial. There are three main grades of olive oil — refined, virgin, and extra virgin. Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed or refined type.
Extra virgin olive oil is considered to be the healthiest type of olive oil. It's extracted using natural methods and standardized for purity and certain sensory qualities like taste and smell.
Olive oil that is truly extra virgin has a distinct taste and is high in phenolic antioxidants, which is the main reason why it's so beneficial.
Legally, vegetable oils that are labeled as olive oil cannot be diluted with other types of oils. Nevertheless, it's essential to inspect the label carefully and buy from a reputable seller.
Nutrient Composition of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is fairly nutritious.
It contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K and plenty of beneficial fatty acids.
One tablespoon (13.5 grams) of olive oil contains the following:
- Saturated fat: 14%
- Monounsaturated fat: 73% (mostly oleic acid)
- Vitamin E: 13% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin K: 7% of the DV
Notably, extra virgin olive oil shines in its antioxidant content.
Antioxidants are biologically active, and some of them can help fight serious diseases.
The oil's main antioxidants include the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, as well as oleuropein, a substance that protects LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation.
Some people have criticized olive oil for having a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (over 10:1). However, its total amount of polyunsaturated fats is still relatively low, so this shouldn't be a cause for concern.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Contains Anti-Inflammatory Substances
Some speculate that olive oil's ability to fight inflammation is behind its many health benefits.
Oleic acid, the most prominent fatty acid in olive oil, has been found to reduce inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein.
However, the oil's main anti-inflammatory effects seem to be due to its antioxidants, primarily oleocanthal, which has been shown to work like ibuprofen, a popular anti-inflammatory drug.
Researchers estimate that the amount of oleocanthal in 50 ml (about 3.4 tablespoons) of extra virgin olive oil exerts effects similar to those of 10 percent of the adult ibuprofen dosage for pain relief.
Also, one study showed that substances in olive oil can reduce the expression of genes and proteins that mediate inflammation.
Keep in mind that chronic, low-level inflammation is usually fairly mild, and it takes years or decades for it to do damage.
Using extra virgin olive oil may help prevent this from happening, leading to a reduced risk of various inflammatory diseases, especially heart disease.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, are among the most common causes of death in the world.
Many observational studies show that death from these diseases is low in certain areas of the world, especially in countries around the Mediterranean Sea.
This observation originally spurred interest in the Mediterranean diet, which is supposed to mimic the way the people in those countries eat.
Studies on the Mediterranean diet show that it can help prevent heart disease. In one major study, it reduced heart attacks, strokes, and death by 30 percent.
Extra virgin olive oil protects against heart disease via numerous mechanisms:
- Reducing inflammation. Olive oil protects against inflammation, a key driver of heart disease.
- Reduces oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol. The oil protects LDL particles from oxidative damage, a key factor in the development of heart disease.
- Improves blood vessel health. Olive oil improves the function of the endothelium, which is the lining of the blood vessels.
- Helps manage blood clotting. Some studies suggest that olive oil can help prevent unwanted blood clotting, a key feature of heart attacks and strokes.
- Lowers blood pressure. One study in patients with elevated blood pressure found that olive oil reduced blood pressure significantly and lowered the need for blood pressure medication by 48 percent.
Given the biological effects of olive oil, it's not surprising that people who consume the greatest amounts of it are significantly less likely to die from heart attacks and strokes.
Dozens — if not hundreds — of animal and human studies have shown that olive oil has major benefits for the heart.
In fact, the evidence is strong enough to recommend that people who have or are at a high risk of developing heart disease include plenty of extra virgin olive oil in their diets.
Other Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although olive oil has mostly been studied for its effects on heart health, its consumption has also been associated with a number of other health benefits.
Olive Oil and Cancer
Cancer is a common cause of death and characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells.
Studies have shown that people living in the Mediterranean countries have a fairly low risk of cancer, and some have speculated that olive oil has something to do with this.
One potential contributor to cancer is oxidative damage due to harmful molecules called free radicals. However, extra virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage.
The oleic acid in olive oil is also highly resistant to oxidation and has been shown to have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.
Many test-tube studies have observed that compounds in olive oil can help fight cancer at the molecular level.
That said, controlled trials in humans have yet to study whether olive oil helps prevent cancer.
Olive Oil and Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease is the world's most common neurodegenerative disease and a leading cause of dementia.
One feature of Alzheimer's is a buildup of protein tangles called beta-amyloid plaques in certain neurons in the brain.
A study in mice observed that a substance in olive oil can help clear these plaques.
Additionally, a controlled study in humans showed that a Mediterranean diet enriched with olive oil improved brain function and reduced the risk of cognitive impairment.
Can You Cook With It?
During cooking, fatty acids can oxidize, meaning they react with oxygen and become damaged.
The double bonds in fatty acid molecules are mostly responsible for this.
For this reason, saturated fats, which have no double bonds, are resistant to high heat. Meanwhile, polyunsaturated fats, which have many double bonds, are sensitive and become damaged.
Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids, which have only one double bond, and is fairly resistant to high heat.
In one study, researchers heated extra virgin olive oil to 356°F (180°C) for 36 hours. The oil was highly resistant to damage.
Another study used olive oil for deep-frying, and it took 24–27 hours for it to reach damage levels that were deemed harmful.
Overall, olive oil seems to be very safe — even for cooking at fairly high heat.
The Bottom Line
Olive oil is super healthy.
For those who have heart disease or are at a high risk of developing it, olive oil is most definitely a superfood.
The benefits of this wonderful fat are among the few things that most people in nutrition agree upon.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
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Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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