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What are the health benefits of olive oil?

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The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed by experts as heart-healthy and nutritious. One key reason is olive oil.

Numerous studies suggest that including extra-virgin olive oil in your diet has benefits for health, thanks in part to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity associated with its phenolic compounds.

According to a 2022 study in the Caspian Journal of Environmental Sciences, “The unsaturated fatty acids in olive oil reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure.”

The study said that the main source countries for olive oil are Spain, Italy and Greece and that those countries have less colon, breast and prostate cancer, less Alzheimer’s disease and a growing life expectancy compared to folks in Northern Europe.

But a 2023 study in Nature says not all olive oils are the same. After following results for more than 12,000 subjects for an average of 10.7 years, researchers said that “daily moderate consumption of virgin olive oil — (1-1/2 tablespoons) was associated with a one-third lower risk of all-cause as well as half the risk of cardiovascular mortality. These effects were not seen for common olive oil.”

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a study led by Harvard researchers that analyzed data from 28 years of the Nurses’ Health Study, looking at data on 60,582 women, combined with 31,801 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study in the same years, 1990-2018. When the studies started, all were free of heart disease and cancer. They each took a diet questionnaire every four years.

The researchers concluded that for those with the highest olive oil intake, the risk of cardiovascular disease death dropped 19%, while cancer mortality risk dropped 17%. They also had 29% lower risk of neurodegenerative disease death, and 18% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease.

The researchers wrote that “replacing margarine, butter, mayonnaise and dairy fat with olive oil was associated with lower risk of mortality.”

Healthline outlines a number of benefits of olive oil, based on studies, starting with its fat content, which is predominantly oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. That’s believed to reduce inflammation and some say it reduces cancer risk, though different studies have different findings on cancer.

Olive oil also contains antioxidants, potentially reducing risk for chronic disease, among other potential health benefits, the article says.

It, too, notes that “buying the right kind of olive oil is extremely important.” The article suggests reading the ingredient list and checking for quality certification since some labeled “extra-virgin” have been diluted with other refined oils.

Replace, don’t slather

Because olive oil is fairly high in calories, health experts told The New York Times that olive oil shouldn’t just be poured on or into foods. Rather, it should be used as a replacement for “less healthy fat sources — especially butter and full-fat dairy products, which contain saturated fats that can raise your LDL levels.”

The Times’ experts suggest aiming for no more than three or four tablespoons of olive oil a day, “as that amount is associated with the greatest benefit.” Nor, writes Times reporter Dani Blum, should people think that olive oil alone will transform health.

Other experts point out that butter, in moderation, is part of a healthy diet. “Moderate amounts of saturated fat, like what you find in butter, can be part of a healthy diet as well, and butter also contains nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins,” Jessica Titchenal, doctor of clinical nutrition and a certified nutrition specialist practitioner, told Wellandgood.com. She said butter and olive oil are different fats, “so sometimes it just wouldn’t work in a dish to sub one out for the other. ‘Both butter and olive oil can be included in a healthy diet,’” the article said.

Spain and shoplifted olive oil

A bit of strange olive oil-related news broke this week with word that in Spain, which is the biggest producer of olive oil, supermarkets are “locking up bottles of the staple cooking oil as prices surge and theft increases,” per Reuters.

The article said one-liter bottles were selling for the equivalent of almost $16 in some stores, “propelling olive oil into the category of products retailers fit with security tags, alongside cosmetics, spirits and appliances.”

It said that the price of olive oil has “surged by 150% over the past two years in Spain as a scorching drought in the south has dented the olive harvest. Organized criminal gangs are stealing the oil to resell.”

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