A pantry staple
The Mediterranean-style diet may lower the risk of several different chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. It also seems to help people live longer. Along with whole grains, plenty of fish, beans, and fresh vegetables, the Mediterranean diet is rich in olive oil.
The health benefits of olive oil--including decreased inflammation, improved blood sugar control, blood pressure-lowering activity, and protection from hardening of the arteries--seem to come from the monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E that olive oil is famous for. But whether it's olive oil itself, other components of the diet, or some combination of these that is responsible for the mortality-reducing effects of the Mediterranean diet isn't completely understood.
Olive oil weighs in
To see what effect olive oil had on mortality, 40,622 healthy people from five different regions in Spain gave information about their dietary habits as part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. For 14 years, researchers kept track of deaths among the participants.
- Compared with people who ate no olive oil, overall mortality risk in those who ate the most (about 2 tablespoons per day) decreased 26% and mortality risk from cardiovascular disease decreased 44%.
- For each increase of 10 grams of olive oil per day, the overall risk of death decreased by 7% and the risk of death from heart disease fell by 13%.
- Olive oil consumption did not seem to affect the risk of death from cancer.
"Our findings provide further evidence on the effects that one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet has on mortality, and support the need to preserve the habitual use of olive oil within this healthy dietary pattern," said lead study author, Genevieve Buckland of the Catalan Institute of Oncology in Barcelona. "This is especially important in light of the progressive loss of the Mediterranean diet and the increased intake of [unhealthy fats] across many Mediterranean countries."
Just a spoonful of olive oil
Getting more olive oil into your diet is easy. Try these tips to get your 2 tablespoons:
- For "better butter," blend equal parts of butter and olive oil in a food processor until combined. Store the spread in an airtight container in the fridge. Use wherever you enjoy butter.
- Make your own salad dressing using olive oil as a base. Most commercial dressings (even the ones in health food stores) are made with soybean or canola oil.
Cook with it, but watch the heat. Since olive oil has a low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to break down), it's best to use it for lower-temperature applications, like sauteing.
(Am J Clin Nutr 2012;doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.024216)