The surprising health benefits of olive oil uncovered!

Research shows the many health benefits of olive oil, namely its ability to protect against diseases such as cancer. Consuming three tablespoons of olive oil daily, combined with a healthy Mediterranean diet is even being touted as an easy weight loss tool!

The latest local research shows olive oil is great for weight loss
Hannah Mayr is currently undertaking her phD at La Trobe University in Melbourne, investigating the effects of a traditional Mediterranean diet versus a low fat diet in patients with heart disease. Olive oil is considered the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet.

“A key component of the recommendations for the med diet intervention group is to choose extra virgin olive oil as their main culinary fat, with a recommended intake of 60-80mL (3-4 tablespoons) per day," says Mayr. "So far most participants are achieving this target and enjoy the enhanced flavour of their meals. They are also amazed that the increased fat and calorie intake has not contributed to any weight gain.”

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Mayr is a strong advocate of extra virgin olive oil, and has increased her own intake as she has become more aware of its phenomenal health properties.

So, what is olive oil?
Olive oil is the natural juice cold pressed or squeezed from fresh olives. It is the Mediterranean region’s principal source of fat and has been used in place of animal fats that are typical of Northern European diets.

Extra virgin olive oil not only maintains the aromas and flavours of natural olives, but it also retains the antioxidants, phytosterols and vitamins. Lower quality olive oils (refined olive oils) lose much of this antioxidant capacity as they are refined by physical and chemical procedures, which cause them to lose their colour and aroma. Consequently, refined olive oils do not exhibit as many health benefits as the more natural extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil can even help protect against disease
Olive oil contains a phytonutrient (a natural compound found in plant foods that promote good health) that acts as an anti-inflammatory, meaning it is implicated in preventing certain types of cancer, particularly breast and digestive tract cancers. Not only does this phytonutrient decrease the risk of developing these cancers, it also decreases the risk of recurrence. Olive oil is also considered to be 'heart healthy'.

Ever wondered how olive oil is made? Watch this!

Studies have reaffirmed the positive effects olive oil has on cardiovascular health. Olive oil is rich in oleic acid (a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid) and polyphenols (natural organic chemicals defined by their complex structure). These promote the function of High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), which involves the extraction of excess cholesterol from cells and delivery to the liver to be metabolised and excreted.

Its high content of oleic acid and polyphenols means that extra virgin olive oil reduces blood pressure and prevents several cardiovascular disease risk factors. Studies have shown integrating olive oil in a healthy way into your diet can also contribute to lowering risks of diabetes, metabolic syndrome (MS) and obesity. Olive oil’s antioxidant capacities have been found to reduce oxidative stress, which is believed to be linked to neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, as well as cancer.

Studies have confirmed that olive oil’s antioxidant capacity decreases one’s risk of atherosclerosis (a disease of the arteries caused by fatty deposits) and its high polyphenol content could even alter the expression of genes related to this disease. Studies have also confirmed that people with diets containing high levels of olive oil are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. This is likely because it helps calcium absorption and improves bone mineralisation and calcification.

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To choose quality olive oil select 'extra virgin oil' in a dark glass container as opposed to those that are in plastic bottles

Cooking with olive oil
Olive oil has also been shown to enhance the health benefits of other foods when combined in cooking, such as Mediterranean vegetables. The Mono-Unsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA) content of olive oil means that it counteracts the increased risk of chronic diseases associated with a high consumption of red meat. Olive oil decreases meat lipid peroxidation, which can lead to cell degradation.

Extra virgin olive oil has a smoking point of about 210 degrees Celsius – although this is lower than some other oils, it is still high enough for almost all types of cooking. As such, olive oil can still be used when deep-frying at home to ensure a flavoursome and it is a healthier option.

Because the monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil are resistant to oxidation, the oil also lasts longer in storage and can be reheated more often that other cooking oils. While it is important to be aware of the calories contained in olive oil, its high antioxidant value and good fatty acid composition renders it the superior choice of cooking oils.

Overall, extra virgin olive oil can be seen as a truly healthy addition to your diet. Mayr recommends using olive oil for salad dressings, frying vegetables, sautéing meat or even in roasting or baking.

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Dress salads with olive oil to easily add to your diet. Learn how to make a healthy summer salad here.

What is your favourite way to use olive oil? Join the conversation below.