olive oil – healthy superfoods – by Dr. Alberto Parra
It’s impossible not to talk about olive oil when addressing the topic of healthy living. Olive oil is an integral part of the Mediterranean Diet, one that’s been regarded to hold many health benefits for the cardiovascular and metabolic system. The Mediterranean Diet consists of increasing the intake of plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts while replacing red meats with fish and saturated fat with olive oil and other sources of unsaturated fats. All of these dietary changes significantly improve blood values and overall health, but olive oil deserves particular attention as it has many demonstrated and a few suggested health applications we will further review in this article.
Solid facts about olive oil
There’s a difference between common sense, anecdotal health applications, and scientifically proven facts. Olive oil has received much attention from the scientific community, and we already have enough data to know what it really does in our bodies. Most of the health benefits of olive oil come from its high content in monounsaturated fatty acids, but it also has other minor components called phenolic compounds, with anti-inflammatory and protective effects to the blood vessels. When performing their research about olive oil, most authors focus on these health benefits:
- Olive oil lowers bad cholesterol and improves good cholesterol levels: Bad cholesterol (LDL) is usually involved in transporting fats to the tissues. It is essential in fat metabolism, but when it’s too high, it causes an accumulation of fat in the arteries. The so-called good cholesterol (HDL) has the opposite function, collecting fat from the tissues and bringing them back to be metabolized by the liver. Many studies have found that olive oil improves our cardiovascular health by increasing our circulating levels of HDL while decreasing LDL cholesterol.
- It reduces the risk of atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis features an accumulation of fat in the blood vessels in the form of plaques that progressively clog the arteries. By having less LDL cholesterol the risk of atherosclerosis lowers significantly, but olive oil also reduces the rate of oxidizability of LDL, which is an important step in the formation of plaques. In simple words, olive oil lowers bad cholesterol in the blood and prevents the circulating cholesterol from turning into plaques.
- It improves our levels of blood sugar: Patients with type 2 diabetes and those suffering from pre-diabetes, also known as insulin resistance, improve their blood sugar after replacing saturated fats with olive oil. This is because the sensitivity to insulin improves in the tissues, and they will be able to handle blood glucose faster.
- Olive oil helps us control our blood pressure: This is one of the effects of the Mediterranean Diet, but it’s still possible to obtain the same benefit with olive oil alone. Studies have shown that, even in non-Mediterranean diets, patients improve their blood pressure with olive oil if they consistently reduce their consumption of saturated fats as well. Thus, the healthy fats in olive oil will help you normalize your blood pressure, but only if you stop consuming fast foods, butter, fatty meats, and other sources of unhealthy fats.
- It’s important for our blood vessels: The lining of the smallest blood vessels is called endothelium, and this thin sheet of cells holds an impressive regulating potential for the cardiovascular function. Endothelial dysfunction increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and it is directly affected by our diet. Studies show that the phenolic content in olive oil improves the normal endothelial function, helping to regulate the vascular tone and avoiding severe cardiovascular events such as stroke and heart attack.
- Prevents the formation of thrombi: Olive oil lowers the risk of thromboembolism and the creation of thrombi in many different ways. It reduces platelet aggregation and inhibits different metabolic factors associated with the creation of thrombi. For example, it reduces the production of thromboxane B2, and other coagulation agents called von Willebrand factor, Factor VII, and Factor XII.
Some suggested health applications
Olive oil brings about many other health benefits, but some of them need some additional data to be declared as solid facts. However, these are equally meaningful health applications, supported by many studies and still under investigation:
- Olive oil for obese and overweight patients: Obesity is a multifactorial health condition, which means there are many different things to change if you want to lose weight. However, replacing unhealthy fats with olive oil seems to increase the effectiveness of weight-loss diets, especially if they are paired up with physical activity. Additionally, as we have mentioned earlier, olive oil improves the blood lipids in these patients, which is equally beneficial for their cardiovascular health.
- Olive oil reduces chronic inflammation: Obesity by itself contributes to chronic inflammation, but olive oil reduces the inflammatory response by other pathways. There’s an inflammatory marker called NF-kB which is significantly lower in people who consume olive oil on a regular basis, and this anti-inflammatory effect could be beneficial for several diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Olive oil, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease: Some studies have also linked consuming unsaturated fatty acids in olive oil with a reduction in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. The mechanism is still unknown, but it is probably because the essential fatty acids in olive oil are useful for the enzymes and neurotransmitters’ receptors in neurons, and they make up the neuronal membranes of these cells.
- Olive oil and cancer prevention: Different studies have also reported that olive oil has a vital role in cancer prevention. Even if there are still inconsistent results, everything seems to point out that healthy fats in olive oil prevent breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer at the very least. Unsaturated fatty acids from olive oil may exert a protective effect by reducing the oxidative stress in cells, which causes DNA damage and turns cells into tumors. But many different pathways have been proposed, including the modulation of the immune system, a better hormonal balance, and other potential mechanisms.