Extra Virgin Olive Oil
(Along with its “Sidekick:” Canola Oil)
A source of:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids
- Vitamin E
(Try to eat about a tablespoon most days)
First cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil is the highest-quality olive oil with the maximum phytonutrient content. It will provide the most health benefits as well as the most subtle taste.
A study published in the journal Nature reported that oleocanthal, a compound naturally occurring in extra-virgin olive oil, prevented the production of two proinflammatory enzymes in the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin—without the stomach problems those medications can cause. It also has the highest percentage (about 75 percent) of monounsaturated fat of any culinary oil, and studies have shown that when other dietary fats were replaced with olive oil, the participants’ total cholesterol levels decreased, while their ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol improved.
There is an impressive body of evidence supporting the benefits of olive oil for prevention of many chronic degenerative diseases and the aging process. It has been shown that the antioxidant polyphenols in first cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil not only neutralize free radicals but also modulate cell signaling and gene expression in various pathways. One study has shown that these polyphenols reduced the gene expression associated with atherogenic (plaque buildup) and inflammatory processes.
The authors of this study also reported a reduction in a protein whose overexpression can lead to the production of new blood vessels necessary for cancer growth. This is a fascinating and important example of how the foods we eat can manipulate and affect genetic expression.
The powerful synergy of all the cooperating compounds in extra virgin olive oil seems to have beneficial effect on health, and a wide range of studies has demonstrated that adding olive oil to your regular diet could:
- Reduce your risk for breast and colon cancer
- Lower your blood pressure
- Improve your cardiovascular health
Olive Oil Fights Oxidative Damage
One of the most interesting studies on olive oil suggest what a protective role it can play in preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease. In this study, healthy men consumed 25 ml (milliliters) a day of olive oil (a dose similar to what is consumed in the Mediterranean Diet), and after only four days of olive oil intake, beneficial changes were seen in their blood plasma. The ingestion of olive oil increased the vitamin E and phenolic content of their blood lipids, thus protecting them from oxidative damage that could lead to cardiovascular disease and the development of certain cancers. Interestingly, this is the first study to show the effect of olive oil on DNA. It’s significant that following the consumption of olive oil, there was less oxidation of the DNA. Oxidation of DNA is linked to the development of diseases such as cancer and even to aging itself.
Olive Oil and Blood Pressure
The Mediterranean Diet, first studied in the 1950s and ‘60s, was recognized as a particularly healthy eating pattern—one that seemed to promote long life expectancies and low rates of heart disease and some cancers. The diet consists largely of plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, coarsely ground grains, bread, beans, nuts, and seeds—as well as olive oil. Fish, poultry, and red meat are rare, special occasion foods. People who ate a Mediterranean Diet seemed to enjoy generally low blood pressure.
Olive Oil and Cardiovascular Disease
There’s no doubt that olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants and other phytochemicals, and it’s likely that the lower rates of coronary artery disease in Mediterranean countries are at least partly due to olive oil consumption. There is ample and impressive research that demonstrates that olive oil can play a role in promoting cardiovascular health over and above its ability to reduce blood pressure. We know that diets rich in olive oil have been shown to be effective in lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Certainly, olive oil is one of the significant constituents that contribute to the cardioprotective ability of the Mediterranean Diet. For example, we know that the polyphenols in olive oil are potent antioxidants that help protect LDL from oxidation. Moreover, the presence of monounsaturated fatty acids help biologic membranes, like those of our cell walls, better resist oxidative damage. We know that the oxidation of LDL plays a fundamental role in the progress of arteriosclerosis. In one study, when olive oil was added to the diet of healthy males, it significantly reduced the vulnerability of their LDL to oxidative damage.
Olive Oil and Cancer
There is reason to believe that extra virgin olive oil could play a significant role in preventing cancer. It’s been estimated that up to 25 percent of the incidence of colorectal cancer, 15 percent of the incidence of breast cancer, and approximately 10 percent of the incidence of prostate, pancreas, and endometrial cancers could be prevented if the populations of Western countries would consume the traditional Mediterranean Diet. Of course, this would mean an increase in fruit and vegetable intake as well as the substitution of olive oil as a main source of fat in the diet. While we don’t know exactly what it is in olive oil that provides this protection against cancer, we do know that once again it seems to be the synergy of the whole food.
*This brief summary contains copyrighted material from SuperFoods HealthStyle by Steven G. Pratt, M.D. and Kathy Matthews. Copyright © 2006 by Steven G. Pratt, M.D. and Kathy Matthews Inc., published by HarperCollins; and from SuperFoods Rx For Pregnancy by Steven Pratt, M.D. Copyright © 2013 by SuperFoods Partners, LLC, published by Wiley. All rights reserved.