Olive oil is the great uniter of the dietary factions. Vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, Mediterranean, Atkins, “clean eaters,” folks who tout the most conventional of conventional wisdom—just about everyone agrees that olive oil is a “good fat.” Heck, even a lot of carnivore dieters will use olive oil to increase their intake of monounsaturated fatty acids despite olive oil’s plant origins.
When a food gets this much good press, especially in the popular media, that’s about the time I usually step in to make a contrarian claim, citing some buried research or pointing out an evolutionary argument against it.
Not with olive oil. As much as I love my avocado oil, I see no reason to question the legitimacy of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as a valid member of your diet. Personally, I include both in my diet on a regular basis. Here’s why.
Health Benefits of Olive Oil
If the internet is to be believed, olive oil is about as close to a panacea as we’ve got, good for everything from improving joint health to lubricating your vocal cords to making your hair grow thicker. While some of the hype is probably overstated (I can’t wrap my head around the idea of drinking olive oil for weight loss), olive oil is rich in compounds that have widely recognized health benefits. Two of note:
Its MUFA content.Monounsaturated fats are pretty much universally lauded. Almost as resistant to oxidation as saturated fats, they raise HDL and lower LDL. Cellular membranes and mitochondria with a lot of monounsaturated fat function better than ones with more polyunsaturated fats. They’re the rock of the fatty acid world.
Its polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols—plant nutrients that act as antioxidants, protecting the plant from predators, oxidative stress, and heat and light. They act as minor toxins in humans, provoking an adaptive hormetic response that makes us stronger, fitter, and healthier.
Olive oil also plays a prominent role in classic Mediterranean cuisine. The Mediterranean diet is perhaps the least controversial of all the eating styles. Almost everyone likes it. (I like it too—if we’re talking about real Mediterranean diets.) Many of the benefits associated with a Mediterranean diet can be chalked up to the types of fats included, olive oil being a major player. In fact, when researchers tried to justify replacing EVOO with canola oil as the primary fat in the Mediterranean diet, they couldn’t do it.1 Wanted to, but couldn’t. Shocker.
So those are all good theoretical reasons to use olive oil. What do human studies say?
Some of the (Extensive) Research Showing Health Benefits of Olive Oil Consumption
…for cardiovascular disease and stroke
Forty-one overweight women ate one of two breakfasts for a year.2 The first was supplemented with soybean oil. The second was supplemented with EVOO. Both breakfasts were identical save for the fat source. At the end of one year, those who ate the EVOO breakfast had higher HDL, lower inflammatory markers, better blood pressure, and lower body weight.
Type 2 diabetics with bad blood lipids either took a statin or EVOO.3The statin was slightly better at reducing LDL and increasing HDL, but not by much, and the EVOO didn’t impair any physiological pathways or cause any undesired second order effects. I’d take the EVOO every time.
In another study, dietary EVOO reduced the number of oxidized LDL and increased HDL in proportion to the phenolic content of the oil: the more phenolics, the greater the effect.4 Similar effects were found in a more recent study in which men were given either EVOO with high phenolic content or refined olive oil with zero phenolics present.5 Men consuming high phenolic EVOO had less oxidized LDL and more phenolics present in LDL, indicating that olive phenolics reach serum LDL and exert antioxidant effects in real live actual humans.
Twenty-three individuals with high blood pressure ate two diets for six months each, one high in EVOO and the other high in sunflower oil.6Only the EVOO diet significantly lowered blood pressure and allowed participants to drop their blood pressure medications by almost half.
A meta-analysis of 32 studies comprising more than 800,000 participants concluded that olive oil is uniquely associated with lower risk for cardiovascular events, stroke, and death.7
Last one (since I think you get the point): In a rather impressive intervention called the PREDIMED trial, more than 7000 participants at high risk of cardiovascular disease were instructed to follow a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either EVOO or nuts, or a low-fat version of a Mediterranean diet with no supplementation.8 The EVOO group was counseled to consume 4 tablespoons or more per day. When researchers followed up around 5 years later, both the supplemented diets resulted in fewer cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, death) compared to the low-fat control group.
…for type 2 diabetes
Using the same PREDIMED protocol, people who were initially at high risk of type 2 diabetes were half as likely to have developed the disease after four years if they were in the added-EVOO or added-nut arm of the trial than if they adhered to a low-fat Mediterranean diet.9
…for bone health
High EVOO consumption was linked to a reduced risk of fractures and osteoporosis among a Mediterranean population aged 55 to 85. High consumption of regular olive oil was not.10
In a separate group of Spanish women, those who reported consuming more olive oil had higher bone density.11
… for oxidative stress
Extra virgin olive oil, but not corn oil, reduces postprandial oxidative stress.12
Ten women who ate high-polyphenol EVOO every day for 8 weeks enjoyed reduced oxidative damage to their DNA, compared to when they consumed low-polyphenol EVOO.13
…for brain health
EVOO bolstered the blood-brain barrier and improved symptoms of dementia among folks with mild cognitive impairment.14
How to Use Olive Oil
First, choose the right olive oil. I have a separate post on that.
Olive oil is great for eating cold and dressing salads. This really brings out the flavors and preserves the polyphenols. The flavor of a good olive oil is nuanced enough to elevate the simplest dishes, and that’s what I enjoy about it. Think everything from marinated nuts and olives to a light dinner of Cacio e Pepe Zoodles.
I’ll occasionally take a teaspoon straight up if it’s good stuff. (And I only have the good stuff. In fact, I make and sell my own EVOO to fit my taste). I really relish that peppery bite you get in the back of your throat—that’s the polyphenol burn.
Olive oil is great for many cooking methods, too. It is resistant to heat damage in low and medium heat applications like slow roasting, baking, and sautéing thanks to the stability of the fatty acids and antioxidant capacity of the polyphenols. It preserves and even enhances the nutrient content of vegetables when used to cook.15
Don’t believe me? Despite being heated at 180ºC (356ºF) for 36 hours, two varieties of EVOO exhibited strong resistance to oxidative damage and retained most of their “minor [phenolic] compounds.” 16 Another study added olive phenols to vegetable oil then heated it. Adding the olive phenols made the vegetable oil more resistant to oxidation and preserved the vitamin E content, offering more protection than even a synthetic antioxidant designed to do the job.17
Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point around 400ºF (refined olive oil is slightly higher). Stay under that, and you’re golden. I generally don’t fry with olive oil, though. Avocado oil, which has a higher smoke point, or tallow are better choices.
Avocado Oil Versus Olive Oil: Which Is Better?
This is like asking me to pick my favorite child. Luckily, I don’t really have to choose. For most applications, they are more or less interchangeable. Avocado oil has a more neutral flavor, and it’s better for high-heat cooking, but their fatty acid profiles are similarly packed with MUFAs. You can’t go wrong with either, and you’ll always find both in my kitchen.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you like olive oil? How do you use it? What’s your favorite way to consume it?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.