Olive oil has long been touted as a healthy fat, but should you pour it on your salad or take it as a supplement?
We all know eating a balanced diet is essential for living healthily. Making sure we’re ingesting all the major food groups and getting the vital vitamins and nutrients we need is key to achieving optimal mental and physical health. To bolster this, many of us turn to supplements to make sure we’re covering all our nutritional needs.
While lots of us are familiar with taking fish oil and omega-3 capsules to help boost our bodily functions, there’s another oil-based supplement that could also be worth exploring.
Olive oil has long been touted as a heart-healthy and nutritious food. We pour it on salads, douse roasted veg in it and whip it up into vinegarette, but could this glossy golden liquid have more health benefits than we might realise?
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In fact, a huge study by Harvard University found that olive oil can lower the risk of premature death. The US-based research analysed more than 60,000 women and 30,000 men over 25 years from 1991 to 2018 and found those who consumed the highest amounts of olive oil (more than seven grams a day) had a 19% lower risk of disease, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurodegenerative disease, compared to people who never or almost never consumed it.
So, what’s behind olive oil’s genius properties and should we be taking it as a supplement given its seemingly brilliant impact on our health?
As more and more olive oil supplements and products hit the shelves, we decided to delve into the science behind olive’s health benefits and how pouring it over your salad differs from popping a capsule.
What is actually in olive oil?
As you might have guessed, olive oil is a liquid fat created by pressing and squeezing whole olives. “Its nutritional profile contains several different kinds of fats, mainly monounsaturated, as well as substantial quantities of vitamins including vitamin E and vitamin K,” explains Jessie Jones, nutrition coach at OriGym.
These monounsaturated fats are the thing to note. “Monounsaturated is considered to be the healthiest of fats and is related to heart health,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan.
What are the benefits of olive oil?
The antioxidants in olive oil are one of its main benefits. “Olive oil has one of the highest levels of oleic acid which encourages the regeneration of cells and clearing out of toxins,” says Jones. “This is why a diet with plenty of olive oil can help to prevent inflammation, heart disease and even help to control cholesterol.”
“Olive oil is rich in vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that also helps promote healthy skin, eyes and immunity,” explains Dr Brewer. “Other antioxidant compounds in olive oil, such as oleocanthal, act as an anti-inflammatory in the body. In fact, one study even said its anti-inflammatory profile and potency were strikingly similar to ibuprofen.”
Olive oil is safe and healthy for most people due to its low saturated fat levels and the health benefits of its prominent ingredients. “These monounsaturated fats are related to heart health,” explains Dr Brewer. “These fats help to reduce inflammation in the body. Extra virgin olive oil also helps to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL (cholesterol thatis good for heart health).
Olive oil is usually safe to consume. However, if you have a medical condition and you’re concerned about consuming more olive oil, consult with a healthcare practitioner.
What are olive oil capsules and are they a good alternative to eating olive oil?
Olive oil capsules are simply a small amount of olive oil placed inside a soft gel capsule shell. Some brands will combine oils in a capsule to provide all of the essential fatty acids: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 (which are found in olive oil).
However, Jones says they’re not as good as incorporating olive oil into your diet as a wider, holistic health effort. “This is especially because it would take around six capsules to get a teaspoon of olive oil so it can end up being much more expensive,” she says.
“Olive oil is safe to consume. The concentrated capsules may be a problem if someone is allergic or hypersensitive to olives or related plants,” says Dr Brewer. “Olive oil seems to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels so taking a supplement alongside medication for these conditions may be an issue and something to consult your GP about.”
One of the biggest differences between capsules and eating olive oil with meals is the quality and quantity of the oil itself. “Often, even if the capsules contain virgin oil, it will not be organic and it will be of a lower quality,” says Jones. “Buying oil in a bottle means you have control over what and how much you use.”
If you struggle to incorporate olive oil into your diet, the easiest way to start is by simply consuming it with a spoon. “It is much easier and more enjoyable to just include olive oil in your diet by way of food,” says Dr Brewer. “I think it would be better to focus on the diet overall and include extra virgin olive oil as part of this.”
What’s the difference between extra-virgin olive oil and normal olive oil? Does it matter which one we eat?
You’ll have noticed that you can either buy fairly expensive extra-virgin olive oil, or cheaper standard varieties, but what’s the difference? Well, it’s all to do with the levels of processing involved.
“Extra-virgin olive oil is made from pure, cold-pressed olives,” says Dr Brewer. “Regular olive oil however is normally a blend made up of both cold-pressed and processed oils.”
“Extra-virgin and virgin olive oil can only be extracted naturally, using mechanical methods, rather than with heat or solvents,” explains Jones.
This creates a difference in the taste and the number of antioxidants and nutrients in both oils. “Standard olive oil will lose some of its nutritional benefits and antioxidants in the refining process,” says Jones. It’s also worth looking out for certain olive oils that are actually a mixture of olive and other cheaper oils with less nutritional value.
This means it absolutely matters which one we eat.
“Extra-virgin or virgin oils contain the same amount of beneficial properties and health-boosting qualities,” adds Jones. The only difference between extra-virgin and virgin is taste. To be counted as ‘extra’ virgin, the oil must use olives with no defects (usually aged or fermented olives affecting the clarity of the flavour). “If you can afford it, this is the tastiest and the most nutritious, but you’re getting all the health benefits with just ‘virgin’.”
To spot the difference between the two, Dr Brewer explains that standard olive oil is generally lighter in colour with a milder taste and is a lot cheaper. “Extra virgin olive oil is much richer in flavour normally quite peppery and is better suited for dressing or as a dipping oil.”
Jones suggests looking for organic oil free of any pesticides, which can damage the nutritional content of the plants themselves.
How much olive oil should we be eating?
“It is recommended that no more than 15% of the energy we consume comes from fat and the best ones to choose are healthy sourced from foods such as avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish and, of course, olive oil,” says Dr Brewer. “There are no set guidelines about how much extra-virgin olive oil to eat but just remember it is still a fat so high in calories. I would still advise using it sparingly but just make this your main choice of fat.”
Jones suggests eating between one and two tablespoons of olive oil a day. “This is enough to get the health benefits without any negatives,” she explains. However, olive oil is low in saturated fat so it’s not a risk to consume more.
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To incorporate it into our diet, Jones suggests drizzling olive oil over things like soups, salads and other savoury dishes. “It’s great to cook with too as it’s one of the best oils for retaining its health properties when subjected to a high heat.”
Find more nutritional information on Strong Women Training Club.
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