Health recommendations have frequently focused the way that olive oil can benefit health, and one of the most frequently discussed health benefit of olive oil is its ability to decrease the risk of heart disease.
However, most people probably don’t know what it is that makes olive oil so special and how this particular oil is different than other cooking oils that are commonly used.
One of the most important things to consider about cooking oils in general is the fatty acids that they contain.
Most of the cooking oils that are commonly used in the Western diet are heavy in omega-6 fatty acids.
In fact, omega-6 fatty acids are very common across the Western diet in general, and people tend to consume a high amount of these fatty acids.
Most people have probably heard of the other major type of omega fatty acid, which is omega-3.
The importance of omega-3 for health is the main reason that fish consumption is so heavily promoted and it is also why some people choose to take omega-3 supplements.
Within the body, omega-3 and omega-6 interact with one another, and omega-6 actually acts to suppress some of the key actions and health benefits of omega-3.
This means that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the body is important.
Ideally, people should try to shift this ratio towards omega-3, which involves increasing how much omega-3 they consume, while decreasing the amount of omega-6 (2).
However, this is not as easy as it seems, particularly when there are so many foods containing omega-6 in modern society.
This is one of the reasons that olive oil is promoted as a good solution for health, because olive oil contains high levels of omega-3.
This makes olive oil a good choice for adjusting this ratio, particularly because it can be included in the diet instead of oils that are rich in omega-6.
The Antioxidant Health Benefit of Olive Oil
Olive oil contains a number of compounds that are collectively called phenols.
These phenols have been associated with a number of different health benefits, partly as the result of their antioxidant activities.
Chemicals and foods that have antioxidant activities are a particularly important area of consideration and research, because antioxidants are thought to play a key role in the prevention of some diseases.
Essentially, an antioxidant prevents other molecules from being oxidized.
Oxidation reactions within the body are common, and are associated with a number of functions.
One of the key concerns surrounding oxidation is that the process can produce free radicals.
These free radicals are highly reactive, which means that they can have many unanticipated and undesirable effects throughout the body.
Antioxidants, like the components of olive oil, can help to decrease the prevalence of free radicals, an approach that potentially decreases the negative impacts that these have in the body.
For example, research has indicated that free radicals can play a role in the development of some forms of cancer.
Consequently, the inclusion of antioxidants in the diet may play a role in reducing the risk of cancer (3).
Another important role of antioxidants is in preventing low density lipoprotein (LDL) from being oxidized.
LDL is frequently referred to as the bad cholesterol, and has been associated with negative impacts on health, particularly on heart health.
When LDL is oxidized the impacts that it can have on health are more substantial.
For example, oxidized LDL has been associated with the development of atherosclerosis (4).
Research has also indicated that a diet containing olive oil can help to decrease the damage from oxidation associated with atherosclerosis (5).
The Mediterranean Diet
One of the most common pieces of evidence about the health benefits of olive oil comes from the role of the oil in the Mediterranean diet.
In general, the Mediterranean diet is the name of the most common eating pattern that occurs in Mediterranean countries.
This is similar to the way the term Western diet is used, which tends to refer to the high carbohydrate, heavily processed pattern of foods that the majority of people in the United States and other Western nations consume.
The Mediterranean diet differs considerably from the Western diet, and places a strong emphasis on fruits, whole grains, fish and olive oil.
Research has consistently shown that following this diet can significantly reduce the risk of death overall and the risk of heart disease (6).
It’s likely that there are many different ways that this diet improves health, such as the fact that the diet does not contain a significant amount of processed foods.
However, one of the key elements of this diet is the consumption of olive oil, which is considered to be one of the healthier fats.
As I have mentioned previously, there are a significant amount of health benefits associated with olive oil, particularly when it is used to replace less healthy fats.
Choosing Olive Oil
One of the challenges of getting health benefits from olive oil is picking an oil.
The problem is the large amount of choices that are available and there is often a considerable amount of difference between one bottle of olive oil and another.
This is particularly significant because there are no laws in the United States that govern the way that olive oils are labeled (7).
In general, you want to be choosing extra virgin olive oil, which is a form of olive oil that just uses pressing to extract the oil.
Specifically, extra virgin olive oil is obtained from the first press of olives only.
This results in a product that has a lower overall level of acid and significantly more health benefits.
However, this is only part of the story.
One of the key things to take into consideration is the harvest date of the oil.
Extra virgin olive oil has a shelf life of two years at the most and an oil that is older than this has the potential of being rancid (8).
Even if the oil isn’t rancid, if it is old, the health benefits may be significantly decreased. This is one reason why many people choose olive oil produced within the United States (normally California) as it has less distance to travel.
If you're looking at getting olive oil, check out our post on the 5 Healthiest Olive Oil Brands. This list can help you be sure that you're choosing high-quality olive oil that is what it claims to be.
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