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For many years we have heard about the benefits of olive oil to help lower the risk of heart disease, but its connection to decreasing risk of death has been less clear. A recent study of approximately 92,000 US men and women examined whether olive oil is associated with total and cause-specific mortality (death from a particular illness).
During 28 years of follow-up, the research showed that participants who consumed the highest amount of olive oil (greater than 1/2 tablespoon, or 7 grams, per day) had a 19% lower risk of early death compared to people who never or rarely used olive oil. For cause-specific death, those with higher olive oil intake had a 19% lower risk of heart disease death, 17% lower risk of cancer death, 29% lower risk of dying from neurodegenerative disease (such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s), and an 18% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease.
When the study authors looked at substitution of certain fats with olive oil, results showed that by replacing 10 g (about 2 teaspoons) of margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or dairy fat with the same amount of olive oil, there was an 8% to 34% lower risk of total and cause-specific death.
Of note, the new research showed there are health and longevity benefits from olive oil even when consumed in smaller amounts than in Mediterranean countries. In a study done in Spain, participants in the PREDIMED trial consumed an average of about 3 tablespoons or 40 grams of olive oil at baseline. Even though people in the US do not consume as much olive oil as people in the Mediterranean countries, there is still a strong health benefit to consuming modest amounts.
One reason is that olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids. When substituted for saturated fat, monounsaturated fats help lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. Olive oil’s main anti-inflammatory effects are from antioxidants, one of which is oleocanthal. This antioxidant has been shown to work like ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. In addition, the antioxidants in olive oil can reduce oxidative damage due to free radicals, believed to be one driver of cancer. Research has also shown that oleic acid, which is the main fatty acid in olive oil, can reduce levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
No, fat itself does not make you fat. Eating or drinking more calories than you need from any source, whether it’s fat, protein, or carbohydrates, can result in weight gain. Data over the past 40 years has shown that the percentage of calories that Americans eat from fat has decreased, while overweight and obesity rates have significantly increased. Sugary soft drinks don’t contain any fat, but have been associated with the obesity epidemic in our country.
Olive oil has strong research to demonstrate health benefits — but most importantly, it tastes delicious and can enhance the flavor of many family dishes.
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Harvard Health Ad Watch: A blood thinner winner?