Olive Oil and Olives! – Health and Nutrition Power Houses – Attributing Author, Leigh Selby 2013

Olive oil and olives are tasty and versatile, but you may not know that they each have amazing health and nutritional benefits.

Before we get into any detail, it’s important to note that the general consensus by food scientists and experts in health and nutrition is that eating the whole food rather than a supplement or an extract is most beneficial to the human body. In other words, the sum of all of the nutrients, fats, micronutrients and other compounds working together is crucial.

I want to invite you to email me questions or ask me for more information because not only do I love olive oil and olives, I want to share my passion for healthy eating that includes olive oil and olives

In this post, we’ll start with olive oil*:

A considerable body of science has found eating olive oil as part of a healthy diet to have positive effects on:

  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Inflammation
  • Digestive Health

Brief summaries of the science follow:

Cardiovascular Disease

Olive oil reduces low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol without decrease of HDL (or “good”) cholesterol and improves many additional risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including blood pressure, glucose metabolism and antithrombotic profile (helps protect against blood clots).

Olive oil can also positively change endothelial function (blood flow), inflammation and oxidative stress, which play a role in atherosclerosis and increase risk of heart attack or stroke.

Since 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the availability of a qualified health claim for monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and reduced risk of coronary heart disease. “Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.”

Hydroxytyrosol and Heart Health: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently approved a “heart health” claim for hydroxytyrosol (HT). This phytochemical and related polyphenolic compounds from olives and olive oil offer protection to blood lipids from oxidative damage.2  

We’ll go into more detail about hydroxytyrosol in other blogs, but for now be aware that it is considered the most powerful polyphenolic compound in olives and olive oil. Unlike oleocanthal (we’ll explore that later too) that doesn’t survive the PH level in our guts, HT is bioavailable (absorbed into the human body).


Clinical studies support the positive effect of olive oil on type 2 diabetes: a study of 418 people showed that a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil reduced diabetes by nearly 50 percent compared to low-fat diets.


Data from the Three Cities Study found that elderly people who consume olive oil daily have fewer strokes than those who do not. After five years, there were 148 incidents of stroke among the 7,625 study participants. Those who were “intensive” users of olive oil (using it for both cooking and as a dressing) had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who did not use olive oil at all.1


Studies have found that excessive saturated and trans fat consumption cause cancer, and also concluded that there are clear associations between reduced rates of certain types of cancer and increased olive oil consumption.3

The oleic acid, omega 9, or monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)* in olive oil has been found to be particularly effective against breast, colon and prostate cancer. Eating a Mediterranean Diet could prevent up to 25 percent of colon; 15 percent of breast; and 10 percent of prostate, pancreas and endometrial cancers.4

*These three terms  mean the same thing.


Inflammation is the body’s natural protective response to illness, stress and infection; however, some illnesses and disease cause the body’s immune system to malfunction leading to chronic inflammation. When inflammation is activated continuously over many years, it can result in excess oxidation and chronic disease.

Many diseases are associated with low-grade inflammation triggered and sustained by oxidative stress. A growing body of research supports that chronic inflammation is the root cause of major illnesses such as neurological disorders (including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease), obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.

As a result of this understanding, professionals in the medical community are embracing anti-inflammatory diets as a key ingredient to promoting healthy aging, delaying the onset of age-related illnesses and promoting optimum health at any age. The Mediterranean Diet, in general, and olives and olive oil in particular have numerous anti-inflammatory properties. For example, increased olive oil consumption has been linked to a decreased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation and pain, particularly in the joints.5

Digestive Health

Because more than 70% of the body’s immune system is located in the intestines, digestive health plays a critical role in maintaining general health and wellness as well as preventing chronic disease. For centuries, olives and olive oil have been used to treat several digestive disorders. Olive oil facilitates overall digestion and absorption of nutrients, including crucial fat soluble vitamins. Researchers estimate that 55-66 per cent of polyphenols from olive oil are absorbed after ingestion, primarily in the small intestine.

In addition to anti-inflammatory properties, antibacterial and antimicrobial activities of olive oil also offer positive effects on gut health. Helicobacter pylori is associated with peptic ulcers and gastric cancer. Researchers have found olive oil compounds to exert significant antibacterial activity against several strains of Helicobacter pylori, including 3 that are resistant against antibiotic medication. 

1. Samieri C et al. Olive oil consumption, plasma oleic acid, and stroke incidence: the Three-City Study. Neurology 2011;77: 418-25. 2. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA). Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to polyphenols in olive. EFSA Journal 2011;9(4):2033. 3. Owen RW et al. Olives and olive oil in cancer prevention. Eur J Cancer Prev 2004;13:319-326. 4. La Vecchia C. Mediterranean diet and cancer. Public Health Nutr 2004;7:965-8. 5. Wahle KW et al. Olive oil and modulation of cell signaling in disease prevention. Lipids. 2004;39(12):1223-31. 6. Medina E et. al. Comparison of the concentrations of phenolic compounds in olive oils and other plant oils: correlation with antimicrobial activity. J. Agric. Food Chem 2006; 54:4954–61. 7. Romero C et al. In vitro activity of olive oil polyphenols against Helicobacter pylori. J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55(3):680-6.

* Information in this blog and others that will follow draws on research that I did for three white papers I prepared for the International Olive Council between 2011 and 2013. The information has been vetted by food scientists who are experts in lipid science, the Mediterranean Diet, olives and olive oil as well as phenolic compounds.

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