Last updated on October 26th, 2023
Study after study shows how healthy the Mediterranean diet is – but why?
What exactly is it about what Italians (and their neighbors) eat that is so good for the body (and mind)?
It’s a combination of many things, but a big factor is the use of extra virgin olive oil (and plenty of it).
After living here for so long and embracing the Tuscan style of cooking – which embodies olive oil heavily – I have come to buy into what they say is true about extra virgin olive oil.
But I couldn’t pinpoint why it makes me feel good, so I asked around. I spoke to some of the wisest and most respected folks in Italy – nonne, or Italian grandmothers. They know it all, especially when it comes to Italian cooking and ingredients!
Disclaimer: I am not looking to give you any medical advice. I’m just sharing with you what the locals have to say and what repeated large-scale studies have shown over time. So let’s hear from the research itself and from those Italian nonne about what they think olive oil’s health benefits are why you should be using it!
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What is Olive Oil?
Olive Oil is the liquid that is extracted from olives after they are cleaned, the pits are removed and they are crushed.
Nutritional Value 1 tbsp (14 grams):
- Saturated fat: 14%
- Monounsaturated fat: 73%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 11% (omega-6, omega-3 fatty acids)
- Vitamin E: 13% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin K: 7% of the DV
Olive oil is one of the biggest and most important components of the Mediterranean diet. When people and studies talk about the benefits of the diet, a large part is coming from all the extra virgin olive oil that is used.
Olive Oil vs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
What characterizes extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is that it is cold-pressed (meaning without the use of heat or other substances to extract the oil). This is the best and purest oil that you can get from olives. It also has the greatest health benefits.
Tip: When buying extra virgin olive oil look for the words ‘extra virgin’ and/or cold-pressed on the label to be sure that manufactures aren’t trying to trick you into thinking their olive oil is actually extra virgin. You don’t want to get caught paying a premium for regular olive oil.
Any oil that does not meet this standard is further refined to remove any impurities. This is labeled and sold as olive oil. It is still very good for you but it isn’t quite as pure so the health benefits are not as potent.
To reap the full benefits of olive oil use extra virgin as much as possible and stay away from refined labels. Be sure to read labels carefully before investing in what you think is good quality olive oil.
Take Care of Your Olive Oil: Make sure you Store Your Olive Oil Properly.
Olive Oil Makes Your Skin Shine
Because olive oil is full of vitamin k and e it’s great for your skin and hair. Many Italians swear by it. Rub a small amount of oil into the palms of your hands and massage in until fully absorbed. Be careful not to add too much as your skin is capable of absorbing only so much oil.
Keep an eye out for various cosmetics and products made with olive oil. Many cosmetic companies make soaps, lotions, lip balms, palmades, shampoos and conditioners with olive oil included in the formula.
Olive Oil Keeps Wrinkles Away
Have you ever wondered what it is that keeps your 90-year-old Italian grandma or neighbor looking so young? It’s the olive oil!
When speaking with Italians, they couldn’t say what it was about the olive oil that made their skin so smooth and wrinkle-free but they swore it was because of all the olive oil they consume. And it must have some impact because many of these same women spend hours and hours out in the sun without even a lick of sunscreen and their skin is close to flawless!
Olive Oil Helps Hands Stay Young Looking
Because olive oil is chalk full of antioxidants, vitamin k and e, it helps keep your skin healthy and young-looking (see Makes Your Skin Shine).
This is especially noticeable on Italian women who’ve worked their entire lives in the kitchen. Many would rub excess olive oil into their hands repeatedly and today, these elderly women have hands that look like they belong to a woman 40 years younger!
Olive Oil Keeps The Weight Off
Olive oil has been proven to keep blood sugar levels stable by preventing spikes in blood sugar. Thus, it can help curb cravings and keep you feeling satisfied longer. Countless research shows this time and time again but nothing is more evident than in the healthy weight women who live in Italy today.
Obesity is quite low in Italy due to their diet and as mentioned earlier, a large part of their diet is EVOO so if you are trying to cut calories, don’t cut the EVOO! At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding: older Italians consume as much as 8 tablespoons of olive oil a day and their weight is perfectly normal (the Mediterranean Diet only calls for 4 tablespoons per day).
Note: When we mention what studies have proven or concluded, we are referring to a large review of many studies together as a whole.
Olive Oil Helps Alleviate Arthritis Symptoms
Olive oil is proven to contain anti-inflammatory nutrients. The oleic acid, the primary fat in olive oil and the antioxidant oleocanthal have both shown to reduce levels of inflammatory markers leading to arthritis and other points of inflammation within the body such as the gut.
Olive Oil Helps Prevent Heart Disease
Italians and other populations who maintain the Mediterranean Diet have a proven low risk of heart disease. EVOO has been shown to lower blood pressure, protect against bad cholesterol and improve the function of blood vessels and thus, blood flow.
Repeated research has also shown that EVOO as part of a healthy diet can improve cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure, both of which reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Olive oil is also packed with polyphenols, a natural bioactive compound within the oil with antioxidant properties. These polyphenols help to combat stress that can contribute not only to heart disease and cancer but also to general symptoms of stress such as poor skin and hair quality and mood.
Olive Oil Relieves Constipation
Keeping a healthy gut is one of the most important aspects in good digestion, mood and even your skin and nails. The polyphenols in EVOO have been shown to improve gut health by reducing inflammation and improving good bacterial growth.
Some Italians we spoke to swear by drinking a small amount daily, just a teaspoon, as their secret to keeping digestion regular.
Olive Oil Moisturizes Hair
Many Italians use olive oil as a hair mask by massaging it directly into their hair every so often (some once a week, some once a month). They say that it will improve shine and also helps with dandruff. The fat keeps the scalp moisturized, helping during colder months when the scalp can get quite dry.
The olive oil needs to be used as a pre-shampoo mask, not after shampooing because the oil needs to be removed fully or your hair will remain greasy.
It’s also used by mothers on their infants to improve cradle cap. Italian mothers rub about 1 Tbsp onto their babies heads, let it sit for ten minutes and then gently brush away the flakes. This treatment must be repeated but it really does work as I have done it with all four of my children.
Whether you look at the research or at the Italians right before your eyes, the bottom line is the same: there is something magical about extra-virgin olive oil. Not only is this liquid gold incredibly nutritious and good for your health but it is also very tasty and will add amazing flavor to whatever you’re cooking, especially if it’s raw!
Olive Oil Health Benefits FAQ
You can absolutely use EVOO to cook with and you should be doing so as long as you don’t heat it past smoking point. Not only is it good for you raw but it has been proven to actually improve the nutritional value of vegetables when they are cooked in EVOO as opposed to vegetable oil or butter. Some research shows that olive oil is actually the most stable cooking oil as it resists better to degradation.
For the most part yes in equal parts but we don’t recommend deep frying in olive oil. Keep in mind that olive oil has a flavor unlike neutral oils such as sunflower oil so if you are baking your baked goods will have a distinct flavor (this is not a bad thing depending on the recipe).