Health & Wellness

Olive oil for your health

In a presentation this week about healthy fats, we covered the various categories of fats, saturated monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated, and the ”saturation” in these fats refers to the hydrogen bonds, with the more saturated options being the sturdiest, most stable. All the fats we have in our diets are made up of all three of these types of fat, and are typically labeled based on which is the predominant fat. One of my favorite monounsaturated fats comes from olives and olive oil, an integral component of the heart (and everything else)-healthy ”Mediterranean” diets. In a tablespoon of olive oil there are 10 grams of monounsaturated fats out of the total of 13.5 grams.
Olives and olive oil make important contributions to our health in general, and are a tasty addition to our diets. In many cultures, olives of varying degrees of ripening are a main dish, and not relegated to garnish status as here in the U.S. Olives were brought to North America by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who arrived on our shores in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Olive oil is made from the crushing and pressing of ripened olives. There are different varieties of olive oil, the best-tasting and most health-promoting being ”extra virgin” olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is closest to how the oil is in its natural state as it is from the ”first” pressing of the olives. This oil is pressed using only mechanical and physical methods with utmost care to avoid heating the oil in the process. Many years ago I had the opportunity to participate in an olive oil pressing in a small Druse village on the Israeli/Lebanese border, a memorable cultural and culinary experience. The village press had been in use for many generations.
The extra-virgin oil comprises only about 1 percent of the olive oil extracted. The balance of the oil is labeled as virgin, pure and light olive oil. Virgin olive oil is also from the first pressing, but has a higher acidity level than the extra virgin, sometimes even double the level. It has a much less delicate and complex flavor. This oil also yields less of the antioxidant and health-protective phyto-nutrients than the extra-virgin and has a lighter color. Pure olive oil is a refined oil. In the production of refined oils, along with mechanical pressing, charcoal and chemicals are used in the process. These refined oils are usually produced from poorer quality olives. Light olive oil is not less caloric oil, but is lighter in color and flavor, not offering the peppery flavor of the better quality oils. This is just a misleading marketing term, not a true olive oil classification.
When purchasing extra-virgin olive oil, make sure it is in a dark opaque bottle; any oils you find in clear bottles are usually rancid before you even purchase them! These delicate oils are sensitive to both light and heat and degrade easily. While olive oil, especially extra virgin, is naturally high in the antioxidant vitamin E – a protective preservative – care in storing the oil is important.
Store your extra-virgin olive oil away from heat in a cool, dark place. While it may be more convenient to keep the oil near the stove, the heat will affect the oil over time.
If you store your olive oil in the fridge it will get thick and opaque; let it warm and clarify a bit before use.
While some of the best oils (according to third-party consumer watchdog organization testing) are from California, many of the studies done on the health benefits of olives and olive oil are centered in the Mediterranean region, the original source of this healthy oil. Among the many benefits derived from extra-virgin olive oil are promotion of heart health, support of balanced blood sugar, reduced inflammation and weight control.
Studies have shown that circulating LDL (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) with droplets of oils as found in olive oil exhibited less oxidation. It is the oxidized LDL that is a danger since once damaged it can adhere to artery walls. If you can prevent this oxidation you can go a long way toward prevention of atherosclerosis.
Including olive oils in meals has shown in studies to have a more beneficial effect on those diagnosed with diabetes than those who chose a low-fat diet instead. A diabetic diet that includes olive oil will result in lower triglyceride levels, which is especially important since high triglyceride levels are typically an issue for those with this disease.
There has been a lower level of rheumatoid arthritis and asthma among those using olive oil regularly. The oils may be inhibiting the production of inflammatory compounds, and the antioxidant activity in oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol present in olive oil may reduce inflammation.
Some preliminary studies have shown that the addition of olive oil into the diet can result in a small but significant loss of both body weight and percentage of body fat. Many animal studies have shown that the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil will assist in the breakdown or thermogenesis of our bodies’ fat.
Try steamed kale, chard or spinach with a healthy splash of extra-virgin olive oil as a health-promoting dressing. For added flavor, sauté some onions in the olive oil and combine with steamed greens. While not the best oil for high-heat frying, the polyphenols in olive oil that give the oil its rich color protect the oil from being damaged during cooking. To add some additional zest to this dish, pour on a splash of your favorite balsamic vinegar as we did in the Italian neighborhood of my youth in New York.



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