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extra virgin olive oil

Olive Oil Reduces Risk of Death, Study Shows

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach are among those who have long recommended the Mediterranean diet, not only for weight loss but also for better health.

This diet is based on studies during the 1990s that found those in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea tend to live longer, healthier lives than those in other countries. They also have lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Their way of eating emphasizes a diet high in seafood, fresh produce, nuts, olive oil, and beans. It’s low in red meat, dairy, sugar, processed foods, and saturated fat.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce levels of inflammation throughout the body. This means a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as stronger bones, a lower risk of depression. It also results in almost automatic weight control. This thereby lessens the risk of diabetes and all the associated health issues that come with it.

A key component

It turns out that one of the main benefits of the Mediterranean way of eating may be the liberal use of olive oil in place of saturated fats like butter or margarine.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), an agency of the National Institutes for Health (NIH), released a study last month showing that consuming just a half-teaspoon of olive oil a day lowers the risk of death from all causes. This benefit was even more pronounced in those who swapped olive oil, a heart-healthy fat, for margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and dairy fat.

The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, was based on nearly 30 years of data. It was gathered on more than 90,000 U.S. health professionals participating in the long-standing Nurses’ Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

While many of the participants who reported using higher amounts of olive oil were more likely to have Southern European and Mediterranean ancestry—where this type of diet is most prevalent—and to be physically active, avoid tobacco, and follow a heart-healthy eating plan, the researchers controlled for these factors in their observations.

Striking findings about extra virgin olive oil

The results show that those who consumed the highest amount of olive oil had up to a 34 percent lower overall risk of dying. This is compared to people who rarely or never used it.

Other findings showed that those who consumed the highest levels of olive oil had a:

  • 19 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease
  • 17 percent lower risk of dying from cancer
  • 29 percent lower risk of dying from neurodegenerative (dementia-type) disease
  • 18 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease

“Our findings support current dietary recommendations to increase the intake of olive oil and other unsaturated vegetable oils,” Marta Guasch-Ferre, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

One of the more surprising results was the impact on brain health.

“In a sensitivity analysis, the authors found a significant 29 percent reduction in risk of dementia-related mortality for those in the highest vs. lowest category of olive oil consumption,” wrote Uppsala University epidemiologist Dr. Susanna Larsson in an editorial accompanying the study’s release.

“Considering the lack of preventive strategies for Alzheimer’s disease and the high morbidity and mortality-related disease, this finding, if confirmed, is of great public health importance,” she added.

More than just one factor

Those who have studied the Mediterranean diet emphasize that its success stems from more than just olive oil. It’s a whole way of living that we in this country have often left behind in recent decades.

Our diets tend to consist of fast, processed, and convenience foods, red meats, saturated fats, and sugar. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh, locally grown foods, especially fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seafood.

Our meals are frequently eaten on the run or intense circumstances. Meals in Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece are slow, relaxed events shared with friends and family, often outdoors. Such healthy exercises as walking and gardening may also play a role.

“It is true that sometimes it may be difficult to disentangle the ‘real’ effect of olive oil versus having other healthy behaviors,” Guasch-Ferre wrote.

Choose the right kind: extra virgin olive oil v.s. olive oil

When looking for which kind to buy, it’s important to select extra virgin or virgin olive oil.

Cold-pressing the olives, rather than using heat makes extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Heat can destroy many of the oil’s nutrients and fatty acids. It also contains no additives. Use extra virgin olive oil in salads and dressings.

Riper olives and a second pressing of the olives makes virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil is for sautéing and frying.

“Light” olive oil can often contain other vegetable oils and has less flavor than EVOO or virgin olive oil. It’s most common use is baking because it lacks the distinctive olive oil flavor.

Given this and many other studies, the frequent substitution of olive oil for less healthy fats is worth considering.

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