Olive Oil: Help Your Heart the Mediterranean Way

May also protect against dementia

By Valery Fortie

Today’s Mediterranean diet is thought to lower the risk of heart disease. One study completed in the United States in 2007 concluded that both women and men who followed this diet had reduced their risk of death from cancer as well as heart disease.
The daily consumption of olive oil is believed to be why many people who reside in the 16 countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea usually have lower rates of disease and live longer than do those who live in the United States. Researchers theorize that this is because most of the fat consumed in this region is from the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, which is great for the heart and may also help prevent cancer.
The Mediterranean diet recommends eating foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, high-fiber grains and breads, beans, and olive oils. Sweets, meat, and cheese are all limited. Recommended foods are rich in fiber, monounsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. Thirty-five percent of calories may be consumed from fat, mainly from unsaturated oils such as olive oil, fish oils, and particular nut or seed oils (flaxseed, canola, soybean). These oils could have a protective influence on the heart.
A lot of research suggests that extra-virgin olive oil—the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet (rather than dairy or animal fats)—is healthy for the heart in many different ways. All types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, which helps lower LDL cholesterol levels when used instead of saturated or trans fat. “Virgin” and “extra-virgin” olive oils are processed the least and therefore have the highest antioxidant effects.
Olive oil is made mostly of monounsaturated fat oleic acid. Consumption of this fat, particularly when it replaces unhealthy saturated fat (e.g., cheese, cream, butter, mayonnaise) will help lower bad cholesterol levels while raising good cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.

Olive oil is also a good source of strong antioxidants called polyphenols, which may be able to slow down atherosclerosis (the narrowing of arteries) by lowering susceptibility to oxidative stress and damage caused by bad cholesterol. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may also help protect the body from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.

Published November 4, 2009

Valery Fortie is the editor of the MediterraneanBook.com blog, a resource point focused on healthy eating habits to prevent the causes of high blood pressure and help people live longer and better. MediterraneanBook.com is a nonprofit Web site created to preserve Italian healthy eating traditions.

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