Take Two Tablespoons and Call Me in the Morning

Imagine going to the doctor and getting a prescription for olive oil.

It happened in a recent randomized trial from the University of Navarra in Spain. More than 4,000 women who had a high risk of cardiovascular disease participated in a study that included three treatment plans. One group followed a Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil, one followed a Mediterranean diet with extra nuts, and one followed a low-fat diet.

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil.

Here's the exciting part: Women given the extra-oil diet had the lowest risk of developing breast cancer during the five-year trial. This finding backs up the evidence that olive oil has protective benefits for the immune system and may even fight cancer directly.

We're fans of the Mediterranean diet here at Health & Wealth Bulletin. We've seen benefits including:

  • Improved digestion
  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Lower risk of diabetes
  • Protection of telomeres
  • Lower risk of cognitive decline

Olive oil plays a big part in the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Olive oil contains significant amounts of antioxidants and monounsaturated fats (or "MUFAs"). MUFAs lower your levels of low-density lipoprotein (or "LDL," the so-called "bad" cholesterol). Some studies show that MUFAs also help keep insulin levels in check, making olive oil good for diabetics.

Moreover, due to its chemical structure and function, olive oil also protects your cells from oxidation damage. Thus, olive oil reduces risk of developing diseases of inflammation, including heart disease, arthritis, and high blood pressure.

If you're ready to start incorporating more olive oil into your diet... you need to know a few basics of olive oil.

A quick stroll through your grocery store will reveal a few different types of olive oil. The differences are in the pressing and refinement processes.

Extra virgin is the highest-quality olive oil and uses no chemicals in the pressing process. It should also be cold-pressed (higher temperatures affect the quality of the oil). Extra-virgin olive oil contains MUFAs and the most antioxidants. It's the type we recommend adding to your diet.

Other types include virgin (which has a higher acidity due to riper olives), pure (a mix of virgin and refined olive oils), and light (which refers to the lighter taste).

One concern people have when cooking with olive oil is its high "smoke point." That's the temperature at which your oil starts sending up bluish smoke. The smoke is a breakdown of the fats in the oil into glycerol, which is then broken down further into poisonous acrolein. Acrolein not only irritates the lungs, it can also trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems.

Regular olive oil (not extra virgin) doesn't reach that smoke point until 406 degrees Fahrenheit (although some research puts this temperature a bit higher or lower). Cooks tend to fry at about 356 degrees, so remember to avoid going higher than 400 degrees. This will help you avoid the fumes.

Do what I do to enjoy olive oil safely. Use extra-virgin oil for dipping and in salad dressings. You can easily replace butter or margarine (stop margarine use immediately) with olive oil, and I like to use it as a potato topper. Use refined olive oil (the light stuff) or a blend of the two for general cooking. Most of all, be sure to heat your pans up slowly and to have proper ventilation for the fumes – run your oven exhaust and crack a window.

Our Olive Oil Taste Test

Last year at my office, we conducted a blind taste test of seven different types of extra-virgin olive oil. We tested them each plain and on bread. Our coworkers were quite vocal in what they liked or didn't like and we came up with the following ranking. One of the cheapest bottles we tested came in second – making it our favorite "best buy" pick.

We encourage you to do your own extra-virgin olive oil taste test and let us know how our selections did. And if you can't find the extra-virgin olive oils we tasted, here are some guidelines to help you find a good olive oil...

Read the label – Some of the cheaper brands claim to be from Italy, but if you look at the back of the bottle, the label probably lists several countries where the olives might be from.

Glass is best – If the oil experienced problems when it shipped (including mishandling or exposure to heat), the plastic could leach chemicals into the oil. (You can see my warnings about plastics here and here.)

Buy dark bottles – Choose an oil in a glass bottle that is not clear. Clear bottles allow too much light to affect the oil.

What We're Reading...

Medical News Today reviews some of the biggest studies done on the benefits of olive oil.

• How to tell if your olive oil is the real deal.

Something different: Walk through an art gallery – and download any pieces you like for free – with these collections now available from Yale.

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 1, 2016