Olive Oil – Dangerous Collection of Fats or the Secret of Long Life?
My wife’s grandmother, aged 87, was in a bad shape the other day. The otherwise active and peppy woman was pale, shaky and generally slow. I asked her about what the problem was, to which she said she was having a gallbladder attack. While it’s not a very serious issue – I have them once or twice a year – it’s one of the most unpleasant things that can happen to you. But she told me not to worry, as she had the perfect remedy for it – and the perfect preventive measure at the same time.
She bought a bottle of olive oil, and she drank a small glass of it every morning before breakfast. Then she laid down on her right side for half an hour. With no medication and no dieting (she uses a lot of lard for cooking) she has managed to stay clear of similar problems for almost a year.
Olive oil is far more than just a delicious dressing for our salads. Some believe it is the fountain of health, the secret of the long life of Mediterranean people who consume a lot of fats all year long anyway. Others consider it a dangerous ingredient for a daily diet, especially when heated. Studies have shown that the saturated fat content in olive oil is almost as damaging as animal fat in the long term, while the health benefits of olive oil in the long run are existing, but only marginal.
The fact is undeniable, though: southern Europeans who consume up to 10 times as much olive oil than any other nation have longer lifespans, and are less inclined to heart disease. And this in spite of their higher consumption of fat. While correlation doesn’t always mean causation, it was enough to convince scientists to conduct a large scale, long term study on the effects of olive oil consumption. And the results of the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, were surprising.
An ambitious group of Spanish scientists set out on the longest term study on the Mediterranean diet until now. They followed 7,500 slightly overweight individuals in their 60s – a risk group for heart disease and diabetes – consuming randomly allocated diets for five years. There were two groups – one was following a low-fat diet, like the one recommended by Western medicine, the other followed a high fat Mediterranean diet with either extra olive oil, or mixed nuts. The results of the “PREDIMED trial” were consistent over the five years: those consuming extra olive oil along with the fat-rich Mediterranean diet had less heart issues, less cases of diabetes and stroke than those consuming the Western low-fat diet, experienced less memory loss, and even lost a little weight in the long run. The group consuming extra nuts along with the fat-rich Mediterranean diet did second best, and the worst results in the long run were achieved by the Western low-fat diet.
But olive oil is not the only factor that kept these people healthy. The Mediterranean diet consists of a lot more fiber and fruit than the Western diet, whole grains, legumes and various fish and meat in small quantities, along with red wine and nuts. But the authors believe that the single most powerful factor was still olive oil.
But there’s a difference between olive oil and olive oil. There is a grading system in place for olive oil, differentiating between various types – refined, virgin and extra virgin. Refined olive oil had the least health benefits, while high quality, cold pressed extra virgin oils were the most beneficial. It all comes down to polyphenols, micronutrients that have an important role in the prevention of various diseases and the health of our cardiovascular system.
Polyphenols – which are present in about 30 variants in high quality extra virgin olive oil – act as antioxidants, ridding us of the free radicals wreaking havoc in our bodies. They also reduce inflammation, and help reduce the effects of aging, especially on the heart and the brain. But they also help our gut microbes to thrive, especially as part of a diet consisting of polyphenol-rich foods. These gut microbes feed on these polyphenols and produce short chain fatty acids that also help reduce inflammation and improve our immune system.