You know that olives and olive oil are good for you. In fact, olive oil is considered a superfood, which means it’s a food that’s rich in vital nutrients. But just how healthy are they, really? Let’s find out.
What are Olives?
Olives come from a species known as Olea europaea, a small tree native to the Mediterranean Basin. Many olive trees found in the groves around the Mediterranean Sea are centuries old, with some estimated to be thousands of years old.
Today, olive trees are also grown in Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, and South Africa. These evergreen trees grow up to 26-50 feet with silvery green leaves and gnarled, twisted trunks.
The olive is the fruit of the Olea europaea tree. It rarely grows longer than an inch and is typically harvested in the green to purple stage. It contains a seed commonly referred to as a “pit” or “stone.”
- Green olives are picked while unripe.
- Semi-ripe or turning-color olives are picked at the beginning of the ripening cycle when the color has started to change from green to other colors like red or brown.
- Black olives or ripe olives are picked when fully ripe and may be purple, brown, or black.
Raw or fresh olives are very bitter by nature, so they must be cured and fermented to make them palatable. This process removes much of the “oleuropein” from the olive, which is a bitter compound that, despite its distasteful flavor, has health benefits including blood-pressure-lowering and antioxidant benefits. Here’s more about the health benefits olives and olive oil have to offer.
7 Health Benefits of Olives
Olives are nutritious fruits. One can of ripe olives delivers about 115 calories, 3.2 grams of fiber, and just under a gram of protein, but where they shine is in their fat content. Olives contain 11-15 percent fat, 74 percent of which is oleic acid, a type of healthy monounsaturated fatty acid.
Oleic acid is linked with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. It is largely because of this high oleic acid content that olives are considered a healthy food.
1. Olives Are Good for Your Heart
Olives may help you avoid heart disease. The high level of monounsaturated fatty acids is linked with lowering LDL “bad” cholesterol while maintaining HDL “good” cholesterol. They can also help lower inflammation that affects blood vessels.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that daily consumption of olive oil helped reduce inflammatory markers related to cardiovascular disease in those individuals who were at risk for the disease.
Olives also contain antioxidants that can protect the heart from oxidative damage and stress—a key factor in cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that olive oil—which is made from olives—may help lower the risk of heart disease and that those who regularly consume it in their diet have better cardiovascular health.
2. Olives Can Tame Inflammation
Today, chronic inflammation is considered a factor in most of our deadliest diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The polyphenols found in olives can help reduce chronic inflammation, thereby stopping organ damage before it starts.
In a 2011 study, scientists noted that virgin olive oil contains numerous phenolic compounds that have potent anti-inflammatory actions, and that one of those—oleocanthal—possessed similar anti-inflammatory properties as ibuprofen. A related study found the polyphenols in olive oil helped down-regulate genes related to inflammation.
3. Olives Boost Brain Health
What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, they say, and that’s certainly true with olives. Just as they offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant protection for the cardiovascular system, they do the same for the brain, potentially protecting it from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Researchers reported in 2019 that extra virgin olive oil directly improved memory and cognition as a result of improving synaptic activity and short-term plasticity in the brain. An earlier study also suggested that olive oil had beneficial effects on learning and memory deficits found in aging and diseases, and could reverse oxidative damage in the brain.
4. Olives May Help Improve Blood Sugar Levels
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) states that in 2018, 34.2 million Americans (10.5 percent of the population) had diabetes. About 1.5 million are diagnosed with it every year.
If you want to avoid being one of them, eat more olives and olive oil. Research shows that they can help reduce blood sugar levels after a meal and overall. In a 2017 review, scientists found that those people who consumed the most olive oil in their diets had a 16 percent reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, compared with those who consumed the least.
Even if you already have diabetes, olives may help. An Italian study published in 2016 found that adding extra virgin olive oil to foods reduced the glycemic index of meals, helping to balance blood sugar levels and protect against cardiovascular complications.
5. Olives May Reduce Your Risk of Bone Fractures
Usually, when you think of healthy bones you think of eating dark, leafy greens and dairy products. But you should add olives to that list because studies have linked them to strong bones.
They’re so powerful that they may slash your chances of suffering a bone fracture in half. That’s what scientists found in a 2017 study of nearly 900 people—a greater consumption of extra virgin olive oil was associated with a 51 percent reduced risk of fractures in older people (55 to 80 years of age).
A 2020 study also found that olive oil had a positive action on bone health, and could potentially help prevent osteoarthritis.
6. Olives Can Keep Your Blood Flowing Smoothly
No one wants to deal with blood clots. Unfortunately, as many as 100,000 people die of blood clots each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Olives and virgin olive oil may help to keep your blood clot-free. The phenols can help fight the blood-clotting process, reducing your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. In a small 2007 Spanish study of 21 people with high cholesterol, eating a meal with high-phenol olive oil reduced factors in the blood that promote clotting.
In an earlier animal study, those fed an olive-oil-enriched diet had blood that was much less likely to clot than those who ate a regular diet. The oil appears to boost levels of a substance that prevents blood platelets from sticking together to create a clot.
7. Olives Help Your Body Resist Cancer
The antioxidants in olives can help reduce the oxidative damage that can drive the development of cancerous cells. Many laboratory studies have found that compounds in olive oil can fight cancer cells once they form, as well.
In a 2005 lab study, scientists found that oleic acid, the main fatty acid in olives, promoted the death of breast cancer cells. In a 2010 animal study, they found that a high olive-oil diet down-regulated genes involved in breast cancer development.
But it’s not just breast cancer. In a 2019 study, researchers noted that a Mediterranean diet (rich in olives) showed protective action against colorectal cancer, noting that the gut microbiota could degrade some substances found in olive oil, producing active metabolites that kill cancer cells.
Studies examining populations that eat a lot of olives and olive oil have also found fewer incidences of cancer and other chronic diseases. In one 2013 review, scientists noted that the incidence of certain cancers is relatively low in the Mediterranean basin, where olives and olive oil are frequently consumed, compared to that of other European or North American countries.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy olives as part of your overall healthy balanced diet. Whether you’ve been following a clean eating lifestyle for a while now or are looking for ways to eat healthier like many people today, olives and olive oil are nutritious and versatile additions to your diet.