Nutritional Pearls: Olive Oil Provides Health Benefits

  • People love to claim that such-and-such ingredient is a "superfood," from kale to eggs to omega-3 fatty acids, acai juice, and wheatgrass. While "superfood" is a marketing term and not a term nutrition experts use with any seriousness, if we were inclined to enthrone an ingredient with the term, it might have to be olive oil.

    The Research

    Health and dietary data from 2 long-term, prospective studies, the Nurses Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS), were recently presented in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.1 The NHS began in 1976 with more than 120,000 women between 30 and 55 years of age, and the HPFS began in 1986 with more than 51,000 men between 40 and 75 years of age. The studies are prospective and ongoing, and the participants are surveyed every 2 years regarding their health and lifestyle and every 4 years regarding their diet.

    Today’s research focuses on the participants’ olive oil consumption as gleaned from questions regarding the average consumption of olive oils used for salad dressings, added at the table, or used in baking or frying. Additionally, the authors calculated participants’ overall dietary quality according to an alternate Healthy Eating Index based on the Mediterranean diet but modified for Americans.

    After excluding those NHS and HPFS participants who reported a history of cancer or heart disease at the start of the respective studies, more than 60,000 women and 30,000 men participated in an analysis that included data collected through 2018.

    The authors grouped the participants into 4 increasing levels of olive oil consumption: (1) Never or less than 1 gram/month; (2) less than 0 to 4.5 grams/day (equivalent to up to 1 teaspoon); (3) more than 4.5 to 7g/day (between 1 teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon); and more than 7 grams per day (at least 1/2 tablespoon).

    As is often the case, the authors compared the diets of those who had died of heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, respiratory diseases, or any other cause with those who did not die in the 28 years of follow-up.

    The Results

    The results are astounding.

    Compared with those who consumed the least amount of olive oil, those who consumed at least 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil per day (that’s 1 1/2 teaspoons) were 19% less likely to die of any cause, 19% less likely to die of heart disease, 17% less likely to die of cancer, 29% less likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease, and
 18% less likely to die of a respiratory disease.

    This was after considering the participants’ body mass index, demographics, smoking status, Healthy Eating Index, education, and other variables that might also affect health risk.

    The authors performed further analyses and concluded that “replacing 10g/[day] of margarine with 10g/d of olive oil was associated with 13% lower risk of total mortality…."

    Other vegetable oils did not yield the same results.

    What’s the Take Home?

    Use olive oil for dressings and wherever possible for sautéing, frying, or baking. It is a small dietary change that could hugely impact your health. Visit the list of references to help you make the best use of your olive oil and when it is best to choose another oil.2-5


    1. Guasch-Ferré M, Li Y, Willett WC, et al. Consumption of olive oil and risk of total and cause-specific mortality among US adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. Published online January 18, 2022. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2021.10.041
    2. Harlan TS. Is olive oil appropriate for high-temperature uses? Dr Gourmet. Accessed August 18, 2022.
    3. Harlan TS. When should I use oils other than olive oil? Dr Gourmet. Accessed August 18, 2022.
    4. Harlan TS. Does olive oil ose its health benefits when heated? Dr Gourmet. Accessed August 18, 2022.
    5. Harlan TS. Some olive oils are better for you than others. Dr Gourmet. Accessed August 18, 2022.

    Dr. Gourmet is the definitive health and nutrition web resource for both physicians and patients with evidence-based resources including special diets for coumadin users, patients with GERD/acid reflux, celiac disease, type 2 diabetes, low sodium diets (1500 mg/d), and lactose intolerance.

    Timothy S. Harlan, MD, is a board-certified internist and professional chef who translates the Mediterranean diet for the American kitchen with familiar, healthy recipes. He is an assistant dean for clinical services, executive director of The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, and associate professor of medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans.