The benefits of olive oil

Much that I’m into the concept of healthy eating, I do think it helps if the food tastes good too. Few things please me more than when foods that delight the palate turn out to have disease-quashing properties too. A good example of this kind of happy double-whammy is olive oil. No foodie, it seems, would be without a bottle of this stuff with which to conjure up delicious salad dressings and pasta sauces. Yet, at the same time, science is showing that olive oil has the power to keep promote health and keep illness at bay. This week, I thought I’d pay homage to the benefits this most flavoursome of oils has to offer.

Olive oil is almost 100 per cent liquid fat. While fat is something that many doctors and dieticians urge us to cut back on in our diets, what often gets lost in this message is that not all fats are bad. In fact, some types of fat in the diet are positively good for us. Olive oil is actually chock-full of monounsaturated fat, a brand of fat that is believed to exert beneficial effects on the circulatory system. Studies show, for instance, that eating monounsaturated fat has the ability to lower the level of artery-clogging cholesterol in the bloodstream. This effect helps to explain why those who eat a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil appear to have relative immunity to heart disease and stroke.

While olive oil’s ability to help keep cholesterol levels in check may be a good thing, this is not the only chemical trick it has up its sleeve. Studies suggest that cholesterol only poses a threat to the body once it has reacted with oxygen (becomes oxidised). Only then, it seems, does its artery-furring potential come to the fore. A closer look at the chemical constituents of olive oil reveal that it contains a number of compounds, including oleuropein and squalene, that have the ability to protect cholesterol from oxidation. This effect, in addition to its cholesterol lowering properties, can only help to keep the circulation flowing freely to heart and brain.

Protection against the damage in the body reeked by oxidation may have other spin-off benefits too. In addition to priming cholesterol for trouble, oxidation is also believed to be a common underlying process in the development of cancerous tumours. Some scientists are speculating that the elements in olive that help to suppress oxidation afford some protection against cancer. Indeed, there is some evidence in the scientific literature that individuals who consume the most olive oil might be at reduced risk of cancer, specifically those of the breast and colon.

Aficionados may have noticed that olive oil comes in a variety of forms according to the precise method of extraction and blending. From a health perspective, the one to go for is what is termed cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. This oil comes from the first pressing of olives and is obtained without the use of heat or solvents. Natural extraction and minimal processing of olive oil is believed to preserve its health-giving and disease-protective properties

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