What is olive oil?

Olive oil is the liquid fat, or natural oil, obtained by pressing whole olives. The fruit, from a tree native to the Mediterranean, has a unique flavour that's dependent on its country of origin – some mild, others peppery or even bitter. Processing techniques result in olive oils of different ‘grades’, either refined and unrefined. Unrefined oils are pure and untreated, meaning no heat or chemicals have been used in the extraction process. This produces a purer oil with stronger taste. Refined oils have been treated to remove any flaws, and are usually lighter in colour and milder in taste.

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Is extra virgin olive oil good for you?

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is an unrefined oil made from the first 'virgin' press of the fruit. No heat is used in the extraction process, preserving beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols. Deemed the highest quality, you can expect to pay more for EVOO. It also has a stronger flavour and is darker in colour. Regular or light olive oils are typically a blend of both cold-pressed and refined oils.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and find out more about the health credentials of other oils, including which are the healthiest cooking oils.

Read on to discover the health benefits of olive oil:

  • it’s rich in mono-unsaturated fats
  • it may be protective against chronic disease
  • it has anti-inflammatory properties
  • may help manage body-fat composition
  • may improve heart health
  • may improve blood pressure
  • may help manage cholesterol
  • may reduce the risk of stroke
  • may lift mood
  • may improve brain function

Nutritional profile of olive oil

One 1 level tbsp (11ml) serving provides:

More like this
  • 99 kcals / 407 kJ
  • 11g fat
  • 6g saturates
  • 0g monounsaturates
  • 9g polyunsaturates
  • 56mg vitamin E
Glass bowl of olive oil

What are the top 10 health benefits of olive oil?

1. Rich in mono-unsaturated fat

Of the different fats that make up olive oil, the predominant type are mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). This fat is more resistant to the damaging changes incurred when oil is heated. In fact, oleic acid (the predominant MUFA found in olive oil) is thought to be 50 times less likely to oxidise (combine with oxygen and create harmful substances called free radicals) than linoleic acid, the main fat found in poly-unsaturated (PUFA) vegetable oils like sunflower and corn oil. This makes olive oil a healthier choice for shallow frying, grilling or baking.

2. May have protective properties against chronic disease

Olive oil, and most notably EVOO, are rich in at least 30 plant defence chemicals called polyphenols, one of which is called oleocanthal. The oil is also a useful source of protective nutrients like vitamin E. These compounds and nutrients are thought to be beneficial in protecting against chronic disease including heart disease and certain cancers.

3. Has useful anti-inflammatory properties

Inflammation is thought to be one of the key drivers behind some of our most chronic health problems, including Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. Research looking at the role of antioxidants and their anti-inflammatory effect, including oleic acid found in olive oil, has discovered that these play a role in reducing inflammation and the marker for inflammation, known as C-reactive protein (CRP).

Of particular note, oleocanthal in olive oil appears to share the same pharmalogical activity as ibuprofen, and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory. Interestingly, this useful property has been associated with positive changes in those with rheumatoid arthritis.

4. May help manage body-fat composition

Studies suggest consuming a MUFA-rich diet prevents the accumulation of central body fat and potentially improves insulin sensitivity.

Central body fat is strongly associated with obesity-related illness including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

5. May improve heart health

Olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean diet, along-with a high consumption of water, fruit, nuts, vegetables, whole-grains and a moderate intake of dairy, fish, red wine and lower amounts of red meat and processed foods. Research suggests this pattern of eating may have benefits for health including that of the heart. EVOO is thought to be especially helpful in this regard.

6. May improve blood pressure

A Mediterranean diet that includes olive oil is associated with improvements in blood pressure. A study evaluating a diet rich in PUFA fats versus MUFA, such as olive oil, suggested the improvements in blood pressure seen in the MUFA group may be due to an enhanced relaxation of the blood vessels that was stimulated by the polyphenols in olive oil.

7. May help manage cholesterol

Consuming olive oil may improve cholesterol levels. The beneficial effects may be due to the protective effects of the oil’s polyphenols, combined with the fact that the high levels of oleic acid are less prone to oxidative damage.

8.May reduce the risk of stroke

A large review of studies demonstrated that olive oil was the only source of MUFA fats that was associated with not only a reduced risk of heart disease but also of stroke.

9. May lift mood

As part of a healthy diet that includes a high intake of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and oily fish, olive oil may play a role in reducing the risk of depression. A more recent study suggests beneficial effects of EVOO on severe depression as opposed to mild to moderate forms of the condition.

10. May improve brain function

A 2015 study found that in older populations, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts was associated with improved cognitive function, when compared to a low-fat diet.

Bowl of glistening black and green olives, with container of olive oil in background

Is olive oil safe for everyone?

A dietary staple for many of the world’s healthiest populations, olive oil is considered a good choice for the majority of people. That said, rare reports of allergy have been recorded, although these are typically to the pollen of the olive tree rather than the oil of the fruit.

Being calorie-dense, olive oil’s use should be moderated, with it being chosen as a replacement for other fats used in the diet.

Should I include olive oil in my diet?

Yes, included as a component of a healthy, balanced diet, olive oil can make a valuable contribution to maintaining health. This is thanks to its high MUFA content and the polyphenols which are especially rich in EVOO.
If you are considering any significant changes to your diet, please consult your GP to ensure you can do so without risk to health. This is especially relevant if you have been diagnosed with a specific health condition or are on medication.

Enjoyed this? Now read…
Why is the Mediterranean diet so healthy?
Are low-fat diets healthy?
How much fat should I eat each day?
Saturated fat – what you need to know

Recipes that use olive oil

Garlic, basil & olive oil mash
Spinach & green bean salad
Homemade hummus
Spaghetti with leeks, peas & pesto
Chicken breast with avocado salad
Quinoa, lentil & feta salad
Simple mashed black beans
Mediterranean diet


Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last two decades she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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