Olive Oil Fights Heart Disease, Breast Cancer, Studies Say

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2005

They may smoke more than Americans and their health care system is far from perfect, but Greeks usually live longer than their U.S. counterparts, and they have some of the world's lowest rates of heart disease and cancer.

The secret may be their olive-oil-drenched diet.

Scores of scientific studies in the past decade have shown that olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat—the "good" fat—may prolong life by combating coronary heart disease and different types of cancer.

No wonder the Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, is said to have referred to olive oil as "the great therapeutic."

FDA Approval

For 4,000 years in the Mediterranean cultures, olive oil has served as everything from money to medicine. Today 99 percent of all olive oil is produced in the countries that rim the Mediterranean Sea.

It is the only vegetable oil that can be created simply by pressing the raw material—in this case, olives. The quality of the oil depends on the amount of processing involved. Extra virgin olive oil is considered the best. The oil from the first pressing of the olives, it is the least processed.

Once considered an "ethnic food" in the U.S., olive oil experienced rapid popularity growth in the 1980s. Today the U.S. imports more than 50 million gallons (189 million liters) a year.

A few months ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration credited olive oil with decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Up to 80 percent of olive oil is made up of monounsaturated fatty acids, which resist oxidation (the process by which fatty acids are degraded) better than polyunsaturates. Monounsaturated fatty acids help keep HDL—so-called good cholesterol—levels up and LDL, "bad" cholesterol, down.

In addition, the presence of phenols, tocopherols, and other natural antioxidants in olive oil also prevent the formation of certain free radicals (highly reactive molecules) that may cause cell destruction within the human body.

"Indeed, it is the only added lipid [fat] that has not been associated with increased risk of cancer," said Dimitrios Trichopoulos, an epidemiology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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