The Mediterranean Connection: Olive Oil

The Mediterranean Diet

Bacon, steak, avocados, donuts, walnuts, salmon.. all are high fat foods, yet the fats of these foods differ incredibly which changes their health effects. We're going to help clarify why some high fat foods are beneficial and belong in a healthy diet.

Olive oil, an under appreciated wonder?

The links between good health and traditional Mediterranean diets of the mid 1900 are striking. Those following a traditional Mediterranean diet have exceptionally low incidence of heart disease, certain cancers, and other chronic diseases. And on the upside, their life expectancy is high (1). 

The traditional health promoting diets of places like Greece and the Mediterranean region are known for their use of "good fats", such as olives and their oil. These diets often use dark green (virgin) olive oil to replace other cooking fats, such as butter, margarine, and meat fat. When olive oil replaces saturated fats in the diet, it may help protect against heart disease. Some of the mechanisms of this action are:

  • Lowering total and LDL cholesterol and not lowering or raising HDL cholesterol (2)
  • Reducing LDL cholesterol's vulnerability to oxidation (3)
  • Reducing blood clotting factors
  • Providing phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. 
  • Lowering blood pressure (4)

When researchers looked into the effects of olive oil on healthy men, then found that extra virgin oil elevated blood HDL (good cholesterol) levels to a greater extent than its lighter, more refined counterpart (5). Other liquid unhydrogenated oils such as avocado, canola, walnut, and grapeseed oils have been shown to have heart healthy benefits as well. This is well documented to the point that canola oil qualifies to claim heart benefits on its label. 

Beyond Olive Oil

While olive may be a fantastic addition to your diet, it can not claim all of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Other factors such as lower intakes of red meats, and higher intakes of nuts, vegetables and fruits deserves a fair share of the credit. Most traditional Mediterranean people focus their diets on crusty breads, whole grains, nuts, potatoes, and pastas; a massive variety of vegetables and legumes; feta and mozzarella cheeses and yogurt; and fruits such as grapes and figs. Mediterranean diets also eat fish and other seafood's, eggs, poultry and a little other meat. The principal fat intake for these diets is olive oils and nuts, along with fish such as salmon; they rarely use hydrogenated fats.

Consequently, traditional Mediterranean diets are:

  • Low in saturated fat
  • Very low in trans fat
  • Rich in unsaturated fat
  • Rich in starch and fiber
  • Rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that support good health.

These dietary characteristics are consistent with many indicators of heart health (6). In addition, the natural field grazing of their animals leads to their meat, dairy and egg products being richer in omega-3 fatty acids as compared to animals kept in feed lots and fed grain.


(1) L. Serra-Majem, B. Roman and R. Estruch, Scientific evidence of intervention using the Mediterranean diet: A systematic review, Nutrition Reviews 64 (2006): 312-314

(2) M. I. Covas and coauthors, The effect of polyphenols in olive oil on heart disease risk factors, Annals of Internal Medicine 145 92006): 333-341

(3) M. Fito and coauthors, effect of a traditional Mediterranean diet on lipo-protein oxidation, Archives of Internal Medicine 167 (2007): 1195-1203

(4) Y. Z. H-Y. Hashim and coauthors, Components of oliveoil and chemo-prevention of colorectal cancer, Nutrition Reviews 63 (2005): 374-386

(5) T. Psaltopoulou and coauthors, Olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and arterial blood pressure: The Greek European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 80 (2004(: 1012-1018

(6) Covas, 2006