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Is drinking olive oil good for you?
A bottle of it can be found in most people's kitchens, but a recent trend for drinking olive oil has shone a new light on the health benefits of this natural product. What are these benefits? And is it safe to drink, especially in high quantities?
Health benefits of olive oil
You may use it when cooking, but how much do you know about the health benefits of olive oil? Let's start with the basics: olive oil is extracted from olives that grow on trees mainly in the Mediterranean region.
As such, olive oil is the main source of fat within the Mediterranean diet. It's no coincidence that this diet has been linked with blue zones - pockets of the world where populations have the longest life expectancy. While there are many other diet factors involved here, evidence suggests that olive oil plays a key role.
Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, monounsaturated - or healthy - fat, and is anti-inflammatory. As a result, it's been linked with a reduced risk of several health conditions.
Here's a snapshot of the evidence
- Cancer - the main monounsaturated fat in olive oil, called oleic acid, may reduce the risk of breast cancer, although more studies are needed1. There is also evidence that phenols in olive oil may help to prevent colorectal cancer2.
- Gut-related illness - the same study concluded this was because phenols could support a healthy gut and boost intestinal immunity. This may be useful for people with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)2.
- Cardiovascular disease and stroke - a review of 32 studies found that the monounsaturated fat in olive oil was associated with a reduced risk of stroke and heart disease3.
- Rheumatoid arthritis - one study suggests that the antioxidants in olive oil may improve inflammation, such as swollen joints, and reduce oxidative stress - cell damage caused by unstable atoms - in people with rheumatoid arthritis4.
Is drinking olive oil good for you?
Recently, many celebrities and influencers have sworn by daily olive oil shots, promoting drinking olive oil as the latest and worst-kept health and beauty secret. However, while we know that olive oil is packed with goodness, consuming large amounts of olive oil has its own risks and can cause serious health problems or be dangerous.
"Olive oil has many benefits to health but drinking it is not needed," says Kirsten Jackson, consultant dietitian at The Food Treatment Clinic5. "Per tablespoon, olive oil is 110 calories, and so drinking it can cause excess calorie intake, which will lead to weight gain."
Many experts agree that most people following a regular, balanced diet already get enough oil through healthy cooking and meal preparation. Too much fat - regardless of it being healthy or unhealthy - may contribute to weight gain and associated health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.
"Fat in general, regardless of the source, can trigger the gastro-colic reflex causing looser stools - poo - especially in those with IBS," adds Jackson.
So, what of the claims made by fans of the olive oil shot?
Is drinking olive oil good for bloating?
While olive oil has benefits for gut health, the evidence that drinking it every day can help reduce bloating is purely anecdotal. This may work for some, but every person has different factors that influence digestion, including food intolerances, hormonal changes, and stress. It can help relieve constipation.
Does drinking olive oil help your skin?
Olive oil is bursting with antioxidants, including vitamin E, which can slow down skin cell damage and trigger collagen production, which helps to keep skin looking younger. It's also antibacterial, which may improve common skin conditions such as eczema and acne. However, the jury's out on whether drinking olive oil can make a real and visible difference.
Olive oil - how to do it right
So, experts don't generally advise drinking this beauty food. Instead, a Mediterranean diet-style approach is a much more tried and tested way to reap the benefits of olive oil without making your diet high-fat. In fact, consuming olive oil in moderation in a Mediterranean diet can even tackle obesity6.
Remember, quality comes over quantity: extra virgin olive oil is high-quality because it undergoes less processing than other forms, meaning that it retains more of the antioxidants and other compounds from the olives.
The ideal olive oil intake
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)7 and the Food and Drug Association (FDA)8, two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day is enough to reduce the risk of health issues such as inflammation and promote heart health.
If you think about the amount you use to fry and roast food or in salad dressings, making this your oil of choice in food preparation is an easy way to reap the benefits of olive oil. Better still, replace unhealthy saturated fats, such as butter, with olive oil, to really look after your heart and maintain a healthy weight.
The takeaway? Yes, olive oil can support your health in a big way in small amounts, but there's no need to drink it.
- Buckland et al: Olive oil intake and breast cancer risk in the Mediterranean countries of the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition study.
- Borzì et al: Olive oil effects on colorectal cancer.
- Schwingshackl and Hoffmann: Monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies.
- Cernadas et al: Importance of nutritional treatment in the inflammatory process of rheumatoid arthritis patients; a review.
- The Food Treatment Clinic.
- Schröder et al: Adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet is inversely associated with body mass index and obesity in a Spanish population.
- European Food Safety Authority.
- Food and Drug Association.