As Americans slowly warm to the idea that certain fats can actually be health-promoting, there’s one oil that’s taken center stage in recent years: olive oil. People can’t get enough of the stuff — it’s great for cooking, dipping, salad dressings, moisturizing and plenty more besides. And when we examine the impressive nutritional profile of this oil of the gods, it’s clear that the benefits of olive oil extend well beyond the culinary.
In fact, olive oil is considered by most health experts to be a disease-fighting, inflammation lowering superfood. In the scientific literature, it has been linked time and again to improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of cancer, lowered systemic inflammation, improved bone health, balanced hormone circulation and a whole lot more.
This means that not only is olive oil a deliciously versatile cooking and eating oil, it’s an amazingly powerful health food.
In this post, we’ll explore the origins and nutritional benefits of olive oil. Then, after you’re primed and ready to start pouring olive oil on virtually anything that’s edible, we’ll dive straight into the 12-day olive oil challenge. By the end of the challenge, you’ll have learned a wide range of ways in which you can bring a little olive oil into your life, and be a few big steps closer to achieving optimum health.
A brief history of olive oil
It’s estimated that Neolithic peoples of the Mediterranean began harvesting olives as far back as 8,000 BCE. A couple of millennia passed before the first signs of olive oil production appeared, with archaeological records showing modern-day Israel as one of the first regions to turn olives into liquid gold.
The early production of olive oil wasn’t a whole lot different to the processes used to make the healthiest forms of olive oil today. Olives were harvested from the tree by hand or by beating the fruit from the branches, then washed and crushed to remove the pits. The remaining pulp was placed into woven bags or baskets and pressed, with the resulting liquid collected in large urns or reservoirs to allow the oil to settle out. After a time, the oil was siphoned off the top, put through the process again, and bottled.
Today’s extra virgin olive oil (the healthiest and most pure of the olive oils) might be made with a little more high-tech equipment, but it’s still a fairly simple process. Olives are crushed at a mill then the oil is extracted using a mechanical process — usually a centrifuge.
In the oil world, this is a big deal — most cooking oils are produced by extracting the oil via chemical or heating means, which denatures the beneficial compounds and lowers the nutritional value of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil (look for bottles that say “cold pressed”) is one of the few commercially produced oils that doesn’t lose any of its nutritional value in the shift from whole fruit (yup, olives are technically fruit) to oil, purely because of the simplicity of its production. Crush. Separate. Bottle. Perfecto!
Olive oil can fight inflammation, protect against disease and more
By extracting the oils from fresh olives using such a simple method, virtually all of the beneficial vitamins, nutrients and fatty acids are conveniently locked away inside a bottle. Here are some of the many ways in which cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil has been shown to fight disease and improve health.
Reduce oxidative stress
Oxidative stress, caused by the free radical species naturally present in our bodies and introduced by certain foods, is arguably the leading cause of aging and a major contributor to most diseases. Olive oil contains a wide range antioxidants, which means that consuming more olive oil should slow the signs of aging, support healthy cells, and protect your body against disease.
A study published in the Journal of Free Radical Biology and Medicine showed that the antioxidants squalene, β-sitosterol and tyrosol, all abundant in extra virgin olive oil, were important free radical-scavenging compounds that helped to support a healthy cardiovascular system and lower risk of cancer. Another study noted that “olive oil is the main source of fat of the Mediterranean diet which has been shown to be effective against oxidative stress associated diseases and also with aging.”
A growing body of scientific evidence proves that olive oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory food. A study published in 2005 explored the anti-inflammatory potential of olive oil, finding that it contains a compound called oleocanthal — “a natural anti-inflammatory compound that has a potency and profile strikingly similar to that of ibuprofen.”
Another study showed that extra virgin olive oil significantly lowered inflammation associated with arthritis in rats. Yet another antioxidant found in olive oil, oleuropein, has also been proven to dramatically lower inflammation.
Support cardiovascular health
Over 75 percent of the fat in olive oil is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat lauded for significantly lowering risk of heart disease and supporting robust cardiovascular health.
A randomized trial involving 200 healthy males sourced from five different European countries found that not only are the monounsaturated fats beneficial for heart health, the potent collection of phenolic compounds also play a large part in lowering several key contributors to cardiovascular disease.
Lower cancer risk
All the beneficial compounds we’ve already talked about in olive oil, from the heart-healthy fatty acids to the antioxidant polyphenols, combine to make olive oil one serious cancer-fighting superfood.
And this is some bold, unfounded claim either – the research literature is literally overrun with studies finding strong links between olive oil consumption and lowered risk of cancer. A 2017 study, for example, found that polyphenol-rich extracts from extra virgin olive oil inhibited colon cancer cell proliferation, migration, invasion, adhesion and sprouting… basically ticking off all the anti-cancer checkboxes. Another study published in 2015 concluded that extra virgin olive oil exhibits anti-cancer effects via an epigenetic mechanism, while a third study found that increasing consumption of olive oil was associated with a decreased risk of cancer.
The 12-day olive oil challenge
Okay, okay — you get it! Olive oil is the bee’s knees! It conquers cancer, supports a healthy heart, inhibits inflammation and sidesteps stress.
But before you grab the nearest bottle of extra virgin olive oil and start glugging it back like there’s no tomorrow, there’s something you should know: olive oil is an amazingly versatile oil. So versatile that, in addition to its many culinary uses, you can also rub it on your skin, massage it into your scalp, clean your ears out with it and treat a diaper rash with it!
The 12-day olive oil challenge is designed to walk you a prime selection of some of olive oil’s amazing uses. By the end of the challenge, you’ll have begun to truly appreciate just how awesome really is, and be ready to make it a big part of your daily life.
Day 1: Cook with it!
You might be rolling your eyes and saying “well, duh!” but it’s always good to start things off without too much surprise factor. Plenty of people already use olive oil as a cooking oil, and that’s great — but there’s more to it than just slapping some in a hot pan and sizzling away to your heart’s content.
Extra virgin olive oil is a sensitive oil and is easily denatured by high heat. This means that cooking on high heat or even medium heat is bad news for the nutritional value of your olive oil, and can even mean that it can oxidize and become potentially dangerous to your health.
The best way to enjoy olive oil in cooking is to either use it in a pan on low heat or to bake with it in the oven. I like to gently saute leafy greens over low heat with it and to roast green beans in the oven with a generous dousing of olive oil, salt and pepper. Delicious!
Day 2: Make salad dressings and marinades with it
While olive oil is great for cooking, it’s arguably even better when used as a fatty base for salad dressings and marinades. My go-to salad dressing is simply olive oil, apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar, wholegrain mustard and a dash of salt and pepper. You can also whip up delicious marinades by combining olive oil with lemon juice, seasoning, and finely chopped garlic and/or onion.
Day 3: Remove eye makeup with it
The thought of slapping a dollop of olive oil directly onto your face might seem a little strange, but it turns out that olive oil actually makes for a great pre-cleanser for eye makeup. The fatty acids in olive oil attach onto other oil-based products on your skin, helping to remove stubborn eye makeup. Rinse off with warm water, and you’re good to go.
Day 4: Use it as a natural shaving cream
It’s high time you shaved your legs, but do you really want to slather on some toxic foaming shaving cream onto your poor sensitive skin? Olive oil provides the healthy, natural alternative — rubbing a generous amount of olive oil onto your legs after getting them wet provides the perfect shaving cream, helping to stave off bumps and burns and moisturizing your skin at the same time.
Day 5: Moisturize and fight eczema with it
It’s probably not hard to imagine olive oil as a great natural moisturizer: the fatty acids help to hydrate the skin and lock in the moisture, while it’s bucketloads of nutrients and antioxidants help to nourish your skin from the outside in and keep it feeling soft and supple. That high vitamin E content doesn’t hurt either.
These same moisturizing and nourishing qualities also make it a great treatment for eczema, and because it’s natural and non-toxic, it should ensure that your eczema gradually fades into a distant memory.
Day 6: Unclog ear wax with it
Come summertime, and I’m constantly suffering from blocked or infected ears on account of all the swimming I do. But rather than trudging into the doctor’s office to get them blasted with high-pressure water (it hurts, right?), I choose to employ a much gentler option: olive oil.
I simply warm up a little olive oil to just above body temperature, then use an eyedropper to place a few drops in the clogged ear. Lie down for 10 minutes, relax, and let it drain out into a tissue.
Day 7: Reverse cracked heels with it
Cracked heels are the worst, especially in summer when you want to let your feet be free after far too long being cooped up in boots and shoes. Olive oil has the answer: it deeply moisturizes and encourages the split skin to re-heal, thereby speeding your recovery from cracked heels.
Simply exfoliate your heels with a pumice stone, then apply a good amount of olive oil directly to the area. Slip on some socks afterward, unless you want to leave oily footprints all through the house!
Day 8: Clean out your mouth with it
Oil pulling has been around for millennia, but it’s seen a Western resurgence in recent years. The premise behind oil pulling is that, by swishing oil around in the mouth for a period of time, toxins and oral pathogens are drawn out of the teeth gums and oral cavities and are suspended in the oil. One spit and they’re down the drain!
And in case you’re wondering whether this is just another bunch of hear-say, studies show that it really does help to improve oral health by reducing plaque and gingivitis.
Coconut oil might be the most popular oil for oil pulling these days, but olive oil makes an alternative that’s just as effective. Put a tablespoon of olive oil in your mouth, swish it around for 15 to 20 minutes, spit, then rinse with warm water.
Day 9: Treat diaper rash with it
Olive oil is one of the few products that safe for both adults and babies, and it just so happens to make a great soothing ointment for a bad case of diaper rash. Gently rub it into the affected area with your hands once or twice a day, and see the results for yourself.
Day 10: Soothe sunburn with it
Stayed out a little too long in the sun? Olive oil can help with that. The high concentrations of antioxidants present in olive oil help to soothe inflamed skin after prolonged sun exposure, and to repair damaged skin cells.
Day 11: Relieve sore or arthritic joints with it
Several studies have shown that the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive can actually provide an effective treatment for arthritis and joint pain. Consuming plenty of olive oil each day is the best way to send those soothing polyphenols where they’re needed most, but it also wouldn’t hurt (quite the opposite, in fact!) to gently massage some olive oil into inflamed joints or areas of arthritis pain.
Day 12: Condition your hair with it
Your hair is in a constant state of stress — it gets stressed by the sun, stressed when you sleep on it at night, stressed when you wash it and dry it, and stressed when you tie it in a bun. Give your hair a much-needed vacay and use some olive oil to deeply condition it from root to tip.
Gently heat a quarter of a cup of olive oil until it’s warm to the touch, then massage it into your hair and cover with a towel. Allow it to soak in for 30 minutes, then rinse it out in the shower with warm water.
— Liivi Hess