Olive oil has long been touted as healthy – now it’s also being credited with aiding weight loss and preventing cancer. Liz Graham gets the good oil on the benefits of this golden elixir.
The results are in: Olive oil is a true superfood. Not only is it delicious in a salad dressing or drizzled over pasta, it has scientifically proven medicinal and weight-loss properties, which can be sourced by having three tablespoons or about 50ml of olive oil a day.
This is the opinion of US nutritionist and associate professor of clinical medicine Dr Mary Flynn, who’s been studying the effects and health benefits of olive oil since the 1990s.
“The general body of research says that once you have two or more tablespoons a day, you’ll improve your blood pressure, your glucose levels and your good cholesterol,” Flynn says. “But I’ve found that the weight-loss effect comes into play at three tablespoons, so that’s what I recommend. It’s an amazing food – it does all these things that help your body, plus it tastes good.”
It’s important to note that when Flynn refers to “olive oil”, she’s talking about extra-virgin olive oil, otherwise known as EVOO. This highest quality version is made by simply cold pressing oil from the olive fruit, and has been found to have the most effect on heart health, which is likely due to it being richer in nutrients.
Secret weapon for weight loss
Consuming three tablespoons of EVOO isn’t enough to start shedding the kilos, Flynn says, explaining that the weight-loss effect kicks in when it’s combined with a healthy Mediterranean-style diet. This is rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains, moderate in dairy and low in meat (about three serves of white meat or fish a week for women, and red meat only once or twice a month).
“This way of eating essentially takes the calories you’d normally be consuming with meat and gives them to vegetables and olive oil,” she says.
Flynn proved the success of a diet that’s high in healthy fats in 2010 with a study of 44 women over 50 who’d become overweight during breast cancer treatment. Each woman trialled two eight-week diets: Flynn’s olive oil-based diet and a low-fat food plan as recommended by the US National Cancer Institute. Both diets were made up of 1500 calories a day.
After the 16 weeks, the average weight loss was 7kg, however, the women lost twice as much on the olive oil diet as the low-fat diet, and they also showed improved breast cancer biomarkers, lower triglycerides and higher levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol.
In addition, when the women were asked to choose the diet they preferred, all but one chose the olive oil diet as they found the food more appetising, accessible and affordable. The results of this study formed the basis of Flynn’s successful Pink Ribbon Diet, a weight-loss plan that’s aimed at lowering the risk of breast cancer.
While the benefits of being a healthy weight are particularly important to women who’ve had breast cancer (being overweight increases the risk of the cancer recurring), being overweight or obese also increases the risk of cancer and other illnesses generally. “I recommend this diet to everyone,” Flynn says.
Veg and olive oil: a perfect match
Flynn says the key to the success of the olive oil diet is to cook your vegetables in olive oil. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that carotenoids – the powerful antioxidants that give orange, yellow and red veg their colour and are also found in abundance in leafy greens – need fat to be absorbed. She also believes the nutrients in cruciferous veg such as broccoli and cabbage are better absorbed with oil, but that’s still yet to be conclusively proven.
The second reason is arguably more important: Vegies taste better with olive oil, so people are likely to eat more. “My rule of thumb is one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil to one cup of veg,” Flynn says, adding that sautéing them or roasting are tasty options, plus these methods maintain much of their nutrient value. “Eating veg like this fills you up and stops you being hungry.” An added bonus, she says, is fibre from the veg also improves bowel regularity.
For anyone daunted by a diet of less meat and three cups daily of vegetables, Flynn advises: “Start by having three dinners a week where you combine vegetables, olive oil and some starch (potatoes or wholegrain pasta or rice). Then see if you can add some lunches in as well. The more you take in, the more benefit you’ll get.”
Did you know?
Eating olive oil may protect the skin
Extra virgin olive oil contains squalene, which Flynn says is believed to help prevent skin cancer. “It’s thought to be the reason why people who [eat] lots of olive oil have less skin cancer,” she says.
A day on the olive oil diet
3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil (used in cooking or as a dressing)
3 cups veg (at least)
2-3 serves fruit
6-7 serves starch (wholegrains where possible)
2 serves dairy (including eggs)
1/2 serve of white meat or fish (3 serves a week)