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This robust, flavorful oil is an example of the food as medicine concept, that foods can have a powerful impact on health.
A Mythical, Sacred Oil
From ancient Greece to the Holy Land, olive oil has been treasured. Celebrated as sacred in Greek mythology, the olive branch symbolized peace in Hellenic culture. Evidence of this ancient oil was discovered in 1901 at the "Room of the Olive Press" at Knossos on the island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. From there olives were pressed into oil over 4,500 years ago and the olive oil was exported to North Africa and mainland Greece.
Cultivation of olive trees spread around the Mediterranean where olive oil flourished along with many early civilizations. The bible speaks of olive oil, and it has been used by Christianity and Judaism as a holy anointing oil.
Today, the major producers of olive oil are Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco and Syria.
But the growing popularity of olive oil can be seen in the spread of cultivation around the world to countries such as the U.S., Chile, and South Africa. Australia has become an energetic olive oil producer and exporter, and has just announced a record crop.
During travels with my family from the south of France to Tuscany to Greece I have witnessed the special beauty of the olive tree and tasted its fruit. Able to withstand heat, sun and survive on only a little moisture, the hardy olive tree became an icon of the Mediterranean region. Freezing temperatures, however, can harm the trees and the crop.
Eating Healthy With Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil can contribute nutritional support in the fight against such health problems as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and in pain management.
A research study from Spain has shown that higher olive oil consumption is associated with leaner body weight, an important factor in prevention of chronic conditions.
Another study from the universities of Navarra and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain looked at how diets including olive oil might offer protection against depression: Bad Fats Linked to Depression
Natural Painkiller Discovered in Olive Oil
Recent research has identified the antioxidant called oleocanthal, which is only found in extra-virgin olive oil. Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, found that oleocanthal in olive oil has a potency strikingly similar to that of the drug ibuprofen in inhibiting the cyclooxygenase (Cox) enzyme that causes pain and inflammation. Their findings were published in the science magazine Nature.
Given the side effects of common pain relieving drugs, finding a nutritional way to reduce pain and inflammation could be a solution for people suffering from pain.
In another study Italian researchers explain that the characteristic pungent and bitter taste of virgin olive oil have been attributed to phenols in the oil that have potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, chemopreventive and anti-cancer benefits.
Research on Health Benefits of Olive Oil
At the meeting of the "International conference on the healthy effect of virgin olive oil" that took place in Spain in 2005, numerous benefits of virgin olive oil from the research were outlined. They looked at the consumption of olive oil from the perspective of issues such as cardiovascular health, cancer and longevity. With respect to anti-aging they noted: "The more recent studies consistently support that the Mediterranean diet, based in virgin olive oil, is compatible with a healthier ageing and increased longevity."
Consumption of olive oil has been associated with:
- Reduction of total cholesterol and an increase in the high-density cholesterol (HDL-C), which has a protective effect on blood vessels.
- Improved sensitivity of cells to insulin, which helps to prevent the Metabolic Syndrome. Preventing Metabolic Syndrome is important, because the syndrome increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and Alzheimer's disease.
Potent Antioxidant Power of Olive Oil
Phenolic compounds are potent antioxidants found in virgin and extra-virgin olive oil. These compounds give unrefined olive oils their distinctive flavors and high degree of stability.
Studies indicate these compounds may be able to:
- Turn off the activity of genes that produce the kind of inflammation that causes coronary heart disease.
- Decrease production of inflammatory chemicals called thromboxanes and leukotrienes.
- Decrease the production of the most damaging form of cholesterol, oxidized LDL cholesterol.
- University of South Australia researchers note that compounds from the olive were found to be antimicrobial against various bacteria.
And olive oil is just the beginning of anti-inflammatory foods. Learn more about fighting pain and inflammation in my article: Natural Anti- Inflammatory Foods and Supplements That Help Arthritis
Enjoying Olive Oil
The research studies focus on the benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, so this is what I always buy. I look for organic oil that has been grown without pesticides. Freshness counts, so I like shop where they sell a lot of oil, such as a big health food store. Store it in a cool place.
The amount of olive oil associated with protection against inflammation is only two teaspoons a day, which is easy to achieve. A sprinkle of olive oil makes a simple salad dressing, and a little oil can be used for dipping bread, instead of butter. Olive oil can also be used in baking.
Here is a popular tangy and sweet recipe from my book The Fat Resistance Diet, an anti-inflammatory dietary program.
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