Love them or hate them, olives are a convenient, versatile, and very healthy snack. Olives are either green or black, and they have a pit in the centre, called a drupe, which means they are classified as a fruit and not a vegetable. Olives are native to the Mediterranean and are the fruits of the Olea Europaea tree. The tree is short and can live for centuries. It thrives in rocky regions.
Green olives are harvested before they ripen and black olives are picked when they are at their most ripe. Green olives are most commonly served as a starter and in a martini, and black olives are used in Greek Salads, sauces, and dips.
Olives can’t be eaten straight from the tree because they are too bitter. They usually have to go through a treatment process before they are eaten, and this involves curing them with water or brine.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet includes all the traditional healthy living habits of people from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, France, Greece, and Spain.
The Mediterranean diet varies according to which region you are in; however, it is based mostly on vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereal grains, olive oil, olives and fish.
The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with good health, particularly heart health and longevity. A study carried out in 2013 found that people following a Mediterranean diet had a 30% lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
How to follow a Mediterranean diet:
You can make your diet more Mediterranean-style by eating plenty of wholegrain starchy foods, like bread and pasta, eating a side variety of fruit and vegetables, eating fish and less meat, and incorporating healthy fats by consuming olives and vegetable and plant oils.
The health benefits of eating olives
They lower cholesterol
Most of the calories in olives come from fat, but they are the healthy monounsaturated kind. The fatty acids in olives such as oleic acid and palmitoleic acid help lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol. Studies show that following a Mediterranean diet can prevent heart disease.
Olives lower blood pressure
A further boost to heart health is the blood pressure reducing effect of olives. A study demonstrated that some hypertensive patients who added olives to a low- fat diet no longer needed their blood pressure medication after 6 months. Patients were divided into 2 groups. Both groups were put on low-fat diets, but one group added olives to their diet. After 6 months, patients who ate the olives were able to either reduce their blood pressure medication or eliminate it completely.
Olives keep the digestive system healthy
Just one cup of black olives contains 17% of the recommended daily allowance of fibre, which keeps the digestive system healthy and prevents constipation. If everything is working optimally, the digestive system maintains its natural balance of bacteria and chemicals.
Olives are a good source of vitamin E
Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, so it helps to prevent damage to cells from free radicals. It also helps with red blood cell production and keeps the arteries healthy.
Olives combat oxidative stress
As mentioned above, olives contain many antioxidant compounds, the most potent of which is Oleuropein. This compound helps the body to prevent damage to cells and tissues from free radicals, which cause aging and disease.
Olives can help prevent blood clots
Olives are rich in heart healthy compounds called phenols, which may reduce the risk of blood clots in people who have high cholesterol. A study gave 21 people with high cholesterol a breakfast of either bread with olive oil that contained phenols or bread with olive oil with the phenols extracted. 2 hours after breakfast, the group who had consumed the olive oil with phenols had lower levels of factor v11 antigen, which causes blood to clot.
Olives can help prevent cancer
Olives have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which make them a potential way to prevent cancer. Oxidative stress or inflammation causes most cancers. Most of the research into olives and cancer prevention has focused on 2 cancers; breast cancer and stomach cancer. Phytonutrients in olives have been found to disrupt the development of breast cancer cells and this is also true in the case of stomach cancer, though more research is needed.
Olives can improve fertility
A study carried out by Harvard University looked at the diet of patients receiving IVF. Patients who had a diet high in saturated fat had lower rates of conception than those who followed a diet rich in monounsaturated fats, such as those in olives. The patients with the highest level of monounsaturated fats in their diet had a 3 ½ times higher chance of conception than those with the lowest levels of healthy fat.
Olives boost immunity
Olives boost immunity in several ways. It provides the body with essential nutrients and fatty acids which fight inflammation and damage in the body. When the immune system is running optimally, the body can fight off potentially harmful viruses and bacteria.
Olives are a natural aphrodisiac
Black and green olives are known aphrodisiacs. The green olives are meant to make men more virile and black olives increase libido in women. Try this delicious recipe for a romantic dinner:
Green and black olive tapenade
1 1/2 cups pitted green olives
1 1/2 cups pitted black olives
2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Use a food processor, chop all the olives, and put them in a bowl. Stir in the orange and lemon zest. Mash up the anchovies with the garlic to make a paste. Add the parsley, oil, pepper and olives and blend well. Serve with bread or crackers.
Olives promote heart health
Free radicals and cholesterol can damage blood vessels and lead to fat building up in the arteries which increases the risk of a heart attack. The healthy fats in olives reduce cholesterol and reduce blood pressure which reduce the risk of heart disease.
Olives can help you lose weight
The healthy fats in olives can help you lose weight. The consumption of olives can break down fats inside of fat cells, reduces abdominal fat and reduces insulin sensitivity. Study showed that people who consumed olives ate fewer calories overall and were less likely to be overweight. Blood tests showed a higher level of serotonin in the blood of those who consumed olives, and this is a hormone that is associated with feeling full. Olives also help to stimulate the production of a chemical called adiponectin, which helps to burn fat.
Olives can reduce appetite
Studies have shown that eating just 10 olives prior to a meal reduces your appetite by as much as 20%. The healthy fats in olives slow down digestion and stimulate the production of chemicals that send messages to the brain to tell it you’re full.
Olives can help improve memory
Olives contain polyphenols, which are natural chemicals that reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Studies show that eating a serving of olives every day can improve your memory by up to 25%. This may be significant in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Olives can be used to treat pain
Olives were used in early pain medicines, and there is strong evidence to support that olives can be used to provide pain relief, such as that from headaches. Olives contain a compound called oleocanthal, which is an inflammatory agent which works similarly to ibuprofen.
Olives are good for skin and hair health
Black olives contain fatty acids and antioxidants which can help nourish and protect the skin. Vitamin E is great for sun protection and fighting premature aging. Research has shown that oleic acid in olives can reduce the appearance of wrinkles by around 20%. For a healthy and radiant complexion, splash your face with warm water and apply a few drops of olive oil to your face. Leave it on for 15 minutes then rinse it off. Mix olive oil with an egg yolk for a moisturising hair treatment. Apply the mixture to the hair, leave it on for 30 minutes then rinse well. You can always just add olives to your diet too to nourish the hair and skin from the inside.
Olives are a good source of iron
A cup of olives contains 3.3mg of iron which is about 25% of your recommended daily allowance. Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells, and a deficiency can lead to anaemia, which causes fatigue and dizziness.
Olives promote eye health
One cup of olives contains 10% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A which helps keep eyes healthy. It helps improve night vision and can prevent cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.
Olive oil can prevent stomach ulcers
A study carried out in Spain showed that olives might help to prevent and treat infection caused by the bacterium H. pylori, which is a common cause of stomach inflammation and ulcers. The study showed that the antioxidant compounds in olives act against the bacteria which damages the lining of the study.
Olive oil can help reduce allergies
Olives extracts been shown to function like antihistamines in the body. They might be able to reduce the histamine response that occurs when the body reacts to an allergen. This response is what causes the unpleasant symptoms we experience when we experience an allergic reaction.
Olives can help keep the bones and joints healthy
The anti-inflammatory properties of the fatty acids, polyphenols and vitamin E in olives can help reduce the severity of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. These inflammatory illnesses are often caused by free radicals, and the antioxidants in the olives help to combat these. The pain reducing properties of the compound oleocanthal can help to reduce inflammation and therefore, discomfort.
Olives are a natural anti-inflammatory
Olives are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. They can reduce the effects of histamine in the body which cause unpleasant reactions to allergens. The anti-inflammatory properties extend to being beneficial for heart health. In patients with heart health issues, polyphenols in olives have been shown to lower the levels of a protein in the blood called CRP which indicates inflammation.
Olives are a nutritional powerhouse
For such a small fruit, olives pack a nutritional punch. The contain vitamin E, which is a potent antioxidant. It protects the cells from free radical damage, helps with red blood cell production and keeps the blood vessels healthy. Just one tablespoon of olives provides 0.14mg of vitamin E which is a good start when aiming for your 15mg per day allowance.
They also contain vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy bones, skin and teeth. It is also a potent antioxidant. One tablespoon of olives contains 34 IU of vitamin A.
There are other antioxidant compounds in olives, which are like vitamin A. These are lutein and zeaxanthin. They protect the eyes from harmful UV rays. There is not a recommended daily allowance for these compounds, but recent research has shown there to be benefits to eye health with supplements of 10 mg lutein per day, and 2mg of zeaxanthin per day.
Olives contain a fair amount of calcium, considering they are so small. One tablespoon of olives contains 7mg of calcium. Calcium helps maintain bone strength, promotes normal blood clotting, aids muscle contraction, and regulates the secretion of some hormones. The recommended daily amount of calcium is 1000 to 1200 mg per day, depending on age. Teenagers and women of childbearing age often require more calcium.
Iron and zinc are another 2 essential minerals and they are present in olives. One cup of olives contains around 25% of the recommended daily dose of iron and around 17% of the recommended daily allowance of zinc. Iron helps promote the production of healthy red blood cells and zinc is needed for a healthy immune system, wound healing, and protein synthesis. A lot of other important nutrients are present in olives, including magnesium, potassium, copper, phosphorus, and selenium. Vitamins B1 to B6 and vitamin K are also present and these help with a lot of very important functions in the body.
Healthy olive recipe
Try this healthy salad as a way of integrating this little health wonder into your diet!
Arugula, asparagus, and olive salad with toasted pine nuts
3 bunches arugula or spinach
2½ cups asparagus, trimmed and
cut into 1–inch pieces
1 cup Kalamata olives
(or any other Greek olive)
½ cup toasted pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Blanch the asparagus and set it aside.
Remove the pit from the olives by cutting them down the centre
Mix the arugula, asparagus, and olives in a bowl.
Roast the pine nuts in a shallow pan until brown.
Whisk the dressing together, pour over the salad, and top it with the pine nuts.
This recipe serves four people.
Olives are a healthy and trendy snack. You can add them to salads, sauces, and dips, and eat them with cheese and crackers. But the health benefits of this tiny fruit are far reaching. Olives were discovered centuries ago, but olive trees date back 6000-8000 years. There are currently 800 million olive trees in the Mediterranean, and their health benefits have been known for a long time, and recent research has found out the true extent of these benefits.
Modern science has found that it’s the phytonutrients and antioxidants in olives that can help to prevent cardiovascular diseases, free radical damage, and cancer. They can also benefit the immune system, respiratory system, and the digestive system. Healthy fats in olives such as oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid help reduce blood pressure, inflammation, the severity and incidence of osteoporosis and the risk of heart disease. The compound oleuropein helps combat free radicals which cause aging and disease.
A lot of the health benefits of eating olives comes from their healthy fat content. Fat is often demonised; however, it is the type of fat you eat which is important. It is important to distinguish between the unhealthy saturated fats present in processed foods, baked goods and takeaways, and the healthy monounsaturated fats we need for a healthy body. Nearly ¾ of the fat in olives is a fatty acid called oleic acid, which is known to help reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease. All fats are not equal, and including olives in your diet is one of the wisest health choices you could ever make.