A lot of us may not think much of this mild tasting topping we find on our pizzas, salads or sandwiches, but olives (and its oil) have many amazing health benefits! From fighting heart disease to preventing cancer, this little fruit can make a big impact on better health.

1. Contains Powerful Anti-oxidants

If you’re not sure what anti-oxidants are, they’re compounds that help prevent the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are highly energetic molecules that, when reacted with oxygen, form reactive oxygen species (ROS) which speeds up cell death. ROS occurs naturally in our bodies when food is converted to energy and over time, leads to age-related illnesses like heart disease and cancer . It can also occur in the environment from cigarette smoke or the sun’s UV rays, which prematurely age the skin. 

So, how do olives and olive oil help with this? Each contains vitamin E, which is a well-known anti-oxidant that stops ROS production during fat oxidation. When ingested, vitamin E is linked not only to reduced risk of heart disease and cancer but also lower levels of inflammation. Other antioxidants found in (ripened) olives are: hydroxytyrosol, which is linked to heart disease prevention; oleanolic acid, which may help in liver damage prevention and reducing inflammation and quercetin, which may lower blood pressure. 

2. Reduced Cancer Risk

Studies of chronic illness in the Mediterranean area show very low rates of cancer compared to the rest of Europe. It is believed that the abundance of olives and olive oil in their diets contribute to their lower cancer rates. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of olives and olive oil can fight important factors in cancer development such as chronic oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. 

3. Improved Cholesterol

High cholesterol can lead to several issues such as heart attack or stroke. Although mainstream health says that we should follow a low-fat diet to improve our cholesterol, focusing on consuming the right fats is actually more effective. Olives and olive oil contain monounsaturated fats, which are proven to reduce the level of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or “bad cholesterol” in the blood, protecting our arteries from plaque buildup (atherosclerosis).

4. Prevent Bone Loss

In a few different human studies of olive oil’s effects on bone health, each resulted in significant increases in the compounds that mark bone formation in those that consumed more (or any) olive oil than the other test group. For example, in a study of 127 men aged 55-80, one group ate a Mediterranean diet with at least 50 milliliters of virgin olive oil a day, and a second group either ate a Mediterranean diet with 30 grams of mixed nuts a day, or just ate a low-fat diet. After 2 years, the group that ate a Mediterranean diet with virgin olive oil every day had higher levels of osteocalcin in their bones, which is a hormone that is involved in bone-building. 

5. Help Cognitive Function

In the same way the anti-oxidants in olives and olive oil help to slow down the havoc free radicals wreak on the heart, they also help to stop oxidative stress on the brain. This keeps the brain healthy with increased concentration, better memory and reduced risk of strokes. 

Extra-virgin olive oil and several varieties of olives are available for sale in most grocery stores. Check out some Mediterranean recipes if you need a little inspiration on how to incorporate them both in your and your family’s diets beyond just something to sprinkle on top of your salad. It’s unlikely that you’ll look at those little slices of olives as “just a topping” again!