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Why extra virgin olive oil benefits my health? What EVOO is best? Is olive oil also good for my hair and skin? We had a great talk with Alexandria Zozos, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who runs a virtual coaching business specializing in the principles of the Mediterranean Diet (scroll at the end for her info). We're pretty sure that she's covered everything you always wanted to know about olive oil - read on and satisfy your curiosity about this golden elixir!
With over 70+ years of research to back up the most widely studied eating pattern in the world, it’s no wonder the Mediterranean diet has been ranked the best diet for the 5th year in a row by US News and World Report.
As a registered dietitian with Greek roots, you could say I’m partial to this lifestyle, but when there is this much science to back up its claims, anyone looking to improve their health and longevity can benefit.
Now you may be wondering how an eating pattern can change your life, so let’s talk about the magic ingredient with the power to do so — Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) or what I like to call, liquid gold.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is known for its rich flavor, health benefits, and versatility in the kitchen, from different cooking methods, to salad dressings, to the best kept secret in baking recipes.
Olive oils that aren’t quite extra-virgin caliber are used in hair and skin products like lotions, lip balms, and serums. Talk about versatility!
The health benefits of olive oil are endless and more than any other oil out there because of its powerful anti-inflammatory compound known as polyphenol. A diet high in extra-virgin olive oil may reduce your risk for inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancers, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, EVOO contains cardio-protective properties that can help reduce the risk for stroke and heart disease, including preventing atherosclerosis, lowering blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol levels.
The health benefits I talk about above come from the preservation of the oil during the production process. To be classified as extra-virgin, the oil must be low in fatty acids and extracted without high heat or chemicals. This process is known for preserving taste, color, quality, and antioxidants of the oil and is preferred over refined oils. To be qualified as an extra virgin olive oil, the oil's acidity marker must be less than 0.8%, but the superior ones can be as low as 0.2% acidity.
There is research supporting the health benefits touted above by consuming 1 - 4 tbsp of EVOO daily. Olive oil can be enjoyed as a sipping oil, in cooking, vinaigrettes, topping off your meal creations, baked goods, and so much more. The applications for EVOO are endless.
Since olive oil is a fat, it is the most calorically dense macronutrient, at 9 calories per gram. The nutrition values for EVOO are about 120 calories per tbsp, with 14g fat — primarily unsaturated fats. This type of fat actually has the ability to lower your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides – two precursors to chronic diseases reviewed above. Since it’s calorically dense, EVOO can help you stay fuller longer, with less snacking in between meals.
Introducing EVOO regularly into your diet should be gradual if you have certain health goals like weight loss. While beneficial, it can add a significant amount of calories to your diet if you do not take precautions in your current plan. With weight loss, the quality of your food choices vs. the quantity is the most important aspect for success, and extra virgin olive oil should absolutely be included for all the reasons listed above.
So how do you choose an olive oil and know you got a good one? This is the most important part in your EVOO journey because, sadly, there are a lot of inferior olive oils on the market at our fingertips, which can be confusing when we try to buy an authentic EVOO.
The good news is that a quality EVOO is like a fine wine, so I encourage you to try as many as you can - each one will taste a little different based on the region and terroir, the olive(s) used, and the acidity level. To be qualified EVOO, the acidity marker must be < 0.8%, but the superior ones can be as low as 0.2%. The health of the tree, the natural elements, as well as harvesting and milling methods, can all affect the acidity of extra virgin olive oil. For example, olives that were affected by certain insects or olives that sat around for a longer period of time before pressing can have a higher acidity or lower health benefits.
Besides the acidity of the oil, to qualify it as extra-virgin, your EVOO should be in a dark glass bottle or tin to prevent oxidation, which deteriorates the polyphenol content that makes EVOO famous for its health benefits.
One thing I want to note as low priority while hunting for an EVOO is the need for it to be organic. There are many olive oil councils around the world such as the International Olive Council (IOC), North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), and California Olive Oil Council (COOC). The definition of EVOO may change depending on where the oil is being produced. Even though the FDA does regulate imported EVOOs, it does not define the difference between extra virgin, virgin, and regular olive oils, making the selection challenging to the everyday consumer.
You can select your authentic favorite EVOOs based on bottling, taste, harvest date, and source. A select few may even have the acidity listed on the bottle. In terms of taste, your EVOO can be pungent, fruity, bitter, and have a persistent aftertaste that may be categorized as peppery, so much so that when it hits the back of your throat it may produce a cough! This is actually a highly desirable characteristic of authentic EVOO and NOT a sign of spoiling or rancidity.
A key difference between wine and EVOO is that extra-virgin olive oil does NOT get better with age. If your bottle contains a harvest date, make sure the date is no more than 2 years old, the earlier the better. After opening your EVOO, consume within 3-6 months and store in a cool, dry place. This will also protect your olive oil from oxidation and preserve those good-for-you polyphenols.
The source of your EVOO such as single-sourced or blend can have a big impact on the quality of your oil and therefore health benefits. A single-source EVOO is by far the highest quality of olive oil available. With the regulations as they are, blends are available but may contain olive oils (including refined) from different parts of the worlds – leading to longer manufacturing process, or other types of oil entirely (ie. canola, safflower, etc..).
Now that you know a little more about Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, get out there and try as many quality ones as you can. Some of my favorite are Greek olive oil from different regions of Greece, specifically the Peloponnese and island of Crete. I also like oil from regions of Spain, Italy, and California. Many Mediterranean companies import to the comfort of your home, so do your homework to find a small, single-sourced orchard, likely a family-owned business, and connect with the EVOO flavors of the world.
Alexandria Zozos is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who runs a virtual coaching business specializing in Mediterranean diet principles. She believes nutrition education is the foundation to behavior change and knows that with accountability and SMART goal-setting, a Mediterranean way of eating can help her clients improve their clinical outcomes. In addition, a Mediterranean diet can also be applied as preventative medicine for individuals and their families by teaching the importance of good nutrition early on. She wants to empower her clients to ask themselves how their diets can improve by what they can ADD to their plan rather than by what foods and food groups they need to restrict.
Alex comes from a large Greek family and has lived the Mediterranean way from a young age. She found a love for cooking growing up, while watching her Yiayia cook with traditional Mediterranean ingredients. She's also studied the Mediterranean diet and culture in Italy and has taken many trips abroad to further her knowledge and authenticity in this field. She hopes to show you that good food doesn't have to be sacrificed for health and that food can promote a better quality of life.
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