A traditional Mediterranean diet has been associated with a wide range of health benefits, such as improved heart health and decreased risk of diabetes, cancer, and cognitive decline. Olive oil has been shown to be one of the main bioactive components of a Mediterranean diet. It’s been found to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and has been linked to reduced risk of a number of diseases.
While many of the health benefits of olive oil can be attributed to the monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) content (it’s actually one of the richest plant sources of MUFAs), research has also highlighted polyphenols in olive oil. One of the most researched of these polyphenols is oleocanthal, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as oleacein, hydroxytyrosol, and oleuropein, but there are more than 30 phenolic compounds in olive oil.
In the Mediterranean, some people actually drink olive oil in the morning. While some may swear that drinking olive oil provides more benefit than consuming it in a meal, is there any research to back this up?
The Benefits of raw EVOO or olive oil shots
While there aren’t any studies comparing olive oil intake by itself to olive oil consumed with food, there are several studies where olive oil is used as an intervention and possibly consumed by itself, supporting the idea of a "healthy shot of olive oil".
In this pilot study, 20 patients with early stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) were separated into two groups. One group consumed 40 mL per day of high oleocanthal / high oleacein extra virgin olive oil for three months, and the second group consumed extra virgin olive oil that had low concentration of these polyphenols. The first group was associated with improvement in apoptotic markers and tumor markers, suggesting that olive oil with high oleocanthal / high oleacein may be a promising dietary intervention for those with CLL, though more research is needed.
In a small study looking at anti-osteoporosis and anti-cancer effects of EVOO, patients in the experimental group given olive oil had lower tumor biomarkers than those of the control group and average bone mineral density levels decreased more slowly than in the control group, suggesting that that EVOO has anti-osteoporosis and antitumor properties.
A different study of 523 Spanish women showed that drinking 20 ml of olive oil daily was associated with significantly better bone mineral density when compared to those consuming less than that.
In a pilot study looking at the impact of olive oil on cognitive function and brain health, participants with mild cognitive impairment were given 30 mL daily of high phenolic EVOO, The Governor, and were instructed to consume it raw with food or to drink it. The control group was given non-virgin olive oil. Those in the EVOO group experienced improvement in the integrity of the blood brain barrier and enhanced brain function and memory.
A small 2014 study of 50 hemodialysis patients showed that drinking olive oil alleviated constipation as well as mineral oil, which is commonly used as a laxative. The benefits in this case, however, are believed to be related to the oil’s ability to keep water in the stool and intestines to facilitate a bowel movement and not the polyphenols or specific fatty acids.
In Summary, in several studies that looked at adding raw EVOO to one's diet whether with or without food, the results were encouraging, and the researchers concluded that the olive oil consumption led to a positive outcome.
Incorporating more EVOO in your diet
In contrast to the studies in which the researchers instructed the subjects to consume olive oil in a certain way, we actually have a lot more studies where olive oil is simply consumed as part of the diet. In those studies, researchers have found a positive correlation between higher consumption of extra virgin olive oil and overall health. These beneficial effects exist regardless whether subjects used the olive oil cooked or raw. In many studies, olive oil intake has been associated with cardioprotective benefits. Specifically, high polyphenol EVOO has also been shown in studies to offer protective effects. Like other types of fat, olive oil-rich diets have been linked to improved blood sugar control when consumed in meals and snacks.
It’s also worth noting that the absorption of certain nutrients is enhanced when we consume food sources with fat. For example, A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning that we need to consume them with fat to efficiently absorb them. Another great example is the antioxidant lycopene, found in many red foods and vegetables like tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, red bell peppers, and red cabbage. Fat also helps enhance the absorption of this compound, so a great reason to drizzle olive oil on your salad.
Further research studies where participants are divided into groups where olive oil is taken either on an empty stomach or with a meal might offer more nuanced insight.
The Bottom line: Should you be drinking olive oil or eating it?
Research has linked olive oil-rich diets to a wide range of health benefits, and it appears that you can experience those benefits whether you consume olive oil on its own or with food—the most important thing is to include olive oil in the diet at all, and to use as fresh and high-phenolic oil as you can afford. More studies are needed to ascertain whether drinking olive oil by itself, without food, provides any additional benefits. Until then, our advise is to simply include about 1-2 full tablespoons of high-phenolic olive oil in your diet - either by itself as a "shot" of liquid gold, or with your meals. Whatever way helps you best to maintain this healthy habit, is the right way for you! Just make sure you’re not exceeding your daily calorie needs, as weight gain may increase risk of disease. While it’s true that olive oil retains more polyphenols when uncooked, using olive oil in cooking has also been associated with health benefits and adds flavor to make healthy foods enjoyable.
Follow the underlined links in this articles to read the peer-reviewed scientific resources we based our recommendations on.
This article was written by Jessica Cording MS, RD, CDN, INHC.
Jessica is a dietitian, health coach, podcaster, and author