How Olive Oil Can Improve Your Cholesterol

Olive oil's benefits include lowering cholesterol when consumed as part of a healthy diet. Just don't go overboard on calories, and it's best to use it as a substitute for other types of fat in your diet.

Talk about a great job. As president of Oliveoil.com, Yasser Elshair travels to olive oil competitions in the United States and throughout Europe in search of the best olive oil producers. He takes part in about 200 tastings a year, swirling the fragrant oil in a small blue glass, sniffing, swallowing, and rating. You can bet his cholesterol levels are low.

The generous amount of olive oil consumed by people who live in Mediterranean countries is at the core of the good-for-you Mediterranean diet. A study published in 2018, in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests why. Turns out, people at high risk for cardiovascular disease who followed the Mediterranean diet—an eating plan that favors vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains, as well as olive oil—had fewer major cardiovascular events than participants who followed a reduced-fat diet.

A more recent study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, zeroes in on the heart-health benefits of olive oil, specifically. Consuming just a half-tablespoon of olive oil a day is linked to a significant reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease. The study also suggests that swapping out margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and dairy fat with olive oil could lead to a lower risk for coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

“I grew up in a Mediterranean household, so my diet by default was and is predominantly Mediterranean,” says Elshair. “That means lots and lots of extra virgin olive oil,  pita bread, rice, vegetables, and fish.” On the other hand, these are the worst foods for cholesterol.

Shopping for olive oil

Not all olive oils are created equal. A better oil will add more flavor to your food. The main types of olive oil are:

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sometimes described as “cold pressed” or “first press,” extra virgin olive oil has the lowest acidity of all olive oils and meets the highest taste and aroma standards. It also has the greatest cholesterol-lowering benefits and the most antioxidants. (Choose cold-pressed extra virgin for even more.)
  • Regular Olive Oil Sometimes described as “pure,” this is a blend of refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil. The process of refining removes color, taste, and some of the nutrients.
  • Light Olive Oil or Extra Light Olive Oil No, they don’t have fewer calories. These are a blend of refined oil and just enough extra virgin oil to give them a light—or extra light—flavor and color.

Storing olive oil

To keep your olive oil fresh, check the date of extraction or use-by date on the label. Unlike wine, olive oil is best used soon after its pressing. All oils oxidize over time and eventually become rancid. Leave a bottle of old oil open in the sun for a week or so and then take a whiff. You’ll know immediately if it’s rancid!

“Storing olive oil in a dark area away from light will prevent ultraviolet rays from breaking down the oil over time,” says Elshair. “Additionally, it’s good to minimize oxygen exposure by quickly sealing it after each use as oxygen exposure will degrade the oil.”

Since heat and light are olive oil’s enemies, keep your bottle in a cool, dark cupboard. Stored properly, olive oil will last for years. If the oil turns cloudy, its nutritional properties may have changed. That’s when you know it’s time to throw it away and buy a new bottle.

Enjoying olive oil

Don’t relegate olive oil to the back of the cabinet. From breakfast through dessert, it works with nearly everything. “My favorite snack is actually dipping pita bread in olive oil with za’atar, which is a spice mix of dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds,” says Elshair.

Other ways to enjoy olive oil:

  • Skip the butter and instead drizzle olive oil on your morning toast or bagel; at dinner, dip hunks of bread into olive oil.
  • Use it to make garlic bread. Brush extra virgin olive oil on both halves of a split loaf of Italian or French bread, sprinkle the bread with chopped garlic, and then broil until lightly browned.
  • Baste turkey and chicken with extra virgin olive oil for extra flavor.
  • Use extra virgin olive oil to replace smoked meats and sausages typically used to flavor bean and pea soups.
  • Sauté nuts—already great sources of healthy fats—in a little extra virgin olive oil for added flavor.
  • For a tasty dessert, sauté bananas, apples, pears, or other fruits in light olive oil. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and serve.
  • Use the conversion chart below to make the switch from butter.
If recipe calls for this much butterUse this much olive oil
1 teaspoon3/4 teaspoon
1 tablespoon2 1/4 teaspoons
2 tablespoons1 1/2 tablespoons
1/4 cup3 tablespoons
1/3 cup1/4 cup
1/2 cup1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons
2/3 cup1/2 cup
3/4 cup1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon
1 cup3/4 cup

At the same time you’re making that switch to olive oil in place of other fats, be careful not to go overboard on your overall fat or calorie limits. Too often we’re more likely to add rather than substitute.

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