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Olive Oil: A True Brain Superfood

Plus how much to use, the best types, and cooking inspiration


By Austin Perlmutter, MD



 

Olive oil, particularly extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) has been well studied. The research shows this tasty condiment offers several benefits for brain health. Olive oil contains a host molecules linked to better brain health, including monounsaturated fats (up to 83% by weight) and polyphenols like oleuropein. Here are six powerful reasons why it is an “A list” superfood for the brain, along with information on the best types, dosing and cooking ideas.


  1. Reduced Neuroinflammation: A diet rich in olive oil (like the Mediterranean diet) correlates with lower levels of inflammation in humans. In preclinical data, EVOO is linked to reductions in inflammation. One interesting study found that certain polyphenols (plant nutrients) in olive oil could help decrease inflammatory activation in brain immune cells called microglia. Overactive and inflammatory microglia are believed to be a significant contributor to conditions like depression and dementia.

  2. Increased autophagy: Autophagy is a key cleanup mechanism that occurs at the level of our cells. Activation of autophagy helps cells remove and reuse broken or unwanted components and may assist in fighting aging and brain issues like dementia (in particular, by helping get rid of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease).  Preclinical research suggests that EVOO may help with activation of autophagy.

  3. Enhanced Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB) Function: EVOO appears to improve the integrity of the BBB, which is crucial for protecting the brain from harmful substances in the blood. A study on individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) found that daily consumption of EVOO enhanced BBB function and reduced amyloid-beta levels, which are associated with cognitive decline.

  4. Improved Cognitive Function: Regular intake of olive oil has been linked to better cognitive performance in older adults. A systematic review of various studies indicated that olive oil consumption is associated with improved scores on cognitive tests like the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT) and the Alzheimer Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive (ADAS-Cog)​.

  5. Preserved Synaptic Integrity: EVOO consumption has been found to maintain the health and function of synapses in preclinical data. Synapses are the connections between neurons and their health is crucial for memory and cognitive function, as synaptic integrity is often compromised in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

  6. Reduced Risk of Dementia and Cognitive Decline: Population level human studies suggest that diets high in EVOO, such as the Mediterranean or MIND diets, are associated with a lower incidence of dementia and cognitive decline. A daily dose of half a tablespoon of olive oil has been shown to correlate with a significantly reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia based on the results of a just-published JAMA study.

Quality: Unfortunately, about half of the olive oil supply in the US may be cut with less brain-healthy oils. If you’re choosing to consume olive oil, make sure you’re getting it from a reputable source. Real olive oil should taste peppery and bright. Look also for a third-party certification seal like the COOC Certified Extra Virgin seal from California or the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and make sure the olive oil says “extra-virgin.”


Nutrient preservation: Due to the nature of the fat composition of olive oil, it’s at high risk for oxidation. This means the goal is to consume the freshest olive oil (it loses nutrient value over time) and to keep your oil cool and protected from the sun. Clear olive oil containers (glass or plastic) will increase the chances of oxidation and decrease the quality of your oil, so look for dark bottles whenever possible. Also, once opened, try to use your olive oil in 3-4 months to help maximize nutrient value.   


Want to learn more about how polyphenols including those in olive oil benefit the brain? Check out this episode of the Get the STUCK Out podcast!


Dosage: While specific dosages can vary, studies often reference the benefits of consuming about one to two tablespoons (15-30 ml) of EVOO daily. This amount is typically sufficient to confer the neuroprotective benefits associated with regular olive oil consumption.


Looking for inspiration on your use of EVOO? Here are 7 healthy ways to use it today:


  1. Salad Dressings: Combine EVOO with vinegar (balsamic, red wine, apple cider) or lemon juice, and add herbs and spices to create a healthy and flavorful salad dressing.

  2. Marinades: Use EVOO as a base for marinades for chicken, fish, or vegetables. Mix it with herbs, garlic, lemon juice, and spices to add flavor and moisture without unhealthy additives.

  3. Drizzling Over Cooked Vegetables: Enhance the flavor and nutrition of steamed or roasted vegetables by drizzling them with a small amount of EVOO before serving.

  4. Hummus and Dips: Blend EVOO with chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic to make a creamy and nutritious hummus. Use it as a dip for vegetables or whole-grain pita.

  5. Cooking Grains: Add a teaspoon of EVOO to cooking water for grains like quinoa, brown rice, or couscous to prevent sticking and add a subtle, healthy flavor.

  6. Oven-Baked Dishes: Lightly coat fish, chicken, or tofu with EVOO before baking to keep the protein moist and add a rich taste without excessive calories.

  7. Soup Garnish: Finish soups with a drizzle of EVOO to add depth of flavor and a boost of healthy fats. This works well with vegetable, lentil, or tomato-based soups.



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We are heading to our home in Greece in a month. Over there we consume tons of olive oil and when we return, we bring back gallons of olive oil in large metal tins.

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