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Olive Oil: A Gateway to Better Brain Health?

In a recent study highlighted by JAMA Network Open, olive oil has once again shown its remarkable potential in promoting health, this time in cognitive realms. Led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers, the study suggests a strong association between regular olive oil consumption and a reduced risk of dying from dementia.

In this blog, we'll give you the key findings and show you some creative new ways to incorporate more olive oil into your diet.

Understanding the Study

The research tracked over 92,000 U.S. health professionals for 28 years, examining their dietary habits and health outcomes. Key findings revealed that consuming at least a half tablespoon of olive oil daily could lower the risk of dementia mortality by 28% compared to those who seldom used it. Even more compelling, replacing just a teaspoon of margarine or mayonnaise with olive oil daily could decrease dementia death risk by 8 to 14%.

What sets this study apart is its robust design: it controlled for various dietary qualities and adherence to the Mediterranean diet, which is known for its high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. This suggests the benefits of olive oil might extend beyond those already eating a nutritious diet.

What Makes Olive Oil So Beneficial?

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, which are believed to play a protective role for the brain. Marta Guasch-Ferré, an adjunct associate professor in nutrition at Harvard and co-author of the study, suggests that olive oil may directly benefit the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier, or indirectly by improving heart health, which in turn, supports cognitive function.

Anne-Julie Tessier, the lead author of the study, emphasized the need for further research to confirm these associations and determine the optimal quantity of olive oil for cognitive health benefits.

What kind of olive oil should you add to your diet?

Unfortunately, not all olive oil has the same benefits. So, when you’re looking to add more olive oil to your diet, it’s important to know what kind of olive oil to buy. The process of making olive oil is the differentiator between regular olive oil and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). EVOO contains no additives and is created with only raw olives that are crushed into pulp and separated into oil and the rest of the olive remains. These leftover olive materials are then combined with chemicals to make regular olive oil, which will obviously contain less nutritional value and flavor than EVOO.

One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains:

  • 14% of your daily value (DV) of saturated fat,

  • 73% of your DV of monounsaturated fat (mostly oleic acid),

  • 13% of your DV of Vitamin E,

  • and 7% of your DV of Vitamin K.

One tablespoon of regular olive oil contains much less nutritional value. So when you're looking to add more olive oil to your diet, be sure to choose EVOO.

How to add more olive oil to your diet:

Now that we’ve convinced you to add more EVOO into your daily diet, here are some easy ways to do it!

  1. Incorporate EVOO into your cooking → EVOO can easily be used in place of butter in many recipes! For example, instead of roasting or frying your meal in butter, try using extra virgin olive oil.

  2. Swap out butter for EVOO in your baking → In baking recipes that call for butter, you can use EVOO instead. Baking with olive oil actually helps to increase the freshness and shelf life of your baked goods because of the vitamin E it contains. Here are the butter/margarine to EVOO conversions

  • 1 teaspoon → ¾ tablespoon

  • 1 tablespoon → 2 ¼ tablespoons

  • 2 tablespoons → 1 ½ tablespoon

  • ¼ cup → 3 tablespoons

  • ⅓ cup → ¼ cup

  • ½ cup → ¼ cup & 2 tablespoons

  • ⅔ cup → ½ cup

  • ¾ cup → ½ cup & 1 tablespoon

  • 1 cup → ¾ cup

  1. Use EVOO as a topping → Olive oil makes a great finishing oil on many different cuisines and snack foods. For example, try topping your roasted veggies, pizza, mashed potatoes, salads, and bread with EVOO.

  2. Make your own EVOO salad dressing → Instead of using salad dressing purchased at the grocery store, try making your own with EVOO. Making your own dressing also allows you to avoid the additives and preservatives in most store-bought salad dressings. Follow these guidelines for making your very own (and delicious) vinaigrette.

  3. Use EVOO in your marinades → Extra virgin olive oil makes the perfect base ingredient in countless marinades for a variety of seafood and meats. It can help to draw out the unique flavors in meats without overpowering them.

  4. Use EVOO on your sandwiches → Instead of using mayo or mustard on your next sandwich, try using EVOO.

Skepticism and Further Insights

Despite these promising findings, some experts urge caution. David Knopman, a professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic, points out that those who consume more olive oil might simply be more health-conscious overall. This highlights a common challenge in dietary studies: distinguishing the effects of individual foods from general healthy behaviors.

Moreover, the study’s results are primarily based on health professionals, which may not be representative of the general population. There's also a lack of differentiation between various types of olive oil, such as virgin or extra virgin, which are known to contain higher levels of beneficial bioactive compounds.

Lifestyle Over Single Nutrients

The conversation around olive oil and dementia underscores a broader truth in nutrition science: focusing on overall lifestyle rather than single nutrients is likely more beneficial. While olive oil shows promise, a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and minimal stress is crucial for maintaining cognitive health.

So, more olive oil?

Yes, it seems adding a bit more olive oil to your diet could be beneficial, especially if it displaces less healthy fats. As we await more definitive research, incorporating olive oil into a balanced diet appears to be a wise choice for those looking to support their cognitive health. Whether used in salad dressings, for cooking, or even as an unconventional ice cream topping as mentioned by one expert, olive oil is versatile and health-promoting.

While we cannot yet say olive oil is a magic bullet for preventing dementia, its integration into a healthy lifestyle might just be one of the smarter dietary choices we can make. After all, when it comes to health, every little bit helps — and a little more olive oil might just make the difference.

For more information about optimal health at The Johnson Center, click here to contact us. Or, email our office at or call 276-235-3205, to set up your complimentary 15-minute discovery call with Dr. Johnson!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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