Most of us know that olive oil is as healthy as it is delicious. Olive oil is touted as a superfood because it’s full of nutritious polyphenols, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fatty acids. But olive oil may be much more of a superfood than most of us truly appreciate. Olive oil, believe it or not, may be able to promote fat burning, decrease hunger, and even improve mental health!!!
Olive oil is the richest source of a fatty acid called oleic acid. In the gut, liver, muscles, brain, and most other tissues, oleic acid can be converted via a two-step process into a signaling molecule called oleoylethanolamine (OEA).
OEA can help increase the expression of genes involved in fat burning, (such as the fat transporter protein CD36 and the fat browning protein UCP-2); fat browning may help to increase the number of calories you burn to produce body heat. In humans, oleic acid intake is correlated with OEA levels in the blood and, in controlled studies, has been shown to increase fat loss as compared the intake of the same amount of other fatty acids.
Not only does oleic acid/OEA help burn fat, but is involved in sending a satiety signal to the brain (via the vagus nerve). In other words, the OEA derived from olive oil can place a direct call to the brain via the vagus nerve telephone to tell your brain that you’re full. Indeed, in humans, olive oil does appear to be a relatively strong “fullness” signal, all other factors being equal.
Finally, by activating the vagus nerve, OEA increases the brain’s production of the cuddle hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone released when you see a baby or cuddle a puppy. Oxytocin is also released at high levels during orgasm and helps to combat stress. Importantly, research shows that an olive oil-rich diet increases oxytocin levels as compared to a corn oil-rich diet or low-fat diet.
While this doesn’t prove that olive oil can actually improve mental health, I can report the incidental positive results of a self-experiment: I was inspired to do the research for this piece by the very fact that I was astonished to find that by simply switching in olive oil for other sources of fat in my diet, an intervention I tried as a cholesterol experiment, my average resting blood ketone levels (a marker of fat burning) more than doubled from 1.0 mM to 2.5 mM! Strangely, I also felt, and was repeatedly told, that I just “seemed happier.”
Take my personal story for what it’s worth, a story. Still, the plural or story is data and the animal and human data that served as the basis for the above are quite compelling. Here’s an excellent review worth reading: Bowen K. et al. “Oleic acid-derived oleoylethanolamine: A nutritional science perspective” Progress in Lipid Research, 2017 (67). 10.1016/j.plipres.2017.04.001.
Finally, a practical tip for you in the form of a recipe: olive oil and avocado mayonnaise! Blend 3 egg yolks with 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard. Very slowly drizzle in 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil. This should take a couple of minutes if done correctly. Next, add 1 Tbsp lemon juice and half a ripe avocado and blend some more. Finally, add a pinch of salt and viola, a delicious creamy mayo made from the two best sources of oleic acid (olive oil and avocado)! It’s also a great base to vary. Add turmeric and black pepper or chili peppers and lime zest or garlic and Italian herbs… whatever you like really.
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