Adding a little more olive oil to a Mediterranean-style diet can further improve your heart health by making your "good” (HDL) cholesterol more efficient, a new study suggests.
Mediterranean diets include regular helpings of high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes, as well as fish, poultry, and moderate amounts of olive oil. The American Heart Association says these popular diets can improve your ratio of "good" to “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease.
The researchers, whose findings were published online in February 2017 in Circulation, randomly chose 296 overweight older men and women (average age 66) at high risk of heart disease who participated in Spain's PREDIMED study, which measured the effects of a Mediterranean diet on heart health. Participants were assigned to follow one of three diets for one year:
• A Mediterranean diet with about four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil each day
• A Mediterranean diet with extra nuts instead of additional olive oil, or
• A traditional healthy diet lower in red meat, processed foods, high-fat dairy products, and sweets.
Blood samples were drawn at the beginning and end of the study to compare cholesterol levels and other markers of heart health.
Among participants who followed either Mediterranean diet, HDL cholesterol was more effective at removing cholesterol from plaque in the arteries, preventing LDL cholesterol from combining with oxygen and becoming more dangerous, and relaxing blood vessels for improved blood flow, compared with those who followed the lower-fat “control” diet. Those effects were most visible among people in the olive oil group.
The bottom line
Even if you are older and at increased risk of heart disease, it's not too late to make some changes to your diet that can improve your heart health, such as using olive oil when you cook.