Medically reviewed by Barbie Cervoni, MS, RD, CDCES, CDN
Olives are small, oval fruits that grow on trees (Olea europaea). These trees are traditionally found in the Mediterranean basin—especially Spain, Italy, Morocco, Greece, and Turkey—but are also planted in areas like South America and California. Olives are naturally packed with healthy monounsaturated fats, as well as antioxidants like vitamin E, which help fight disease-causing free radical damage in the body.
Time and again, a Mediterranean-style diet has been proven to be among the best eating patterns for health and longevity. And it’s no coincidence that olives—as well as olive oil—are a hallmark of the healthy meal plan.
Health Benefits of Olives
Olives are loaded with good-for-you nutrients that support our cardiometabolic health, which includes factors that affect your heart, blood, and blood vessels. Here’s how the fruit keeps us well nourished.
They Support Heart Health
Olives and olive oil are among the best sources of monounsaturated fatty acids (or MUFAs), the heart-healthy dietary fats that help lower our ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and raise our ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.
Research repeatedly shows that diets high in MUFAs like those found in olives, nuts, seeds, and avocado are associated with better health outcomes long term. A 2022 study reported that people who consumed more than one-half tablespoon of olive oil every day had a 19% lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality compared to people who consumed little or no olive oil. Frequent olive oil consumers also had a lower risk of death from other causes, including respiratory and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as cancer.
They’re Packed With Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients
Olive oil tends to get the most credit for being an anti-inflammatory ingredient, but olives themselves are packed with key nutrients, like vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps scavenge free radicals in the body (which break down your cells), therefore reducing oxidative stress, or an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals in your body. This ultimately lowers your risk of disease.
Olives also contain flavonoids (natural dietary compounds found in many fruits and vegetables) like quercetin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. It also contains hydroxytyrosol, a polyphenol (another type of natural dietary compound) that has potent anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antioxidant properties.
They Promote Satiety
Fat is filling. Dietary fats have more calories per gram than proteins or carbohydrates and are digested slower. Whereas one gram of fat serves up nine calories, one gram of protein or carbohydrates serves up just four calories. This is why adding healthy fats to our meals and snacks makes them more filling–and more satisfying.
Interestingly, the healthy fats found in olives may assist in weight management beyond simply helping to fill us up. A 2020 systematic review reported that diets enriched with oleic acid, the most prevalent MUFA in olives, could possibly support body recomposition by increasing the fat-burning process and energy expenditure (calorie burn).
They Might Help Balance Blood Sugar
Pairing carbohydrates with healthy fats and lean proteins is one of the best ways to promote steady blood sugar, or blood glucose, levels. That’s because both fats and proteins help lessen the blood sugar spikes that can follow after we eat carbs.
The type of fats we consume matter, though. Consuming a large excessive amount of saturated fats concentrated in animal-derived foods like ham or cheese could possibly contribute to the development of insulin resistance, a common precursor to type 2 diabetes.
On the flip side, unsaturated fats, like the MUFAs found in olives, can improve blood sugar outcomes. A 2018 systematic review found that replacing carbohydrates with the same number of calories from unsaturated fats led to improvements in hemoglobin A1c (a measure of blood sugar control over the past two to three months) and insulin sensitivity. However, replacing carbohydrates with saturated fats did not have the same effect. Additionally, when polyunsaturated fats–such as the omega-3s we get from fatty fish–were swapped in for carbs, even greater reductions in blood sugar levels were observed.
Related: Healthy High-Fat Foods
Nutrition of Olives
Olives are one of the best sources of monounsaturated fats like oleic acid. According to the USDA’s Food DataCentral, one cup of black olives provides:
Fat: 14 g
Unsaturated Fat: 11 g
Saturated Fat: 3 g
Sodium: 992 mg
Carbohydrates: 8 g
Fiber: 2 g
Added sugars: 0 g
Protein: 1 g
Olives are generally low in protein and carbohydrates, and high in fat. However, the majority of the dietary fats in olives are those unsaturated fatty acids that can help support healthy cholesterol levels.
However, if your top cardiovascular concern is hypertension (aka high blood pressure), you’ll want to take note of olives’ high sodium content—nearly 1,000 milligrams per serving. It’s important to note that the serving size listed above is 1 cup of olives, more than most of us consume in one sitting. But even half that amount would deliver a substantial amount of salt, particularly for those capping their daily sodium consumption.
People watching their sodium intake should enjoy olives in moderation. The Mediterranean diet staple tends to be high in salt thanks to the fact that it’s typically preserved in salt water, or brine.
The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, while some individuals diagnosed with hypertension may need to limit their intake to just 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. For people with hypertension, just ½ cup of black olives could account for 33% of their daily sodium goal.
If you’re salt sensitive or watching your blood pressure, stick to ¼ cup of olives (which will provide about 250 milligrams of sodium) as your serving size. You can also rinse off your jarred olives to lower the salt content slightly.
Another option is to look for olives with the words ‘reduced sodium’ on their label. Just beware: ‘Reduced sodium’ and ‘low sodium’ are not synonyms. Just because a product has less sodium than the original does not actually mean it’s a low-sodium food, so be sure to still check the nutrition facts panel to assess how many milligrams of sodium there are per serving.
Tips for Eating Olives
It’s a good idea to make the majority of the fats you consume unsaturated fats. Nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, and–of course–olives and olive oil, are all great sources.
Here are some delicious and healthy ways to enjoy olives:
Incorporate olives into salads or Mediterranean-inspired grain bowls, along with other antioxidant-rich ingredients like tomatoes and caramelized onions.
Try an easy sheet pan chicken recipe that includes flavorful fruits and veggies, like olives and fennel.
Throw olives into a quickie whole wheat pasta along with kale pesto and sauteed Swiss chard for a fiber-filled noodle night.
Sweep olive tapenade on a homemade chicken sandwich for a nourishing flavor boost.
Like snacking on pretzels? Swap them for lower-sodium flaxseed crackers and add a few olives on the side for a high-fiber snack.
A Quick Review
Olives are a stellar source of monounsaturated fats that support cardiovascular health, as well as contain antioxidants like flavonoids and vitamin E. They’re also full of flavor and highly versatile.
Unlike olive oil, olives are typically preserved in a high-sodium brine. Practice moderation with your olive portions to keep your salt intake in check.
If you’re diagnosed with hypertension or are watching your sodium intake for other reasons, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about the right amount of olives for you.
For more Health news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on Health.