Olive oil is a famous type of cooking oil, one that is strongly associated with the Mediterranean diet and is thought to provide countless health benefits. Olive oil is powerful, there’s no denying that, but the focus on olive oil makes it easy to overlook all the benefits that olives offer. That brings us to the question of the day – are olives good for you?
It’s an important topic to talk about, as all the foods in our diet have some amazing features and some that are more concerning.
Indeed, even the foods that seem the healthiest (like spinach) can sometimes put your health at risk, while apparently unhealthy foods (like butter) can have surprising benefits. Olives are similar to spinach in that they do seem to be very healthy, but also have some critical features that you need to watch out for.
Are Olives Good For You?
- Benefits Of Olives
- How Olives Could Be Harmful
- Can You Eat Fresh Olives?
- Are Black Olives Or Green Olives Healthier?
- How Many Olives Should You Eat?
- Final Thoughts
Benefits Of Olives
The Nutrient Profile
While the exact nutrient composition of olives varies depending on the type you choose, you’ll get roughly this balance from 100 grams of olives:
- Calories: 115
- Carbohydrates: 6.3 grams
- Fiber: 3.2 grams
- Sugars: 0 grams
- Protein: 0.8 grams
- Fat: 10.7 grams
- Iron: 18% of your daily intake
- Copper: 13% of your daily intake
- Calcium: 9% of your daily intake
- Vitamin E: 8% of your daily intake
- Vitamin A: 8% of your daily intake
As you can see, you’re getting a decent amount of fat and some fiber from olives, while the sugar and protein content is low. Don’t worry too much about the fat though, as most of this is monounsaturated fat which is very good for you.
The various nutrients are important too, particularly the iron. Seriously, you get close to 20% of your daily intake of iron from 100 grams of olives. Iron is critical for our ability to transport oxygen and many of us should be consuming more iron than we are.
Low In Calories
Despite their relatively high fat content, olives are low in calories. In fact, a single olive just contains 5 calories or so.
This low calorie content makes olives an easy snack choice. You could have a few olives without impacting your daily calorie intake much at all. Even an ounce of olives only contains around 32 calories.
Don’t forget that olives contain a decent amount of fiber too. This fiber helps you to feel full, so even a few hours could decrease your cravings for snacks and help with weight management.
A Source Of Healthy Fats
Olives are unusual because they’re a type of fruit, but they’re also high in fat (avocados follow this pattern too, but few other fruits do). Most of the fat is in the form of monounsaturated fatty acids – with oleic acid being the most prominent type.
Oleic acid is the type that olive oil is most famous for. It’s thought to help improve heart healthy by decreasing cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fats may be even more powerful if you’re consuming them instead of saturated fat rich foods.
They Provide Some Fiber
A single large olive contains 0.1 grams of fiber. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember that a single olive is only 5 calories and contains negligible amounts of sugar. From this perspective, then, olives are an excellent source of fiber.
If you eat 100 grams of olives, then you’ll end up with 3.2 grams of fiber. Not too shabby, right?
This fiber is important for all sorts of reasons, starting with your digestion. Getting enough fiber helps to keep everything moving along nicely. Plus, soluble fiber helps to provide food for your gut bacteria.
Now, there are plenty of better sources of fiber, including most non-starchy vegetables and many fruits. Still, every little bit helps, especially as many of us aren’t getting enough fiber currently.
Contain Some Powerful Plant-Based Compounds
Nutrients, fat, and fiber aren’t the only interesting things about olives. There are also some important plant-based compounds, including hydroxytyrosol, quercetin, and oleanolic acid.
These compounds have a variety of effects in your body, including the ability to reduce both inflammation and oxidation. Those effects are important because too much oxidation or inflammation can increase your risk of disease.
Indeed, diets rich in antioxidants may reduce your disease risk and may help you to live longer.
Could Improve Heart Health
The antioxidants in olives can help with your heart health too, by lowering both overall oxidation and the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. The oleic acid may be important for this effect as well.
Some studies suggest that olives can also help with your blood pressure levels. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, so finding ways to decrease this is always powerful.
Targeted research that looks at the benefits of olives for heart health is relatively rare. As such, there’s much that we don’t know. Even so, olives and olive oil feature heavily in the Mediterranean diet – an eating approach that’s long been linked to decreased heart disease risk.
They’re Low In Carbs
Unusually for a type of fruit, olives are naturally low in carbs. This makes make an ideal choice for keto dieters, especially as you’re also getting plenty of fat.
Keto dieters aren’t the only ones who benefit from the low amount of carbs in olives. Modern diets tend to be rich in processed foods, many of which are high in carbs. This eating pattern may increase inflammation and disease risk.
Focusing on natural foods that are low in carbs tends to be much healthier than relying on processed foods, and could lead to many health benefits.
Could Protect Health In Other Ways Too
The combination of healthy fats, antioxidants, and nutrients in olives may help keep you healthy in other ways too.
For example, some of the compounds in olives have been linked to decreased bone loss. Conditions like osteoporosis are also less common in countries that rely on Mediterranean diet pattern. Olives could be one reasons for that pattern.
Some theories also suggest a link between olives and a decreased risk of cancer. The effect is far from proven, but it is a promising idea.
How Olives Could Be Harmful
They’re Often High In Sodium
Olives are typically soaked in brine, which makes them high in sodium. Even a single olive may contain around 32 mg of sodium, while a cup of olives could easily contain more than 1,500 mg.
Current recommendations suggest that adults should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. While 32 mg might not sound like much in that content, the sodium content adds up quickly.
Besides, who can stop at a single olive?
The other problem is that most of us are already consuming too much sodium (the average American consumes roughly 3,400 mg of sodium per day, which is far over the maximum recommendations). While olives are certainly nutritious, they can easily contribute to this sodium problem.
Relatively High In Fat
While the fat in olives is of the monounsaturated form, olives are still relatively high in fat, which isn’t always a good thing. For example, if you’re following a low fat diet for weight loss, you might need to keep an eye on the number of olives you eat.
People at risk of gallstones may need to limit their fat intake as well.
In the end, people vary in their needs, so you’ll need to adjust your diet so that it meets what you’re looking for personally. If you’re worried about the fat in olives, try talking to your doctor. He or she will be able to tell you whether olives should be part of your diet.
Can Contain Heavy Metals
Olives can also contain some heavy metals, along with other concerning chemicals. Thankfully, the levels of these elements tend to be low, but they may still be a cause for concern if you eat olives regularly.
To avoid this problem, focus on olives from reputable suppliers, preferably local ones.
Acrylamide turns up in some processed foods, including olives. The amounts are generally well under the recommended limits, but even so, there are concerns that acrylamide could increase your cancer risk.
The best way to keep yourself safe may be to cut down your acrylamide intake as much as possible, which could (unfortunately) involve avoiding olives.
California black olives are some of the worst culprits here, so if you’re concerned about acrylamide levels, you could focus on other types of olives instead.
Still Gaps In Our Knowledge
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there’s still plenty that we don’t know about olives and their impact on health. Shocked? Don’t be. This pattern is a common one, partly because nutrition is difficult to study.
After all, each type of food contains many different compounds, each of which can influence our health. We’re also eating multiple types of food and there are plenty of differences between individuals, like differences in genetics, in activity level, and in our diets.
It takes time, energy, and a lot of research to tease out how individual foods impact our health. And, interestingly, olives themselves haven’t been studied that heavily. There’s much more research into olive oil and the Mediterranean diet than olives themselves.
This knowledge gap is why it’s always important to pay attention to your body and your needs. Rather than looking for the next most powerful superfood, focus instead on the foods that help you to feel good. These are the ones that will provide the most benefits.
Can You Eat Fresh Olives?
If you look for olives at the store, you’ll almost always see processed olives, often in some type of brine. This is because raw olives are incredibly bitter, to the point that they’re almost inedible.
The bitterness comes from a polyphenolic compound called oleuropein. While oleuropein is associated with some health benefits and can be found in some supplements, it’s not something you want to be eating directly.
That said, it is theoretically possible to eat raw olives and some people do. The trick is to look for overripe olives, even ones that have ripened to the point that they’ve fallen off the tree. Even then, they may be bitter at first and you’ll need to chew them for a while before you find some sweetness.
A few varieties of olives can be eaten fresh without processing. Even so, finding these can be difficult, as such olives aren’t often sold at grocery stores.
Are Black Olives Or Green Olives Healthier?
Green and black olives don’t just look different, they also vary in their flavor, with green olives tending to be more bitter than black ones.
Most of the time, green and black olives aren’t different varieties. It’s simply that green olives are harvested early, before they have fully ripened, while black olives are allowed to mature for longer.
Both types are processed similarly, although black olive preparations often are lower in salt and higher in oil than green ones. Either way, you’re getting plenty of healthy monounsaturated fats, along with some fiber and antioxidants.
There may be a difference in antioxidant content between green and black olives, but this isn’t an area that’s been heavily studied. You’re going to get plenty of antioxidants either way, so the type doesn’t matter much at all.
How Many Olives Should You Eat?
Moderation is key when it comes to olives. Healthy as they may be, olives are also high in fat and contain a considerable amount of sodium.
For most people, sticking to a few ounces of olives per day is a good way to get all the benefits that olives offer, without putting themselves at risk. If you want to have more olives than this, you may need to cut down on sodium and fat elsewhere in your diet.
There’s no denying that olives are good for you. They’re an excellent source of oleic acid, not to mention all of the antioxidants they contain. There’s even some fiber present, a feature that you don’t find in olive oil.
Remember too that olives are a key feature of the Mediterranean diet. That eating approach has been linked to plenty of health benefits, so it shouldn’t be underestimated. Despite all these benefits, it’s still important to pay attention to how many olives you eat. Their high sodium content can add up quickly and could easily lead to problems.