Is Olive Oil Paleo?

Olive oil is made from olives, the fruit of the olive tree. Evidence of olive oil use dates back 7000 years to stone presses found in archeological sites in Israel. Olive oil made its way through Asia Minor and the Mediterranean to Europe and eventually, to other parts of the world. An essential element of Italian and Mediterranean cooking to this day, and lauded for numerous health benefits this distinctive and flavorful oil is a staple in many Paleo pantries but is olive oil Paleo?

Nutritional Value of Olive Oil

Serving size: 1 Tablespoon

  • Calories: 119
  • Total Fat: 14 g
  • Saturated Fat: 2 g
  • Monounsaturated Fat: 10 g
  • Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.4 g
  • Total Omegat-3 fatty acids: 103 mg
  • Total Omega-6 fatty acids: 1318 mg
  • Cholesterol: 0 mg
  • Sodium: 0 mg
  • Carbohydrate: 0 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Vitamin E: 1.9 mg
  • Vitamin K: 8.1 mcg

Health Benefits of Olive Oil

The health benefits of olive oil are likely due to its unique combination of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) and polyphenols, also called phenolic antioxidants. Both MUFAs and polyphenols are associated with diverse health benefits including decreased risk factors for heart disease, decreased risk for cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s as well as improved symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It’s no wonder olive oil finds itself in the research spotlight. Let’s take a closer look.

Heart Disease: Olive oil intake reduces generalized inflammation as shown by decreased levels of C-reactive protein. Olive oil has also been shown to decrease oxidative damage to LDL cholesterol particles, decrease blood pressure, and improve arterial (blood vessel) function.

Cancer: Oxidative damage by free radicals that can lead to the proliferation of cancer cells is mitigated by both olive oil’s oleic acid and phenolic antioxidants. Furthermore, studies have shown that oleic acid may fight cancer development on a genetic level by altering gene expression.

Diabetes: MUFA rich olive oil is associated with weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity and improved carbohydrate metabolism.

Osteoporosis: Olive oil polyphenols have been shown to increase the concentration of total osteocalcin and other bone formation markers as well as the activity of osteoblasts.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: The polyphenol oleocanthal, prevents the production of pro-inflammatory enzymes the same way ibuprofen does, decreasing pain and stiffness. MUFAs are also associated with decreased symptoms.

Alzheimer’s: In mice, oleocanthal derived from extra-virgin olive oil was shown to remove beta-amyloid plaque from the brain.

Are there any downsides to using olive oil? The Paleo community is actually of two minds on this. A common criticism is that although olive oil is 71% MUFA, it contains about 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) including omega 6’s which are pro-inflammatory and omega 3’s which are anti-inflammatory. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is more than 10:1, which is way above the optimal ratio for health of 1:1 to 4:1. However, the ratio of PUFAs in olive oil is of little concern especially since the total amount of these fats is small. Consider the fact that just 3 oz of chicken with skin contains more omega 6 fatty acids, and a higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3, (11.4:1) than 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Another criticism is over olive oil’s susceptibility to oxidative damage if exposed to air, light, and heat. The vitamin E content and abundance of polyphenols in high quality extra virgin olive oil goes a long way towards protecting it from the elements and simply keeping your olive oil in a dark cabinet or the refrigerator with the cap on the bottle will preserve its shelf life. Regarding the heat applied to olive oil during cooking, several studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil stands up very well to heat of over 350 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 24 hours before fully breaking down and oxidizing. Applying heat (and cold) to your extra virgin olive oil may alter the flavor slightly but a quick sauté or oven bake won’t turn it into a rancid toxin.

How to Select and Store Olive Oil

There are several grades of olive oil denoting quality. “Extra virgin olive oil” (EVOO) contains the highest concentration of polyphenols and the best flavor. EVOO is from the first pressing of the olives. No solvents are used and if heat is applied, the delicate flavor along with the integrity of the oil must not be altered. If EVOO is cold pressed, the pressing is slow to generate minimal heat, which preserves flavor. EVOO can only contain up to 0.8% acidity. “Virgin olive oil” is also from the first pressing but contains up to 2% acidity and the flavor is not quite as good as EVOO. “Refined olive oil” has undergone processing that may include heat, solvents and/or filtration to improve the flavor and aroma of poor quality oil. “Olive oil” used to be called “pure olive oil” and is a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil. Blends are typically used in foods labeled “packed in olive oil.” “Olive pomace oil” is refined and used commercially. “Lite”, “light” and “mild” olive oil refers to oil that has undergone fine filtration to remove most of the natural color, aroma and flavor.

Whether you’re cooking with olive oil, using it as a finisher, making dips and dressings or simply drizzling it over food, high quality olive oil is essential to ensuring its integrity and therefore its health benefits. Here are some important things to look for when choosing high quality olive oil:

  1. Buy extra virgin olive oil in a dark bottle that’s been cold pressed.
  2. Make sure there’s a harvest date and don’t confuse this with the best by date, which is calculated from the date the oil is bottled. After pressing, the olive oil may have been sitting around in storage for a long time going rancid before bottling. Buy your olive oil within six months to a year of the harvest date.
  3. Know where your olive oil comes from. Unfortunately, many European olive oils sold on American shelves are actually blends of lower quality oils, which are sometimes not even olive oil at all! A high quality grower will name the region the olives come from.
  4. A really good olive oil will list the cultivars, or those olives the oil is composed of.
  5. Look for a seal of approval, which certifies truth in product quality. Two major seals to look for are the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), and the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC).
  6. If you’d like to avoid the possible use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, buy organic olive oil.

Olive oil will keep for about one year if stored in a sealed container in a cool dark cupboard. You can refrigerate olive oil, which does not alter the quality but may alter the taste. Olive oil solidifies in cold temperatures and to return it to liquid, simply place the bottle in warm water for a few minutes.

Is Olive Oil Paleo?

Yes, in addition to coconut oil, palm oil, ghee, lard, tallow and other Paleo fats, feel free to use olive oil for its distinctive flavor and aroma as well as for its many health benefits.

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Sally Barden JohnsonSally Barden Johnson

Sally Johnson, RDN, LD is a registered and licensed dietitian and health coach. She is an avid CrossFitter and enjoys working with clients to find the best nutritional solutions within a Paleo/Primal framework to solve their health issues. She also enjoys spending time with her family. She can be found on Instagram at