Cooking With This Ingredient Slashes Death Risk by 34 Percent, Study Says

The popular food item appears to have benefits to both brain and heart health.

Whether you're shooting for a health goal or simply trying to improve your diet overall, there are countless tips, tricks, and preferences out there for making your favorite dishes more nutritious. In fact, getting in the kitchen and cooking for yourself can be one of the best ways to take control of what you're eating and maximize any health benefits. But while most assume making a dish healthier involves holding back from using certain items in recipes, a new study has found that one ingredient could protect against a wide range of ailments and even reduce your risk of death. Read on to see which product you may want to start adding to your pan.

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Cooking with olive oil can reduce your risk of death by 34 percent.

Flavored olive oil
Shutterstock/Ryan DeBerardinis

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers set out to explore the relationship between olive oil consumption and overall health benefits, specifically aiming to gauge whether or not they extend beyond the well-studied associations with heart health. The team analyzed data from over 92,000 participants—including 60,582 women and 31,801 men—who were free from cancer and heart disease in 1990. Over the next 28 years, each participant was given a health questionnaire every four years that recorded the types of food they ate, how much fat and oils they consumed, and which brand or types of oils or fats such as butter or margarine they used while cooking.

After the follow-up period, researchers compared the compiled data with health and death records from participants. Results found that those who replaced two tablespoons of butter, margarine, mayonnaise, or other dairy fat with an equal amount of olive oil saw a 34 percent reduction in the risk of dying by any cause compared to participants who ate little to no olive oil.

"This is the first long-term study, including more than 90,000 participants followed for up to 30 years, conducted in the American population on olive oil and mortality. Previous studies were conducted in Mediterranean and European populations where the consumption of olive oil tends to be higher," Marta Guasch-Ferré, PhD, the study's author and a senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN via email. "Our results provide further support for recommendations to replace saturated fat and animal fat with unsaturated plant oils, such as olive oil, for the prevention of premature death."

Increasing olive oil intake could also protect against a surprising array of major health issues.

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In addition to the decreased mortality risk, the study also found that increased consumption of the Mediterranean staple could also yield significant other benefits. Compared to participants who never or rarely consumed olive oil, those in the highest consumption category were 17 percent less likely to die from cancer, 18 percent less likely to die from respiratory disease, and 19 percent less likely to die from heart disease. Perhaps most surprisingly, results showed they were also 29 percent less likely to die from dementia.

In an accompanying editorial released with the study, Susanna Larsson, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, pointed out the study's "novel" findings that connected lower dementia-related mortality with increased olive oil consumption. "Considering the lack of preventive strategies for Alzheimer's disease and the high morbidity and mortality related to this disease, this finding, if confirmed, is of great public health importance," she wrote.

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Experts say reducing saturated fats and increasing healthy oils could provide health benefits.

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Despite the findings, researchers did also note some limitations with the study. "It's possible that higher olive oil consumption is a marker of an overall healthier diet and higher socioeconomic status," Guasch-Ferré said in a statement. But, she added: "Even after adjusting for these and other social-economic status factors, our results remained largely the same."

One expert concluded that the study's findings showed a correlation between better health and using the right ingredients. "It's a combination of both decreasing the amount of saturated fat at the same time you're increasing the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil," Howard LeWine, MD, the chief medical editor of Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Publishing and was not involved in the study, told CNN. "The takeaway is to use olive oil every time you can as a substitute for saturated fats when you're cooking or in your salad dressings."

Other research has found following an overall Mediterranean-style diet can have similar health benefits.

people eating outside, mediterranean food on table
SolStock / iStock

Other research has recently found a connection between those who eat Mediterranean-style diets and a wide array of health benefits, where changing certain habits can have a significant impact. Sue Ryskamp, RD, of the Michigan Medicine Frankel Cardiovascular Center, told Michigan Health that the Mediterranean way of eating is not a diet but instead a "meal style" that could be relatively flexible. "It's based on the traditional eating habits of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where studies have shown these populations tend to live longer, healthier lives," Ryskamp explained. "This can be seen especially in comparison to the Standard American Diet, becoming increasingly known as 'SAD,' which consists of a high intake of red meat, grains, dairy products, processed, pre-packaged and fried foods."

According to a 2013 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the Mediterranean diet was found to "reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and deaths from heart disease" by 30 percent compared to a low-fat diet, Harvard Health explains. The increasingly popular eating style has also been found to reduce depression and the risk of colorectal and breast cancer and type 2 diabetes.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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