Including olive oil in a healthy diet may help lower “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol.

About 38% of adults in the United States have high cholesterol. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of health conditions like heart disease and stroke.

High cholesterol has no symptoms, so a blood test is the only way to know if it is a concern.

Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats can raise “bad” cholesterol levels. Some foods, including olive oil, may help lower the “bad” cholesterol and raise the “good” cholesterol.

This article explains what cholesterol is and examines research into olive oil’s effects on cholesterol. It also suggests ways to include olive oil in the diet and other foods that people can try.

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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance used by the body’s cells. It helps the body manufacture hormones, vitamin D, and enzymes to digest foods, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The body makes all the cholesterol it needs to function well, so cholesterol does not need to come from a person’s diet.

People do consume additional cholesterol from their diet, though, experts explain. It is in animal products, including meat, cheese, and eggs. Too much cholesterol can form plaques that stick to the arteries’ sides and block blood flow.

The different types of cholesterol are high-density, low-density, and very low-density lipoproteins. They are combinations of fat and protein. They each serve unique roles in the body:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as “good” cholesterol because it moves cholesterol through the body into the liver. The liver then filters the cholesterol out of the body.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is “bad” cholesterol because high LDL levels may result in plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) carries triglycerides. It also contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.

Learn more about lipoproteins, cholesterol, and diet.

High cholesterol is total blood cholesterol equal to or higher than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Blood tests called lipoprotein panels measure cholesterol levels. Before the test, the individual must abstain from food and drink (except water) for 9–12 hours.

Measured in the test are:

  • total cholesterol
  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • non-HDL, or the number of total cholesterol minus HDL
  • triglycerides

For adults, unhealthy cholesterol levels include the following:

  • above 200 mg/dL for total cholesterol
  • above 130 mg/dL for non-HDL cholesterol
  • above 100 mg/dL for LDL cholesterol
  • below 40 mg/dL for HDL cholesterol in adult men
  • below 50 mg/dL for HDL cholesterol in adult women

Although triglycerides are not technically a type of cholesterol, lipoprotein panels still measure them. Standard triglyceride levels fall below 150mg/dL. High triglyceride levels are above 200mg/dL.

A 2019 analysis summarized the findings of 27 studies on the effect of olive oil on cholesterol. It concluded that olive oil consumption decreased total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides and increased HDL more than other plant oils.

Another analysis from the same year noted the importance of a person’s overall diet in helping to lower cholesterol. Researchers concluded that the lowering effect on LDL primarily resulted from the participants following a Mediterranean diet, which includes a lot of olive oil, rather than from simply consuming olive oil on its own.

The researchers noted beneficial increases in HDL cholesterol from consuming olive oil that is high in polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidant-rich plant compounds with various health benefits.

Learn more about polyphenols.

The beneficial effects of olive oil may relate to the oil’s polyphenol content. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) undergoes the least processing and retains the highest levels of polyphenols.

A 2018 review provides the following polyphenol levels for different types of olive oil:

  • Virgin olive oil: 150–400 mg per kilogram (kg)
  • Common olive oil: 10–100 mg/kg
  • Pomace olive oil: 10–30 mg/kg
  • Refined olive oil: 0–5 mg/kg

Polyphenol levels do not appear on labels, and many EVOOs sold commercially are not fresh. People can look for an oil that has a recent harvest date and is in a container protected from sunlight.

Consumers can also look for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) QMP seal, which stands for Quality Monitoring Program. Only olive oils that meet the U.S grade standards for olive oil qualify for the seal. The QMP seal was created in response to the common adulteration and mislabeling of olive oil.

People can consume olive oil in many ways. They can drink it raw from a spoon or glass or use it in daily cooking.

Some ideas for including more olive oil in the diet include:

  • drizzling it over salads or cooked vegetables
  • using it as an ingredient in dips, such as hummus
  • sautéing vegetables with it
  • brushing it over meats or fish before grilling or roasting
  • using it instead of butter in baking recipes
  • drizzling it over pasta dishes

Research from 2016 found that drizzling olive oil over foods with a high-glycemic index, such as pasta dishes, can reduce spikes in blood sugar in people with type 1 diabetes.

People who wish to lower their LDL cholesterol levels can choose foods low in saturated and trans fats. These include:

These foods all help increase levels of HDL cholesterol while managing levels of LDL cholesterol.

Learn about foods that can lower cholesterol.

Lowering cholesterol is part of a healthy lifestyle. That includes limiting foods high in saturated fats from animal products and some plant-based products. These include:

  • cheese
  • fatty meat
  • desserts
  • palm oil
  • fried foods
  • cakes, donuts, pastries
  • potato chips

These foods can be occasional indulgences, the AHA advises, but people should limit their intake. The AHA also recommends limiting saturated fats to less than 6% of a person’s daily calories.

Learn about high cholesterol foods.

Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that the body needs but creates on its own. People consume extra cholesterol through their diet, some of which moves to the liver for release from the body. If too much cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can cause heart conditions, stroke, or other health issues.

Olive oil may help lower cholesterol levels as part of a healthy, balanced diet. EVOO undergoes the least processing and retains the most polyphenols, which may be important in reducing LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol.

People can consume EVOO raw or as an ingredient in many dishes. For maximum benefits, people may wish to consume other healthy foods and avoid those containing saturated and trans fats.