Olive it up a little

When I visited the Greek island of Symi, where people live ultra-long, disease-free lives, the wine-loving locals told me they like to line their stomachs with olive oil before an evening on the razzle. So it’s exciting to see that the latest in nutrition research suggests that olive oil can reduce the toxic effects of alcohol consumption – just in time for Christmas.

We know that alcohol is bad for us and that even the smallest amounts increase the risk of certain cancers. However, studies show that people in Spain, Greece and Italy who eat a classic Mediterranean Diet, specifically one which includes abundant olive oil, have much lower cancer rates than elsewhere in Europe, despite drinking comparable amounts.

One study showed that the typical Mediterranean Diet was linked with a ‘substantial decrease…in cancer risk’ of the throat and mouth, two cancers which are strongly linked with drinking. The researchers classified a Mediterranean Diet as including ‘high consumption of plant foods and olive oil and low consumption of meat, dairy products and saturated lipids.’1

Meanwhile, the PREDIMED (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet) study brings more good news. It is known that drinking even small amounts of alcohol is linked with increased risk of breast cancer, and that the typical Mediterranean Diet includes up to two units of alcohol daily for women. Yet the study showed that for women eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil cases of breast cancer were significantly reduced. The researchers listed several compounds in olive oil which could have an anti-cancer effect, including oleocanthal which is linked with inhibition of breast cancer cell activity and oleuropein which has been found to induce the self-destruction of breast cancer cells.2

Most of us know that our livers enjoy the festive season somewhat less than the rest of our bodies do. But these long-suffering organs may be somewhat mollified if you treat them to regular doses of olive oil. Several studies show that extra-virgin olive oil can help protect the liver from a range of toxins by, for example, reducing oxidative stress, lowering levels of triglycerides in the liver, and improving markers of liver function.3,4,5

If you don’t feel like drinking a tablespoon of olive oil before going out, another way to offset the effects of booze is to eat before or while you drink. Try drizzling olive oil over your meal, or snack on bowls of olives or tapas with olive oil. This will help slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, add to the pleasure of your evening, and, hopefully, reduce the regret factor in the morning.

By writer and nutritionist Sally Beare


  1. Samoli E (2010). Mediterranean diet and upper aerodigestive tract cancer: the Greeksegment of the Alcohol-Related Cancers and Genetic Susceptibility in Europe study. Br J Nutr. 2010 Nov;104(9):1369-74.
  2. Toledo E1 (2015).Mediterranean Diet and Invasive Breast Cancer Risk Among Women at High Cardiovascular Risk in the PREDIMED Trial: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 175(11):1752-60
  3. Ghorbel I et al (2015). Potential protective effects of extra virgin olive oil on the hepatotoxicity induced by co-exposure of adult rats to acrylamide and aluminum. Food Funct. 2015 Apr;6(4):1126-35.
  4. Assy N et al (2009). Olive oil consumption and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. World J Gastroenterol. 2009 Apr 21;15(15):1809-15.
  5. Carvajal-Zarrabal, Octavio. Effect of Dietary Intake of Avocado Oil and Olive Oil on Biochemical Markers of Liver Function in Sucrose-Fed Rats. Biomed Res Int 2014: 595479.