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The existence of olive oil dates back thousands of years. While technically a fruit, fresh olives have a low sugar content and contain a bitter compound called oleuropein. Oleuropein is what gives them their unique flavour and many health benefits. In addition, olives are made up of 12-30% oil, namely oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid belonging to the family of monounsaturated fats. These fats are known to keep our hearts healthy, reduce pain and help with weight loss. With all of these well-known benefits, why not encourage every member of the family to enjoy this nutritious food on a regular basis?
Fat is a necessary component for healthy brain, nerve and skin development—but not just any fat will do. Unsaturated fats (contained in many plant oils, like olive oil, as well as nuts, seeds, avocadoes) serve as the majority of the building blocks necessary for these important areas of the body. Many children do not get enough healthy fats in their diets and instead, a large proportion of their fat intake comes from saturated or trans fats from processed and convenience foods. This can lead to weight gain and a host of health problems in adolescence and early adulthood.
Unfortunately, this prevalence of poor dietary habits among children is partly to blame for rising childhood obesity rates worldwide. In 2011, Statistics Canada most recently estimated that almost one third of children aged 5-17 years old were either overweight or obese. This is cause for concern as it has been demonstrated that those who are obese as children are more likely to stay obese into adulthood, leading to greater associated health risks such as diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
The question is: how do we modify our children’s diet to prevent obesity? One of the best measurement tools for childhood weight assessment is using their body mass index (height and weight) along with their gender and age. A recent Spanish study used this measurement to compare children aged 1-12 years old who consumed only olive oil as their oil source in cooked foods and salads versus those that used a mix of olive oil and other oils. They found the ‘olive oil only’ group’s scores decreased 1 year after follow up compared to the mixed oil group. Both groups consumed roughly the same amount of total oils per day, but when sunflower and palm oils were replaced with more olive oil, body mass did not increase. In fact, it actually decreased. It’s important to also note that both groups of children in this study had equal amounts of physical activity and otherwise consumed a similar diet, except for the oils. This is an interesting finding, and one that researchers think may have to do with the anti-inflammatory effects of olive oil.
The quality of olive oils varies widely. Olive oil contains the most health benefit when it is extra-virgin and cold-pressed. It should have a slight peppery taste due the antioxidant compound oleuropein. In fact, this is a great tell tale sign of a high quality olive oil. If it tastes bland, without any fruitiness or pepper, it most likely has been refined and is much less beneficial. In addition, the higher quality olive oils are more fragile to heat and light, therefore storage in a dark bottle and cooking on low or medium heat is advised.
Eating a balanced, health-promoting diet on our own can be challenging, and it can sometimes seem impossible to get our little ones to do the same. Keeping things simple by consuming a diet that focuses on whole foods, including healthy oils, is the best known way to help our children thrive as they grow. The challenge is that most children go through a phase (or two) of being picky eaters and turn down most healthy foods in exchange for the less nutritious options. The focus, then, should be on finding ways to include nutrient dense foods in ways that are easy and tasty.
Material on this website is provided for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a replacement for medical diagnosis, treatment, or professional medical advice. Always seek professional medical consultation by a licensed medical or naturopathic physician for diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition. Please seek medical attention immediately if ever concerned.