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Olive oil, the principal fat consumed in the Mediterranean diet, is widely consumed for its flavor, versatility, and health-promoting attributes. A recent study demonstrates that the monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) in olive oil may extend lifespan by switching on the activity of key cellular proteins called sirtuins.

Monounsaturated fats are dietary fats found in plant foods, such as nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils, especially olive oil, which contains approximately 75 percent of the MUFA known as oleic acid. The body stores MUFAs in lipid droplets – intracellular fat storage depots that facilitate the movement and signaling activities of fatty acids. During times of increased energy demand (such as during exercise) or decreased energy supply (such as during fasting), the fatty acids stored in lipid droplets can be released for the body’s use.

Sirtuins are highly conserved enzymes that play key roles in healthspan and longevity in multiple organisms. Sirtuin 1 (SIRT1) is linked to the regulation of a variety of metabolic processes, including the release of insulin, mobilization of lipids, response to stress, and modulation of lifespan.

The authors of the study first investigated the role of perilipin 5 (PLIN5), a protein found in lipid droplets that regulates fatty acid oxidation in oxidative tissues. They found that PLIN5 binds to lipid droplet MUFAs and delivers them to the cell nucleus, where they modulate the activity of SIRT1.

Then they studied the effects of MUFA consumption in mice. They fed the mice a control diet rich in lard and soybean oil or a diet rich in olive oil for 12 weeks. The mice that ate the olive oil-rich diet lost weight and had higher energy expenditure than mice fed the control diet. These effects were attributed to activation of SIRT1.

These findings suggest that the health-promoting benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet may be attributable to the diet’s high olive oil content. In addition, olive oil as part of a healthy eating pattern such as the Mediterranean diet may increase healthspan and longevity.

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