When it comes to using oils in our cooking, I have heard from others in the field of whole food plant-based eating, such as T. Colin Campbell, that say to stay away from using oil, such as olive oil and oils in general. Can you please shed some light and your knowledge on this?
You are correct in your observation that whole food, plant-based doctors and experts do NOT recommend the use of any oils in the diet. This means all oils, including ones that many people consider healthy, like olive oil, hemp seed oil, and flax seed oil. The reasons for this are quite straightforward and logical, but they often don’t seem as such for the following reasons:
- Most people are conditioned throughout their entire life by family and society to consume, use, and accept edible oil(s) as a normal and even essential part of the diet.
- There is an overwhelming amount of misleading studies and news headlines that come out regularly claiming that this or that oil has been associated with some health benefit.
- Perceptions about oil, for both health professionals and the general public, are greatly shaped by the marketing and power of the cooking oil industry, which is huge, and worth about 100 billion US dollars. Similar to animal food, processed food, and pharmaceutical industries, the oil industry is able to influence everything from national health policies to individual culinary practices.
- Humans have an innate preference and craving for fat-rich foods, just like sugar-rich foods. These make food very addictive, and modern food preparation methods exploit this weakness via the various fried, fatty, and oil-containing foods that are widely offered in our society.
- Social and cultural practices, as well as peer pressure, make many bad habits or unnatural habits seem completely normal (i.e., if everyone is doing it, then it must be okay). In this sense, we have been taught to cook and bake with oil, even though we absolutely do not need it.
Given all this, it is challenging to hear at first that avoiding all oils is the best thing for our health.
Oil is Not a Whole Food
The recommendations against all oil use become easy to understand when we consider what oil actually is — oil is a processed food that exists as an isolated nutrient. We don’t need any doctor or study to tell us this. This is a basic fact. Oil does not exist anywhere in nature. Humans have created oil by pressing, isolating, and processing fat from certain foods. By this very process, we have interfered with the nutritional integrity of the food and isolated one nutrient unnaturally — the fat. (Any other nutritional residue is negligible.) So while oil is a plant food, it is not a whole plant food, and that makes all the difference where optimal health, healing, and prevention are concerned. This is why it is important not to confuse vegan diets with whole food plant-based diets and think these are the same.
Whole plant foods are perfectly packaged to offer superior nutrition, health benefits, healing and prevention thanks to all the nutrients and phytochemicals they possess, and the synergistic interplay between all these that is most beneficial for us. Whole plant foods include all of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, carbs, protein, AND fat, while oil is pretty much all fat without the rest. In such isolated forms, nutrients or compounds are most likely to cause imbalances in the body, given their unnatural, unpredictable, and often downright toxic nature. This has been proven in various studies many times over. So if a person is consuming oil for any supposed health benefits, it would be much better, and wiser, to consume the food that the oil came from instead. Here are a few examples:
- Eat olives instead of olive oil
- Eat avocados instead of avocado oil
- Eat coconuts instead of coconut oil
- Eat hemp seeds instead of hemp seed oil
- Eat flax seeds instead of flax seed oil
- The same goes for any other nut, seed, or plant food with an extracted oil
If, on the other hand, a person does not care about their health and only wants oil to cook with because that is how they got accustomed to preparing and eating their food, then they can choose to use whatever they want. However, any health-conscious person can easily learn how to cook without oil. In the end, it all comes down to one’s personal and health priorities.
It is essential to understand that while we do need fat in our diet, this fat needs to be a healthy fat, meaning from whole plant foods, to be of most value and benefit, and least harm to us.
Oil Has Negative Health Impacts
Next, we have to consider how our body deals with oil, and how it impacts our health, given its isolated and unnatural form. Most people who are health-conscious understand that our bodies were not designed for things like artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors, or similar additives, and have no experience with them beyond the processed diet of modern society. Such fabricated and unnatural substances stress the body every time our body needs to deal with them, no exceptions. The same understanding needs to be extended to oils, in that our human bodies have no experience with oils from an evolutionary perspective via a natural setting or a natural diet. An isolated and concentrated fat, like oil, is plainly put “an assault” on our bodies, given how taxing fat digestion can be, especially when it is unnatural, refined, or in high concentrations.
To make matters worse, it is already a health risk to include virgin oils that have not been refined and only eat these oils in their raw form (not cooked), but we increase the problems and create more risk factors when we use refined oils or subject any oil to heat. Heat, especially high or prolonged heat, denatures many nutrients, degrades the oil, and creates harmful substances that can cause all kinds of oxidative damage, inflammation, and even have carcinogenic properties.
Acrolein formation was found even at low temperatures, indicating that home cooking has to be considered as an indoor pollution problem.
Emissions of volatile aldehydes from heated cooking oils — Journal of Food Chemistry
When we look at quality science that is free from any oil-industry bias, including what the Center for Nutrition Studies, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. Michael Greger, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Dean Ornish, Nathan Pritikin, Dr. John McDougall, and especially Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and his heart disease reversal program and research have found, we learn that oils slow blood flow and cause artery stress within hours of being ingested, and over time can result in artery stiffening. This raises risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and blood pressure, as oils interfere with proper blood flow. The cascading effects of this can then be further linked to all things that stem from inflammatory states in the body.
There are also digestion concerns associated with the regular consumption of oil. As Dr. Agatha M. Thrash shares:
“Oil interferes with digestion by slowing down the stomach emptying time, making digestion less efficient and allowing undigested particles to pass over from the small bowel into the colon. There, the gas-forming germs ferment the undigested food particles, and cause the accumulation of products of fermentation.” This is one of the reasons why many people suffer from bloating and indigestion after oil-rich meals and why recommendations for people with IBS, Crohn’s Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis often advise them to minimize or avoid the use of most oils and oil-rich meals.
Agatha M. Thrash, M.D. — Uchee Pines Lifestyle Center
Finally, oil increases the risk of weight problems, excess body fat, and obesity, and is not a weight-friendly food by any means. Every tablespoon of oil provides about 120 calories and 13.5 grams of fat, which can quickly add up and easily lead to us eating more calories than we need. Yet these same calories have some of the worst nutrient density, and are the least filling, making it easy to overeat.
For the most part, oil is an empty-calorie food like sugar. Most people understand why sugar should be avoided, given how it is a refined, isolated, inflammatory, and empty-calorie junk food, but they do not realize that oils are just as bad in their own ways.
Ultimately, the fact is that oils do not provide any health benefits that could not be gotten in a safer and better way from the original food itself.
Oil-Free Eating Means No Olive Oil Too
Many people are religiously committed to using olive oil under the assumption that they are doing something “healthy,” specifically “heart-healthy.” However, everything that was shared above also applies to olive oil — olive oil is not a health food. One of the biggest reasons why olive oil is made to seem like a superstar is based on how studies that report on its benefits are designed and how invested the olive oil industry is in promoting its product. Anytime you compare something worse to something better, the better item will seem like a great solution even though it may not be good, to begin with. In the end, even though olive oil is better than refined vegetable oils and most other oils, olive oil has many problems, like all oils, and is not recommended in the diet for optimal health and weight.
The following short presentation by Dr. Michael Klaper thoroughly explains the pitfalls and problems with olive oil:
Having said all this, I was once there, having been conditioned to think of “some oils as health foods,” and was taught to believe that by the nutrition programs I took. This is why I empathize with how challenging it can be to see things differently. It was easier for me to give up meat and dairy than to give up oil, which did not happen until a few years later. And given that each person is on their own journey and level of readiness, it is essential, therefore, to take things step-by-step if you are to be effective and make sustainable changes for life, not just temporary ones. Therefore, start where you can and with what you can.
Here are my top 5 oil-related tips:
- Learn how to cook without oil. This is one of the most liberating of all culinary practices that will benefit your health while saving you money and clean up in the kitchen.
- Use things like simple homemade seed and nut-based sauces and natural mustards and vinegar, lemon or lime juice, and oil-free vinaigrettes in meals instead of oils.
- If you choose to use any oils, they should be used in the tiniest amounts necessary, as infrequently as possible, be of the highest quality (i.e., organic, pure, virgin, cold-pressed), and added to raw meals or after cooking.
- If any pan cooking must be done with oils, then a more heat-stable oil, like virgin coconut oil may be the safest choice, if saturated fat is otherwise kept low in the diet. Saturated fats are heat-stable, up to a point, whereas unsaturated fats are not, regardless of any smoke-point. Olive oil is not a heat-stable cooking oil.
- At the very least, avoid all fried food and oil-roasted food, which is most detrimental to your health. (These culinary practices and meals subject oil to the highest and most prolonged heat, carrying the most health risks.)
Also, do keep in mind that nearly every processed food and restaurant meal contains some kind of oil. If you eat any processed, packaged food, always read the ingredient list to be informed and make the best choice for your health needs. At restaurants, skip any greasy or oil-rich options, and ask for the kitchen to omit or use less oil to prepare your meal whenever possible. The more you can minimize these sources of oil in your diet, the better for your health and weight.
Further Reading and Resources
For more information about all this, you can refer to my book Healing & Prevention Through Nutrition and any of the following resources:
- Center for Nutrition Studies — Collection of articles about oil
- Forks Over Knives — Collection of articles about oil
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — Collection of articles about oil
- UC Davis Integrative Medicine — Article: The Good, Bad and Ugly About Oils
- Engine 2 Plant-Strong — Article: The Oil Problem
- Whole Foods Plant-Based Health — Article: No Oil!
- The Green Vegans — Article: Why Oil Isn’t Healthy