If you’re new to a whole foods, plant based diet, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve just watched some documentaries like Forks Over Knives that have convinced you to ditch the meat, dairy, and eggs for your health. Maybe you’ve recently learned about the cruelty and environmental impacts of animal agriculture and you’re taking your first steps toward veganism. Or perhaps your doctor has recommended that you switch to a plant based diet to help treat and reverse your chronic diseases.
Whatever the reason you’ve decided to embark on this journey to health, your first few days and weeks can be a bit challenging since you’re going against deeply engrained cultural bias when it comes to food. It seems as if every week there is a new study touting the “wonders” of eggs and dairy, when we plant-strong eaters know the truth; they are acid-forming, heart-clogging, cholesterol bombs. So you’ve taken the steps, done the research, and cut out meat, eggs, and dairy products (and hopefully processed foods, too).
And now you’re wondering about oil. Oil comes from plants, so it’s gotta be healthy right? I mean, you know highly processed oils such as GMO corn, soy, and canola are bad news, but what about unrefined, cold pressed, organic, virgin oils such as olive and coconut? There are thousands of articles about the wonders of coconut oil and how it can do everything from cure eczema to help you lose weight. It tastes so good slathered on toast with cinnamon and it comes directly from a coconut. Logic says, put coconut oil on All. The. Things.
Not so fast there, kemosabe. Let’s take a closer look at plant oils before we decide to head down to Costco and buy a 10-gallon drum of oil.
Plant oils have been pressed or extracted from their original whole food form to make a highly concentrated liquid. Let’s take olive oil as our example. It is the most ubiquitous of the “healthy” oils. Scientific studies have proven its merit over time (I use the word scientific very loosely. Those are very short term, selective studies, and typically funded by those who stand to profit from positive results, but we will get to that in a minute). Even your [insert various ethnic origin] grandmother has been dousing her food in copious amounts of olive oil since she was a wee tot back in the old country. And I’d bet she walked bare foot, up hill both ways to the store in the snow to buy her precious ration of olive oil too.
Back to the task at hand-looking at olive oil. Various resources have stated that it takes about 1,375 olives to make one 32oz bottle of olive oil. So basic math tells us there are about 43 olives in each ounce of oil, which is about 21.5 olives per tablespoon. Who among us would sit down to a snack of 21.5 olives without feeling a bit sick? But we have NO trouble downing a tablespoon of olive oil when it’s in a salad dressing or sautéed into our veggies.
One tablespoon of olive oil is 100% calories from fat-yes 100%. Go check your bottle right now if you don’t believe me. Now yes, plant based fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, etc. are an important part of your diet. About 10% of daily calories from whole plant fats is the recommendation for adults from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutritional Studies (children need a slightly higher fat intake due to their rapidly growing brain and body). However, since oils are basically a processed food, they have been stripped of all their water-soluble vitamins and minerals as well as the heart healthy fiber that they contain in their whole plant form.
When we look at it this way, oils are practically empty calories. On average, oil contains roughly 4,000 calories per pound, whereas vegetables contain 100 calories per pound (fruits run about 300 calories per pound). Listen, I am not advocating calorie restriction, but I think we can all safely agree, consuming a large excess of any type of calories while not expending them through activity, will lead to weight gain. We want MORE food with fewer calories, which means more calorically dilute veggies and fruits and less calorically dense (and nutritionally depleted) oils, processed foods, and animal products.
Furthermore, according to internationally known surgeon, researcher, and clinician at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, long term studies have shown that olive oil activates “Clotting Factor VII” in your body just as much as butter (hello clogged arteries!). Oils also injure the endothelium-the innermost lining of the artery. This injury is the gateway to vascular disease aka heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Dr. Esselstyn is adamant that his patients completely cut out ALL OILS in order to treat and reverse their heart disease.
Even though we are using olive oil as our example, all of this information applies to processed oils (soy, corn, canola) and “less refined oils” such as avocado oil, hemp oil, flax oil, the king of oils, coconut oil. Personally I was stuck on the “data” that coconut oil was a special exception to the rule for quite a while. I ate it on toast, in coffee, in all baked goods, and used it to sauté vegetables. Speaking directly of coconut oil, it is about 90% saturated fat (for comparison, butter is about 64% saturated fat).
In the comments below this post, I was kindly informed by Dr. Daniel Chartrand of Harmony Family Health that saturated fat is the building block of inflammation. In his words, “saturated fats are needed for the body to make inflammatory factors and increase the body’s ability to respond with greater amounts of inflammation.” Inflammation plays a role in a number of diseases including diabetes, asthma, cancer, arthritis, IBS, MS, premature aging, and mental health issues, just to name a few. The more inflammation present in the body, the higher the risk for developing chronic aging diseases (diabetes, kidney/bladder issues, dementia, Parkinson’s, arthritis, etc). As we all know by now, we can greatly reduce our incidence of these inflammatory diseases through a whole foods, plant based diet, free of added oils and refined sugar (which is also inflammatory).
When looking at all of this data, I personally no longer feel comfortable cooking with or eating oil. So far I’ve gotten pretty good at sautéing veggies using just water or vegetable broth, but I am still a work in progress when it comes to salad dressings and of course, eating out. Health is a journey people. It’s ok to take baby steps sometimes. I don’t imagine I will be perfect, but I am going to try my best! And now I have all of you lovely readers to help keep me accountable. Thanks, friends.
Since my house is still fully stocked with a vat of coconut oil, I think I’ll stick to using it on my skin and hair. No sense in letting my money go to waste!
What do you think? Are you taking a second look at your oil consumption? Leave a comment below!