The Good, Bad and Ugly About Oils

“NO OIL! Not even olive oil, which goes against a lot of other advice out there about so-called good fats. Both the monounsaturated and saturated fats contained in oils are harmful to the endothelium, the innermost lining of the artery, and that injury is the gateway to vascular disease. It doesn’t matter whether it’s olive oil, corn oil, coconut oil, canola oil, or any other kind. Avoid ALL oil.” – Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn

Why All Oils Are Bad for You

Herbal medicine dropper bottle with lemonsWhile oils have a place in our lives in terms of medicines and beauty products, they really have NO place in our diets. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Oils are jam-packed with calories; as pure liquid fat, oil gets ALL their calories from FAT.
  • As a processed food, oil is virtually devoid of nutrients (except Vitamin E and Vitamin K).
  • Oils slow blood flow, depress the immune system, stack up inside arteries, damage blood vessels and contribute to insulin resistance.
  • ALL oils promote heart disease. A study in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), all oils – saturated, monounsaturated (olive oil) and polyunsaturated (flax oil) – were associated with an increase in the plaque build up that clogs our arteries and leads to heart attacks.
  • Oil also causes our red blood cells to clump up, which limits their ability to absorb and deliver oxygen to our cells and slows blood flow. Studies have shown that (blood) flow-mediated dilation decreases by over 30% for four hours after we eat a fatty meal. With such a decrease in flow-mediated dilation, is it any wonder that so many of us “crash” after a meal?
  • Finally, according to the National Institutes of Health, oil suppresses our immune system, which makes us vulnerable to infections and impairs our bodies’ ability to stop the growth of cancer cells.

Think about the water pipes in your house. Water flows freely through the pipes and out of your faucets. Now what happens if we pour oil into the water supply? The thick, viscous oil would clog the pipe, slowing the flow to a crawl. Water pipes are just like blood vessels – blood should flow freely, like water, but adding oils to our diet clogs our pipes. Keep in mind that your blood not only delivers nutrients throughout your body, it also supplies your cells with oxygen.

Part of living a whole food, plant-based life is letting go of oil. This includes all oil: olive oil, coconut oil, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, ALL oil.

But Don’t We NEED Fats?

In terms of your diet, your body needs two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids: Omega-3s and Omega-6s. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids contribute to brain function. Omega-3s are also thought to reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 must come from our diet because our cells are unable to manufacture them.

But it must be emphasized that our need for these fatty acids is very small. The National Academy of Sciences says we need only 1/4 of a teaspoon (women) to 1/3 of a teaspoon (men) of fatty acids per day. That’s about 1-3% of caloric intake and is super easy to achieve on a whole food, plant-based diet – without any oils!

At the end of the day, the truth is that essential fatty acid deficiency is essentially non-existent in the general population.


But What About Olive Oil—Isn’t It Supposed to Be Healthy?

Kalamata olivesOne of the ongoing persistent myths is that olive oil is the exception to the rule; olive oil is healthy. But olive oil is just like any other oil. It is a fat-filled, nutrient-deficient, artery-clogging substance we should avoid at all costs.

According to Drs. Lederman and Pulde, “[A] study that looked at olive oils’ effect on blood flow showed that a single meal with olive oil caused increased vessel spasm and decreased blood flow compared to control meals. Specifically, this study showed that when test subjects were fed the olive oil meal, their major blood vessels had a 31% decrease in blood flow compared to the control.”

Many believe that olive oil is an excellent way to get our essential fatty acids. The truth? Olive oil is composed mostly of monounsaturated fats, which are not essential at all. To get your daily Omega-3 from olive oil, you’d have to drink one cup of olive oil a day. That’s 1,900 calories and 30 grams of fat! (Hint: A much better alternative to get your daily dose of Omega-3s is to simply add 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseeds–not flaxseed oil–to your diet every day.)

Many also argue that olive oil is healthy because it contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are valuable antioxidants with dozens of health benefits. And while polyphenols are indeed found in olive oil, they are also found in whole plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, which have more nutrients, fewer calories and a lot less fat compared to olive oil. To give an example, you will get as many polyphenols in 4 lettuce leaves (12 calories) as you’d get from 1 tablespoon (120 calories) of olive oil.Garlic vegetable

The real truth about olive oil?

You’re far better off going directly to the source (whole olives) than the processed form (oil).

Let’s look at a comparison between the two in terms of calories and fat content:

Calories Grams of Fat
 100 Grams of Whole Olives  115 11
100 Grams of Olive Oil 884 100

Plus, olives are full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber while olive oil is stripped of all the goodness of whole food.

Can’t I Just Eat a ‘Little Bit’ of Oil?

According to registered dietitian Jeff Novick, don’t be fooled. A ‘little bit’ of oil can have a huge impact given the fact that oil is the most calorie dense foods in existence, particularly if it is applied to vegetables which are the lowest in calorie density.

Let’s look at the math: If you serve up a 1/2 cup of fresh vegetables, which has virtually no saturated fats, you’ll get about 25 calories. Add only 1 teaspoon of oil and you’re up to 65 calories, 62% of which are coming from the oil. The dish is now 10% saturated fat.

And the more oil you add, the worse it gets. If you add 2 teaspoons of oil, the calorie count jumps to one-hundred and five. Seventy-six percent of the calories come from the olive oil and the dish now contains about 11% saturated fat.
Add 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) of olive oil and you’re up to 145 calories, 83% are coming from the oil and the dish is 12% saturated fat.

Not only that, Novick explains, “since most of the calories are no longer coming from the vegetables, this technically is no longer a side of veggies but a side of oil, with some veggies added.”

coconut oil and fresh coconuts

What About Coconut Oil? I Hear It’s Super Healthy?

Coconut oil has emerged as a new wonder cure. Its proponents argue that coconut oil contains an antimicrobial agent that fights bacteria and viruses (even HIV), bolsters the immune system and prevents heart disease. It’s also heralded as the cure-all for everything from obesity to hyperthyroidism.

While it’s true that coconut oil contains some fatty acids that have been shown to have a smaller impact on LDL (or bad cholesterol), that doesn’t make it safe or healthy.

Like any oil, coconut oil is stripped of its vitamins, minerals and most other nutrients. Worse, it’s over 90% saturated fat. And it acts the same way in the body as saturated fats derived from butter, lard or vegetable oils. This means it clogs our arteries, slows our blood flow and causes damaging lesions.

The bottom line: oil is oil. And you need to avoid it.

So Is It Even Possible to Cook Without Oil?

Contrary to popular wisdom, we don’t need oils to keep foods from sticking to pans, for making crispy foods or to create moist baked goods. For the stove-top, use a small amount of water or vegetable broth. Replace oils with applesauce and other substitutes for delicious, oil-free, healthy baked goods.

Here are two recent posts that can help you ditch oils for good:

But don’t stop there. There are tons of resources for whole food, plant-based, oil-free cooking out there. This should get you started:

  • Jeff Novick’s Ten Minute Meals
    Most of Jeff’s recipes can be made in about 5 minutes, with less than 5 ingredients for less than 5 dollars. All are very low in calorie density and very high in nutrient density.
  • Dreena Burton’s Plant-Powered Kitchen
    Dreena offers over 100 oil-free recipes for everything from “Cinnabon” Muffins to Hummus Tortilla Pizza to Three Bean Salad to Ranch Dressing.

And it never hurts to add a new cookbook or two to your healthy library.

  • “Plant-Based Dietitian” Julieanna Hever’s new book Vegiterranean Diet offers Mediterranean cuisine recipes that are prepared without any oil.
  • The Forks Over Knives Cookbook proves that the FOK philosophy is not about what you can’t eat, but what you can eat with over 300 oil-free recipes.
  • Ann Crile Esselstyn and Jane Esselstyn’s cookbook, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook shows that even though cooking without oil might sound intimidating, “it is doable and delectable.”

So We’ve Talked About The “Bad” and The “Ugly”. Is There Anything Good About Oil?

It’s not all doom and gloom for oils. From keeping your car running to easing cold symptoms to conditioning hair, oils are a part of life. Let’s have a look at some of the great ways they can be used:

  • Coconut or olive oil in massages into the scalp before shampooing may help relieve itching from dandruff or dry scalp.
  • Aromatic oils in a bath reduce stress and tension in the body.
  • Olive oil and lemon juice may strengthen brittle nails.
  • Olive oil can be applied to the body to retain smoothness and elasticity in the skin.
  • Coconut oil can be used to soften skin and lips and even as a hair conditioner.
  • Coconut or olive oil mixed with warm water may be an awesome cleanser that leaves skin oil-free, clean and soft.

All of these (and more) are the great benefits of oils. But let’s keep oils in their place: on the body, not in it!

When we eat oils, we do immense damage to our cardiovascular health, we decrease our insulin sensitivity, we take in hundreds of empty calories and we damage our immune system. We don’t need them and we should avoid them ALWAYS.

A plant-based diet supplies all the essential fatty acids we need in abundance – delivered in nature’s perfectly designed, efficient and safe packages: whole foods.

Correction: April 18, 2015
An earlier version of this post showed an unedited list of the great ways that oils can be and have been used. That list has been edited and updated.

We also stated that blood flow decreases by over 30% after we eat a fatty meal. The study in fact measured (blood) flow mediated dilation (FMD) which is the impact of a “shear stress” (in this case, blood flow) on the arteries ability to dilate. Instead of a 30% reduction in blood flow, the finding should be stated as a 30% reduction in flow-mediated dilation. The sentence has been corrected.