Many people who are new to plant-based eating wonder if oil is a healthy part of their diet. You see, for years and years, we’ve been led to believe that certain oils are heart healthy and good for us. The sad fact is, this has more to do with marketing than it does with any grain of truth. So lets clear it up today, is oil healthy for you?
Oil Is Not a Whole Food
First and foremost, it’s important to point out that oil is not a whole food. One of the major benefits of a WFPB diet is that while eating whole, plant foods, we consume a high amount of nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals (the compounds found in plants). When it comes to food, it’s important to remember that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, while eating an apple, you’re getting far more nutrients and beneficial plant compounds than you would from drinking a glass of apple juice.
All of those beautiful nutrients and antioxidants are protective to our health. They help our bodies repair damage caused by toxins, disease and other wear and tear. Oil, however, is a highly refined and processed food. In this processing, virtually all of the nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals have been stripped away, leaving you with a product that is essentially a fat extract.
To illustrate this let’s compare a whole food source, olives, to its highly processed form, olive oil.
One cup of black olives contains:
Calories: 155 (130 of those from fat)
Total Carbs: 8.5g
Recommended daily intakes:
Vitamin A: 11%
Vitamin C: 2%
One cup of olive oil contains:
Calories: 1944 (100% of calories from fat)
And not much else.
The point here is that when you eat the whole food, you’re ingesting a number of different measurable vitamins and minerals, as well as a wealth of beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants. However, when you choose the processed oil version, you get the fat, and not much else. After all that processing you’re left with a food item with 100% of calories from fat. There’s nothing beneficial about that.
High Caloric Density
As far as calorie density goes, oil is THE MOST calorie dense food there is. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of calorie density, it’s explained further here, A Plant-Based Diet – The Basics. Where a full pound of non-starchy vegetables comes in at around 100 calories, that same pound of oil contains a whopping 4000 calories. Chew on that for a moment…
Oil packs a huge caloric punch even in small portions. It does so without any water or fibre present to bulk it up, which means that your receptors have a hard time identifying how many calories you’ve just consumed. This makes it painfully easy to eat more calories than you intended, leading to quick and easy weight gain. From your lips to your hips, with very little effort.
When you’re making a salad or stir fry vegetables, you generally feel that you’re making a healthy food choice, right? Vegetables are low in calories and contain very little fat. However, if you cook that stir fry in olive oil, or drizzle oil over that salad, the majority of calories in that meal are now coming from the oil you used to prepare it. To give you an idea, one tablespoon of oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. So, that cup of mixed veggies that was once around 40 calories and less than 1 gram of fat, now comes out to approximately 160 calories and 14 grams of fat when cooked in 1 tablespoon of oil. Not the healthy meal you had in mind, is it?
Oil Hampers Artery Function
To discuss this point properly, we need to talk some biology. I know, I know, but stick with me here for a minute, this is important stuff. Let’s take a quick moment here to talk about endothelial cells.
What are Endothelial Cells?
Endothelial cells form a lining on the inside of all of our blood vessels. They may be small, but their total surface area throughout the body works out to about 700 square yards or 8 tennis courts. That’s A LOT of real estate. They get this prime real estate for very good reason. For one, they act as a barrier between the blood and the rest of our tissues, which is pretty important.
However, the function we are most concerned with is their ability to regulate blood flow. You see, endothelial cells are responsible for dilation (widening) and constriction (narrowing) of blood vessels, thus controlling your blood pressure. They produce nitric oxide as needed to dilate the blood vessels and keep blood moving smoothly. Nitric oxide is also important in preventing the formation of plaque and blockages in the arteries (the hallmark of heart disease).
The takeaway here is that it is crucial to keep these important cells functioning as they should.
What Happens When We Ingest Oil?
Within hours of ingesting a high-fat meal, endothelial cell function starts to suffer. Arteries stiffen and their ability to dilate is reduced because those vessels become less responsive to nitric oxide. As a result, your arteries have a hard time dilating to accommodate blood flow.
This is pretty major, as the fat from that meal causes blood flow to become sluggish, so this lack of dilation makes it harder for blood to deliver oxygen to the cells. This explains why people tend to feel tired and lethargic after a big meal.
This is true where fat comes from animal sources or isolated plant fat (oil). Interestingly enough, in a study comparing how our bodies react to high-fat meals, it was found that the meal with fat coming from walnuts (vs olive oil) did not cause the same reduction in endothelial function. Suggesting that the many phytochemicals present in the walnuts helped to protect against endothelial cell damage. Thus, the argument that fats coming from whole plant sources are not as harmful to our health as those coming from animal or isolated sources. Those protective phytochemicals are not present in animal fats or in oils, allowing them to paralyze and damage our endothelial cells when we ingest them.
The Bottom Line
For years we’ve been told that the Mediterranean diet, known for its use of olive oil, was healthiest for our hearts. However, as time went on, they began to discover that it was not healthy because of the olive oil, but despite the use of olive oil. The fact that the diet was rich in fruits and vegetables, and relatively low in meat and processed food, is what was actually healthy about it. The high intake of fruits and vegetables helped to protect against the harm from oil and meat consumption. However as that oil and meat consumption increases, so do the rates of heart disease.
The facts are that oil is a calorically dense, nutritionally void food item that hinders our cardiac function. Overall, a recipe for disaster. Now, if you’re sitting there wondering what to do with all that oil in your pantry right now, all is not lost. Oils can be very good for your skin and hair, so go ahead and use them ON your body, just avoid putting them IN your body.
If you’re now looking to get rid of the oil in your kitchen but aren’t sure where to begin, come back next week, I’ll be sharing some oil-free cooking tips to help get you started.
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Feature image credit: Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash