It’s finally here! One of the most controversial topics we have mentioned and been asked about now needs to be taken a good look at: As most plant-based experts, we also suggest that you cut out free oils from your diet (that's why you'll find something like "oil-free" in the headlines of our recipes). But wait, isn’t oil good for you actually? What about the Mediterranean people and the essential fats for our brain? Yes, we’re going to tackle all of your concerns here. And let you know why consuming oils might not be the best thing to do for you personally.
This article has been re-written a few times, to be honest. We had planned on publishing it a few months ago but then we came across new research and talked with some more people, getting to know their specific situation. All of this, along with our own experience and reading over the past years, resulted in the following piece on fats, oil, health, and priorities. Please remember that you’re free to incorporate as much oil as you want in your diet – we just want to present you some interesting facts and let you decide. Maybe the idea of not using oil has never crossed your mind before!
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It’s definitely a controversial topic and we have taken a look at both sides of the argument. Just taking something for face value isn’t our thing and we are always open to questioning. Our agenda isn’t to shame anyone or make them take even more foods off their plate – but to demask free oils and taking away their reputation for being “health foods”. Though they could be worse, they aren’t half as beneficial as you might think. Unfortunately, experts are still pushing the idea of oil being good for you and even those claiming to eat a “whole food diet” are using plenty of this processed food.
The majority of “healthy” plant-based recipes we come across call for a heap of olive oil or coconut oil and almost nobody questions that. When looking to follow a truly healthy diet, you should focus on eating whole foods and only a few highly processed ones like sugar – or oil. Nothing that’s beneficial to your health is added by using either of them! Ditching oil can make a huge difference in your body and health, so it’s definitely worth trying.
Nobody would probably argue that refined flour is better than a whole, unprocessed grain. The same goes for sesame oil vs. the whole seed or olive oil vs. the olive itself. If you don’t want to be an all-or-nothing person, then take a look at the evidence and thoughts we provide and you might decide to drastically cut back on oil, to try it out for a while.
Different recommendations for different people
When asking the question "Is oil good for you?", we have to look at the person's specific situations. What we have found is that although nobody really needs to consume free oils, it can make sense for some individuals to not cut them out of their diet.
Since oils don’t come with any ethical concerns, this is more about making one’s own diet healthier and preventing or even reversing disease. Most people in the Western world suffer from diseases of affluence which are at least in part caused by too much dietary fat and calories – for those individuals, it would be highly recommended to cut out all of the olive oil, coconut oil, and cooking sprays. You will find more on that below.
But there are also some groups of people whose priority shouldn’t be cutting back on oils. If you’re in one of these situations, it’s probably not the best thing to avoid all oils right now:
- You have a very hard time meeting your calorie requirements by just eating whole foods. This is especially true for athletes and those who are already at a low weight, people who just don’t have much of an appetite.
- You come from a past of eating disorders and don’t have a good relationship with food. You stress too much about “purity”, don’t allow yourself any treats or eating out. Make peace with food first before cutting out any more foods!
- You have a hard time transitioning to a plant-based diet and cutting out all animal products. Vegan meals can seem a little unsatisfying when they are low in fat and you’re used to bacon with butter. By all means, keep using oil if you’re in that stage and decide if you want to healthify your diet later on.
- Your body has a hard time making long chain Omega-3’s from foods like flax seeds or walnuts. In that case, it would be best to supplement with algae oil capsules.
For those who shouldn’t or don’t want to cut out free oils, there are still distinctions to be made because there are oils that are better or worse for you. In short, please focus on oils that are high in Omega-3’s (flax, walnut, hemp, soybean) for cold dishes and for cooking use more stable ones like olive oil, sesame oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil. Please avoid oils high in saturated fat such as palm oil or coconut oil.
Giving Free Oils a new Reputation
How would you feel about covering your vegetables in table sugar? Is that part of a healthy diet? Well, we hate to break it to you… but pouring that olive oil on your salad or stir-fry is just about the same thing. In short, oil is as highly processed as pure white sugar. Yes, the one is pure carbs and the other pure fat, which act differently in our body. But let’s continue for now.
The olive, seed, or nut oil originally came from a whole food – just like sugar comes from a sugar cane plant. It takes about 3 feet of sugar cane to get one teaspoon of sugar. Likewise, you need 24 pitted green olives to create 1 tablespoon of olive oil – this drastic condensation leads to quickly overeating on calories. Or would you be able to eat this many olives in one sitting?
The truth is that oil is a highly processed junk food full of fat and calories while being devoid of almost all essential nutrients. One tablespoon of oil has the same amount of fat as a Snickers bar and 2 tablespoons of olive oil have three times more saturated fat than a 4 oz. piece of white meat chicken. Just like fruit juice, it’s a derivative of a whole food. It offers you a lot of calories, not a lot of nutrition.
As we said above, this article is written for people with a (family or personal) history of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity. Especially for those individuals, it’s highly recommended to skip all free oils and keep your overall diet low in fatty foods. And when you consider the fact that the foundation for heart disease is already laid in childhood (or even the womb), then you might see how we are all in the business of reversing the damage and dealing with the fatty streaks in our arteries.
And even if you’re not in a bad situation regarding your health right now, things can change quickly. Heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes are amongst the most common diseases these days and could be prevented in large numbers if people decided to implement a healthy diet. The world-famous Framingham Heart Study looked at 1,000 people at age 50 several decades ago who had normal blood pressure. They looked at the same group at age 70, and 90% now had high blood pressure. Eating a bad diet will definitely catch up with you.
The distinction between fats and oils
We can already hear some people shouting out: „But we need fat!” Yes, that is true. But there’s actually a difference between fats and oils. And there are definitely fats we want to avoid!
Chemically speaking, free oils are chains of carbon found in a purified state. Extraction processes have removed all of the other ingredients of the whole food. Therefore, these free oils no longer come with the proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and thousands of other phytonutrients that were originally in the plant.
Remember that food always comes in a package and oils bring along much more than just a few essential fatty acids – they overload your system with monounsaturated and saturated fats, both of 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.
A quick overview of the types of fat
(these are the essential ones!)
The last two categories you really want to avoid – trans fats are by far the worst ones to consume. They are in all animal products as well as in vegetable fats like margarine, other spreads, and hydrogenated (even partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils.
When it comes to dietary cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fat, Dr. Michael Greger tells us that the upper tolerable intake would be “zero”. Meaning, it should be as low as possible. Unfortunately, tasty plant fats like palm oil or coconut oil are very high in saturated fat and just about as unhealthy as butter or lard!
The polyunsaturated fatty acids, like Omega-3 and Omega-6, are essential for our health. Omega-6 is relatively ubiquitous, so we should try to focus on the Omega-3’s in our diet. Many nuts and seeds, as well as green vegetables and legumes, contain these essential fatty acids – you don’t require free oils in order to get them.
People are so willing to condemn sugar, but they don’t condemn oil, which is pure fat. I’d actually argue that oil is less healthy than sugar. Neither of them has any nutrients in them—if you look at them they’re devoid of minerals and phytonutrients. The oil has twice the calories of sugar, so you’re getting twice the calories of sugar, with no nutrients or benefits.
Fun fact: did you know that only plants can make these essential fatty acids? Not even fish create these fats – they get it from algae. And here we’ve read all about how we really need to eat salmon and trout!
We have to get these two types of fatty acids (meaning Omega-3 and Omega-6) from our food and a ratio of 1 : 1 or 1 : 2 would be best. As a comparison, most people are consuming 10-20 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3!
Having said that, please be aware that nobody is advocating for a fat-free diet here. We just want to emphasize that our need for these essential 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 them 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!
By the way, have you ever checked the prices of “high quality” oils? They are pretty darn expensive, offering nothing beneficial at all compared to the whole food.
What’s more, your body reacts differently when ingesting a walnut versus walnut oil: the fat in unrefined whole plant-based foods binds to the plant fiber which limits the fat absorption in the body. Plus, when you eat nuts or seeds in their whole form, they can even attract the fat that’s in your bloodstream and making sure it’s being eliminated.
Now, let's get over the 6 facts we want you to consider when thinking about whether or not you should consume oils!
1. Oil can cause Inflammation
Remember the essential fatty acids we just talked about? They are the main reason why people think oils are healthy. Let’s dive into that a little deeper. In our bodies, these essential fatty acids are used for many purposes including the formation of all cellular membranes, and the synthesis of powerful hormones.
Our requirement is very tiny, though.
A true essential fatty acid deficiency is rarely seen, but a so-called “relative deficiency” of essential fats is more common. This is created by a large intake of saturated or trans fats, found mainly in animal products, margarine, and shortenings. It can also happen due to a large intake of Omega-6 fats compared to Omega-3 fats.
There are some cases of malabsorption diseases and elderly people could possibly be deficient as well – it doesn’t hurt to get checked. Deficiencies usually don’t occur in people following oil-free plant-based diets because their foods are still rich in essential fatty acids.
Most oils, on the other hand, offer a high amount of Omega-6 fatty acids which promote inflammation. They also reduce the conversion of plant-based Omega-3 fats (called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) into the active forms of Omega-3s called EPA and DHA by about 40 percent. There is also research that suggests that those on plant-based diets become highly efficient in their own manufacture of Omega-3¹. Oils also easily promote weight gain and obesity as you will see below which can also add to your inflammation.
2. Oil is just Fat & Calories
Most of the great nutrients and properties of the whole food are extracted in the process of making a whole food an oil. The end product is extremely low in terms of nutritive value. No fiber, no minerals, and 100% fat calories. When the oils are removed from their natural environments—for example, from the seeds of corn, soybeans, safflowers, or flax, or the fruit of an olive or avocado—they are no longer a food.
With regards to the essential fatty acids and their conversion to DHA, it’s important to understand that these nutrients work in a highly integrated, virtually symphonic manner to produce their health effect. This process simply isn’t possible anymore when you extract the fat and leave behind the other nutrients.
It’s best not to single out specific nutrients, but rather look at the whole food itself. Even organic, natural, extra virgin oils aren’t good for you and don’t provide any considerate amount of nutrients. You can also buy organic and natural cigarettes – the labels don’t mean much here. The same goes for vegan butter or coconut spread: the words “vegan” or “coconut” don’t magically make something healthy.
The following chart explores the nutritional difference between 1 tablespoon of whole flax seeds and 1 tablespoon of cold-pressed flax oil which can be considered one of the healthiest oils:
Note: %DV = percentage of daily value for adults as determined by the USDA
Oil can easily transform a high-carb or high-protein dish into a high-fat one. Let’s just calculate this really quickly here! If you were to eat ½ cup of fresh vegetables, you would get 25 calories and virtually no saturated fats. But add 1 tsp of olive oil and you’re looking at 65 calories, 62% of which are now coming from the oil. Your dish would be 10% saturated fat - The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 7% of calories from saturated fat.
One teaspoon of oil isn’t much for most people and the more oil you add, the worse it gets. Using 2 teaspoons, you’d look at 105 calories in total, 76% of which would come straight from the oil. And when using 1 tablespoon of olive oil along with your half cup of vegetables, you’re looking at 145 calories, 83% of which now coming from the oil.
Oil has the highest calorie density of all foods and can easily double the caloric value of your healthy vegetable dishes. Registered dietitian Jeff Novick, MS, defines junk food as foods that give us calories with no nutrients.
He labels sugar as "the epitome of a junk food" because a tablespoon of sugar has 50 calories while its single nutritional value is 12 grams of carbohydrates. He places olive oil (and all other oils) in the same category because per tablespoon, olive oil has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat while offering only minuscule amounts of any other nutrient.
Since oil contains no fiber or water (which creates bulk to help fill us up), we have a tendency to over-consume it, and thus, our efforts to lose weight are made that much more difficult. Pure dietary fat is also very easy to be converted into body fat on your body. If you were to get a biopsy of your body fat, you could determine what exactly you were eating to put on those pounds!
Excess weight promotes inflammation, inhibits immune function, and increases our risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer. By cutting out oil (not all fats!), you can easily decrease the caloric density of your meals and shed a few pounds. Yes, there are slim people who eat oil – there are also people in their 90’s smoking cigarettes. These cases don’t prove anything as a rule of thumb, some are just luckier than others. And weight doesn’t determine how healthy your insides or arteries are.
3. Oil can cause Cardiovascular Disease
The enemy of your arteries is too much saturated fat (and cholesterol) - so you know you should cut back on animal products. But all oils contain at least some amount of saturated fat which immediately injures the endothelial lining of the arteries when eaten. This is the gateway to vascular disease.
Even those you might think of as being mostly unsaturated fat: canola oil is 6.7% saturated fat, olive oil is 14%. When saturated fat hits our liver, we produce more cholesterol which then also causes atherosclerosis.
Luckily, your arteries can heal when you stop eating these high-fat foods. As stated above, the current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to limit our intake of saturated fat to no more than 6% of calories – the less the better. Oil also thickens your blood and your blood flow decreases for 6 hours to about 56% after eating a fatty meal – more trouble for your arteries!
But what about using oil only in moderation? Well to say it in Dr. Esselstyn’s words: “Then you might only have a moderate heart attack.”
Oil raises your LDL bad cholesterol (just not as much as butter), even olive and coconut. In fact, coconut oil is 90% saturated fat and amongst the worst foods for your heart! Most of the heart-healthy nutrients that we associate with high-fat plant foods have been stripped away in oil, but remain in whole foods like nuts – like fiber, for example.
Serial angiograms of people’s heart arteries show that all three types of fat—saturated (animal) fat, monounsaturated (olive oil), and polyunsaturated (Omega-3 and -6 oils)—were associated with significant increases in new atherosclerotic lesions over one year of study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Only by decreasing the entire fat intake, including poly- and monounsaturated-oils, did the lesions stop growing.²
Think of your blood vessels as you would the water pipes in your house – what would happen if you poured oil down into the drain? The pipe would clog, slowing the flow. That’s because oil causes the red blood cells to clump up, thereby limiting their ability to absorb and deliver oxygen to our cells. This is called ‘flow-mediated dilation’ – which studies show decreases by over 30% for four hours after eating a fatty meal (increased vessel spasm).
If you’ve been thinking that olive oil was good for your heart because of the findings around the Mediterranean Diet, please read RD Jeff Novick’s article on this here.
4. Oil can cause Type 2 Diabetes
It's no news that type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease. There are certain factors contributing to it, such as being overweight. The accumulation of extra body fat is fairly easy when consuming free oils, as we explained above. And as Dr. Neal Barnard explained in the new documentary “What The Health”, diabetes is not caused by eating too many carbs – but rather because of intramyocellular lipid, the fat inside your muscle cells.
The fat build-up inside of your body creates toxic fatty breakdown products and free radicals which can “block” the insulin-signaling process and causing your blood sugar levels to rise. Nothing about your body and its mechanism is broken here – it would still be able to transport the sugar in your blood into your cells for energy if you got rid of these fatty blockages.
The insulin your body produces (in the case of type 2 diabetes) still tries to “unlock” the door for the glucose. Due to the insulin resistance caused by the fat inside the muscle cells, your blood sugar cannot come down and you will be diagnosed as diabetic, eventually.
But not just free oils, also animal products can lead to type 2 diabetes. A low-fat vegan diet has been shown to reverse type-2 diabetes while not counting calories or carbs at all but eating fruit, pasta, and rice to your heart’s content! By limiting your fat intake, the body can slowly get rid of the intramyocellular lipid, allowing your insulin to work again and you’ll get better blood glucose levels as a result.
In one classic experiment, diabetics found an improvement in fasting blood sugar levels, insulin levels, and glucose tolerance tests when eating an extreme diet consisting of 85% simple sugar (glucose and maltose)³. Along with the diet change towards a low-fat, oil-free vegan diet, introducing exercise will also lower blood sugar levels and enhance weight loss – these simple changes have helped cure or at least drastically improve the health of many diabetics.
5. Oil can increase Cancer Risk
According to the National Institutes of Health, oil suppresses our immune system (with a marked decrease in cytokine, tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interferon-gamma), which makes us vulnerable to infections and impairs our bodies’ ability to stop the growth of cancer cells.⁴
One study showed that including either fish oil or safflower oil into participant’s diets resulted in 10- and 4-fold more metastases (number), respectively, and over 1000- and 500-fold more metastases (size) were found in the livers of those on the low-fat diet.⁵
Especially when cooking or frying with oil, the cancer risk drastically increases due to the oxidation or hydrogenation of the oils. Ingesting trans fats is particularly harmful. Most importantly, population studies tell us that, worldwide, the lower the total fat intake, the better the immune functions and the less the risk of common cancers, such as breast, colon, and prostate.
Furthermore, some types of cancer (kidney, liver, pancreatic, colorectal, and more) have also been associated with obesity which can also be reversed by eating a low-fat whole foods vegan diet.
6. Whole Foods offer enough Essential Fatty Acids
Finally, there’s simply no need for including free oils into your healthy diet. Remember, ditching the oil doesn’t mean that you are eating a fat-free diet since this is almost impossible (and not healthy either). You’d need to stick to white sugar in order to achieve that. In fact, all whole and even slightly processed plant-based foods contain at least some amount of fat.
Nuts and seeds are an obvious source, though they are high in calories as well. People with heart disease, diabetes or obesity should eliminate or reduce these foods as well.
Even starches like potatoes, wheat, corn, beans or lentils contain some fat, and so do green leafy vegetables – which are a great source for Omega-3 by the way. Other good choices are beans, winter squash, cabbage, berries, mangoes, or wild rice.
Much like you get all the protein you need from eating a plant-based diet without thinking about it too much, you will get plenty of good fats as well. Food groups like legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds should play a role in any healthy diet – alongside fruits and veggies. All of these foods combined offer you everything you need!
How to Avoid & Replace Oil
Alright, we might have sparked your interest in cutting out the free oils now. But how the heck do you do that? Let’s think about it: There are only a few instances where people usually consume oils.
Replace the oil with vegetable broth, water, fruit juice or soy sauce when sautéing your veggies. You can also steam or bake them, using just some herbs or even leaving them plain. When roasting your food, use parchment paper or a reusable silicone baking mat. Non-stick cookware is a true helper in any oil-free kitchen!
2. Dressings and Sauces
Replace the oil with lemon juice, tahini, pureed beans, soy milk, soy yogurt, fruit or mustard for your dressings. Oil-free sauces can be made by using tomato products, soy milk, cornstarch, silken tofu, beans, or flax seeds.
Use apple sauce, prune puree, mashed tofu, flax seed meal, or mashed banana instead of the oil.
Most of the time, using oil in your dishes won’t make it taste much better, anyways. It is used to enhance some flavors and your brain will like the high calorie density (think preservation!) which is why you might enjoy eating it. But that’s just a matter of getting used to and after abstaining from oil for a while it won’t taste that good to you anymore. The oily coating on your tongue will cause an unpleasant feeling and keep you from tasting the true flavors of the food.
And if we’re honest, oil on its own doesn’t really taste good, either. We rather respond to its creamy texture which can be replicated! Once your taste buds have adapted, greasy food won’t be appealing to you anymore.
When eating out, tell the waiter that you cannot have oil and ask for your food to be steamed or baked without oil instead of fried. Not every chef can adhere to these wishes but they will probably try to at least use very little oil in your dish.
In order to get your essential fatty acids, you can eat leafy greens, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, tofu, tempeh or avocado.
One Step at a Time
If you feel a little overwhelmed now and at the very beginning of eating more plant-based meals, this might seem a little overwhelming. Here’s an idea for how you can take it step-by-step:
- Start by cutting back on animal products and find plant-based replacements for them.
- Eat as many whole foods and as few processed vegan foods as possible.
- Start cooking without oil, look up oil-free dressings and sauces. Keep having your vegan ice cream, cookies, and mock meat for now if you want to.
- Look up recipes for your favorite foods that contain oil. Make your own muffins or energy bars using mostly whole plant-based foods and no oil at all.
Hopefully, we could shed some light on the question "Is oil good for you?" and give you a thorough, unbiased, and differentiated insight into the topic.
Our suggestion is that you try to keep your goals in mind (you’re probably doing the best you can right now)… and taking oils out of your diet might be more genius than scary in the end. Nobody can eat 100% perfect all of the time anyway, so no need to make a super clean diet your must-have.
Just remember that you don’t need oil for your health and that they can do more harm than good in your body! Why not go for the perfectly designed safe packages instead: whole foods.
Have you been thinking about cutting out oils? What are your reasons for eating or not eating oil? Let us know in the comments below.
¹ Allman MA, Pena MM, Pang D. Supplementation with flaxseed oil versus sunflower seed oil in healthy young men consuming a low fat diet: effects on platelet composition and function. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995 Mar;49(3):169-78.)
² Blankenhorn DH, Johnson RL, Mack WJ, el Zein HA, Vailas LI. The influence of diet on the appearance of new lesions in human coronary arteries. JAMA. 1990 Mar 23-30;263(12):1646-52.
⁴ Purasiri P, Mckechnie A, Heys SD, Eremin O. Modulation in vitro of human natural cytotoxicity, lymphocyte proliferative response to mitogens and cytokine production by essential fatty acids. Immunology. 1997 Oct;92(2):166-72.
About the Author
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.
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