Cooking oils decoded

Tired of eating the same unhealthy Charleston restaurant food night after night, you finally decide to cook something healthy. You go to the grocery store to pick up all your ingredients and return to your cramped, shared house on Smith. You turn on your oven for the first time this semester and start steaming rice and sautéing vegetables. An hour later, you feast and feel your healthiest since the year began.

But what if I told you that your meal was not that healthy? What? Impossible! Possible. You drowned your veggies in olive oil. But it is heart healthy – even says so on the package. Unfortunately, the FDA has some work to do on its regulations of what is allowed to have the heart healthy label. All cooking oils are unhealthy. You heard me right. All cooking oils are unhealthy. And here is why:

(Photo courtesy of babettee on Flickr Creative Commons)

We have been told by the media, advertisements and even doctors that replacing butter with vegetable oils when cooking is ideal and advantageous to your health. The saturated fat and cholesterol you would take in when eating butter are lessened significantly with oil intake. But now, you are eating an imbalance of polyunsaturated fats (and monounsaturated) and another kind of cholesterol when you ingest oils. The basic argument against oils is that they are not food. They are highly processed, unnatural and concentrated calories and fat. They stray so far from the whole foods they come from that there is almost no resemblance.

When I refer to vegetable oils, I am referring to oils such as sunflower, soybean, canola, peanut, safflower, cottonseed, corn and yes, olive (we will get to that a little later).  Even using your organic, cold pressed oils in “moderation” is an unhealthy practice.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends that intake of fatty acids be limited to one-third of a teaspoon for men per day and one-fourth of a teaspoon for women. How much oil do you usually pour in your pan when cooking? Oils slow down blood, clogs arteries, hurts blood vessels, damages the immune system and directly contributes to heart disease. Dr. Rosane Oliveira from UC Davis puts the issue of damaging blood vessels best in her article through her statement, “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 percent 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?”

Oils are the most calorically dense “food” on Earth. That is right. Oils have more calories than bacon, refined sugar and butter. This is why there is no moderation concerning consumption oils. Only seven ounces of olive oil contain 1,800 calories. Add just a teaspoon over veggies and they are completely calorically overpowered. As Dr. Jeff Novick puts it, “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.”

What happened to getting rid of saturated fat by switching to oil? While vegetable oils have less saturated fat than alternatives like butter, they are still comprised of about 14 percent saturated fats. Guess what daily percentage of saturated fats the American Heart Association recommends. Less than five to six percent. Consuming high amounts of saturated fats contributes to lipemia (fat in the bloodstream), stiff arteries and less dilation allowing smooth blood flow, thus raising your risk of heart disease. 

Let us talk about those polyunsaturated fats (or PUFAs). The good ones, right? Well, not quite. You might know polyunsaturated fatty acids as being the essential fats. This is true, to an extent. First of all, only two to four percent of your diet is recommended (or essential) to come from polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are inflammatory due to oxidization and cause chain reactions that can damage other structures in your body. This unstable oxidation has been linked with endometriosis, cancer and… wait for it… heart disease. The two major types of PUFAs are omega-6s and omega-3s. Omega-3s are great; by themselves, they reduce inflammation and the risk of coronary disease. Nothing bad to say about them. Omega-6, on the other hand, is not great in excess. Oils have a lot of omega-6s. In fact, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in most vegetable oils is about is 14:1, and the goal for our dietary intake is 4:1. All of these omega-6s actually lower levels of omega-3s in our bodies. So what little omega-3s that come in oils are being directly counteracted by all the omega-6s in them.

The problems do not end with omega-6 fatty acids. They are also inflammatory and thus contribute to inflammatory diseases. This is the same inflammatory, unbalanced PUFA content that is seen in processed meats and fried foods, both staples in the Western diet. It is all about balance with omega-6s and omega-3s. The overconsumption of omega-6s has also been linked to cancer, obesity and even depression. Maybe it is best to just avoid those 14 grams of fat in a tablespoon of oil.

There are three very different oils: canola, coconut and olive. People seem to be more and more aware of the danger of processed foods, such as baked goods, but many have not taken the time to think about the amount of processing and extraction oils go through. Canola oil is a perfect example of this. Do you know what canola oil is made from? Well certainly not canola seeds, because they do not exist. Canola is completely genetically engineered, and is made from rapeseeds. Natural News writer Cindie Leonard further explores the problems with canola oil, writing “In addition to the genetic modification, the process of making Canola oil is troubling. The procedure involves a combination of high-temperature mechanical pressing and solvent extract, usually using hexane. Hexane! Even after considerable refining, traces of the solvent remain. Like most vegetable oils, Canola oil also goes through the process of bleaching, degumming, deodorizing, and caustic refining, at very high temperatures. This process can alter the omega-3 content in the oil, and in certain conditions bring the trans fat level as high as 40 percent.”

I will now take a break from all of the vegetable oils to address an oil that some incorrectly believe is beneficial. Coconut oil is composed of over 90 percent saturated fat. Seriously, how can you consider something with 90 percent saturated fat healthy in any form of the word? Since we have already discussed the harms of saturated fats, let us move on to why people (or the media) might say coconut oil is healthy. One popular argument is that coconut oil contains stearic acid, which does not raise cholesterol, but ONLY 3 percent of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are stearic, the rest being palmitic, myristic and lauric, which all raise LDL cholesterol! This is the same argument that meat companies use when advertising their mass produced, factory farmed, cholesterol and saturated fat filled meat products. Coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol levels in the body, which contribute to the number one killer in the U.S., coronary heart disease. Another argument for coconut oil is that it counteracts Alzheimer’s disease, which is unfortunately also not true. The argument posits that because coconut oil contains fats called MCTs, which are converted into ketones, and high ketone levels in the brain counteract Alzheimer’s, coconut oil counteracts Alzheimer’s. “Consuming coconut oil does not raise ketone levels in the brain high enough to counter the effects of Alzheimer’s,” states Richard Veech of the National Institute of Health. Essentially, coconut oil has some antimicrobial properties, but the health risks far outweigh them.

What more can be said? With olive oil, plenty. Never doubt the power of science to ruin everything that you think is healthy. Olive oil is one of the most inaccurately portrayed health foods out there. The media loves to talk up the benefits of olive oil, when they are really far and few between. The argument you have probably heard about on why olive oil is healthy points to the Mediterranean diet, mostly centered in the Isle of Crete. With more research, however, scientists have found that the original followers of the Mediterranean diet were healthy in spite of olive oil. It was their diet of whole, natural foods and exercise that kept them living longest. Another argument for the benefits of olive oil is the presence of polyphenols, antioxidants with many benefits. The truth is that the amount of polyphenols in olive oil is very small and much higher in whole olives. This all goes back to eating whole food rather than unnaturally processed extractions of them. As Dr. Oliveira points out, “you will get as many polyphenols in 4 lettuce leaves (12 calories) as you would get from 1 tablespoon (120 calories) of olive oil.” Comparing whole olives and olive oil in equal amounts, olive oil has seven times the calories and nine times the amount of fat.

Of course, olive oil has a lot less saturated fat and a lot more monounsaturated fat, which is good right? Well, monounsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats, but they still have been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerotic plaques in arteries. They are also nonessential fats. One study by David Blankenhorn, M.D., found that all three types of fat (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) increased atherosclerotic lesions and only when all fat was decreased did the lesions stop growing. Finally, let us address the cholesterol content in olive oil. Olive oil has more HDL cholesterol than LDL cholesterol, but it does NOT lower LDL cholesterol. Would it not be better to eliminate your consumption of LDL cholesterol completely? While it is less harmful than LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol can still cause inflammation. You should be keeping both your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels down in order to truly regulate inflammation. Another proof of the importance of low HDL cholesterol levels are the Okinawans of rural Japan and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. They have the lowest incidences of heart disease as well as extremely low levels of HDL cholesterol.

Now you know how detrimental oils are to your health, but what are you supposed to use as alternatives? For cooking, use seasoned vegetable broth with a non-stick pan, different spices, steaming, baking, parchment paper and even water. As far as salad dressings, try flavored vinegars (i.e. balsamic and lemon vinegar). They are tastier anyway, I promise! Or if you are adventurous enough, make your own dressings. Blend vegetables, citrus fruits, and apples and add avocados and/or nuts for more healthy fat.

I would like to leave you with this one last quote by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn:

“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 does not matter whether it is olive oil, corn oil, coconut oil, canola oil, or any other kind. Avoid all oil.”

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