Eating with the enemy: Vegetable oil

Folks, I’ll say it again, it isn’t the saturated fat or cholesterol in your diet that is ruining your cardiovascular health or your waistline, it is the vegetable oil and sugar. It isn’t fat that’s bad, it’s the type of fat and how that fat is extracted. Together with sugar, it’s a one-two punch that’s destroying your health.

Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s book Deep Nutrition is an inch and a half thick with teeny print packing every page. I have been reading it for weeks and am still only half way through it. It is very technical and detailed and it is dedicated to illustrating how dangerous vegetable oils and sugar are to our health. If you are a nutritionist, personal trainer, or are in a position to offer advice about what people should eat this book should be on your reading list. If you aren’t a nutrition nerd, I’ll sum it up for you in one sentence:

If you did nothing but eliminate vegetable oil and sugar from your diet you would live a long, happy, and healthy life free of disease and so would your children.

Why are vegetable oils so bad?

Vegetable oils (polyunsaturated fats) are fragile. Even the process by which they are extracted can break their molecular bonds, producing toxic chemicals including the trans fats we all know are bad. When these already sketchy oils are heated, like when you cook with them, they break apart even further creating a toxic sludge we like to fry potatoes, fish, and chicken in.

Fun fact: Fast food places change the oil in their vats about once a week, some go longer. After a week of use, the oil is so degraded that it can’t even be recycled for biodiesel. You eat that.

Same goes for oils that are used in baked goods. Canola oil is no exception. On page 135, Dr. Cate tells about a testing company that needed to find a pure source of canola oil to use as a standard by which they could compare other oils. Unfortunately, canola oil–which on paper should be a healthy source of Omega-3 fatty acids–degrades so quickly that the company couldn’t find a source even from pharmaceutical-grade manufacturers that contained less than 1.2% trans fat. If vegetable oils are this bad right out of the box (or clear plastic bottle), what do you think happens when you add the catalyst of heat?

I started to go into detail here about why we should be worried about unstable fatty acids and how oils degrade, fatty acid chains, double bonds, and free radicals. It turned into an epic tale saturated with relatively advanced biochemistry, biology, and other hard stuff. If you want to read more about that sort of thing read Fat: The good, the bad, and the oxidized. When I went back to read what I had written here, I asked myself, “What’s the point? Why do we care about all of this? What’s the bottom line?”

Here’s the deal

Ultimately, we’re talking about inflammation. As we’ve discussed before, inflammation is the root cause of a host of diseases of the modern age. Inflammation of the arteries is cardiovascular disease, inflammation in the brain is depression, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation of the gut is IBS, colitis, diverticulitis, or gastritis, inflammation of the joints is arthritis, cellular inflammation may manifest as cancer…you get my drift.

The unfortunate truth is that what we, in our modern age wisdom, treat with medication what could be easily prevented by getting rid of what caused the problem to begin with. More unfortunate still is it isn’t just us as we age that we should be worried about. For the first time in history, our children’s life expectancy is shorter than our own.

I believe our obsession with cheap food is to blame. Food that is processed, packaged, microwavable, and full of things nature never intended will be our downfall.

Right, so what do we do about it?

When choosing oils, reading labels, or navigating restaurants remember:

Nature doesn’t make bad fats. Factories do.

The bad fats are:

  • Canola Oil (yes, I’ll explain this one)
  • Cottonseed Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Soy Oil
  • Safflower Oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Grapeseed Oil
  • Non-butter spreads like margarine
  • Anything listed as “partially hydrogenated” on the label

The good fats are:

  • Olive Oil
  • Avocado Oil
  • Peanut Oil
  • Butter (especially grass-fed)
  • Macadamia Nut Oil
  • Coconut Oil
  • Animal Fats like lard and tallow (try to get these grass-fed or wild
  • Palm Oil (this one is controversial)
  • Sesame Oil
  • Artisanally produced or unrefined oil (canola oil or rapeseed oil produced with an old-fashioned, slow wedge press would fall under this category, but not expeller pressed)

Vegetable oils are hard to avoid. They’re cheap, tasteless (because they have had to be chemically deodorized and bleached in order to be palatable), and the AHA insists that they are healthy (see the margarine explanation below). Consequently, they are everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the product is organic, vegan, non-GMO, three ingredients or less, or gluten-free if vegetable oil is present the food will cause inflammation.  Here are the most common places to find them:

  • Salad dressing – There are no salad dressings on the grocery store shelves that don’t contain vegetable oil. This includes the mayonnaise that advertises that it is made with olive oil or avocado oil. Read the ingredient list. The only exception is Primal Kitchen mayonnaise and salad dressings. Chose those or make your own (it’s actually really easy).
  • Margarine – When Ancel Keys did his famous experiment that started us down the low-fat road, he used margarine, not saturated fat to produce his cardiovascular-destroying results. This little fact came out 30 years later, but by then too much had been invested in recommending fake, polyunsaturated fats. So the medical community has been slow to come around. Still, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that margarine is bad for you. If you haven’t already given it up, do so now. Right now. Eat real, grass-fed butter. It’s a great source of Omega-3. You guys, the oils that makeup margarine have to be chemically deodorized and bleached in order to make them something you would consider eating!
  • Most baked goods – Crackers, soft bread, buns, and muffins bought in stores. Although the total fat content might be low, if you over consume these addictive foods you end up eating a lot of vegetable oil.
  • Anything deep fried – With the exception of peanut oil and duck fat there are no good oils to deep fry things in. The heat is too much for anything but the stoutest saturated fat and most restaurants will use the overheated, toxic fryer oil for over a week before changing it. Best to avoid deep fried stuff altogether. This includes chips, french fries, crispy chicken, fried donuts, and most things on an appetizer menu.
  • Rice milk contains one teaspoon of vegetable oil per ounce of liquefied rice
  • Soy products (dairy substitutes, vegan cheese, soy-based meat products) – Processing soy unavoidably damages the cell membrane releasing harmful toxins such as trans fats, stick to whole or fermented soy products.
  • Granola – Up to half of the total calories in most packaged granola come from vegetable oil. When I read this, I hurried and checked my newly bought package of Paleo granola from Thrive Market. Luckily, it doesn’t contain vegetable oil. Make your own, or be sure to carefully Sherlock the labels.
  • Nuts – Not all nuts, just the roasted ones. Choose raw or dry roasted. Be sure to read the labels.

Remember it isn’t the total fat content that is bad, it’s the type of fat. I eat a lot of fat in a day, but I am diligent about choosing fats that nature made. I read all of the labels and do my best to avoid the things listed above. It is true that avoiding vegetable oil is hard. Most packaged foods, even those in the health food store, have them and most restaurants use them. Whole Foods even uses canola oil to cook the foods on their hot bar (reported on The Model Health Show). It is hard, but if you are diligent, I promise you will see results in your joint pain, your energy level, your indigestion (this was the biggest change for me), your brain fog will lift, your mood will improve, you might even see improvements in your kids’ behavior. It matters that much.

The canola oil paradox

Canola oil has been given leniency among those of us who pay attention to our fats. It is high in Omega-3, so it has been recommended by the AHA as a good fat. Organic packaged food producers use expeller-pressed canola oil in their products because their target market is aware of the problems with chemical and heat extraction methods. Don’t be fooled, however. Expeller pressed polyunsaturated fats still have to go through the refining steps that the chemically treated oils do. On page 139 of Deep Nutrition, Dr. Cate refers to a chemical analysis of organic, expeller-pressed canola oil showing that as much as 5% trans fats, plus cyclic hydrocarbons (carcinogens) and oxyphytosterols (highly damaging to arteries) are present at high enough levels to be concerning.

Take a minute to look through your cupboard and your freezer. See anything that contains vegetable oil? I looked at the organic frozen waffles my little girl had for breakfast this morning and saw that the third ingredient was expeller pressed sunflower and/or safflower oil.

Quick tips:

  • Make your own salad dressing. It’s really easy. There are loads of ideas on Pinterest. Just don’t use vegetable oil as a base. Use avocado or olive oil instead.
  • Make your own mayonnaise. This is also really easy. I do it all of the time. Here is the recipe I use:
  • You can also buy Primal Kitchen mayo and salad dressings which are currently the only ones on the market that don’t contain vegetable oil.
  • Eat the whole food, just not the oil. Edamame, fresh corn, sunflower seeds, and other tasty seeds are totally fine to eat in their whole form because nature knows how to package them correctly. It’s when we start thinking we’re smarter than nature that we run into problems.
  • Avoid processed food. If it came from a factory there’s a good chance it has ingredients you don’t want to eat. At least read the labels to get a good idea of what you are feeding yourself and your family.
  • Cook at home. Restaurants will almost always use vegetable oil to cook with because it’s cheap and flavorless.
  • You are perfectly within your rights to ask for your food to be cooked with butter or olive oil instead of vegetable oil. The better restaurants will comply with your request, the corner diner may not. You can choose not to eat at a place that uses vegetable oil. When more people start refusing toxic fats, fewer places will use them.

If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!

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Published by donawinger

As a certified holistic health coach, my purpose is to inspire others to make mindful​ choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life with real food and a growth mindset.

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