I thought today that it might be worthwhile to review some of the questions that I had when I began eating a WFPB diet. That could help others to perhaps struggle a little less.
One of the big questions I had was "Why no oil?" It seemed like nutritionists and dietitians were falling all over themselves to include olive oil in a healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet was labeled by many as the most healthy diet in the world, and it was full of olive oil wasn't it? So, who was I to question the advice of all these experts?
Well, first, let me make a couple points about what the experts were saying, and then I'll go into the three main reasons for eliminating or minimizing oil consumption on the WFPB diet. Regarding the experts' statements:
- First, more and more research is pointing to the fact that the Mediterranean diet is largely composed of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts and that is the basis for why it's considered so healthy.It's also a diet that so-called experts believe that people can stick with, as opposed to the whole food, plant-based diet, which experts tend to mistakenly think that people can't stick with. So, when they label a diet as "healthiest," they are only including those diets that they believe the majority of people will willingly eat.
- When they talk about the healthfulness of olive oil, what I discovered by reading and listening to them closely, is they are saying olive oil is healthy as an alternative to eating other fats. In other words, the experts are assuming that people will continue to eat fat. And given that to be the case, then the healthiest way to do that is to eat olive oil. But if you eliminate that assumption, then olive oil becomes less attractive.
- Studies that the experts rely on about consuming fats in general continue to be based on that very assumption -- that people will not give up eating fat in their diets. So, the studies are all based on comparing a very high fat diet (38% or higher) against a lower, but still high fat diet (say in the 30% to 33% range). When those studies are done, there is no benefit found to cutting fat. But when studies are done, such as by Dr. Dean Ornish or Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, where fat consumption is cut to 10%, then dramatic effects are noticed.
There are really three main things wrong with eating oil, whether it's olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil or what have you. They are:
- Eating oil makes it difficult to maintain or lose weight
- Serum cholesterol levels are optimized when oil is eliminated
- Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids are thrown more out of balance through oil consumption
Our bodies need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, there are all kinds of health problems that can arise from not getting enough omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These include abnormalities in the liver and kidneys, reduced growth rate, decreased immune function, depression and dry skin. So, it's important to ensure that our bodies get omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, but in the right proportion.
Ideally, the ratio should be 1:1. That is 1 gram of omega-3 for every gram of omega-6. But as I've said before, perfection should not be the enemy of the good. A 4:1 ratio is still considered healthy.
On the standard American diet, a person can easily consume a ratio of 25:1, which is horribly unhealthy. The way that nutritionists and dietitians answer that is to tell Americans to eat more fish, which contains high levels of direct omega-3 fatty acids. But fish comes with a whole host of other problems, including some nasty contamination issues, environmental and sustainability issues, other undesirable fats and more.
Fortunately, there are two other answers for people on a whole food, plant-based diet that are much healthier choices, in my opinion. And those choices can be made without having to count anything or figuring out ratios. The first choice is to increase long-chain omega-3 intake by taking a pollutant-free, algae-based DHA/EPA tablet. Alternatively, sprinkling ground flaxseed and/or chia seeds on your oatmeal might do it if your body is efficient at converting those short-chained omega-3s into long-chained omega-3s. But as we get older, the body gets less efficient at doing so, and that's why I personally take a vegan DHA/EPA supplement daily.
The second option is to reduce omega-6 consumption, something that is almost impossible to do on the standard American diet. That's because processed foods are so high in omega-6 fatty acids, mainly because they are processed with oil by the way. So, adding fish to a diet that consists largely of processed foods and meat can make sense. But on a whole food, plant-based diet, the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in whole plant-based foods is much closer to what our bodies ideally need. So, adding fish makes no sense while eliminating oils makes a lot of sense. That's because we can throw our ratio off by consuming oil. The omega-6 content of oils in general is very, very high.
And that's one big reason why putting oil on our foods is considered to be so harmful.
The other two reasons of weight control and serum cholesterol control are more obvious. Oil is a fat and fats contain 9 calories per gram as opposed to other foods that weigh in at 4 calories per gram. It doesn't take a lot of oil to add quite a few empty calories to a plate. And they are empty. Oil is a processed food. All of the fiber and many of the nutrients are stripped out of the oil in its production.
So, even if you are able to maintain your weight while eating oil, you are replacing calories that you could be eating that contain lots of phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins with empty calories instead. Why do that? I like to get all the disease-fighting nutrients that I can when I eat plant foods. I don't want 30% of my calories to be wasted on non-nutrients like oil.
And of course, serum cholesterol levels can be affected by oil as well. That may not be true in everybody, but given the other two reasons for not eating oil, I think there's sufficient reason to give it up in a diet.
So, as the new year starts, for those just getting into the whole food, plant-based lifestyle, don't let all that you hear about olive oil confuse you. There are good reasons to avoid it. I hope I've helped to clarify that. It took me a long time to get it. I spent months agonizing over questions like why don't we consider foods like fish and olive oil to be healthy. But I finally did get it. And my health is thanking me for it.