All hip and health conscious consumers know that a healthy body requires good healthy fats. And we know that the healthiest fats come in plant form, like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. But what about oils? Certain oils can be a great way to get those good fats into your system, right? We should cook with them, dip bread in them, stir them into our morning coffee or smoothie, right? Never mind that it seems like the best ‘healthy’ oil is constantly changing: swap canola oil with sunflower with olive with flax with coconut to get the best health results…just ignore that fact the previous champion has become the newest bad guy. So what gives? Are oils good for us or what?

What Is Oil?

Most ‘healthy’ oils come from undeniably healthy sources. Olives, sunflowers, flax seeds, sesame seeds, avocados, and unsweetened coconut are all richly nutritious and healthy foods. However, in order to extract the oils from these foods, the majority of the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber must be removed by macerating, heating or with solvents. What remains is basically straight up calorie content, without the fiber and nutrients to slow down and time release the absorption of these calories into the digestive system. Essentially, that once nutrient-rich olive has become a processed version of itself. Some olive oils also aren’t cold-pressed as they may be advertised and many are often rancid by the time you end up using them after sitting on the shelf so long at the store.

What About Essential, Healthy Fat?

Yeah, yeah, so consuming oils is like injecting your body with nutritionally devoid calories. But what about those healthy fats? What about the anti-inflammatory benefits we hear so much about? Don’t we need those for proper brain and body function? Let’s talk about the healthy fats we need so badly first. There are two essential healthy fats that the human body is unable to produce on it’s own and therefore must get from other sources: Omega-3 and Omega-6 amino acids. Both of these amino acids are biologically active and it is necessary for humans to eat them in perfect balance. Research has shown that human evolution is due in part, to eating these amino acids in balance, and considering that processed oils weren’t around when our cavemen ancestors were, it’s pretty safe to assume they got these essential fatty acids from eating whole foods. However, when we consume these acids in the very concentrated form of processed oil which tends to be high in Omega-6, but low in anti-inflammatory Omega-3, without the fiber to filter and regulate the absorption, we throw that balance off, which can lead to a host of cardiovascular, inflammatory, cancers and other diseases.

What About Cooking?

Here’s where oils can be particularly dangerous. Not only are oils high in caloric content, and off balance with essential fatty acids, but exposing them to heat changes the chemical composition of the oil! And many oil extraction processes actually use heat. Raw fats are absorbed in the body with the help of the lipase enzyme, which makes for easy assimilation. However, when fats are cooked, the lipase enzyme disappears, making the fats in oils unassimilable, clogging up arteries, and accumulating in our body’s cells. Additionally, while some oils have different burn points, all of them, regardless of their burn point, create carcinogens and free radicals when exposed to oxygen and heat. Yikes!

What About All The Studies?

Here’s the sad truth. Most of the studies done on the health benefits of various oils are marketing hype. Even the Mediterranean diet, so named for it’s focus on the heart healthy diets of people from that region, is a myth, because the health benefits are from the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study focused on meals, each of which emphasized one component of the Mediterranean Diet. “After the meal rich in olive oil, dilation in the arteries was impaired. The meal caused severe constrictions, which can injure the endothelium, the inner lining of arteries, contributing to heart disease. No such problems occurred with the other meals.” According to Dr. Vogel of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet appear to be antioxidant rich foods, which “appear to provide some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.” Healthy oils are essentially snake oil hype.

So What To Do Instead?

When it comes to  fats, carbs, or protein, remember that whole foods are always best. Though some oils out there may be better than others, their whole food counterpart will provide you with the exact same benefits, but more, and less of a dense source of fat that you could obtain from the food itself. For example, olives have phytochemicals and fiber you won’t find in their oil, no matter how healthy a version it may be. Coconuts are rich in antioxidants, protein, and fiber that the oil simply can’t contain, no matter how many other benefits it is said to have.The same goes for any oil, no matter what food it’s derived from. It’s the equivalent of choosing a wheat flour over whole wheat kernels. You get the picture.

Take advantage of a whole-food based Mediterranean-style (oil-free) diet, if you’re up to it. It’s been shown to decrease disease and improve body weight, cholesterol, and even diabetes. Here are many of our favorite recipes if you need ideas. Incorporate a variety of healthy, fresh, nutrient rich foods into your diet, with as minimal processing, as close to their garden state as possible. Instead of tossing that glub of flaxseed oil into your smoothie, why not toss a few whole seeds in the blender or sprinkle them on top? Your digestive system and heart will thank you due to their healthy fibers!

Try mashing a little avocado with lemon juice, mustard and a little water to create a delicious, creamy, oil-free salad dressing, or try some of these tasty oil free salad dressing ideas as well. Instead of sautéing onions and garlic in oil, use water, lemon juice or vegetable broth, or some of these creative oil-free ideas for a rich flavor that often tastes better than the oil version. And always be sure to have a diet rich in variety, antioxidants and fresh, whole plant based foods for optimal health!

Lead Image Source: Christian Kadluba/Flickr