Oils, particularly cooking oils, very often fly under the radar when considering the context of what we eat. "Out of sight, out of mind" seems applicable here. We don't really see the oils that our food is cooked in. Sure, we might have a "greasy meal" and notice that our food is taking a swim in some unknown substance, but we still rarely stop to consider what the oil, or the "grease" we are seeing is.
When we cook our own food, we reach into our trusty cupboard, and often pull out a see-through bottle of mysterious yellow liquid, throw it into our pans without a care in the world, and cook away. Voila! The oil is commonly seen as nothing more than a means to cook our food with. Which it often is, by the way. However, the disconnect comes when we don't pay mind to what the oil is doing to our health, our food and our palates.
The most common oils sold, used in cooking and consumed world wide are vegetable oils. Whilst these appear under many different names, vegetable oil is a all-encompassing name, covering a broad variety of oils. Some of the most common examples of vegetable oils are; Palm oil, Soybean oil, canola, rapeseed, corn, sunflower etc. This common household item can be found in almost everyones home. It is cheap, reliable and it's made of vegetables - so it must be healthy, right? Erm, not quite....
See, vegetable oils (and their many derivative forms) are far from healthy. Although commonly touted as "heart healthy" and even endorsed by certain companies (such as our beloved British heart foundation and the American heart association), as a promoter of health due to their supposed "cholesterol lowering effects", there is much more going on, under the surface when consuming these trusty supermarket veterans.
Vegetable oils (sunflower, palm, canola, rapeseed, corn etc) are highly objectionable to our health and actually exacerbate the conditions they claim to help with. That's right, we have been mislead (shock!) by food control agencies and a misrepresentation and demonism of what actually constitutes to good health and good cooking options. Lets take a dive into that statement and see exactly how these seemingly innocent and supposedly healthy oils could be affecting our health and could actually be accelerating aging, disease and declining health.
Refined vegetable oils are made up largely of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These highly refined versions of PUFAs contain high amounts of linoleic acid and are incredibly prone to oxidative damage, and when consumed, cause direct oxidative stress in the body. Whilst that doesn't sound like a good thing to anyone reading this, we have to first understand exactly what oxidative stress is, and how this can wreak havoc on our health.
Think of oxidation like a forrest fire. The forrest fire doesn't start by numerous trees spontaneously combusting at one given moment. It starts with just one event, just one tree or shrub that catches fire. This could be from incredible heats, but for the sake of keeping this aligned with my analogy, it could also be because some careless person made a poor decision, such as throwing a match on the ground in a high risk area. Let us know consider that said matchstick (vegetable oil) is dropped in the dry forest (your body), What happens?
The match lands in a very dry area and starts to smoke, eventually the smoke creates a flame and the fire begins to spread...rapidly. At this point, you may be thinking, "Ste - What the hell are you talking about, I don't eat match sticks and I haven't been into the woods for a decade, I'm good?!" - My point is that the match stick, the seemingly innocent instrument, has the potential to cause complete devastation when it isn't used with caution. The matchstick in our analogy here, is the seemingly innocuous vegetable oil.
It is 'dropped' into our system, where we have a LOT of potential to succumb to oxidative stress (fire), and if we don't call in the cavalry and put this fire out, we are going to quickly have a fully fledged blaze raging internally, showing no signs of slowing down and continuing to spread until the damage is so great, that we have a (health) catastrophe on our hands.
Ok, that doesn't sound good, but I still don't know what oxidative stress is? - Oxidative stress is THE great disease marker. Every chronic disease out there, from alzheimer's to obesity, from diabetes to auto-immune diseases. They all have oxidative stress at their root cause.
Oxidative stress affects the way our cells and mitochondria function. Mitochondria are power plants found in every nucleated cell in the body, and we are made up of literally trillions of cells (around 37.2 trillion to be exact) - it makes sense that if oxidation can alter the delicate functions and balance of these things, that we are playing with fire. The mitochondria, simply put, produce energy (ATP) to make our bodies function and in doing so, create a little by product know as reactive oxygen species (ROS).
These are usually a completely safe and naturally occurring physiological function, balanced and monitored by numerous factors such as internal glutathione production and anti oxidant consumption. However, when we have a state in which reactive oxygen species are rampant, and have an environment to do their dirty work, free radicals form, causing a cascade of inflammation within the body.
The reason vegetable oils cause this oxidation, contribute to increased free radical activity in the body and promote a state of systemic inflammation, is because they are from the family of fats known as Polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats are extremely sucesptbale to damage from oxygen and can become oxidized very easily. In fact, many of the PUFAs oils are oxidized even during their production. We further oxidize these oils when they are packaged in see through containers, exposed to light (further damage), transported 1000's of miles in hot conditions, to sit on your supermarket shelf for months before being bought by you, the innocent consumer. At his point, you bring them home and throw them in a frying pan at 400 degrees, really putting the final nail in the coffin. If you were luckily enough to have a vegetable oil that wasn't ruined by oxidative stress, at this point, the cooking, you just sealed its fate. Oxygen physically attacks the molecules in these fats and the spread is like that of an explosion - fast and unstoppable. The free radical activity that occurs as a result of this oxidation is a BIG problem.
Now, we eat the food that we cooked in these oils and directly consume pre-oxidized fats and free radicals. These already dangerous and damaged fats now enter the body and wreak havoc on cell balance (homeostasis). To quote Doctor Cate Shanahan "I liken it to eating radiation or eating radioactive food. You're damaging your body from the inside out."
Vegetable Oils and Your Immune System
Considering that fat is an integral part of our cell membranes, it makes sense that all of this isn't good. One huge problem, of which there are many, of this free radical explosion, and the resulting inflammation, is the effect that it has on our immune system.
Put simply, our immune system is in place to protect us from invaders. When we are subject to this free radical damage and our immune cells become damaged, they begin to function and do their job inefficiently.
The immune system is caught in the midst of this 'friendly fire' and when that continues over prolonged periods (eating highly refined PUFAs often) it starts to struggle to identify the good from the bad, the you, from the not you, and as a result, the disregulation of the cells and its system produces antibodies that can be very problematic to the good you.
Antibodies are made to protect you from a future stressor of the same nature - that's what vaccinations do, the antibodies remember that stressor and protect you from that in the future. If these antibodies are being constantly produced because of poor dietary habits, coupled with disregulated function - you have the makings of some very problematic self-attack. This is commonly linked to where allergies come from - your immune system makes a mistake, creates an antibody to a particular trigger and voila - allergy. It takes the removal of these problematic triggers, and the normalization of the immune system, to reverse this condition. The good news is that it can often be done, with dietary interventions and patience.
So, if you've taken anything away from this so far it should be this - absolutely, conclusively, positively do not consume any refined vegetable oils. . .unless you enjoy playing russian roulette with your own health.
"But what about sunflower oil? Fry light? Spreads? Sprays? - They're only 1 calorie per squirt?"
Nope, nope and definitely nope. These are all vegetable oil derivatives and carry the exact same risks, as the simply named vegetable oils, they're merely packaged cleverly and pushed as healthy alternatives due to their low caloric content. These may even contain trans fats, which are so harmful to our body that some progressive cities (NYC 2008) outlawed their use in restaurants and the fight to have them stripped from shelves is stonger than ever. Our Body doesn’t recognize, nor has a system in place to deal with trans fats, therefore they are allowed to circulate until taking up home in our cells and initiate a cascade of problems. In fact, trans fats are so toxic that they have been linked to over 100,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Let that sink in for a moment.
"So, if I have been eating these oils all of my life, am i doomed to become a radioactive, self sabotaging freak?"
Not exactly - most of us, myself included, where subject to these oils for the entirety of their life. Vegetable oils are found in ALL packaged foods, frozen foods, cookies, cake, donuts, potato chips, they're in your fries from fast food restaurants, their in your oreos, they're even in your sauces and salad dressings (most of these foods also contain the dreaded trans fats that I just mentioned a second ago, too).
Once you start to look at just how often these toxic oils are used in all food manufacturing, you're going to be quickly left wondering what the hell you can eat? Whilst they are everywhere, once you start looking, a few easy steps you can take to avoid consuming these oils are; walk to your cupboard when your finish reading this post and throw that oil where it belongs - right in the trash. Avoid packaged foods and snacks, eat real, whole-foods and make sensible choices wherever possible to limit your exposure.
Once you remove these objectionable oils from your diet you will immediately better your health. You will be removing free radicals in staggering amounts and allowing your immune system to rest and recover. You will be throwing some water on that forest fire in the hopes of reducing it to ash.
Calling in the cavalry:
So - you're removing these oils from your diet - amazing!
You've taken a huge step to a healthier you. But, that fire is still raging. You ate these oils for your whole life, not eating your frylight for one day and posting #HealthyLyfe on your instagram, probably isn't enough to undo years of damage and won't protect you from future exposure.
There is however, an expert team of fire fighters out there ready and waiting to receive the call to go help. We all know them, we see them plastered all over supplements and magazines, we hear about them on TV but we likely didn't know who they are and what they do. So, who are these superheroes?
Antioxidants - yup, those crazy cats you’ve heard so much about. Hopefully now it is starting to make a little more sense to you. Free radicals and oxidation is bad, anti-oxidants fight that oxidative stress and are the real good guys here. They are the firefighters in todays story! Way to go Antioxidants!!
Ate a meal that you couldn’t control and are worried about oxidative stress? Reach for some blueberries afterwards. Binged at work because of co-workers birthday and ate everything but the cake box? Get a heap load of broccoli with dinner. Now, I’m not giving you free reign to eat like garbage and then assume that eating a few pieces of fruit is going to save the day. Consistency is key, limit your exposure to these foods as much as humanly possible. When you’re faced with a ‘can’t-avoid’ situation, know that there are some handy cavalry on hand to help you mitigate the damage.
Antioxidants are found in whole real foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and even other kinds of oils (yes there are good ones), which leads us to our next point…
The Good guys
Finally, the doom and gloom is over. So what should we use to cook with? The good news is there are plenty of great oils out there to cook with. Guess what? They taste way better, too. If you’ve ever paid attention to vegetable oils you’ll notice their distinct lack of character, small and flavor. Compare that to a high quality olive oil, for example, with its nutty, slightly sweet smell and amazing flavor. There’s no competition.
So what are the good oils? I’m going to give you my top 4:
This good guy is part of the monounsaturated family of fats, far more stable than its polyunsaturated counterparts and thus more heat stable. This means that it is far less likely to damage from oxidative stress in the form of light or heat.
Olive oil is a delicious dressing, loaded with anti inflammatory omega 3’s, and the extremely health promoting oleic acid, which has been linked to normalizing blood cholesterol, lowering LDL and raising HDL cholesterol and combating degenerative diseases such as cancer - all good things.
Olive oil is also extremely anti inflammatory due to it’s very high antioxidant content. We know that oxidation is bad, systemmic inflammation is bad, so olive oil a strong contender to add into your diet if you want to tackle both of these undesirable consequences of modern life/diet.
The one draw back with olive oil, is that it could be argued that it shouldn’t be used for high heat frying. This is due to claims that it has a low smoke point. However, most studies done on this seem to be exposing low quality olive oil to very high heats, for very long periods of time, before the breakdown of the protective polyphenols is adequate enough to cause oxidation. It seems that with high quality olive oil, it may even be ok to fry with, over short periods of time, but one might want to exercise caution to be careful.
So, cook with it, dress with it and even drink it. Extra virgin, first cold press from local sources are your best bet, as some extreme cheap versions may have been mixed with other oils and have been pressed many times.
Whilst avocados have exploded in their trendiness and acceptance of their health benefits as of late, few people are yet using this mighty green powerhouse oil for their cooking means.
From an omega standpoint, avocado oil is very close to olive oil, with 70% of its dat coming from that glorious fat - oleic acid. The remaining 30% is made up of about 16% saturated fatty acids and 14% polyunsaturated. Whilst we still see that the PUFA content is there, it’s only 14% and the benefits of avocado oil far outweigh this small overall percentage of PUFAs. Avocado oil has an extremely high smoke point, which makes it an excellent option for frying with.
Again, avocado oil packs a mighty dose of those good-guy antioxidants but this particular case may be even stronger- Avocado oil might even be able to enter our bodies power plants, the mitochondria, and impact an even greater positive benefit.
Avocado oil has been linked in many studies to promoting eye health, lowering blood lips and triglycerides, increasing cardio vascular function and promoting healthy aging.
With its very similar attributes to olive oil, and (arguably) better taste, this should be a staple in everyones kitchen. The only gripe one could have with avocado oil, is its relative scarceness in stores. However, expect that to change rapidly now people are catching on to just how tasty and healthy this oil really is.