Have you heard?! We’re in the midst of a great vegetable oil debate!
The dispute: Is oil healthy? Or is it just a processed, unnecessary, high-fat food that we’re better leaving off of our plates and out of our skillets?
In truth, the debate over oil is nothing new. Confusion about whether or not it’s part of a healthy diet has been around for a long time and I’ve gotten lots of questions about it over the years. So I teamed up with Crazy Sexy Nutrition Director, Jen Reilly, RD, to tackle this debate head on!
You might’ve heard some of your favorite plant-based health gurus recommend eliminating oil completely—even extra virgin olive oil, which has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease (study). So, let’s start by breaking down four of the most common criticisms we hear about veggie oils. Then we’ll cover some of the possible benefits of including them in your diet so you can figure out what’s best for you.
But first, let’s do a quick review of the types of fats found in plant oils:
- Trans fats (avoid these completely): These fats have no health benefits and are actually harmful. They’re made by taking healthy vegetable oils and adding hydrogen atoms to make them more shelf-stable. They show up in processed and fried foods and have been shown to increase “bad” LDL cholesterol levels while also decreasing “good” HDL cholesterol (study).
- Saturated fats (try to eat these sparingly): These fats have generally been considered unhealthy, especially when it comes to heart disease risk. But not all types of saturated fats are created equal. The saturated fat in coconut oil, for example, doesn’t tend to increase cholesterol levels and heart disease risk the way saturated fats from animal products do (study).
- Monounsaturated fats: You’ll find these fats in foods like avocados, nuts and the star of today’s show: olive oil! Studies have shown that monounsaturated fats can help lower breast cancer risk (study) and cholesterol levels (source), improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms (study), and reduce belly fat (study).
- Polyunsaturated fats: These fats are found mostly in vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, etc.). Omega-3s also fall into this category, and they’re considered the healthiest, most essential fats on the block. They’re known for improving heart health and decreasing risk of stroke (source). They’re also important for building brain cells and supporting a healthy nervous system (source). You’ll find omega-3s in flax, walnut and hemp oils.
Alright, now that we’ve covered the types of fats you’ll find in plant oils, let’s dig into four of the top criticisms you might’ve heard from the anti-oil side of this debate.
Criticism #1: Olive oil constricts blood vessels.
One of the most noteworthy waves of anti-oil hype started in 2000 when Dr. Vogel, a heart specialist at the University of Maryland, published a small study looking at how the various components of the Mediterranean diet might impact endothelial function (aka blood vessel constriction, which is a possible risk factor for heart disease).
Study subjects ate one of three meals containing olive oil, omega 3-fortified canola oil or salmon. Results showed that arteries didn’t constrict at all after subjects ate salmon, but did to some extent when they consumed canola oil (reducing blood flow by 11 percent) and olive oil (reducing blood flow by 34 percent). While blood vessel constriction isn’t a confirmed risk factor for heart disease, this finding still raised alarm.
The good news is that when combined with antioxidant-rich foods like vegetables or even red wine vinegar (hello, yummy salad dressing!), the vessel-constricting effect of olive oil disappears almost completely (study). It’s also worth noting that extra virgin olive oil has more antioxidants than refined olive oil, so I encourage you to opt for that when you can (just be careful using extra virgin olive oil in cooking—more on that later!).
At the end of the day, unless you’re diet is imbalanced and lacks sufficient antioxidants, this blood vessel issue is a non-issue.
Criticism #2: Olive oil has over a 10:1 ratio omega-6s to omega-3s.
It’s important to maintain a 4:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in your diet to protect your body from inflammation and heart disease, maintain a strong immune system, and support a healthy central nervous system. But because omega-6s are easy to get (they’re in nutrient-rich vegetable oils like sunflower and safflower oil, but also in lots of processed foods, poultry and eggs) and omega-3s aren’t as readily available, this balance can be hard to strike.
Olive oil is made up of far more omega-6s than omega-3s, so some argue that consuming it makes that ideal ratio even harder to achieve. But using it in moderation simply isn’t enough to cause an imbalance because the total amount of omega-6s is still quite small when compared with those other omega-6-rich foods mentioned above.
This is still a good reminder to choose your omega-6 sources wisely. They are essential and while some, like sunflower oil, are rich sources of vitamin E and other nutrients, others are packed with inflammatory nasties (yep, I’m talking about processed foods and animal products). Also, make sure you’re getting sufficient omega-3s by including ground flaxseed, flax oil, chia seeds and walnuts in your meals.
Criticism #3: Vegetable oils are unsafe at high heat.
Prolonged high temperatures can cause certain oils to break down and produce potentially toxic, cancer-causing compounds such as lipid peroxides and aldehydes. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats (flax, canola, soybean, safflower and sunflower) are most prone to this kind of oxidative damage. So while those oils are great for salads, raw meals and dishes that are heated quickly at lower temps (like simmered soups), they’re not the best choice for most cooking.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t cook with oil at all—you just need to use the right kind! Olive, grapeseed and avocado oils are actually quite stable at high heat. The fats in these oils are primarily monounsaturated, making them lower in those polyunsaturated fats we talked about above. They also have high smoke points, making them great choices for the majority of cooking methods. Olive oil has a smoke point between 374-406°F (190-208°C), grapeseed oil has a smoke point of 420°F (216°C) and avocado oil’s smoke point is around 500°F (260°C). Plus, olive oil and avocado oil are rich in antioxidants (vitamin E among others), which actually work to prevent the oxidative damage that can occur when an oil is heated past its smoke point.
Keep in mind: Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than refined olive oil, so it shouldn’t be used for prolonged cooking over high heat. Some even say that it should be limited to use in salad dressings and simmered dishes like soups and pastas. Not only will extra virgin olive oil smoke more quickly, but its flavonoids and nutrients will degrade faster than those in refined olive oil, which has had its impurities removed.
Criticism #4: Oils may promote weight gain because they’re 100% fat.
Dietary fat contains 9 calories per gram vs. carbohydrates and protein, which have just 4 calories per gram, making it the richest source of calories available. Even a gram of alcohol has fewer calories than fat (seven, to be exact!). For this reason, people often blame fat (and oil by association) for promoting weight gain or getting in the way of healthy weight management.
While it’s true that vegetable oils are processed foods made up of 100 percent fat, that doesn’t make them 100 percent bad for you! Including oils in your diet can make meals more satisfying. Plus, consuming some added fats in the form of oil can help keep hunger at bay longer than if you go oil-free (study). Many of us have personal experience with this—when I was going through my low-fat phase in the 90s (along with the rest of the US!), I was ALWAYS hungry!
When it comes to appetite control, satiety and body weight, coconut oil is especially helpful because it contains something called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are used almost immediately by the liver for energy and are very rarely stored as body fat. They can also keep your metabolism (your calorie-burning machinery) running faster for a longer period of time than other fatty acids (study). Take that, hunger!
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet and it’s important to follow a plan that works best for you. Because oil is so calorie-dense, giving it up (or being more conscious about measuring out a moderate amount) is what helps some people maintain or achieve their goal weight—and that’s great! If you do end up going oil-free, just make sure you’re getting those healthy fats elsewhere—I’ve included tips to help you do so later on in this post.
Eight years ago, I followed a popular vegan doctor’s no added fat/oil way of eating for better health. I did this for a year. I was pretty much hungry all. the. time. I didn’t need to lose weight and in fact lost too much weight and size, including precious muscle. I was 55 then, not a good time for losing muscle mass which has been very difficult to increase since then. I learned a lot with that experience. I’m much happier using oil in moderation (food is SO much tastier!) along with avocados, hemp hearts, and nuts/seeds.
So happy you found a balance that works for you, Carrie! Sending you lots of love. xo!
Please see Dr Campbell’s take on oils. They’re not a whole food, therefore not a part of a whole foods lifestyle. Campbell center for Nutrition Studies has several references on why to skip oil all together. We use avocado and water or broth to make out plants taste yummy.
Hi Jeanne! I’m the nutrition director here at KrisCarr.com. Thank you so much for pointing out the important work of Dr. Campbell. It’s true that oils are processed and if you choose to avoid them, that is completely fine. We choose to include them in our diets here at Team Crazy Sexy because they carry some nutritional benefit when eaten in moderation and we also find that they really make plant-based meals more flavorful and satisfying. But, like we said in the article, you don’t *have to* include oils to have a nutritionally balanced plant-based diet. Choose what works for you! xo – Jen
So, I’m guessing that you are convinced that T Colin Campbell Phd, Caldwell Esselstyn MD, Michael Greger MD, and Dean Ornish MD, after decades of research, are incorrect about the deleterious effects of extracted oils. Is that right?
Hi Anne! I’m the nutrition director here at KrisCarr.com, and we are not meaning to discredit the work of plant-based health proponents who also recommend avoiding oils. As we said in the article, it’s important to interpret the information as it makes sense for you and your health, especially as you follow your doctor’s recommendations.
In putting together this article, we combed through all the arguments for and against oils as well as the research supporting both sides to make our conclusions. We haven’t found convincing research to recommend avoiding all plant oils completely, but rather that including the healthier ones in moderation may have health benefits as well as improve the long-term sustainability of a plant-based diet.
The argument against oil as it affects endothelial function is one that we are keeping a close eye on. For now, based on a large meta-analysis published in 2015 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586551/), the conclusion is that olive oil may benefit endothelial function and markers of inflammation. But, we will keep you posted as more research unfolds. Hope that helps! xo – Jen
Interesting how Southern Europeans, who pretty much live on olive oil, have been thriving on oil for centuries as they are one of the longest living, healthiest people on the planet.
Kris, thank you so much for this thorough, well researched, and informative article. It can be confusing to wade through all of the nutrition information that is out there, and your article really helped to clarify the role of oil in our overall health. I appreciate your time and effort in providing your readers with such excellent and clear information! Thank you so much for all that you do to improve the lives of others. Have a great day!
SO glad to hear this helped you, Suzanne! You just put a big smile on my face 🙂 Love ya!
Hi Kris! You mentioned soy oil is one of the vegetable oils not great for cooking at high temperatures, and can break down and produce potentially toxic, cancer-causing compounds such as lipid peroxides and aldehydes. I’m asking for myself and for my dog, who is a 12 year old Lab-Husky mix. I do cook burgers for both my dog and myself using soy oil. The veterinarian nutritionist that created the meal plans for my pup suggested cooking beef with a soy-based oil. Now I’m a bit concerned about using soy oil, do you think changing over to Coconut oil would be a better choice for high-heat cooking?
Hi Mary Ann! I’m the nutrition director here at Crazy Sexy Wellness so I’ll chime in for Kris. Despite its rich content of polyunsaturated fats, the smoke point of soybean oil is still quite high and cooking your burgers may be well under that temperature. If you don’t see smoke forming or the oil burning while cooking, you’re probably in good shape. If you do find that your soybean oil is smoking, we’d recommend using avocado oil which has an especially high smoke point. As a side note, cooking plant-based burgers can be a fabulous option because you only need to cook them to make them warm vs. cooking beef burgers where you need to cook them to a fully-cooked temp for safe consumption. Hope that helps! – Jen
Wonderful as always. So what about ghee? Is that still considered butter even though the dairy proteins have been removed? There’s supposed to be so many benefits to ghee. How healthy is it in your eyes?
Hi Eli! I’m the nutrition director here at KrisCarr.com so I’ll jump in for Kris. While ghee has shown some potential for carcinogen detoxification in animal studies, human research is still necessary to prove this possibility. Ghee is also quite high in saturated animal fat–the kind that studies have shown to be especially risky for heart health. You may want to try extra-firm tofu in place of ghee in Indian dishes. I make a Palak Paneer with tofu that is a household hit 🙂 Hope that helps! xo – Jen
Hi Jen, I think you’re confusing ghee with paneer? Ghee is butter-like and is added to rotis and sweet dishes and pretty much any curry to make it taste yummier whereas paneer is a block that looks like tofu.
I’m really surprised to see “canola oil” in your recipe as most health professionals say absolutely not?
Hi Kathleen! I’m the nutrition director here at Crazy Sexy Wellness, so I’ll chime in on canola. The biggest criticism of canola oil is that it’s highly processed (as in, you don’t eat canola otherwise!) and much of it comes from genetically modified crops. But, if you can find organic, expeller-pressed canola oil, it actually has a wonderful breakdown of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids while still being safe at higher temperatures. Not to mention the fact that it is a flavorless oil which can come in handy in cooking and baking. Hope that helps! xo – Jen
Can’t find organic non virgin olive oil or organic avocado oil. Any suggestions where to find them? So far, I haven’t found either in Whole Foods or high end grocery stores in Florida. Thank you for your help.
Hey Carole! If you can’t find it in your local stores, I’d try Amazon or Thrive Market—they usually have great options. xo!
My husband has high cholesterol. Is cooking with coconut oil safe for him? I also use soy free earth balance spread. Is it as bad as margarine?
Hi Roz! I’m the nutrition director here at KrisCarr.com so I’ll chime in on coconut oil and Earth Balance. Because of your husband’s high cholesterol levels, I would recommend using a cooking oil that may in fact help to lower his cholesterol, like extra light olive oil or avocado oil. Coconut oil probably won’t raise his LDL like animal-based saturated fats do, but you might as well try an oil that is better proven to lower LDL. As for Earth Balance, it’s certainly better than margarine that’s hydrogenated, but I wouldn’t consider it a health food. Use it sparingly for flavor. Hope that helps! xo – Jen
Kris, thank you so much for writing this post. You are amazing! I am very thin, but have tried to make the “no added fats plant based whole foods diet” work for me. I have listened to the plant based doctors and have been terrified of oil as well as nuts, seeds and avocados. I have lost a lot of weight and sadly also a lot of muscle mass (I’m 51). I found that I had to eat a lot of food to just try to maintain my weight, which sadly also gave me a lot of digestive issues. Do you have any suggestions of how to rebuild some muscle and my digestion (do you have recommendations for good supplements)? One thing I have learned on my journey: every body is a little different and we all have to figure out what works for us.
Hi Brittany! I’m the nutrition director here with Kris, so I’ll jump in. You’re so right that everyone is different and you need to listen to your body to figure out your own journey. As for building muscle, you may find that including both a pre- and post-workout meal with 10-15 grams of protein each may help you build muscle. Plus, workouts should include weight-bearing exercise at least 3x per week (as allowed by your doc of course). For plant-based protein ideas, check out our blog here: https://kriscarr.com/blog/my-crazy-sexy-guide-to-plant-based-protein/
And for info on digestive issues as well as supplement recs, this one is for you!: https://kriscarr.com/blog/best-probiotic-foods-prebiotic-foods-for-gut-health/
Hope that helps and best of health to you! xo – Jen
Thanks for all this great info but one thing that I’d like to add is what happens when you bake with oil?? Many dessert recipes call for a vegetable oil and well baking is at high heat. Thoughts??
Hi Stacey! I’m the nutrition director here at Crazy Sexy Wellness, so I’ll chime in. Baking is considered “high heat,” so the same guidelines apply. You’ll want oils rich in monounsaturated fats, but obviously olive oil won’t be good in muffins or brownies, so you’ll want a more neutral oil like grapeseed or organic, non-GMO canola. Coconut oil can also be a great option for baking as long as the coconut flavor makes sense. Hope that helps and happy baking! xo – Jen
I suggest reading The Starch Solution by Dr. John McDougall.
Hi Brodie! Thank you for the suggested reading. As we mentioned in the article, it’s important to choose the diet that works best for you, especially if a specific regimen has been recommended by your doctor. Plenty of people thrive on a low-oil diet and many others prefer to include the healthy ones in moderation. Hope that helps! – Jen (Nutrition Director at KrisCarr.com)
Very useful, Jamie! Thanks! – xo Jen (nutrition director at KrisCarr.com)
You didn`t mention whether it is good or not to cook with coconut oil. Can you please let me know.
Hi Itzia! I’m the nutrition director here at KrisCarr.com so I’ll chime in on coconut oil. Coconut oil is fairly heat-stable, but you’ll find better nutrient density with some of the other heat-stable options like avocado oil and olive oil. Plus, eventhough coconut oil contains healthy MCTs and the saturated fat in coconut is better than the saturated fat in animal fats, you still want to limit to a tablespoon or two per day. Hope that helps! xo – Jen
What about peanut butter, not peanut oil, what is your take on this as I really don’t care for the more pricier options like almond butter, cashew butter etc., of course I’m referring to natural peanut butter w/o additives.
Hi Patty! I’m the nutrition director here and a peanut butter lover, so I’ll jump in on this one! The fats in peanut butter are 50% monounsaturated and 30% polyunsaturated–primarily omega-9s. This means that natural peanut butter is a great source of healthy fats, but you’ll still want to make sure you get a good source of omega-3s daily. Also be sure to store your natural peanut butter in the fridge as the fats can go bad quickly. Cheers! xo – Jen
Thank you for all the informations !
You are incredible!
YOU are incredible, Nathalie! Mwah!
I have to tell you I am amazed. I don’t usually write comments but I had to give you credit for your sound thinking and courage to speak another possibility than most plant based diets. I am a clinical nutritionist and have been a community herbalist for 36 years so I have some familiarity with health and wellness. In 2016 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I have spent the last 3 years diving deep into what is going to support me in becoming really well and healthy – longevity healthy. Much of my research has been trying to sort out the best diet for me. It has been chaotic sorting through all the many contradictory theories and research. I have finally settled on the Mediterranean diet but the “oil question” has been a real sticking point. Ornish, Fuhrman , and others vilify oils and that makes me afraid to eat them. But in trying to go oil free I felt like just giving up. First, because I ended up not liking food very much any more -but especially because it did not make any sense to me to totally exclude things like olive oil when it is a major part of one of the key longevity cultures. I found it hard to reconcile this discrepancy. I could not get over the conclusion that the Mediterranean longevity cultures have been doing it wrong all these many decades by including olive oil as a part of their diet. My poor brain was in turmoil about it. I know all of the research you are citing here and could not reconcile how this research could fit with the no oil proclamation. I am grateful for your clear and researched based article mapping out a viable option for another path for a healthy plant based diet supported by research but more importantly supported by seeing that you have been able to thrive using this moderate and healthy oils choice. It gives me support to go with what my intuition, my body, and my mind have been showing me that this moderate healthy oil path is the path for me. It best supports me and nourishes me. Now I can eat my favorite salad with my favorite organic extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing and relax and enjoy it and not be petrified that I am absolutely hurting myself. After reading your article, I am more confident in my sense of things, more relaxed, and feel better able to make good diet choices and thus I will be more nourished all around. Be well!
MaryAnn! I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me. I’m so grateful to be able to support you on your health journey. I’m sending you tons of love and healing light, honey! xo
As always your comments/answers are always informative & uplifting! Love Kris & the Crazy Sexy You team for all your hard work, research & courage to share important information.
So glad you found this helpful, Rebecca! Thanks for your kind words 🙂
Kris and Jen,
Thank you for clearing all this up! I’ve been wanting research-backed info from people I hold in high regard (most definitely you and the Crazy Sexy team!) to help me make an informed decision about this controversial topic. I find oil makes my plant-based meals more flavorful and satisfying. I now feel more confident in my choice to include oils in my diet. Thanks for taking the time to do the research and write this article!
Cheers! (Insert tall glass of kombucha emoji)
So glad this info helped you feel more confident, Katie! Love ya!
Oh my goodness! THANK YOU! This has been one of the most controversial subjects when studying natural health. But, olive oil was used in the Bible days. I’ve been praying for an answer; literally over this last week! I don’t know how to thank you enough for all the research and time that it took for you to address this issue. I’m whole food plant based and have been trying to be “no oil” but just don’t feel satisfied at all without the small amount of oil/fat that you recommend in your plan. I get unrealistic cravings. I feel such relief….So excited to be starting again. Sending love and best wishes to the entire team and all the other Crazy Sexy “You-ers . xxoo
Sending love right back at ya, Carolyn! xo