So, you jumped on the veggie bandwagon. You eat more greens and whole foods. Maybe you’ve gone vegetarian. Or vegan.
And now you hear people say you should cut oil from your diet.
No oil? Isn’t olive oil good for you?
That depends, says Greg Stacey, a Spectrum Health dietitian. It’s complicated.
“There’s a large number of vegans who do not use olive oil at all, as they view it as a processed and refined food,” Stacey says.
You can hang onto your fancy oil decanter, however. He’s not about to swipe it.
For some folks, switching to olive oil is the step toward a healthier diet, particularly if they use it to replace saturated animal fat and trans fat shortenings.
But it’s worth paying attention to the issues raised by food-as-medicine advocates who recommend going oil-free. They include Caldwell Esselsteyn Jr., MD, the author of “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” and John McDougall, MD, as well as the website Forks Over Knives.
Sue Stauffacher, a plant-based chef and instructor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has embraced cooking with no―or minimal―oil. She predicts the approach will become more mainstream.
“Oil-free is the new gluten-free,” she says. “The reason is because of obesity and the diseases related to obesity, like high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Giving up oil does not mean sacrificing flavor, she adds. She recently consulted with Grand Rapids restaurant Cherie Inn in developing vegan, oil-free dishes to add to its regular menu.
Restaurant owner Michael Kulczyk, believes his eatery is the first in the area to offer a vegan, oil-free menu. Although a meat-eater, Kulczyk said he’s interested in healthy eating.
“Since March 1, I lost 97 pounds strictly by cleaning up my diet,” he says.
When he unveiled the new menu recently, an enthusiastic crowd of over 100 diners showed up.
“Everyone was so grateful and complimentary,” he says. “The food tasted amazing.”
Stacey discussed why some folks choose to eat less oil—or cut it out altogether.
Calories and calorie density
“Oil is fat,” he says. “I would never refer to oil as a health food.”
Humans do need fat in their diets, he acknowledges―to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and for healthy brain function, hormone production and cellular structure. Fat stores in the body provide padding, energy reserves and temperature control.
However, most Americans already consume plenty of fat, Stacey says. They don’t need to boost consumption by adding an extra swirl of oil to a dish.
“When it comes to fat, our recommendation for fat intake is about 20 to 35 percent of calories,” he says. “The average intake of fat is 33 percent, so we are in the upper echelon of that.”
And most Americans have plenty of fat stores on hand. Sixty-four percent of adult females and 74 percent of adult males are overweight or obese. Obesity raises risks of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
Oils don’t fill the belly and they pack a lot of calories compared to other foods, ounce for ounce, Stacey adds.
Cooking oils deliver 4,000 calories per pound. By comparison, meat and cheese have about 1,000 calories per pound, while vegetables have 65 to 190; fruits 140 to 420; and beans, peas and lentils about 310 to 780.
“Since we already are eating enough fat, (oil is) a good thing to cut from our diet,” Stacey says. “If you’re going to lower fat, oil is one of the best ways to do it. It offers the least nutritional bang for the buck.”
You can still get fats from whole food sources, such as nuts, avocados, whole grains and leafy greens.
Oil is not a ‘whole food’
Another issue with plant oils is that they are processed foods.
“They are significantly different from their whole-food source,” Stacey says. “Comparing a plant oil to the plant itself is not that different from comparing corn syrup to corn.”
In eating a whole food source, such as nuts, avocados or olives, people consume the protein, antioxidants and phytonutrients along with the fat. But some of those nutritious elements disappear when a plant is processed into oil.
For those who use oil, Stacey recommends an organic first cold-press oil, sourced from plants free of pesticides. It should retain as much of the phytonutrients as possible.
Steps to take
Although he does not consider plant oil a health food, Stacey says it can be part of a healthy diet.
“If most of your fat comes from processed foods and butter and dairy fat, if you switch to olive oil, that’s a great change,” he says. “It might be step one.
“Step two might be to decrease the olive oil and increase flax seed, fish and leafy green vegetables.”
At the same time, he advises eating whole-food carbohydrates. Replace the Twinkies, white bread and juice with potatoes, whole grain oatmeal and beans.
A good rule of thumb, he says, is to eat these four foods every day: beans, greens, berries and flax seed.
Stauffacher adds that cooks should be aware of how much oil they are using and look for ways to minimize it. A quarter-cup adds 500 calories.
“I eat a little oil,” Stauffacher says. She does not avoid it entirely, but she has learned ways to make delicious dishes without it.
She offers these tips for oil-free cooking to get you started:
Sauté with a little broth, wine or beer, rather than oil. Add just a little liquid at a time so you will sauté rather than steam the vegetables. You just need enough moisture in the pan until the vegetables release their own juices.
Skip the pat of butter when cooking rice. Instead, try toasting rice in a dry pan before cooking. This works for other whole grains, even pasta. The roasting adds a depth of flavor, without calories.
Use ceramic cookware. You can skip the oil if you use the non-stick pans. She bakes an oil-free waffle in a ceramic waffle iron.
Bake with parchment paper. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and you won’t need oil when you bake rolls. This also works when roasting vegetables, like squash. Put the cut side down on the parchment paper so it will get blistery but won’t dry out.
Experiment. Cooking without oil will take practice. You can turn to vegan cooking websites and YouTube videos for help.
“With any new skill, you’re going to make some mistakes,” Stauffacher said. “You will get some stuck food. But keep playing with it.”
“No oil doesn’t mean no fat,” she adds. “But it’s fat in a dose that is relative to the dish. And it’s filled with grains and legumes, so you get full.