Friday, March 1, 2013

More than Just Empty Calories: the Harmful Effects of Consuming Oil.

My master’s thesis advisor once told me the worst thing you can say about a scholar is, “they haven’t changed their mind in thirty years… they had everything figured out from the time their dissertation was submitted.” It meant the person stopped thinking, and as a result, refused to grow any further. Academically and personally, I’ve always been taught to challenge this stagnant way of thinking.

This approach informs my nutrition beliefs as well. As new studies come out, as I read more, as I learn more about specific topics, my ideas and opinions evolve as well. Only one year ago, readers will recall many of my recipes called for the use of high-quality (expensive) “healthy” oils such as cold-pressed Extra Virgin Olive oil, Flax seed oil, and Hemp seed oil. 

However, I now believe oil, as a general rule, should be avoided for optimal health and performance. 

Oil is the most caloric dense food available and all oils are highly processed, stripping away any nutrients that the whole food once contained. To top this off, all oils are acidic to our bodies and increase inflammation.

I’ve already given my comments on coconut oil, and so now I’m attempting to present the evidence that helped switch me off from all “healthy” oils.

Fish Oil
Philosophically I’m against fish oil. I do not believe that any animal should be harmed or exploited for our own benefit. That said, it is nearly impossible to avoid hearing about the benefits one can gain by including a daily dose of fish oil into one’s diet. 

However, similar to coconut oil, this is all marketing. Fish and fish oil do contain long-chain ALA and DHA, a type of fatty acid which is not found in the plant kingdom. The good news, however, is most people’s bodies are capable of converting Omega 3s into these other types of fatty acids. So a person following a healthy vegan diet doesn’t have to worry too much about this, assuming they are consuming Omega 3s. Some of the best sources of Omega 3s include ground flax seed, hemp seeds, and of course chia seeds (which for the record has 8 times the amount of Omega 3 as salmon and none of the cholesterol or mercury!). Fish oil also contains Omega 3s. However, fish get their source of Omega 3s the same way humans get theirs: by eating plants. As such fish is not as reliable of a source as just eating the plants. Furthermore, the heating process needed to kill bacteria found in fish also renders much of the fatty acids inaccessible to our bodies.

Still others claim the reason to supplement with fish oil is because it is good for the heart. Many physicians and patients believe that fish oil supplements will improve health, and more specifically, reduce the risk of dying of a heart attack. This is a claim we will see again shortly about olive oil. Basically, the pro-fish oil industry argues that because Omega 3s thin the blood, and since fish oil has Omega 3s in it, fish oil will thin the blood and help reduce one’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Although, hypothetically, these supplements should be beneficial, a recent “analysis of only the highest quality studies (blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled trials) showed no effect on cardiovascular outcomes.” This means the speculative benefits from the blood-thinning effects of fish oils fail to help reduce the risk of a cardiovascular event from occurring. Essentially, fish oil is unable to reverse the harm that is caused by eating the Standard American Diet.

Besides failing to protect our circulatory system, there are several other dangers associated with the consumption of fish oil. Since it thins the blood, the risk of generalized bleeding increases. This makes common day accidents such as a car collision or a bike crash potentially deadly. Fish oil has also been demonstrated to suppress the immune system and has been linked to accelerated tumor growth. To top it off, fish oil can have adverse effects on one’s cholesterol by raising LDL “bad” cholesterol levels in patients with already elevated cholesterol and causes deterioration in glucose tolerance, or in other words, making people more susceptible to diabetes.  

As if this wasn't bad enough, nearly all fish oils on the market today have been found to contain polychlorinated biphenyl or PCBs as well as DDT. If you think back to your twentieth century American history class from college, DDT was the subject of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The use of the chemical was banned shortly after the book’s publication. However, studies show it is still in the food supply - via fish - half a century later. These chemicals were found to be in moderate and even dangerous levels in distilled and “clean” fish oils.

Finally, the environmental impact of fish oil should also be considered. In a report published in 2009 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal researchers found that fish oils were unsustainable by today’s fisheries. The world’s fisheries are already struggling to meet the rising demand for fish, and the article suggests if people began meeting the recommended dose of long-chain Omega fatty acids with fish oils there could be “dire consequences” for the world's oceans. Fish farming is not a viable option either since each farmed fish consumes up to 5 pounds of wild caught fish per pound of farmed fish. This wasteful inefficiency is only further depleting our oceans.

Olive Oil


Since most of my readers are vegan, they are probably thinking, "glad I take heart healthy olive oil instead of disgusting fish oil!" We’ve all heard about how healthy the Mediterranean diet is. In fact the New York Times just posted an article claiming that, “30 percent of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil.”Unfortunately the truth is, olive oil is just as harmful to our health as any other oil.

Well, first let’s point out that the “Mediterranean” is not a specific place but rather a broad term covering a large geographic area that is inhabited by numerous different peoples who eat widely varying diets. As Jeff Novick, RD, pointed out, the earliest studies done on the “Mediterranean diet”  actually found that the people on the isle of Crete were the longest living out of the entire Mediterranean area. (Diets of three different regions of Italy were also studied and these regions were found to have twice the rate of cardiac disease.) However, Novick is also quick to point out that at the time the data for the study was collected, the people of Crete were living in poverty and were getting most of their calories from vegetables they grew in their own gardens and were still subsisting at near starvation levels. Since that time, nearly every Mediterranean nation’s- including Crete’s- consumption of meat and dairy has risen, and not surprisingly so has their rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer. Their rates of coronary heart disease have also sharply risen.

The more recent idea about the “healthfulness” of the Mediterranean way of eating is based off a few studies conducted towards the end of the 90s, which divided 605 subjects who had already survived their first heart attacks into two groups. One group was asked to consume a “Mediterranean diet” or lots of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, dairy and fish and only small amounts of red meat – this diet amounted to nearly 30 percent of daily calories from fat. The other group ate their standard diets. The results? The control group (those who ate the Standard American Diet- on average around 34-38% fat) was twice as likely to suffer a cardiac event as those following the Mediterranean guidelines.

As Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, points out, those eating the olive oil heavy diet did do significantly better than those eating the Standard American Diet, but at the end of four years, nearly 25 percent of the patients eating the “heart healthy” diet had died or experienced a new cardiovascular event. That means for ¼ of the people, the diet failed to work. This is a troublingly high statistic especially when compared to Dr. Esselstyn’s work on the benefits of a real low fat diet (approximately 10% of total consumed calories) during which not a single patient had a second major cardiac event after twenty years and many of them also actually began to reverse their cardiovascular disease! It should be emphasized that this low-fat, completely oil-free vegan diet is the only way to reverse heart disease- no other diet or medication has been shown to do this.

Still we cannot ignore the fact that some people who followed this style of eating had reduced rates of death from coronary heart disease as well as certain cancers. Although these health benefits are often attributed to olive oil alone (simply because American's assume the Mediterranean diet simply means pour olive oil on top of their normal foods), it is actually the overall dietary pattern that was health promoting – the Mediterranean diet focuses on unrefined plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains and only small amounts of meat and fish. In a more recent study which reexamined the Mediterranean diet, the authors found that olive oil consumption had no significant reduction in overall rates of death after studying 22,000 adults over several years. The study concluded that adding olive oil to one’s diet will significantly increase the amount of calories being consumed without giving any nutrients or other health benefits.

Olive oil is not a heart healthy food – its high content of monounsaturated fats simply makes it less harmful than saturated or trans fats. However, it is still 14% saturated fat. Because even this relatively high amount is lower than what is found in animal products, which are much higher in saturated fats, olive oil can reduce LDL cholesterol if olive oil is consumed instead of higher animal fat foods. When olive oil is substituted for animal fats, including butter, cheese, and meats, benefits occur because you are simply consuming less dangerous fats. Olive oil in itself, though, is not health-promoting. 

Even this is not always the case. When scientists examined angiograms with one-year follow-up angiograms in persons with coronary artery disease, they found that the disease had progressed just as much in those eating monounsaturated fats from olive oil as those eating saturated fats from animals and processed foods.

The most recent study which the New York Times article mentioned above and caused a stir about, is misleading, to say the least. In a response by Dr. Esselstyn, he pointed out that all the dietary groups in the study had almost equal facility promoting the growth and clinical appearance of cardiovascular disease in those who at the study’s onset did not have this illness and noted that earlier this month the British Medical Journal updated the randomized Sydney Heart Study, which confirms that the addition of oils worsened the outlook for cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, as Dr. Dean Ornish, a well-regarded physician who worked with President Bill Clinton, pointed out the control group did not follow a low-fat diet as prescribed by the American Heart Association or the much lower fat diet prescribed by Ornish and Esselstyn. So while the new study claims the Mediterranean diet is healthier than a low-fat diet, the study actually found that the Mediterranean diet (again a diet that is based off fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and includes some olive oil) is healthier than the Standard American Diet- and there is no real surprise there. The most troubling thing with this study is the fact that the emphasis of the study was placed on the consumption of olive oil rather than fruit and vegetables- the real reason some in the Mediterranean enjoy good health.
Finally, many vegan athletes argue that due to a high volume of training, oil is needed simply for calories. They claim that due to their intense training load, the density of calories found in oil is the only way they can consume enough to maintain their weight. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are all the calories needed accessible from whole foods (just look at raw foodist and ultra runner Michael Arnstein), but the consumption of oil may actually be hindering athletic performance. Athletes depend on oxygen-rich blood easily flowing to their muscles, however in a study conducted at he University of Maryland School of Medicine, researchers found that eating bread dipped in olive oil reduced the dilation in the artery running down the forearm for as many as 6 hours after the oil was consumed. This suggests temporary injury to the endothelial cells, which are responsible for producing nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide helps dilate the arteries, allowing more blood to flow more easily. (The study was repeated multiple times and any high fat meal produced similar blood restrictions). As such, consuming oil before a workout will make the body have to work even harder to ensure the muscles get the blood they require. Consuming oils after a hard workout can delay the body’s ability to recover.

Similar to fish oil, olive oil also has a major impact on the environment. To meet current demand, according to a study conducted by the European Union, olives are grown on intense plantation-style farms. These farms cause soil erosion, run-off to water bodies, degradation of habitats and landscapes, and exploitation of scare water resources. Inappropriate weed-control and soil-management practices, combined with the inherently high risk of erosion in many olive farming areas, is leading to desertification on a wide scale in some of the main producing regions, as well as considerable run-off of soils and agro-chemicals into water bodies. And since it takes over 1,300 olives to produce one liter of olive oil, it is a highly inefficient system. When it is remembered that olive oil offers nothing other than trace amounts of minerals, it becomes apparent that it is a poor use of resources.

So before drenching your kale in olive oil, adding a tablespoon of coconut oil to your smoothie, or taking your nightly tablespoon of fish oil, keep in mind, as Dr. McDougall always says, “The fat you eat, is the fat you wear.” Rather than consuming these harmful fats, instead, focus on getting your daily needs of EFAs by taking 2 tablespoons daily of ground flax seed, chia seeds, or hemp seeds. Simply mixing them into your meals. They are practically tasteless and are packed full of nutrients which are not found in heavily-processed oils. To top it off these seeds have only a fraction of the calories found in oil! 

Stop back soon for a post on tips to help eliminate oils form your cooking. 
Happy March!

D Jenkins J Sievernpiper and D Pauly, et al. “Are Dietary Recommendations for Fish Oils Sustainable?,” Canadian Medical Association Journal. March 2009.

DF Rawn. K. Breakell  V Verigin V, H Nicolidakis and M Feeley. Persistent organic pollutants in fish oil supplements on the Canadian market: polychlorinated biphenyls and organochlorine insecticides. J Food Sci. 2009 Jan-Feb;74(1):T14-9. 

The ORIGIN Trial Investigators n–3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Outcomes in Patients with Dysglycemia. New England Journal of Medicine July, 2012.
J. Belch and A Hill. “Evening Primrose Oil and Borage Oil in Rheumatologic Conditions,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition vol. 71 no. 1. 2000.

J. Furhman. “Is Olive Oil Healthy,”

C. Esselstyn. Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.

R. Vogel, “The Postprandial Effect of Components of the Mediterranean Diet on Endothelial Function,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2000.

J. Novick. “Dispelling Myths about Oil,” Eat Right America, 2013.

G. Beaufoy. “The Environmental Impact of Olive Oil Production in the European Union: Practical Options for Improving the Envrionmental Impact,” 2002.

G. Kolata, “Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke,” New York Times February 25, 2013.

D. Ornish, “Does a Mediterranean Diet Really Beat Low-Fat for Heart Health?” HuffPost Healthy Living February 25, 2013.


  1. Great post Anthony! I recently switched to coconut oil thinking it was way healthier than olive oil. After reading this I'd love to hear what would be the best type of oil to cook with and some ways to eliminate oils altogether!

    1. Thanks for the kind comment! I'm working on post but in general just use vegetable broth or water when you would typically use oil, or do dry pan roasting in place of sauteing. This works best with cast-iron.

    2. Read the Caldwell Esselstyn book mentioned by the author of this article. Esselstyn says to not use any oil...even moderate use of oil can cause cardiovascular disease. Like anthony said, water saute

  2. Great post! I'm going to share it! I don't understand why people think oil is so healthy. We don't use any oil and don't miss it. If inadvertantly eat something with oil we feel ill.

    1. Thanks so much myplantbasedfamily! I can't say I feel ill, but if I have too much oil, I definitely feel heavy.

  3. Great rundown Anthony on the topic of oils. I'll be sharing it on my Pursue A Healthy You Facebook page. People need to know this. I've been telling others for years that oils are not healthy. None of them. They inflict debilitating and crippling effects on the cardiovascular system leading to needless suffering by those who use them. If you get a chance I would highly recommend you check out Dr. Rick Dina's lecture on essential fatty acids. He covers the topic of fats in the human being brilliantly in a two part video series. Here's part I - Thanks again for posting your article on oils.

  4. So what would you recommend putting on salads besides oil. I'm a vegan and i eat a lot of salads, i could eat them raw, but just wondering have you guys found anything that can spice up a salad like oils can?

  5. Nice blog! Found my way here from your comments at Rich Roll. I've been practicing the McDougall Plan for years now and eliminating oil is a big part. McDougall has been preaching about the dangers of oil for 35 years, mostly to deaf ears. It is the hardest part of explaining how I eat.

    Love the OA kit!