The topic of dietary fats and oils is one of the most controversial and puzzling topics in the field of nutrition. It seems every expert has a different opinion on how much fat we should be eating, how fat impacts our health, and which foods are the healthiest source of fats. However, while everyone has different nutritional needs (and opinions) when it comes to fat consumption, we can all benefit immensely from following one very simple rule: avoid refined oils.
What are refined oils?
Refined oils are vegetable, nut, or seed oils which have been highly processed to make them more shelf-stable. Yes, all pre-made oils are processed to some degree via different extraction methods. However, refined oils are extracted using high-heat and/or toxic chemical solvents and may go through a deodorizing and bleaching process. This type of processing denatures the oils, creating trans-fatty substances. It also removes their natural vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, causing these oils to go rancid very quickly. This creates free-radical substances and contaminates them with toxic debris.
These inflammatory oils are one of the major reasons for all the pain, inflammation, and brain issues we have today. Sadly, they are affecting children as well as adults. How does this affect us, health-wise? In a few ways. When we consume refined, rancid oil it triggers the release of free radicals which create inflammation and damage the integrity of our cells, while the trans-fatty substances wreak havoc on our cardiovascular health. This is important to understand as nearly all chronic diseases, from heart disease and cancer to Parkinson’s disease and dementia, are rooted in chronic inflammation. Plus, the chemicals left over from the deodorization and bleaching process place an additional burden on our livers and other organs of detoxification. These oils are also very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which creates a whole other cascade of health issues.
The Dangers of Omega-6 fatty Acids
By nature, the plants, nuts, and seeds most commonly used for their oils are naturally high in omega-6 fatty acids. But wait…aren’t fatty acids a good thing? Yes, they are, but only when consumed in the proper proportion of omega-3 fatty acids (found in wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, etc.) to omega 6 fatty acids; which is 2:1 (2 omega 6 to 1 omega 3). Unfortunately, due to our high-refined-fat standard American diet, most people consume a daily ratio of about 15:1, which has been proven to disrupt critical biological functions, such as gene expression and brain development1, while creating or exacerbating a number of potential health problems, including2:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Neurodegenerative disease
- And other chronic diseases fueled by inflammation
Common Refined Oils to Toss (and where they hide out)
Refined oils are sneaky because they hide in obvious places, like that big gallon of Crisco cooking oil, and not-so-obvious places, like your local natural foods store. Plus, many of these oils are still considered “healthful” by entities like the American Heart Association, even though they are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. We hope new research will start to change some experts’ opinions on the matter, but until then you’ll need to protect yourself by examining food labels (even if they’re labeled “organic,” “all-natural,” “Non-GMO,” or “heart-healthy”).
Refined oils to avoid/toss, include:
- Canola oil (we’ll write an entire post on this oil, it’s one of the worst)
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
While it’s not high in omega-6, we also recommend avoiding palm oil, due to concerns surrounding deforestation, animal welfare, and climate change. Most vegetable oils on the market are a blend of those listed above.
Replace refined oils with these healthier fats
We recommend using high quality, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil for salads and low-heat cooking. We also love cold-pressed walnut oil for salad dressings.
We recommend using organic virgin coconut oil for low to medium-heat cooking.
We recommend using organic ghee which is suitable for most people who avoid dairy because it is virtually lactose and casein free. Ghee also has a higher smoke point when compared to butter, so it doesn’t burn as quickly. This is perfect for sautéing or frying foods. Butter can smoke and burn at 350°F (177°C), but ghee can withstand heat up to 485°F (252°C).
We recommend using organic butter for baking and cooking.
This is an anti-inflammatory oil used in Korean and medicinal cooking with a smoke point of about 370°F. Buy in glass.
We love avocado oil for high heat cooking, salad & just about everything else! While we prefer organic, finding Non-GMO avocado oil is ok too since avocados are on EWG’s Clean 15 list.
Hemp seeds/hemp oil
For snacking and salad, we love high-quality hemp seeds and hemp oil. We also love flaxseeds and fresh flaxseed oil for salads!
STORING YOUR OILS
To ensure your oils remain fresh and free-radical-free, we recommend buying them in small, dark bottles and keeping them in the refrigerator. For oils that congeal when chilled, like olive oil, you can leave a small amount out on the counter for ease of use. The exception is coconut oil, which is naturally shelf-stable/antifungal/antibacterial, etc. and will not go rancid quickly.
But wait, can I still eat nuts and seeds?
Yes! Whole foods should always remain a part of a healthy diet, and plenty of studies have shown it’s perfectly safe and beneficial to enjoy moderate amounts of nuts and seeds in their whole form3. Yes, you’ll still get some omega-6 fatty acids, but not in dangerous amounts as you would from consuming their pure oil. Experts generally recommend a handful of nuts or seeds a day. And if you buy in bulk, be sure to store them in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness.
What to do when eating out
You can pretty much bet restaurant food is cooked in refined oils. So speak up! Call ahead and ask what oils they are using to cook their foods. Be specific and ensure they are not using blends if they do claim they use olive oil, etc. Request that your food be cooked in butter or olive oil. It is absolutely crucial that we stand up for our health and make requests of the restaurants we love so dearly. The more we request that healthy oils be used, the more likely these changes are going to be made all around.
If you are in a situation where it’s impossible to avoid a restaurant using refined oils, it is a good idea to avoid fried foods and salad dressings. You can also protect your cells by taking a little extra vitamin E (a natural antioxidant which is stripped from most oils) and omega-3s (such as and EFA supplement) when eating out or traveling.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to food and nutrition, but working to avoid refined oils is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. And our hope is that by continuing to hold restaurants and food manufacturers to better standards, we will be able to see lasting change in the industry.