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Cooking Teacher

Oil or No Oil-That Is the Question

Not a day goes by that I am not asked about oil. I have to say that while I am honored and thrilled to answer anyone’s questions at any time, this one makes me sad.

Sad? Yes, sad.

You see, from my perspective, eating a diet of densely nutritious and yummy foods results in robust wellness. With that kind of vitality, we should be living our lives to their fullest potential, free of niggling fears and anxieties.

And yet, a fear of something as simple, wonderful, nutritious and enjoyable as oil is stealing our joy. I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how it feels to me.

I know some of you may take issue with some of what I am about to say, but I feel so strongly about the confusion and anxiety being created that I wanted to weigh in since many of you have expressed concern and a desire to discuss this. I am all about what you want to discuss and discover.

Let me begin by saying that, in my humble opinion…as much as I love and respect many of the experts involved in this controversy, I think that eschewing oil is ill advised for our long-term health and wellness. I am buoyed in my confidence to say this by studies and by ancient wisdom.

How did this fear of oil…and eventual indictment begin? Well, in truth, some of us in the macrobiotic movement have to carry the water on this one. Back in the day, when a macrobiotic approach to eating was embraced largely by a population struggling with life-threatening diseases, it was often recommended that oil was among the foods eliminated or minimized as people attempted to re-boot their health with food as their primary tool. Some people would eliminate oil for a couple of weeks and some a couple of months, until the conditions began to shift in the direction of health.

Over time, as disease worsened in its frequency and complexity, oil became the scapegoat for all that ailed us. Fortunately, this little blip in the trajectory of macrobiotic nutrition was relatively short-lived. Sure, there are still old-school thinkers who create a fear of food in people, but they aren’t really representative of the movement anymore.

In recent times, however, some experts have decided that extra virgin olive oil is the root of all nutritional evil and is the cause for most of what ails us. And while they have great cause for concern as they see patients with severe cases of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, this is where things become problematic for me. To put a target on the back of extra virgin olive oil seems-at best, silly and at worst, bad advice.

Let me explain.

Extra virgin olive oil dates back to 3500BC with evidence of its use in Crete and other ancient civilizations. From lighting our way to nourishing the human body, extra virgin olive oil has played as key role in human civilization. This ancient food has delivered health and wellness for thousands of years.

Our modern diet is rife with ingredients not fit for human consumption. And while current experts do, in fact, advocate whole foods, plant-based eating, their fixation on olive oil has me baffled and a little annoyed, to be frank. With all the health problems we face as Americans; with all the processed junk food that steals our collective  health, there are lots of candidates for the prize as worst food for human health. Olive oil has no place on that list.

With the stellar history of olive oil and its connection to health and civilization, it’s off the mark, not to mention unhealthy in the long view, to suggest that people eschew all added fats, but particularly extra virgin olive oil.

Now before you go off the rails, I am completely and painfully aware of the Agro-Mafia and the scams they run selling people rancid or blended seed and nut oils, calling them extra virgin olive oil. They can get away with this because people love bargains; we love to think we are getting something great for very little money. My grandfather used to say that if something seemed too good to be true, it was. He was right. If you find a vat of olive oil in some big box store with a label calling it “extra virgin” at mere pennies an ounce, think twice before buying. It’s not the real deal.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. What’s the real problem with eschewing added oil? As I said earlier, there are times when various health conditions demand that a person eliminate oils and fats from their diet as a way to “re-boot” their system and aid the body in restoring health and wellness. But this is a temporary methodology used to help in healing; it’s not meant to be the new normal.

Giving up added fats and oils in our diet results in a myriad of imbalances in my experience, the most important of which is the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble nutrients like Vitamins A, D, E, and K. Unlike water-soluble vitamins, these vitamins dissolve in fat and are stored in body tissues.

(Water-soluble vitamins and nutrients dissolve in water, providing the continuous supply your body needs from the foods you eat, from the supplements you take or from a combination of foods and supplements. Vitamins C, B12, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, tryptophan, pantothenic acid, biotin, and folic acid are all classified in the water-soluble category.)

A new study has revealed that eating fresh veggies with some added fat, like oil-based dressings can help the body absorb valuable nutrients such as lycopene and beta-carotene, both key in helping to prevent cancer and heart disease. Interestingly, the study also showed that eating veggies without added fat may deprive your body of the full benefit of these nutrients.

It works like this. Vegetables are virtually fat free in most cases, but they are also a rich source of carotenoids. In order for carotenoids to be absorbed by our digestive system, fat is needed. The study, appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that small amounts of fat (no one is advocating a high fat diet) increased absorption substantially.

The news only gets better for eating extra virgin olive oil. A small study in Spain is proving to be quite the game-changer, if you’re paying attention. The study revealed that women who consumed a healthy amount of extra virgin olive oil as a part of their Mediterranean approach to eating were less likely to develop breast cancer than women who consumed a low/no-fat diet. Previous research had suggested that consumption of olive oil resulted in reduced overall cancer risk in Mediterranean regions, but this new study finds that women anywhere, who eat this famously healthy diet (have you seen Sophia Loren?) also benefit when it comes to reduction of breast cancer risk, in addition to the other known benefits like cardiovascular health, metabolic benefits and even cognitive and mental health.

Following 4300 post-menopausal women over five years, the goal of the original study was heart health. The women were asked to eat a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds with a small amount of fish, olive oil and red wine. The diet was very low in simple sugar, meat, dairy and processed foods. At the end of the study, the group of women who consumed added oil, nuts and seeds were about 41% less likely to develop breast cancer than the women in the group who ate little or no fat. Here is the interesting part of this story: the research team calculated that for each additional 5% of calories that come from extra virgin olive oil, women might reduce their odds of developing breast cancer by around 28%.

While, like all studies, these results can and will be disputed and discussed for years, the conclusion of the study is pretty straight up. The researchers said these results bode well for the argument to consume added oil in our diets. They suggest that the reduction in oxidative stress on cells is one of the potential mechanisms through which the Mediterranean diet seems to work so well in creating health. They also stress that prevention is the single best way to fight cancer and heart disease and that diet is a central element of any healthy strategy.

In the end, the choice is yours to make. In my view, there may be times in your life when going without oil can be beneficial as you work to get your health back on track. In my view, skipping oil for the rest of your days can result in compromised health, based on my own experience.

Studies can tell us what we need to hear and what we want to hear and can be spun to reflect anyone’s agenda. My own experience has shown that I eat less when I use oil because I am more satisfied with less food. I crave nothing because I work to create a good balance of nutrients in my cooking. Our health is pretty robust (thank heavens!). My husband and I struggled with serious health issues when we consumed a no-fat eating plan. But enough about me. I have found that as I interact and work with people, going sans oil is hard to sustain, not healthy in the long run and no fun.

Am I advocating onion rings at every meal? Not ever. But I am advocating not succumbing to unfounded fears or blindly following experts (including me) without doing some research on your own health condition. Listen to your intuition and ancient wisdom. Look at the cultures that consume extra virgin olive oil—and have for centuries—and see the robust health they enjoy when they eat a traditional diet for their culture with a reasonable amount of added fat.

I am saying that a reasonable use of good quality fats in your cooking stands to serve your health, not compromise it.