Rates of obesity are on the rise in the United States and estimates are that over 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children meet this definition. From a medical perspective, the concern is that obesity increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dementia, cancer, arthritis, and blood clots. At least part of the problem is that we eat too many calories as a nation. It is estimated that the average intake of daily calories rose by 23 percent from 1970 to 2010. An increasing source of those calories is coming from fats and oils, also up compared to 1970. Most of those calories are from vegetable oils like soybean, corn, and canola but also include calories from olive and coconut oils. While there are no new data on U.S. consumption since 2010, we do know that butter consumption is up 14 percent due to the “Butter is back” movement, adding more fats to our daily intake. In my functional medicine practice I discuss nutrition at length with patients, and the topic of whether oils are healthy or not comes up during every visit. Here are the points I review with my patients (and talk about in more depth in my book, The Plant-Based Solution: America’s Healthy Heart Doc’s Plan to Power Your Health).
1. How much dietary fat is recommended by medical societies?
I teach patients that the American Heart Association recommends that to prevent or halt heart disease, total dietary fat intake should be less than 35 percent of our daily caloric intake, and saturated fats found mainly in animal products such as meat, eggs, dairy, and tropical oils like coconut should account for less than 7 percent of our daily calories. If oils are to be used in cooking, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated vegetable sources are recommended.
2. What dietary fats are essential to health?
I explain to patients that while fat is essential in our diet, it is a matter of what kind of fat and how much. There are only two fats that we need to have in our diet: omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. Omega-3-rich foods include algae, walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp seeds. The National Academy of Sciences indicates that the amount of omega-3 we need daily is 1.1 grams for a woman and 1.6 grams for a man. This is about 2 percent of total daily calories. If you ate only green leafy vegetables all day, you’d exceed this. A tablespoon of ground flaxseed has 1.8 grams of omega-3 and 0.4 grams of omega-6. (Unlike flax oil, ground flax maintains all of the fiber of whole flax and more of the nutrients.) Some of the native populations with the lowest rate of heart disease, including the newly reported Tsimane tribe in Bolivia, have only a small amount of fats and no oils in their diet.
Diets rich in colored vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains with adequate calories provide sufficient essential fats. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines serve as a middleman by eating algae and storing these fats, along with persistent organic pollutants and mercury, in their fat stores. The monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and the fats found in vegetable oils including coconut oil are not essential to health.
3. Olive oil has been proved to be healthy, right?
Olive oil is not a rich source of the essential fats we must have for health. My patients are usually shocked when I tell them that they would have to eat almost 2,000 calories a day of olive oil to meet their daily omega-3 requirements. Olive oil contains active chemicals called polyphenols, which may be good for health but there are many better sources. For example, 10 blueberries will give 10 calories and zero fat and as many polyphenols as 1 teaspoon of olive oil with 120 calories and 13 grams of fat.
4. Isn’t the Mediterranean diet healthy?
I always recommend the Mediterranean diet as a healthy substitute for the standard Western diet, which is overloaded with processed calories and excess refined sugar, salt, and vegetable oils. My patients are usually shocked, however, when I instruct them that the Mediterranean diet may be healthy despite the olive oil—not because of it. The classic diet found in Southern Italy described by Ancel Keys, Ph.D., is low in red meat and dairy, includes fish when available, and is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and wine. While data from the Harvard School of Public Health indicates that olive oil is clearly a healthier choice for heart outcomes than butter and lard, there is concerning data about olive oil and arteries. When cardiologist Robert Vogel, M.D., and co-workers at the University of Maryland investigated the effect of olive oil on artery function, they found that it reduced blood flow in vessels by a whopping 31 percent. I do not want my patients to suffer from this drop in blood flow.
5. Has coconut oil been proved to boost my health?
No food product polarizes health experts more than the topic of whether coconut oil in coffee or a smoothie is a health practice. This topic erupted worldwide when the American Heart Association published a Presidential Advisory on dietary fats. In the 25-page paper, one paragraph was dedicated to the topic of coconut oil and concluded against using coconut oil. They based this on the science that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol and has no proven cardiovascular benefit. In view of this, I advise my patients to avoid coconut oil.
Overall, all oils are processed, not whole, foods dense in calories and fats. They all have had the fiber and other nutrients stripped away. Diets without added oils have been used in patients with heart disease to halt and reverse blocked arteries and are the only dietary programs ever shown to achieve this remarkable outcome. In addition, dietary programs free of all oils have been shown to reverse type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases afflicting millions of persons. At the end of the day, a diet without added oils of all kinds is what I advise my patients in my functional medicine practice. I encourage them to eat whole food diets that include olives, avocados, and nuts. I hope you do the same.