Generally speaking, I prefer to highlight the foods and beverages that are beneficial to building optimal health and strength. In doing so, I hope that by including more of these foods we might, by default, crowd out the less than optimal choices. However, this ‘soft’ approach, as useful as it can be in some situations, doesn’t fully educate or bring awareness to the destructiveness of foods and drinks I believe we’d be better off without.
My hyper-inflated attention to this area of ‘things to avoid’ comes out of spending the past 9 months growing a new life inside of me. Never before has my awareness of what each item we consume does for us (or to us) been so heightened. Interestingly, my intrinsic motivation for eschewing these items without any (or at least very little) hesitation or feelings of loss began even many months before I became pregnant, which speaks to the psychological reasons we reach for foods (I’d been exploring the reasons I just couldn’t seem to let go of various items for a year prior already in both experiential therapy and by fully emerging myself in Dr. Gabor Mate’s Compassionate Inquiry training).
Therefore, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to outlining the five specific food/drink items we may be better off to avoid and why. I’ll also make space for the very real and valid reasons we might continue to reach for something even when we clearly know it isn’t beneficial to our health – and why forcing it out without addressing the underlying issue isn’t necessarily a healthy choice either.
Today we’ll look at processed oils.
What are processed oils?
Processed oils are often referred to by many generic names, such as:
- cooking oils
- seed oils
- industrialized oils
- vegetable oils
- polyunsaturated oils (PUFA’s – aka polyunsaturated fatty acids) (note, there are SOME polyunsaturated oils that can be used healthfully, which I’ll address below)
When I speak to processed oils, I am referring to the following:
- corn oil
- soy oil
- canola oil (also called rapeseed oil)
- sunflower oil
- safflower oil
- cottonseed oil
- peanut oil
- sesame oil
- grapeseed oil
- rice bran oil
- wheat germ oil
- any other processed oil or processed commercial vegetable oil blend
No exceptions to the above. No, not even organic canola oil. No, not even if they are labeled organic, expeller-pressed or high-oleic.
Additionally, processed oils are used to make ‘fat-free’ oil sprays and plant-based ‘butters’, ‘cheeses’ and other faux food products. They are also found in just about every packaged product on your grocery store shelves (even pervasive in ‘natural’ grocery stores), from cookies and crackers, to breads and pastries, to chips and cereals and even to items we think are healthy such as salad dressings and plant-based milks. It’s hard to get away from processed oils – read ingredient lists and you’ll find they pop up in nearly everything.
If you eat out at restaurants (or order take-out), chances are higher than high that you are ingesting processed oils – the lower quality the restaurant or food joint, the more processed oil is likely to be found in the products. This is because processed oils are dirt cheap (and fat makes things taste better, so of course it’s found in amounts much higher in restaurant and food joint foods than if we make the same dish at home).
These oils are quite literally making us sick. While it takes a good amount of vigilance and work to avoid consuming processed oils, it is highly worth the effort.
Why should we avoid processed oils?
- Processed oils are highly inflammatory. Any inflammatory food will cause inflammation in the body which delays healing, slowly leads to chronic disease, and creates an environment where acute injury is more likely to occur (the body is less resilient).
These oils are inflammatory because:
– They are highly processed (subjected to heat, oxygen and/or light), rendering them oxidized;
– Oxidized oils create free radicals that upon entry into our bodies will damage healthy cells;
– Damaging healthy cells creates inflammation.
Oxidized oils are really bad news for your brain, arteries and mitochondria. They essentially harden the cells instead of allowing them to stay flexible and healthful.
Note: Oxidants can be combatted with antioxidant rich foods/drinks. However, we create ‘healthy’ oxidants via exercise, sun exposure and other unavoidable stressors – so adding too many dietary oxidants will overwhelm our bodies ability to disarm oxidants, no matter how many antioxidants we consume (and further note that ingesting antioxidant supplements can actually work against us, as they body turns excess supplementation into pro-oxidants!!).
Also, most processed cooking oils contain an unnatural and unhealthy ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, thus promoting inflammation (the exception is canola oil).
Author Chris Kresser writes in his book The Paleo Cure extensive detail on how polyunsaturated fats play important structural and regulatory roles in the body. Both omega-6 fats (primarily ARA) and omega-3 fats (primarily EPA and DHA) are responsible for the health benefits we get from polyunsaturated fats. However, it’s the omega-6 fat LA (linoleic acid) that is present in large amounts in processed oils – and while small amounts are unlikely to cause problems, too much has a pro-inflammatory effect and contributes to modern chronic disease.
Ideally, Kresser notes, we reach for pastured animal products rich in ALA (a fat involved in cellular signalling, relaxation of the blood vessels, growth and repair of the skeletal muscle tissue and the brain) as well as fatty fish rich in EPA and DHA (essential for human health such as brain development and function and heart health) – both ALA as well as EPA and DHA must be obtained from the diet as they cannot be made by the body (like monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids can).
- Industrial seed oils are poor quality building blocks, therefore have a high potential of creating inherently unhealthy cells (aka building subpar brains and bodies).
The reasons I call processed cooking oils “unhealthy building blocks” include:
– Many are derived from genetically modified foodstuffs (I remain skeptical of GMO’s – introduced in 1994, there remains little evidence of any benefit with some studies linking GMO’s to inflammation, allergies, altered metabolism, kidney and liver malfunction and reduced fertility);
– Many contain toxic chemical compounds (are processed with petroleum based solvents as well as harmful additives added when processing the oil to deodorize the oil as well as improve the appearance of the oil);
– As mentioned above, they contain either an outright harmful fat (trans fats) or more commonly a widely imbalanced ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s (promoting inflammation) and/or end up displacing actual healthy fats (unoxidized polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and ancient whole food forms of saturated fats – each of which play important roles in brain development, heart health, hormonal health… And well, just about every aspect of health in each bodily system).
In her book The Primal Fat-Burner, author Nora Gedgaudas outlines how, because fat and fat-soluble nutrients have such a profound effect on our mitochondria and nuclear DNA, consuming processed oils can initiate or modify gene expression and gene transcription in an unhealthy and damaging manner.
It has been my experience over the past decade working with clients, that by eliminating processed oils (damaging fats) and increasing healthy fats (from whole, real foods), it is possible to reduce or eliminate physical pain from various known or unknown chronic causes (such as arthritis or tendinitis), as well as positively affect things hormonal health and fertility (research has confirmed that saturated fats may promote fertility).
It’s really interesting to dig into the history behind where processed oils came from and why they were created. Some of its fascinating history can be found documented by RootCause Medicine here, and some more documented here. Without going into detail here, knowing the backstory to processed oils does assist in understanding why they became so ubiquitous in grocery stores and in our food – and why to this day they are defended (and even called healthy) by large organizations, foundations and government agencies.
If I choose to avoid processed oils, what can I use instead?
The point of this article is NOT for you to avoid fat (it is to avoid processed oils). In fact, healthy fats must make up a large portion of our diets – at least 35-40% if not upwards of 50-60%.
Therefore, alternative healthy oils you might utilize in place of processed oils include:
- extra-virgin olive oil, from the first pressing if possible
- virgin avocado oil
- virgin coconut oil
- virgin macadamia nut oil
You’ll note all these oils contain the word ‘virgin’ before them. The word ‘virgin’ means cold-pressed – that is, the fruit or nut was pressed to extract the oil and NO heat or chemicals were used use during the extraction process. The oil is pure and unrefined.
There are a small handful of polyunsaturated oils (seed oils) as well as monounsaturated oils that we might reach for occasionally ONLY if they are cold-pressed (virgin), we do NOT heat them, we store them in the fridge, and we use them within 1-2 months of opening them – are as follows:
- flaxseed oil
- chia oil
- hemp oil
- walnut oil
Note: All oils are technically processed (that is, they don’t show up in their original food form). Therefore, we might always do well to not rely heavily on any oil, including the less processed virgin oils.
Thus, in ensuring we get enough healthy fats and instead of reaching for processed oils, we might incorporate more whole food fat sources, such as
- grass fed butter
- pastured lard (pig fat), tallow (beef fat) and duck fat
- nuts and seeds (and their butters)
- whole fat grass fed/finished meat
- pastured poultry and eggs
- wild salmon and other fatty fish (mackerel, herring, anchovies, sardines)
- grass fed full-fat dairy products (such as cheese, yogurt & kefir)
Unfortunately, many plant-based items contain processed oils – and as I’m sure you’re aware, plant-based items are increasingly popular these days. I’m all for choosing more plants – more veggies and fruits and lentils and beans as per your bodies requirements – but unfortunately a very high number of these plant-based (vegan) products are either primarily made up of processed oils (plant-based butters, mayos, cheeses, etc) or include them on the ingredient list (plant-based milks, faux meats, faux eggs, etc). Even the 1 tsp sunflower oil in each serving of oat milk does add up when consumed on a daily basis.
Thus, take special care to always read ingredient lists. Items marketed as healthy (those with ‘heart-healthy’ stamped on the package or advertised as ‘plant-based’) are most likely to simply be just that – a marketing ploy. There certainly are products on the market, both plant-based or not, that take care to use olive oil or coconut oil instead of processed oils (granted, they are often more expensive, which of course is worth it), but they take some serious label reading to find!
What if avoiding processed oils is just too overwhelming and stressful?
I realized a decade ago just how damaging processed oils are. I quickly became convinced through research and anecdotes, and then eventually from seeing client results, just how destructive processed oils are to our bodies. If we want to build strong and healthy bodies that can perform optimally and are resilient against injury and disease, we must avoid processed oils. I say that with full confidence (yet also with enough humility to understand that anything I might know to be true could at some point be proven wrong).
Yet by no means was I able to cut out all processed oils overnight. Or even within a year, or a couple years. The truth of the matter is that processed oils are found absolutely everywhere, and if you eat out, order in or use a food service, it’s extremely difficult to abstain from processed oils. Even if you buy all your food from the grocery store to prepare yourself, it’s still all too easy for processed oils to sneak in the door.
For those who are short on time and something like mixing up your own salad dressing is just too much, even if you’re making salads at home, chances are you are using a store bought salad dressing made with processed oil (seriously, check out salad dressing labels – in some cases they can’t even tell you what oil they used – they offer up an either/or, meaning they used whatever oil they could get cheapest at that time).
In my opinion, that turns your salad into a double edged sword – on one side, great job getting in your veggies (it’s still so much better than the other choices like most wraps, burgers and sandwiches!)… Yet on the other side, ingesting those pro-inflammatory oils make you susceptible to fatigue and hormonal imbalance as well as so many injuries, aches and pains, and chronic disease.
Plus, some of the most common comfort or treat foods are laden with processed oils. Let’s take chips for example. Nearly every brand of chip, organic included, utilizes processed oils – and of course they contain a good amount of these damaging oils. Yet, until we understand the reasons we are reaching for these foods in the first place, the struggle to cut them out will persist. We may be able to abstain for short periods only to feel restricted and resentful… And back the chips come.
Therefore, if you choose to make your intention one of avoiding processed oils, know that complete and eternal elimination is essentially impossible. Don’t strive for perfection or beat yourself up if you end up reaching for the chips or defaulting to the store-bought option (of whatever it might be) that contains processed oils.
However, you might consciously choose to keep coming back to your intention of relying less and less on processed oils. One step at a time, you’ll find yourself naturally falling into habits that make this lifestyle easier and more natural for yourself.
For me, it wasn’t until after my third month of pregnancy, when the nausea finally let up, that all of a sudden I ditched the last bits of foods I was eating containing processed oils (chips or cheese puffs here and there, pizza ordered in on Friday nights, the banana bread from Whole Foods baked section…). A switch flipped deep within me, and all the knowledge combined with addressing root causes of wanting / craving ‘junk’ foods time to time just came together. I neither forced this change nor even planned it.
In fact, 3 years ago I embraced more of a ‘guilt-free’ eating style and assumed I’d always consume foods containing processed cooking oils here and there, if for no other reason than to ensure I never became obsessive about food again. I simply kept accepting my choices without guilt yet continued to ask myself the deeper why (I would both find and explore those in [experiential] therapy), until eventually all this (combined with pregnancy I’m sure) led to a natural place of simply no longer wanting them. THAT SAID, there may always be occasions that arise, when I’m out with others, where I may choose to consume a product I know contains processed oils – and that’s okay too.
As I counsel my clients, simply do the best you can with the situation you’re in. Hold the intention of fueling your body with the most optimal ingredients and generally avoiding those that cause harm. But don’t let the food you reach for create additional stress in an already stressful and busy life. Let’s do this in a manner that feels natural, helpful and sustainable. Forcing yourself to adhere to a ‘diet’ type mentality never lasts and thus won’t help in the long run – and it’s the long term that counts!
My hope for you is the same hope I hold for myself: to be strong, active and healthy right into old age and my last days (with a personal specific goal to be running strong at 100 years old). From birth to death, my intention is to support optimal health, happiness and a joyful full life. One small detail to help support this life goal is to eschew processed oils – for at least the most part if not in entirety.
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running,
Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist