Doctor’s Tip: Weight of the evidence supports avoiding oil for optimal health

Dr. Greg Feinsinger

Fats are one of the three macronutrients required for human health; the other two being carbohydrates and protein. There are healthy and unhealthy fats.

Polyunsaturated fats, which include omega-3 and omega-6, are unquestionably healthy and are found in plants (fish contains omega-3, but it comes from the algae they eat). Monounsaturated fats are found in plants such as olives and avocados, and there is less agreement about their health benefits. Saturated fat is found in animal products and tropical oils (coconut and palm) and causes the liver to make more LDL (bad cholesterol) — high levels of which cause heart disease.

Until the mid-twentieth century, animal fat (such as lard) was used in cooking and to increase shelf life of processed foods. When it became apparent in the 1950s that animal fats caused heart disease, the food industry started using palm and coconut oil as alternatives. When it was determined that these tropical oils also caused heart disease, other plant oils such as sunflower, corn and sesame came into use. Food-industry scientists also engineered trans fats, which were found to cause an even higher incidence of heart disease than saturated fat, resulting in a ban by the FDA in 2018.

How about concerns related to oils used today for cooking and adding to packaged food products? The first concern is that oils are processed, and, as noted in previous columns, nutrition experts recommend eating unprocessed food. Oils are extracted from plants and seeds by use of heat and chemical solvents, resulting in a loss of most of their nutrients. Oils can also be processed by mechanical pressure called “cold pressing,” which results in loss of fiber but not as many of other nutrients.

The second major problem with oils is that they are fat, which has 9 calories per gram versus 4 for carbohydrates and protein. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book “The End of Dieting,” the average American diet contains about 400 calories of oil a day. Furthermore, fat in the form of oil is rapidly absorbed and deposited immediately as fat (“2 minutes from lips to hips” per Dr. Fuhrman). The 66% of Americans whom the CDC reports as overweight or obese should avoid consuming these empty calories.

Additional health concerns about oil are the following: 

1. Vegetable oils inflame arteries, resulting in constriction and eventually plaque (hardening of the arteries — the cause of heart attacks and strokes).

2. All oils have saturated fat, which elevates cholesterol. Canola has the least, at 7%; olive oil 14%; and coconut oil over 90%.

3. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our blood should be 1:1 or at most 4:1 for optimal health. Due in large part to oil in their diet, most Americans have a ratio 20 times that. Too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 contributes to inflammation, depression, heart disease and diabetes.

4. When oils reach their smoke point, carcinogens form. Olive oil has a relatively low smoke point of 350 degrees, avocado oil relatively high at 520 degrees.

Given these health concerns, why do food companies add oils to their products? As with salt and sugar, it’s all about profits. The “bliss point” is the amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar or fat which optimizes yumminess. These three substances are addictive and, due to lack of fiber, don’t produce satiety — so, people eat more and more, increasing food company profits.

It’s easy to cook without oil — use a non-stick pan and water, low-sodium vegetable broth, wine or vinegar. If a baking recipe calls for oil, substitute ground flax seed (flax meal), unsweetened apple sauce, mashed bananas or avocado, soaked prunes or canned pumpkin. Instead of using oil-based spreads such as butter, margarine or Earth Balance, put unsweetened apple sauce with a sprinkle of cinnamon on your toast. Use balsamic vinegar on salads, without olive oil — or google recipes for oil-free dressing.

Be careful when eating out. For example, if you order vegetable stir fry in an Asian restaurant, it may not be as healthy as you think because foods such as eggplant and zucchini soak up oil. Request no or minimal oil (Yes, the chef can do it). 

A caveat regarding cold-pressed organic extra-virgin olive oil: If you feel you must use oil, this would be the healthiest, and be sure you keep it in the refrigerator, so it doesn’t become rancid (which would definitely be harmful for health).

There are nutrition experts — such as physician-researcher David Katz, M.D. and science writer Mark Bittman — who point out in their book “How to Eat” that there are populations in the Mediterranean area that live long, healthy lives on a diet that includes moderate amounts of cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. On the other hand, in his book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” physician-researcher Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn has a chapter dedicated to the science showing harm from mono-unsaturated fats such as olive oil.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment, or email

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