Ask the Doc

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Do Vegetable Oils

To eat or not to eat? CE's nutrition expert Jonny Bowden tackles the perplexing topic of vegetable oils.

Q: It seems everyone is down on vegetable oils. I thought they were good for you. 

A: Vegetable oils became the darling of the health food crowd right around the same time the government, together with the American Heart Association and other major health organizations, collectively decided that saturated fat was the cause of all our health problems and that we should avoid it at all costs. “Polyunsaturated fat” became a buzzword, all the restaurants switched from traditional lard to new (presumably healthy) vegetable oils, and suddenly the world was awash in corn oil, canola oil and soybean oil.

Well, we now know that saturated fat is not the demon we were told it was, and even the new guidelines no longer consider cholesterol a “nutrient of concern.” But we’re still consuming a ton of vegetable oil. It’s in virtually every processed food, and it’s impossible to swing a rope in a grocery store without hitting a dozen products made with the stuff.

And that’s the problem. It’s not that vegetable oil per se is necessarily bad, though the kinds we consume contain nothing of real value. The problem is that vegetable oils are predominantly omega-6. Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid – we need it in our diet – but it’s also pro-inflammatory. This is not a problem when it’s balanced with an equal intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3. But it’s not.

Research shows that we consume about 16 times more omega-6 (mostly in the form of vegetable oil) than omega-3. This has contributed to the silent epidemic of inflammation that we’ve been seeing since the ’80s when the boneheaded prohibition against saturated fat first came into being.

Hence, many who lean toward whole-food, Paleo-style eating suggest not just consuming more omega-3, but also limiting (not eliminating) sources of omega-6 fat (like vegetable oils). Try swapping out some of those kitchen staples for healthier saturated fats like sustainable red palm oil or coconut oil, or for terrific monounsaturated fats like avocado oil and olive oil.

And when you do consume high-omega-6 oils like peanut or sesame oils, look for the organic, cold-pressed variety.