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Vegan and Vegetarian - OilsOils, Fats, and Essential Fatty Acids

Oils can be healthy or unhealthy for you, depending on what type you use and how much you consume. Some oils, like those that contain essential fatty acids (like omega 3 and omega 6), are not only healthy for you, they're an absolutely necessary part of your diet.

Quick Page Summary: Stay away from hydrogenated oils and trans fats, like those found in many processed foods (check the labels). Limit your intake of saturated fats, like those found in most "vegetable" oils. Be sure to get plenty of essential fatty acids—especially omega 3, which most Western diets are lacking. To do this, eat one (1) teaspoon of flax seed oil (alone or mixed into salad dressings, etc.) or four to five (4 – 5) teaspoons of ground flaxseeds each day. (Remember to store flax products in the refrigerator and never cook the oil.) You should also replace your "vegetable" oil or corn oil with olive oil or canola oil.

Cooking oil is purified fat that is liquid at room temperature. Some of the many different kinds of edible vegetable oils include palm oil, olive oil, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, and sesame oil. Many other kinds of vegetable oils are also used for cooking. The generic term "vegetable oil," when used in regards to a cooking oil, refers to a blend of a variety of oils often based on palm, corn, soybean, or sunflower oils.

Oil can be flavored by immersing aromatic food stuffs, such as fresh herbs, peppers, and so forth, in the oil for an extended period of time. When using using garlic and onions, care must be taken to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Olive OilDaily Recommendations

Fats are an essential nutrient in the human diet, but an unbalanced diet isn't healthy. For most individuals, it's appropriate to get 30 percent of your daily food energy from healthy fats and oils, but important to avoid saturated (unhealthy) fats. The FDA recommends that less than 10 percent of a day's worth of calories should come from saturated fats.

To make sure you're getting a healthy amount of healthy fats, eat one (1) teaspoon of flax seed oil each day (alone or mixed into salad dressings, etc.) or eat four to five (4 – 5) teaspoons of ground flax seeds each day. (Be sure to store flax products in the refrigerator and never cook the oil.) You should also replace your unhealthy fats, such as "vegetable" oil or corn oil, with fats higher in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil.

Healthy Choices

Cooking oil is a special problem, as hydrogenation of oils makes them more stable, but also creates trans fats, only found in hydrogenated oils, which are unhealthy.

Two healthier types of oils are cold-pressed and expeller-pressed (expeller-pressed being the healthiest choice, but also the most expensive). Both of these processes use no heat or solvents; therefore less oil is extracted from the beans, nuts or seeds, and the product becomes more expensive. Expeller-pressed oils should never be heated, and should always be kept refrigerated. Examples of expeller-pressed oils include flax seed oil and hemp seed oil.

Expeller-pressed oils retain most of their nutrients, including valuable omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. The inclusion of these oils in a vegan diet is extremely important. You can buy expeller-pressed oils in natural food stores and use them in salad dressing, or just pour them over other foods (like cereals, rice, pastas, etc.). You can also grind up raw flax seeds and sprinkle them over foods.

Olive OilSaturated vs. Unsaturated

Saturated fats are unhealthy in excess, but the consumption of small amounts of these oils is essential. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated) are generally healthier for those consuming Western-style diets.

  • Saturated fats, usually derived from animal sources, e.g. lard and butter, contribute to high levels of cholesterol in the blood, a risk factor for atherosclerosis and heart disease.

    Trans fats, found mostly in foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, may increase your risk of heart disease and many other diseases. See the Nutrition Council's article, "Trans Fatty Acids: How Safe are They?" for more information.

    Foods that typically contain hydrogenated, and saturated fats include animal products, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, butter, margarines, shortening, commercial frying fats, crackers, cookies, chips, and snacks. Tip: For healthier and vegan product alternatives, see the VegProductsGuide.
     
  • Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are also known as omega-9 fatty acids, n-9, and oleic acid. Monosaturated fats improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. These fats are abundant in healthier oils like olive oil, canola oil, "high-oleic" sunflower oil, hazelnut oil, "high-oleic" safflower oil, and almond oil. It's also available in avocados and nuts like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, and pecans.
     
  • Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) consist of omega-3 acids (also known as n-3) and omega-6 acids (also known as n-6) and are important for maintaining cell membranes and for making prostaglandins, which regulate many body processes. PUFAs are also necessary to enable the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K to be absorbed from food and for regulating body cholesterol metabolism.

Essential Fatty Acids

"Essential fatty acids" are polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot make. Two essential fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, a.k.a., LNA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, and some leafy green vegetables and plant foods; and linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid found plant foods and vegetable oils. Most vegans and vegetarians get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids in their diet but do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids, and therefore need to supplement their diet with extra omega 3. An ALA intake of 1.5% of total energy is optimum for vegetarians—or roughly 4g a day—is recommended .

Essential fatty acids are extremely important to your health. omega 3, in particular, may reduce your risk of sudden cardiac death, lower blood pressure and decrease inflammation (thereby reducing arthritis and other inflammatory illnesses), prevent excessive blood clots from forming, thereby decreasing the risk of a heart attack and stroke, reduce depression and prevent dementia, and reduce the risk of some types of cancer.

WalnutsNote: If you have congestive heart failure, omega-3 fatty acids may cause an increased risk of cardiac death. If you have heart conditions of any kind, be sure to discuss omega-3 fatty acids with your physician. And as always, consult your physician before changing your diet or taking supplements.

Many people mistakenly believe that fish is the only source of omega-3 fatty acids. In reality, flaxseed oil contains twice as much as is found in fish oil! Other incredible sources of omega 3 include flax seeds (also called linseeds), hemp seeds, mustard seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnut oil, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and spirulina.

Pumpkin SeedsClinical studies indicate that the ingested ratio of omega-6 LA to omega-3 ALA is important for maintaining cardiovascular health. However it is also important for vegans and vegetarians to ensure that their intake of omega-6 LA is not too high compared with their omega-3 ALA intake. This is because a higher intake of omega-6 LA interferes with the process in which the human body converts omega-3 ALA into the even more beneficial eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Ideally, you should ingest an LA-to-ALA ratio of around 4 to 1 (4:1). Typical Western diets provide ratios of between 10:1 and 30:1, meaning that they are dramatically skewed toward omega 6. For this reason, any steps to bring down an excessively high amount of omega-6 fats in the diet is beneficial, and supplementing with higher amounts of omega-3 ALA is recommended.

Sources of Omega 3 (ALA) and Omega 6 (LA) Fats
Source
Amount
ALA and LA
 
Flaxseed oil
1 tablespoon (14g)

Great choice: Provides 8.0g of ALA and relatively insignificant levels of LA  
Flaxseed, ground 1 tablespoon (24g) Great choice: Provides 3.8g of ALA and relatively insignificant levels of LA  
Canola oil 1 tablespoon (14g) Good choice: Provides 1.6g of ALA and only twice as much LA
 
Walnuts 1 oz (28g) Provides 2.6g of ALA but also four times as much LA
 
Tofu 4.5oz (126g) Provides 0.7g of ALA but also seven times as much LA  

Source: Adapted from the Vegetarian Society Omega 3 Information Sheet

To make sure you're getting a good amount of omega-3 ALA in your diet, try the following.

  • Eat one (1) teaspoon of flax seed oil each day (alone or mixed into salad dressings, etc.) or eat four to five (4 – 5) teaspoons of ground flax seeds each day. Remember to store flax products in the refrigerator.

  • Replace fats high in omega-6 oils, such as sunflower oil or corn oil, with fats higher in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil, which do not disrupt the formation of EPA and DHA.

  • Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables. Most of the little fat in leafy green vegetables is ALA – broccoli has 0.13g per 100g, cabbage 0.11g per 100g, so simply eating your greens is making a positive addition to your intake. (Walnuts and tofu are also good sources but are comparably high in LA.)

Types of Oils

  • Olive OilOlive oil – Olive oil is the best, healthiest oil there is and it's important for your health—so buy it often and splurge on getting cold-pressed extra-virgin. Organic extra-virgin is even better. It has a distinct flavor, so you might prefer to avoid it in baking (try using sunflower oil, instead). When purchasing olive oil, refer to these labeling terms:

    • Regular olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor. "100% Pure Olive Oil" is often the lowest quality available in a retail store.

    • Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label (see next section). Virgin olive oil has an acidity less than 2%, and judged to have a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil.

    • Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste. There can be no refined oil in extra-virgin olive oil.

    • Cold pressed means that no heat was used to extract the oil, thereby not damaging any of its nutrient values. The word "cold" is important because if heat is used, the olive oil's chemistry is changed.

    • First cold press means that the oil in bottles with this label is the first oil that came from the first press of the olives.

    • Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes (characterized as defects) and neutralize the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.

    • Light olive oil refers to a lighter color, not a lower fat content. All olive oil—which is, after all, fat—has 120 calories per tablespoon (33 kJ/mL).

According to the George Mateljan Foundation and numerous medical resources, olive oil may also provide numerous health benefits, including protection against chronic degenerative diseases and breast cancer. It may also help with heart health, gastrointestinal health, lowering LDL (the "bad" cholesterol), increasing HDL (the "good" cholesterol), controlling blood sugar, preventing bone loss, protecting DNA from free-radical damage, and much more. Its rich supply of polyphenols are responsible for its well-known cardiovascular benefits and are known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticoagulant benefits.

  • Canola oil – If you do use canola oil, buy only the organic, expeller-pressed varieties sold in natural food stores. Use sparingly.

    "Canola oil is monounsaturated and thus healthier than saturated or polyunsaturated oils, but I still consider it a distant runner-up to olive oil. [...] Unlike olive oil, canola oil doesn't contain oleic acid, the fatty acid our bodies process best. I've always cautioned against buying canola oil found in supermarkets. These products have been extracted with chemical solvents or high-speed presses that generate heat. Both methods alter the oil's fatty acid chemistry in undesirable ways. Furthermore, canola oil producers use a lot of pesticides on their crops, and I suspect that residues find their way into the finished product." —Dr. Andrew Weil

  • Flaxseed / flax oil – Don't cook with flax oil! Use with with salads or in place of butter on popcorn, potatoes, or rice. Never purchase flaxseed oil off the shelf; always purchase refrigerated and keep it refrigerated. Flax oil should never be allowed to reach room temperature. Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Use sparingly.

  • Margarine

    Hydrogenated oils – DO NOT USE EVER! Any doctor will tell you: Whenever possible, avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which are directly linked to diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. These oils are banned in many European countries, but still prevalent in most processed U.S. foods because of how cheap they are. Always read the ingredients before purchasing any food item; if it contains any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil, DO NOT get it.  Although they are cheap and commonly found, you should eliminate these oils from your diet completely. Read BioMedica's "Trans Fatty Acids" page to learn more. Fortunately, plenty of healthy alternatives are available if you're willing to look for them.

  • Sesame oil – Sesame oil has a strong taste; not good for frying. Tasty in salads or Asian recipes. Sesame seed oil contains powerful antioxidants called lignans, which are also anti-carcinogenic. They also contain phytosterols, which block cholesterol production. Use sparingly.

  • Sunflower oil, safflower oil – Sunflower / safflower oils are cheaper oils that can be used for just about any purpose. Great for baked goods because of their non-distinct flavor. Their light taste makes these oils good substitutes for butter or margarine in most recipes. Unfortunately, these oils are polyunsaturated, which is really unhealthy. Use sparingly.

  • Vegetable oil – "Vegetable" oils usually refer to corn or soybean oil. The vegetable oils you can find most often in grocery stores have been processed with a solvent. Petroleum by-products, like octane, heptanes, and hexane are mixed with mashed seeds, beans, or nuts. The only reason for this is to speed the extraction process and to obtain a greater quantity of oil. Although the oils and solvents are then separated (because solvents are toxic), the oils will still contain some solvent residue. Additionally, these oils are polyunsaturated, which is really unhealthy. For obvious reasons, these kinds of oils are not recommended for a healthy diet (vegan or not). Although they are cheap and commonly found, you should try to eliminate these oils from your diet whenever possible.
Vegetable Oils
Oil/Fat
Saturated Fat (bad)
MUFA (good)
PUFA (good)
Uses
Canola oil
6% 62% 32% frying, baking, salad dressings
Coconut oil 92% 6% 2% commercial baked goods, candy and sweets, whipped toppings, nondairy coffee creamers, shortening
Corn oil 13% 25% 62% frying, baking, salad dressings, margarine, shortening
Cottonseed oil 24% 26% 50% margarine, shortening, salad dressings, commercially fried products
Grape seed oil 12% 17% 71% cooking, salad dressings, margarine
Margarine, soft 20% 47% 33% cooking, baking, condiment
Olive Oil,
Extra Virgin
14% 73% 11% cooking, salad oils, margarine
Olive Oil,
Virgin
14% 73% 11% cooking, salad oils, margarine
Olive Oil,
Refined
14% 73% 11% sauteing, stir frying, cooking, salad oils, margarine
Olive Oil,
Extra Light

14% 73% 11% sauteing, stir frying, frying, cooking, salad oils, margarine
Safflower oil 10% 13% 77% cooking, salad dressings, margarine
Soybean oil 15% 24% 61% cooking, salad dressings, vegetable oil, margarine, shortening
Sunflower oil 11% 20% 69% cooking, salad dressings, margarine, shortening

Source: Adapted from Wikipedia "Cooking Oil"

Olive OilStoring Oils

It is best to store oils in the refrigerator or a cool, dry place. Oils may thicken, but if you let them stand at room temperature they will soon return to liquid. To prevent negative effects of heat and light, take oils out of cold storage just long enough to use them. Refined oils high in monounsaturated fats keep up to a year, while those high in polyunsaturated fats keep about six months. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils keep about a year after opening. Olive oil and other monounsaturated oils keep well up to eight months; unrefined polyunsaturated oils only about half as long.

Tip: Oils kept in the refrigerator will often solidify (they return to a liquid when warmed). Rather than worrying about bringing them to room temperature before use, try this handy trick: Keep your oils in large enough containers (like old margarine containers) so you can scoop them out like butter. It makes life simpler and easier!

Resources

Where can I buy healthy vegan alternatives?
Our sister site, Vegan and Vegetarian Products Guide, lists hundreds of tasty alternatives to dairy, eggs, meat, pet food, supplements, and more that can be found in many grocery stores.

Disclaimer
This web site is intended for information purposes only and is not intended to be professional medical advice. This site is provided by health-minded volunteers, not professionals. Always confirm the information you read with verified medical journals and articles before using the information. Always seek the advice of your physician, dietician, or other qualified health provider before changing your diet or taking supplements.

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