First of all I want to start by addressing a taboo about oil. There are many circulating arguments in the healthy plant based vegan community saying to avoid oils all together, and for many people this can be beneficial in transitioning to their healthy plant based way of eating due to cutting out excess calories and junk food. However, in my 6 years of vegan research and personal experience with myself and clients I have learnt that including some healthy oils for most people long term is necessary and an important part of developing a healthy body. According to government recommendations a healthy adult needs approximately 40 - 70g fat per day including 1600mg Omega 3s, depending on activity levels and lifestyle choices, preferably from whole fats but the addition of healthy oils can be helpful to meet this too.
I believe everyone is unique and what works for someone one season may not work for them in another season and for one person may be an essential food and for another a destructive poison. So lets have an open mind about foods and figure out what works best for you right now.
Oils have a high calorie content which means they can be added to meals to add in the calories or be added in caution to not exceed requirements. 1 tablespoon of oil contains 120 calories*. They also contain different types of fats: unsaturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. Most plant oils are liquid at room temperature (besides homogenated spreads) these contain mostly unsaturated fatty acids and solid plant oils such as coconut oil contains mostly saturated.
Omegas fall under the polyunsaturated category of fats. Omega 3 fatty acids ALA, DHA and EPA, and Omega 6 fatty acids LA. ALA and LA are the fatty acids that are essential to be consumed as the body doesn't make them.
The body makes DHA and EPA from ALA but at a low conversion and these have the most health benefits. They are utilised in many processes in the body such as brain function, mood, hormone production, cell membranes and also used to absorb fat soluble vitamins A,D,E, K and provide energy and insulation. The healthy ratio of omega 6 to 3 should be 4:1 or 1:1, although this is only met with the addition of healthy fats, supplementation and the reduction of processed foods.
Good sources of LA (omega 6) are grapeseed oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, nuts and seeds.
Good sources of ALA (omega 3) are walnuts, seeds, soya beans, green leafy vegetables, linseeds, rapeseed oils and spreads. However, they do not contain DHA or EPA omega 3 directly. Non - vegan foods particularly oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines contain high levels of DHA and EPA so it is essential to consume a daily DHA/EPA omega 3 supplement if you're a long term strict vegan and consume little amounts of the list above. This is due to the slow depletion of omega 3 and the poor conversion from ALA.
Possible symptoms of deficiencies can arise from this depletion over time, such as brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, low mood, memory issues, difficulty losing weight, low libido and eyesight problems (however these could link with other deficiencies too and may not be the omegas.)
Not all healthy oils are healthy when cooked at high temperatures due to them having a low smoke point. There are better ones than others for different cooking methods...
My top high heat cooking oils are:
1. Grapeseed oil
2. Coconut oil
3. Avocado oil
4. High quality rapeseed oil
5. Olive oil (non-extra virgin)
My top low heat oils are:
1. Extra Virgin Olive oil, the key is to not cook with it but add it to your served up plate. It has a very low smoke point and when cooked burns off the good properties of antioxidants and vitamin E and goes rancid.
2. Hemp oil
3. Flaxseed oil
It is worth spending the extra few pounds on a good quality oil and to make it last, rather than buying the cheapest and using too much. I would avoid cheap poor quality vegetable and sunflower oils unless no other oil is available and avoid heating them to high temperatures.
Should you avoid oils or add them in?
Here's an example that may help bring some context...
So one person who may be eating whole plant foods and avoiding oils may think they're eating great but may start to feel tired, unmotivated and have difficulty losing weight. This person may appear to be eating great from all the whole foods they're eating, but when you look in detail, you'll see they're eating over their daily caloric requirement each day, have poor nut, seed and leafy green intake and are not taking any essential supplements (B12, Vit D or DHA/EPA) . This clearly shows they're not eating enough nutrient dense foods to meet their daily nutritional requirements so may need to increase or alter their daily intake to get in what they need or take supplements. This person may not be eating enough fats so adding in some good quality oil can be transformational for their health and well being. Not only would this increase satiety but also help them to absorb the nutrients in their food and give them the essential fatty acids they need.
On the other hand, another person may be eating a vegan diet mostly of packaged foods containing lots of poor quality oils and lots of refined sugar, with poor nuts and seeds intake and eating over their requirements. This person may be feeling tired and fatigued from too much processed oil and would benefit from adding in some good quality oils, nuts, seeds and leafy greens and reducing their vegan packaged food intake.
Another scenario may be someone eating either of the above but not meeting their requirements and may be losing weight and becoming underweight. They may be feeling fatigued due to under eating and struggling to eat enough. This person would also benefit from adding in oils to increase their calorie intake, making their meal more calorie dense and to help them absorb more nutrients from their meals.
If you found this helpful, drop me a comment below of what oil you're going to try and what your health goals are.
*One table spoon of extra virgin olive oil contains 120kcal, 14g fat, 0g carbs, 0g protein. So would be an easy addition to meals, being careful not to add too much if you need to lose weight and adding enough if you're needing to gain weight.