Basically, we need some fat in our diets to help us absorb fat soluble nutrients. In fact, healthy fats even help us lose weight. Men need about 30% fat in their diets, and women need about 20%. These figures vary of course, and some people believe we need far less than these standardly recommended amounts, although it's not a good idea to go below 10%. It's kind of a personal thing, and you have to listen to your own body and come up with what works for you. It's possible that many vegans who find themselves not feeling well, and go back to eating meat because they assume they need more protein, are actually feeling the need for more fat in their diets.
I've been pretty unconcerned with the amount of fats I've been getting, because I figured it would be hard to overdo them in the absence of animals products. And since only animal products contain cholesterol, I haven't been worried about the amount of oil I normally use in cooking, at least from a cholesterol standpoint. I've lost weight since I went vegan, but I wouldn't mind losing a bit more, especially since the Holidays, with all those lovely, rich foods I was cooking.
I'm rethinking my use of oils since I watched the following short video with Jeff Novick. I haven't seen his full DVD, From Oil To Nuts, but I will order it soon, and let you know what I think. This clip is very interesting...
I've never looked at it this way, seeing oils for what they are, only the concentrated fat from the food, without any of the nutrients. Would we sip corn oil and think we were getting fresh corn on the cob? Or pretend avocado oil was as healthful as nice fresh guacamole? Or to bring it around to a place even meat-eaters can understand - just for a moment here - would you look at a slab of lard on your plate and think it's the same as a steak? I'll bet not...
I tend to go to extremes sometimes... so when I saw that video the other day, I immediately took all the oil out of our diet. Most of the other things we eat contain very little fat, so it only took about 24 hours for both Rick and me to start feeling light-headed, low-energy, and kind of generally crappy. But since I was paying close attention, and hadn't changed anything else, I knew it wasn't protein we were missing, but fat. I ate a small handful of almonds (which are about about 74% fat), and like magic, I felt better within minutes. I had Rick do the same, and it worked for him too.
I've been reading the blog VeganRD.com, by Ginny Messina, which I highly recommend, along with her book, Vegan for Life. Her take on olive oil is less alarmist than Jeff Novick's. (Read the blog post, Olive Oil Health and Advocacy) I really like what one of her commenters said - "The best piece of advice I ever heard about oil is to think about it like sugar. Both are near pure, stripped of most of the nutrients. It isn't good to get a chunk of your calories from either, but a teaspoon here and a teaspoon there to make your food more enjoyable is a good investment. It keeps you from eating out where you might not get such a good nutritional deal." Yes indeed. Keeping a vegan diet enjoyable is a huge part of wanting to stick with it. No matter how dedicated we may be to all the health, environmental, and animal rights reasons for going vegan, most of us are unlikely to stick with it unless it tastes good.
So back to the oils themselves - I use only olive oil and coconut oil for my cooking, and always the best organic virgin oils I can get my hands on. If you want to use other oils, please be sure they're organic, especially when it comes to corn and soy. Since these are commonly grown as non-food crops, they get away with using all kinds of nasty chemicals and genetic modifications. And while the jury is still out on coconut oil, I use it because it can take a higher heat than olive oil can, it adds wonderful flavor to Asian dishes, and it's touted to be super healthful. While coconut oil is composed of mostly saturated fat (olive oil is 14% saturated fat), it's chemical makeup is different from other saturated fats, and it may actually have some health benefits. Again, do your own research. Start with this article on Livestrong.com. Like olive oil, or any other oil, coconut oil is pure fat, so now, rather than sloshing it all over everything, I use it "sparingly on the inside, and generously on the outside." It's a great moisturizer for skin and hair, and makes you smell like a tropical beach.
My swing from unlimited use of oils to cutting them out completely has come back to some middle ground now. I understand that there are actually plenty of the necessary fats to be found in a varied, balanced, whole foods, plant-based diet, and I see oils now more as condiment to be used sparingly. I want the fats, but I want to get them from actual food, along with all the fiber, nutrients, and flavor. So when I want a nice pasta puttanesca or crunchy bruschetta, I'll chop up some really good olives. I'll use more nuts in dishes I cook, and keep them handy for snacks. And there's no guilt at all in that avocado I spread on my toast in the morning. Maybe it's my imagination, but I feel better already.
I still have a lot to learn, and while I have no interest at all in becoming a nutritionist or dietician, I do want to know as much as I can about what's best to keep my human body running. After all these years, it really makes sense to me to eat the whole food, whatever it is, whenever possible. I love the Mae West quote, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," but I trust she wasn't talking about olive oil.