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The Science of Seed Oils

By January 15, 2021Nutrition
Reading Time: 6 minutes
The next Whole Life Challenge starts in:

For many years, the Whole Life Challenge has dealt with “vegetable” oils (there’s actually nothing vegetable about them) by making them non-compliant on Performance and recommended against on Lifestyle and Kickstart levels.

After some consideration, we’ve decided to make what are more correctly referred to as “seed oils” non-compliant on every level. Current research shows that they are toxic and at least partially responsible for the epidemics of chronic diseases in modern life—heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

This is a post in two parts:

  • Part One is short. It’s just going to explain the rule and what is still compliant.
  • Part Two will tell you a more detailed story that explains some of the processes that are damaged by vegetable oil.

Part Three, which will be a future blog post, will give the curious a deeper look into the chemistry of how these fats do their damage.

Part One: The rule, what’s left, and why the heck would we do this?

Going forward, the following oils are considered non-compliant on all levels in the Whole Life Challenge:

  • Canola
  • Grapeseed
  • Rapeseed
  • Sunflower
  • Safflower
  • Soybean
  • Corn
  • Cottonseed
  • Peanut oil
  • Rice bran

First, have no fear. This leaves you with a lot of good options. You can still freely use extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. These are monounsaturated fats and are protective against modern chronic metabolic diseases and conditions—diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

If you’re not a vegetarian, you can also enjoy, to your hearts’ content, butter, ghee, and tallow. There are additional animal fats that can be used—bacon fat, lard, chicken fat (“schmaltz”), but for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, we don’t recommend them either.

This may be all you need to know. It’s an update to the rules of the game, and if you’re satisfied with that, you don’t need to read further. If you want to understand more about the decision, read on…

Part Two: The story

A bit of a forewarning: This may run counter to everything you currently believe about fat and health. About what is “heart healthy,” what is “good” and what is “bad,” what causes disease, and what the optimal human diet is.

Keep in mind that the current paradigm for healthy eating (low fat, high carbohydrate, limit saturated fats and animal foods) is young. It was introduced less and a century ago as a radical experiment in human nutrition. That way of eating is different from how humans have eaten for the entirety of their history. At the time it was a hypothesis with no basis in research. It remains so today.

People often talk of “fad” diets and how we should avoid the “extremes” of things like cutting out carbs or eating high levels of fat. It’s important to understand that the modern western diet is the most widespread fad diet ever known. At the time it was introduced it was an extreme reversal of what humans had eaten for millenia.

So if you have an aversion to adopting fads, just know that the “heart healthy” diet that makes up the food pyramid and all of the food recommendations you receive, is a long-lasting fad diet. It has never proven to be effective. If it was, why are we seeing more disease than ever when more and more people are doing their best to eat this “healthy” diet?

For more than half a century, the western world (and other parts of the world that have adopted a westernized diet) has seen rising rates of obesity and life-shortening chronic diseases in spite of the fact that we’ve followed the recommendations of health experts to eat polyunsaturated fats, avoid animal products, and indulge in refined carbohydrates.

Some relevant facts:

  • Before about 100 years ago, humans had never seen a “vegetable” oil
  • These oils were created from industrial waste products, not as a health-saving measure, but as a cost-saving one
  • The introduction of these oils, along with the subsequent recommendation of the reduction of saturated fats and animal products, has paralleled the catastrophic rise of modern diseases—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity
  • These diseases were practically unknown prior to the introduction of these oils, which are uniquely responsible for the metabolic derangement that has made them a part of our everyday lives
  • They are a part of a longstanding nutritional experiment—the ultimate “fad” diet—whose time has long past

Without going into the details of how the “heart healthy” conclusions were drawn or why we’ve followed them for so long, researchers of chronic disease and nutrition now tell a different, much more compelling story.

When we look at the epidemic of chronic metabolic diseases we now face, we can see several things:

  1. They are new. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity. These didn’t exist 100 years ago. Our great grandparents didn’t suffer from them.
  2. They arrive with the introduction of a western diet. Over and over, we’ve seen traditional societies that had no trace of any of these diseases and yet, within a generation, they’re suffering from them when they begin eating what the west has to offer. What is a “western” diet? Processed grains, carbohydrates, and fats.
  3. We know exactly how to induce them in laboratory animals in order to study them (hint: feed them a diet high in polyunsaturated fats and sugar).

All we have to do to figure out what is causing these problems is to look at where all of these things intersect.

First, we were eating far less sugar more than 100 years ago. And saturated fat? We were consuming far more saturated fat than we are today with much better health outcomes. The fats that were available were butter and animal fats. What we were not eating were large quantities of seed oils, also known as polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs. They did not exist. If they did, they were industrial oil used for machines and lamp oil.

It wasn’t until someone figured out how to “detoxify” cottonseed oil that it was introduced into the human diet in the form of Crisco. “Detoxify” because while they figured out how to keep it from killing you quickly, they didn’t know that it would kill you in the long run. Why did they do it? Crisco is cheaper than lard.

Second, these seed oils, or PUFAs, also come along with the introduction of a western diet to other cultures. When traditional cultures start eating a western diet, they eat more processed foods—sugar, flour and PUFAs. Traditional cultures have eaten animal fats and salt at widely varying levels with no ill effects for millenia. What’s new are the processed ingredients—highly refined oils and carbohydrates.

Finally, when we want to induce metabolic disorder, obesity, cancer, and heart disease in laboratory animals, we feed them polyunsaturated fats. No matter how much monounsaturated or saturated fats they eat, they are protected from these conditions. The scientific industry knows how to do it. They have pre-combined “chows” that they give to animals to induce these diseases. And they are rich in sugar and PUFAs.

As a matter of fact, PUFAs are required to induce these diseases.

And why don’t we recommend chicken fat, lard, or bacon fat? Well, in years past these would have been common and fine to use. But modern factory-raised chickens and pigs are fed mostly corn and soy. This means that their body fat is extremely high in polyunsaturated fats (20-30% rather than the preferred 2%), the very fats we want to avoid. The more you eat, the more it accumulates in your own fat. You are what you eat and you also are what what you eat eats.

Now you may wonder about beef and why grain-fed beef fat is ok. Cattle are ruminants and have an interesting digestive system. Even when they consume grains, they convert those fats into saturated fats much more readily than the single-stomach (mono-gastric) chickens and pigs. Cattle (and humans) do need and have some level of PUFAs—they’re important molecules for cellular signaling and some structures. They’re just not suitable for fat burning, and in amounts greater than about 2% of your total fat will begin to wreak a special kind of havoc in your system.

That’s the high-level story of PUFAs. If you’re the really curious type, I’m going to explain next a little more how this works on a biological level. But you may have all you need to know to confidently open your cabinets and refrigerator and toss your canola oil, safflower, sunflower, and other “vegetable” oils and salad dressings.

There is much that we’re learning every day about the science of health and well-being. We’re always doing everything that we can to bring you recommendations that represent the latest in nutrition, exercise, and well-being research.

Be well!

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Michael Stanwyck
Michael Stanwyck is the co-founder of The Whole Life Challenge, an idea that developed during his seven years as a coach and gym manager at CrossFit Los Angeles.

He graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy as well as a degree from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, and feels food is one of the most important parts of a life - it can nourish, heal, and bring people together.

Michael believes health and well-being are as much a state of mind as they are a state of the body, and when it comes to fitness, food, and life in general, he thinks slow is much better than fast (most of the time). Stopping regularly to examine things is the surest way to put down roots and grow.

He knows he will never be done with his own work, and believes the best thing you can do for your well-being starts with loving and working from what you’ve got right now.