Book: Dark Calories, How vegetable oils destroy our health and how we can get it back

I often hear about how bad vegetable oils are for human health. Much of the noise centers around the argument that vegetable oils are harmful because they’re highly refined and have origins in industrial lubrication. On the surface, they might seem bad, but are they really? And if they are, is there an evil corporate cabal forcing them on the public? What I don’t hear are many specifics about why these oils are bad for humans and exactly what they do to us when we ingest them. That’s why I immediately bought the book Dark Calories: How Vegetable Oils Destroy Our Health and How We Can Get It Back by Catherine Shanahan, MD.

The book provided some of the information I was missing and offers reasons why high consumption of vegetable oils might not be good for our health and could be a major cause of chronic illness in humans.

Consumed in the amounts the average American consumes, I can see why these oils may be a problem. Vegetable oils are everywhere. They’re in almost all packaged food and restaurant food, and now make up about a third of the total calories consumed by people. Common sense would tell you that you can’t replace something humans consume naturally with something highly processed and refined in the quantities we’re doing it and not have some bad results.

It seems cottonseed oil was the first to be used commercially because there was a shortage of beef tallow. Soap makers needed a substitute. It was all good until petroleum products replaced cottonseed oil and a different purpose for this oil was needed. It was discovered that the oil could be hydrogenated to alter its texture so it resembled lard. That began the march toward replacing animal fats in our diet with vegetable fats.

Vegetable fats don’t exist in nature in the form we use them. Any oils produced in refineries, rather than simple pressing like olive oil, require heat and chemicals to extract the oils. The book points out you’d be hard-pressed to see the difference in appearance between a vegetable oil refinery and a petroleum oil refinery. If the product requires that much industrial effort, it may not be the best thing for us to consume. The scientists involved in creating these oils also know about their inherent toxicity and have been working on solving the problem for over a century and a half.

A discovery of what these oils do to us was pretty alarming to me. Eating animal fats is natural to humans because we’re omnivores by nature. Eating animal meat and organs naturally includes their fat. As such, the fat in our bodies resembles that of other animals. But something happens when we start converting to plant-based oils. Studies show human body fat was increasingly becoming more like vegetable fats than animal fats. The amount of the change correlated with how much they ate. It only takes about five years for the fat content in a person’s body to increase to match the amount of vegetable fat they consume.

Mitochondria in our bodies were not meant to process fats from vegetable oils. A study in Italy showed that energy production inside mitochondria drops dramatically when processing plant oils. This doesn’t happen with animal fats. Could this result in some of the chronic fatigue that people increasingly report?

Reactions in the body from oxidative stress caused by consumption of vegetable oils have become a problem. An entire industry has popped up to combat this. You may have heard it mentioned a million times in commercials and food advertising. Antioxidants are big business in supplements and food. It’s basically a marketing term now, as many of the products sold may be worthless. They are produced from plant products and therefore serve no function in human bodies. We spend millions, perhaps billions, on these supplements.

Oxidative stress leads to inflammatory diseases. Inflammation is the body’s response to trauma and infection. Consumption of excessive vegetable oils contributes to chronic inflammatory responses in our bodies.

The first three chapters of this book were almost all new information to me. I plan to re-read it a few times. I don’t pretend to understand everything the author writes about, but I do get the general gist of how these oils are made, why it’s not a good idea to consume them, and especially why it’s a bad idea to consume them in the quantities we do.

However, if you eat home-cooked meals most of the time that aren’t from highly processed food, you should be fine if you happen to consume some “seed oils.” At least that’s my opinion. For example, most of the food I eat at home concentrates on protein first. The main part of my meals is beef, pork, chicken, fish, or eggs. Then I add in other ingredients like herbs, spices, salt, and pepper. The proteins are usually accompanied by a vegetable. I like asparagus, broccoli, lettuces, spinach, tomatoes, and even potatoes in limited quantities. The meals are pretty simple, and no vegetable oils are involved in my cooking. This makes it possible to not think too much about every little ingredient the few times I eat out.

The rest of the book covers ground that has been covered quite a bit. I suggest picking up Dr. Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code, Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise, and Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat. I think they’re a better source for some of the other information provided in this book.


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