The Ultimate Junk Food (That you never even knew was a junk food!)
Junk food – noun. Simple Definition of junk food: food that is not good for your health because it contains high amounts of fat or sugar Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary
Full Definition of junk food – Merriam-Webster
1 : food that is high in calories but low in nutritional content (micronutrients)
2 : something that is appealing or enjoyable but of little or no real value
There is strong agreement among the public and nutritionists alike that food products such as pop, potato chips, chocolate bars, and many other prepackaged foods (think Twinkies) and convenience foods that can sit on the shelf for a very long period of time before they expire are all junk foods. As well, most fast foods such as donuts, cheeseburgers, fries and other deep-fried foods also fit into the category of junk food. These products are all highly refined; contain an abundance of calories, but very few micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients). These food products fit the definition of junk food because 1) they hold taste appeal, 2) have an abundance of calories, and 3) are very low in nutritional value.
But there is another food product that is not on this list that is actually the ultimate junk food. It is a food product that most people hold in great reverence, simply because it comes from vegetables; and that product is vegetable oil. You might find it shocking to suggest that vegetable oil is junk food, because people are always saying that plant oils like olive oil or coconut oil are good for you. While these oils might be good for your skin, on the outside of your body, they definitely aren’t good for the inside of your body. But let’s just backtrack for a minute to the actual definition of a junk food, and then compare four different food products. Let’s compare 100 grams of pop (what Americans call soda), 100 grams of sugar, 100 grams of potato chips, and 100 grams of olive oil and see how they all compare. (*100 grams = 3.5 ounces)
Plain salted potato chips
Olive oil- cooking/salad
Our definition of junk food is a food product that is high in calories, but low in nutritional content (micronutrients). The nutritional graphics above do not show all nutrients, but as you can see, none of these four food products contain vitamin A, or C. Potato chips do have some calcium, and olive oil does have some iron. However, keep in mind that recommended caloric intake for middle-aged women is around 2000 calories[i], and you can see that 100 grams of olive oil contains about 1/3 of our daily calorie intake limit, without supplying any real nutrition, except for 5% of our daily iron. A food that supplies 1/3 of our calories should also supply 1/3 of our micronutrient needs as well.
Note the calorie load of 100 grams of these foods – pop is 41 calories, sugar is 387 calories, potato chips are 547 calories (note that 330 calories come from fat), and olive oil is a whopping 884 calories! All other oils are similar in calorie load to olive oil since oils contain, on average, 9 calories per gram. Fat is the densest food on the planet, and oil is liquid fat. One hundred grams of any fat will contain around 885 calories. There is universal consensus that sugar is a source of empty calories since it is a refined carbohydrate containing almost no micronutrients; but at 387 calories in 100 grams, sugar contains far less than half the calories of vegetable oils. We all know that pop is junk food, and yet 100 grams of pop contains only 41 calories, compared to 884 calories in 100 grams of olive oil. So if you think sugar supplies empty calories, what do you think of oil now?
None of the four food products shown above supply much in the way of micronutrients, but olive oil has BY FAR, the largest calorie load. Olive oil, like all other oils is not a whole food, but is a processed food product, and this is the big difference between olives and olive oil. The same goes for almonds and almond oil, and any other vegetable and the oil that is extracted from it. Not only is the extraction process a multi-step process typically involving industrial chemicals in several stages, but the process involves removing 100% of the fibre, and most of the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. For example, let’s compare 100 grams of olives to 100 grams of olive oil in greater detail.
Whole Olives- Bottled- Green
Hopefully you can see that there is a very big difference between the whole food (olives), and the oil that is extracted from those same olives. The only place where whole olives score worse is in sodium scores, due to the picking process. When comparing 100 grams of olives to 100 grams of olive oil, you can see that olive oil has 10 X as much fat. Note also that 100 grams of olives contain only one gram of saturated fat, whereas 100 grams of olive oil contains 14 grams of saturated fat. Furthermore, olive oil has had 100% of the healthy fibre removed, along with most of the minerals and vitamins (except for vitamin E and K). While the manufacturers tout this as a benefit of olive oil, it comes at a very high caloric price. Furthermore, studies have actually failed to show health benefits from vitamin E supplementation. Current dietary recommendations actually suggest that we get our nutrition from whole foods, not from supplements or processed foods. [ii]
Calorie (or energy) density is an important dietary concept to grasp. Anyone trying to manage their weight will find this information invaluable. The following graph illustrates calories/100 grams of different foods. The quantity 100 grams of each food is used as a basis of comparison.
For example, let’s say you decide to make a salad. The vegetables that you put in a salad are typically around 12-25 calories/100 grams (about 3.5 oz.) If you sprinkle cheese on this salad, the calories in the salad climb rapidly, because cheese has 400 cal/100 gm. Then you might add nuts, which contain 600 cal/100 gm. Finally you will likely add an oil and vinegar dressing. That oil will contain 885 cal/100 gm! While you (hopefully) won’t put 100 grams of olive oil on a single serving of salad, you will likely put on a tablespoon; and that tablespoon contains 119 calories. The essential message here is that there is no food or food product that can possibly contain more calories than oil. Fat is nature’s storage organ; it is designed to carry the most number of calories in the least space. When you look at this graph you can see the amazing difference in salad greens and vegetables versus oil- from 12 cal/100 gm – 400 cal/100 gm.
Okay, so oils have an extremely caloric load; but are they actually bad for you?
After eating fast food, our arteries become somewhat paralyzed (unable to dilate) for several hours. The saturated fat in fast food has shouldered most of the blame for this phenomenon, however this same arterial paralysis also occurs after consuming vegetable oils, including olive oil. Olive oil was found to have the same impairment to endothelial (artery) function as the rest of these high-fat meals. Sausage and Egg McMuffin was the worst, but olive oil wasn’t far behind.[iii] Furthermore, even though olive oil is touted as healthy source of monounsaturated fat, 14% of the calories actually come from saturated fat.
It is also important to understand that whole food of plant origin is typically anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative[iv] in our bodies, protecting us from disease, ageing and cellular damage. However, once food has been processed into a food product, these protective properties are often lost due to extraction of fibre and phytonutrients. These ‘food products’ are then typically pro-inflammatory and pro-oxidative[v], working against health, rather than supporting it.
Wait… don’t we need fat in our diet?
Yes, humans need some fat in our diet, but it is best to consume these fats in whole foods. Our actual fat needs are extremely small. According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 3% of total calories need to come from linoleic acid (omega 6) and 1% of total calories from alpha linoleic acid (omega 3) to achieve adequate intake levels. For more information on essential fatty acid recommendations from the World Health Organization, as well as the European Scientific Committee on Food and the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition go to http://www.nutri-facts.org/en_US/nutrients/essential-fatty-acids/essential-fatty-acids/intake-recommendations.html
Almost all whole foods contain some fat, and there are almost no fat-deficient people in North America. If you are consuming enough calories, then you are getting enough fat. There are only two fats that the human body cannot manufacture, omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Omega 6 is overly abundant in our diet. We actually need to try to limit it, due to its inflammatory properties. Omega 3 is less abundant, and is anti-inflammatory. The best whole food sources of omega 3 are flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega 3 fats are also found in many pulses such as black beans and kidney beans as well as in edamame and winter squash.
One universal, safe guideline as a health consumer trying to sort out the truth in nutritional information is that the further you stray from whole food toward processed food, the less healthy your diet will be (and remember that all plant oils are processed foods). Most vegetable oils are very heavily processed[vi] with multiple steps typically involving mechanical extraction, solvent extraction, hydrogenation and deodorization. If food that has been through this process sounds like something you want to put into your body, then you have much more faith than I have in the human body’s ability to resist disease, illness and remain healthy.
- For videos on this topic, I would suggest the following:
- No Oil — Not Even Olive Oil! – Caldwell Esselstyn MD who has clinically proven reversal of heart disease through diet
- Oil to Nuts: The Truth About Fats – Jeff Novick RD, MS
- Olive Oil Is Not Healthy – Michael Klaper MD
Once you understand and accept that oil is actually junk food, you will want to remove it from your kitchen pantry; and then you will need to learn how to cook and eat without adding or using oils. There are many websites devoted to this healthy manner of eating. Here is a link to fifteen of the most popular websites.
Wishing you excellent health!
**Legal Waiver- This article does not provide medical advice. Content is provided for information purposes only. Be sure to consult with your primary care physician before making major dietary changes.