Should you be cooking oil-free?

To oil or not to oil? That’s a good question. Over the past few decades oil has been either vilified as the wasitline killer or praised as the fountain of youth, depending on the kind of oil you’re referring to. Decades ago people thought saturated animal fats were essential for good health, until they were linked to heart disease. Then hydrogenated vegetable oils (e.g. margarine or “Blue Band”) were invented and promoted as the heart-friendly alternative to butter. But now that we know they contain cancer-inducing trans fats, extra-virgin or cold-pressed oils have now become the new the holy grail. Cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil- all supposedly good for you. But extra-virgin or not, is oil ever really healthy to consume?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, is one of my primary sources for legit nutrition recommendations. Former US President Bill Clinton has credited Dr. Esselstyn with helping him overcome heart disease not with pills or surgery, but by changing his diet. In addition to advocating a plant-based diet for optimum heart health, Dr. Esselstyn strongly advises against consumption of refined foods, most especially oil. Like wheat flour, oil is a highly refined, high calorie food which is devoid of nutritional value and difficult for the body to digest; when consumed habitually it can lead to clogging of the arteries and weight gain. Yes, extra-virgin oils may be somewhat less damaging than animal fats, but ‘less bad’ doesn’t automatically mean good.

In this video Jeff Novick, a renowned nutritionist and dietician, explains further how oil is pure junk food.

So ideally, we should all be eating oil-less, not just people with a medical condition. Unfortunately most of us eat out during the week (at least for lunch), and we can’t really control how much oil the restaurant uses in our food. But what we can do is eliminate oil when we do our own cooking, to balance out the equation a little.

Like cooking in general, oil-free cooking is a scientific art. At first you have to approach it with some basic knowledge, but with practice your instinct guides you and it starts to come naturally. Although I try to cook with very little oil, I’m not an expert on oil-free cooking (yet). So I turned to the good ol’ internet to find out how oil-free cooking works. Here are the tips I found so far:

1. You’re going to need a good non-stick pan

When making ‘sautee’ or ‘stir-fry’ dishes like pancakes, fritters and so on, you actually don’t need oil. A non-stick pan is all you need. Teflon, PFOA or PTFE coated non-stick pans emit toxic gases and leach chemicals into your food, so look for one that does not use either. If you’re serious about healthy cooking/eating, try to get a good non-stick pan. This article gives the lowdown on alternatives to Teflon coated non-sticks, ranging from cast iron to anodised steel. My dream is to get a cast iron pan coated with enamel. They’re quite pricey but it’s a lifetime investment that you can pass on to your kids, unlike those cheap non-stick pans that have to be replaced every few months. 1 cast iron skillet which lasts for decades costs about as much as the 5 cheap ones you’ll buy in 2 years or less.

2. Use the whole foods instead

All vegetable oils come from some plant. You may be cutting out oil but that doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need fats; they should still be a (small) part of your diet. To get the healthy fats the right way, you’ll need to incorporate the source plant in your meals. Think groundnuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, egusi seeds, ukwa, palm nuts… There is an abundance of oily nuts you can snack on or incorporate in your food to get enough of those good fats.

3. Use wax paper 

Often when baking the instructions say you should smear the container with oil or butter to prevent sticking. If you’re going oil-free, this is of course a no-no. Use wax paper to line the baking container to prevent sticking without using oil. It’s often sold as ‘baking paper’ or ‘parchment paper’.

4. Dress it up

Just because the food is oil-less, that doesn’t mean it has to be sad and soul-less. Oil-less food gets a bad rap for looking quite unappetising but it doesn’t have to. For instance if the recipe calls for palm oil to add some red colour, use a red vegetable like red bell peppers or tomatoes to get the colour without the oil. The better it looks, the less you’ll feel like you’re eating punishment.

5. Use extra-virgin oils in other ways

Despite being a nutritional hazard, cold-pressed oils are beneficial; you can still use that coconut oil, just not in your food. Use it on your skin and hair, or for oil pulling.

As I work towards cutting out oil completely from my meals, I’ll share on this blog any more tips I find helpful as I go along. If you have some tips as well, or you have experience with oil-less cooking, do share in the comments. 🙂

Photo credit – header image


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