No oil plant based diet: more heart healthy? Picture of different bottles of oil. Veg Out With Maria

Most of us have heard about the health benefits associated with following a whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet. What might not be as well known is that it is a common practice for those who choose to follow this type of eating plan to not add any oil to their diet. This is often referred to as a Whole Foods Plant Based No Oil (WFPBNO) diet.

This no-oil dietary approach not only emphasizes the consumption of minimally processed plant-derived foods but avoids using added oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and other vegetable oils in addition to added fats such as plant-based butter.

Proponents of this no-oil diet argue that by focusing on whole, minimally processed plant foods, individuals can reap numerous health benefits, including weight management, improved heart health, blood sugar control, and reduced inflammation. It’s often recommended for those who have chronic disease(s) and are trying to improve or even reverse their condition.

But, is a no-oil plant-based diet really more heart-healthy? In this blog, we’ll explore the pros and cons of adopting such a dietary lifestyle, and shed light on both its promises and limitations.

Why No-Oil Plant-Based?

So, why no oil? The concept can seem a little backward compared to how most of us are used to eating.

The origin of a no-oil plant-based diet goes back to the 1980s with well-known advocates like Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn who both found they could reverse the progression of heart disease with a low-fat, no added-oil plant-based diet.

T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., author of the China Study, actually coined the term “Whole Foods Plant Based” which helps set itself apart from just a “vegan” diet void of all animal products but not necessarily health-promoting.

A Focus on Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods

The emphasis of a WFPBNO diet is to obtain your nutrition from whole food sources like fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds which are rich in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) and fiber. These foods are also naturally low in calories and fat (especially saturated fat).

The thought is that oils are not only calorically dense they are also very processed and are 100% fat, void of fiber, and contain very few nutrients except for a small amount of vitamin E and essential fats (omega-6, omega-3) which we can obtain from whole foods such as nuts and seeds.

Better Weight Management

As mentioned above, a WFPBNO diet is naturally low in calories and rich in fiber and nutrients. When you avoid processed foods and added oils you significantly decrease your overall calorie intake which can contribute to better weight management.

While it is important to eat enough calories to meet your needs, in our Western environment we are often faced with an abundant supply of calories all around us. This overconsumption of calories leads to increased fat storage and subsequent weight gain.

A randomized controlled trial had people follow a low-fat WFPB diet for a period of 6 months to a year and found significant weight reduction. Oils and high-fat plant foods like avocados and nuts were restricted/discouraged, however calories were not restricted1.

Heart Disease

Healthy food in heart diet concept with stethoscope

A whole foods plant-based diet without added oil can offer several benefits for heart disease:

Heart Disease Management:

  • Reduced Saturated Fat Intake: By eliminating added oils, which are often high in saturated fats, this diet helps lower overall intake of unhealthy fats that can contribute to heart disease.
  • Improved Lipid Profiles: Whole plant foods are naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol, while rich in fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. This combination can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and improve overall lipid profiles, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular events.
  • Lower Blood Pressure: Plant-based diets are associated with lower blood pressure levels, likely due to their high potassium and low sodium content, as well as the presence of nitric oxide-promoting compounds found in plant foods. By reducing blood pressure, the risk of heart disease is further mitigated.

Both Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish with his 40 years of research utilized a WFPBNO diet to help stop the progression and even start reversing coronary heart disease2,3.

Type 2 Diabetes

Blood sugar control has also been shown to improve on a WFPBNO diet.

Type 2 Diabetes Management:

  • Improved Insulin Sensitivity: Whole plant foods are typically low on the glycemic index, high in fiber, and low in saturated fat which can help stabilize blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with type 2 diabetes, helping to better manage their condition and reduce the need for medication.
  • Weight Management: Plant-based diets tend to be lower in calories and higher in fiber compared to omnivorous diets. This can aid in weight loss or weight management, which is crucial for controlling blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduced Inflammation: Chronic inflammation is a key factor in the development and progression of type 2 diabetes. Whole plant foods are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, such as phytonutrients and antioxidants, which can help reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.

There have been studies showing the beneficial impact of using more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats over saturated fats on insulin sensitivity. However, this impact was not seen in individuals with a high total fat intake (> 37% of calories)4.

In key randomized trials of plant-based diets for type 2 diabetes, the recommended total fat intake has been low (approximately 10% of calories) for intervention groups5. It is very difficult to keep your total fat intake down to 10% of your total calories if you’re adding oil to your diet.

Sources of Fat on a WFPBNO Diet

picture of healthy vegan fat sources on a white background.

So, if you’re not adding oil or other added fats like plant-based butter to things how do you meet your fat needs?

It’s actually pretty easy to meet your fat needs just through whole plant sources like nuts, seeds, whole grains, nut/seed butter, avocado, olives, and soy foods. For a more in-depth look at fats refer to “The Best Vegan Healthy Fats” blog.

Another important consideration is making sure you are getting enough essential fatty acids, especially omega-3s which may be beneficial for women going through perimenopause and menopause.

A study looking at postmenopausal women with metabolic syndrome showed that higher omega-3 fatty acid intake (diet + supplements) improved triglyceride levels and blood pressure as well as insulin sensitivity and inflammatory markers6.

Refer to the Best Vegan Omega 3 Sources blog to find out how you can include enough of these important fats.

Limitations of a No Oil Plant-Based Diet

It Can Be Challenging

The obvious limitation of a WFPBNO diet is trying to avoid oil! Oil is everywhere. It’s in most of our packaged foods. When you go out to eat, you’ll find that oil is added to almost everything you’re served. It definitely can be challenging.

Besides learning to eat out less, you will need to initially spend more time in the kitchen meal prepping and adjust to cooking without oil.

Tips:

If you’re considering giving it a try, I would invest in a good non-toxic nonstick pan (stainless steel with a ceramic coating is a popular option). Just add a little water or vegetable broth and sauté on medium heat.

When it comes to roasting, using silicone ovenware or parchment paper will prevent sticking. Just add a little vegetable broth, lemon juice, coconut aminos, or vinegar – depending on what you’re making – along with seasoning before baking/roasting to help add moisture and flavor.

I also recommend an air-fryer which is not only more efficient than baking but it helps give that crispier texture without the need for added oils.

Too Restrictive For Some

If you have or have had a history of disordered eating, a no-oil plant-based diet may not be for you. Any kind of food restriction focused on eliminating certain foods or food groups can be triggering for those with eating disorders.

It is best to work with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in eating disorders to ensure you are meeting all of your needs.

Unnecessary For Most

I’m entering my own bias here, but as a nutrition professional, I believe that you can live a healthy, long life eating plant-based and still include a little bit of oil.

The Blue Zones (where people live the healthiest and the longest) have demonstrated this nicely. In Ikaria (a Greek island), olive oil consumption has been linked to improved cholesterol levels and a significantly lowered risk of death.

In comparison to a Western diet, the people in the Blue Zones eat a mostly whole food plant-based diet, low in added sugars, and refined and processed foods. This is key!

Bottom Line

Is a no-oil plant-based diet more heart-healthy? Contrary to the belief of most whole foods plant-based advocates, I don’t believe there’s a black-and-white answer to this that applies to everyone.

If you already have heart disease or type 2 diabetes, especially if you have experienced complications and are looking to improve or even reverse your condition, then following a WFPBNO diet could be beneficial for you. Always work with your healthcare professional if you are considering making any dietary changes, especially if you are taking prescription medication.

If you do choose to follow a no-oil plant-based diet, you can easily meet your fat needs through whole plant sources such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, whole grains, and soy foods. Just ensure you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids.

If you are already pretty healthy and are just looking to maintain or optimize your health, then I believe you can do this even if you do add some extra-virgin olive oil or other unrefined plant-based oil to your diet. We shouldn’t single out one food source without looking at the whole context of our diet.

The bottom line: eat predominately plants, include a lot of variety and avoid over-eating by slowing down and eating more mindfully. And eat with friends and family! Community is also important for health, longevity, and your heart.

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