You may have heard of the paleo diet, but what exactly is it? The paleo diet, or Paleolithic diet, is based on the diet of our ancestors who lived in the Paleolithic era, or early Stone Age, roughly 2.5 million years ago. It is commonly followed to reduce inflammation, prevent disease, and practice an overall healthier lifestyle.
The researchers who first explored the paleo diet believed our modern diet causes many chronic diseases. To fix this, these researchers proposed returning to our hunter-gatherer roots. Humans in the Paleolithic era ate around 50%–80% plant-based foods and only around 20%–50% animal-based foods. The paleo diet follows this rule.
One food group the paleo diet excludes is highly processed oils. In this article, we will explore a special kind of oil called sunflower oil and discuss whether or not sunflower oil is paleo-friendly. (Source, Source)
What is Sunflower Oil?
Sunflower oil is extracted from seeds of the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus. Research on sunflower oil has grown in the past few years because of this oil’s nutritional value. Sunflower oil contains important minerals such as zinc, copper, and iron and vitamins such as vitamin B9 and vitamin E that are needed to stay healthy.
Evidence suggests that sunflower seeds contain compounds that are anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial (helps to reduce the amount of bacteria or viruses in your body), antihypertensive (helps to reduce blood pressure), antidiabetic, and antioxidant (helps prevent damage to your cells caused by unstable molecules called free radicals). Sunflower seeds and sprouts have historically been used to treat colds, constipation, urinary diseases, respiratory diseases, and coughs. (Source)
So Is Sunflower Oil Paleo-Friendly?
No, sunflower oil is not considered paleo-friendly. The paleo diet is an exclusion diet and only allows foods that were available to humans during the Paleolithic era, such as vegetables, lean meats, fish, roots, eggs, fruits, and nuts. The paleo diet does not allow grains, dairy products, salt, processed oils, refined sugar, salt, or legumes because these foods were not available to humans who lived during the Paleolithic era.
However, the paleo diet does make exceptions for certain minimally processed oils, such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. (Source)
Sunflower oil is a processed oil, and may be either cold-pressed or refined. The refined oil may go through several steps including grinding and pressing sunflower seeds, using a solvent such as hexane to extract the oil, and then processing the oil further to remove the solvent and other impurities. (Source)
Although it isn’t considered paleo-friendly, cold-pressed sunflower oil is processed the same way as the oils that are and, like them, retains its flavor and micronutrients. (Source)
What Oils are Paleo-Friendly?
Although sunflower oil is not paleo, some oils obtained through cold-pressing are. In cold-pressing, the oil or seed is simply pressed to release the oil, without use of solvents or extensive processing.
According to the founders of the paleo diet, paleo-friendly oils include:
- flaxseed oil
- walnut oil
- extra virgin olive oil
- macadamia nut oil
- coconut oil
- avocado oil
The founders do warn that some of these oils have low smoke points and should be used only for low-heat cooking or unheated, as finishing oils or salad dressings. (Source)
Is the Paleo Diet Science-Backed?
The short answer is . . . not exactly. The overarching rule of the paleo diet is to not eat any food that wasn’t available to humans in the Paleolithic era. As a result, the paleo diet excludes foods such as highly processed oils and refined sugars, because these were not available to our Paleolithic ancestors.
It turns out that processed oils and refined sugars are generally low in nutrients and linked to cardiometabolic diseases and obesity. However, other food groups that are not linked to disease are still excluded from the paleo diet simply because our ancestors did not have access to them. So how science-backed is the paleo diet?
Early researchers who developed the paleo diet overlooked a few important details.
- Diet is not the only factor responsible for chronic disease. These researchers believed that our modern diet alone causes chronic disease. However, lifestyle choices and genetics also play a role. Humans who existed during the Paleolithic era lived much more active lives because they had to hunt and gather their food. This physical activity likely helped prevent diseases in our ancestors.
- Our ancestors lived in a different environment than ours. If the environment we live in is different from the one our ancestors lived in, shouldn’t our diet be different as well? Humans are incredible at adapting to our environments. For example, there is an important enzyme called lactose that allows our bodies to digest dairy products. In the past, lactose would stop working after infancy. This meant we would not have been able to continue digesting dairy products into adulthood. However, over time, many humans evolved to have a functional lactose enzyme well into adulthood.
- Our ever-changing gut microbiome allows us to adapt to new foods. The types of microorganisms such as bacteria that live in our gut are constantly changing. This allows us to change our diet and become used to new foods.
- Despite their paleo diet, our ancestors still experienced chronic disease. The researchers who designed the paleo diet assumed our ancestors did not have chronic disease. However, there is evidence of mummies having atherosclerosis, a cardiovascular disease in which fats accumulate along the walls of the arteries.
- Our ancestors lived in varied environments. The paleo diet is based on what researchers assume our Paleolithic ancestors ate, but we don’t know for certain what foods were available. Our ancestors lived in many different climates and likely did not follow a singular diet.
Is Sunflower Oil Healthy?
Processed foods often get a bad rap, largely because they can be altered during preparation by adding sugar, salt, or fat. In some cases, these additional ingredients can enhance the appearance of the food or give the food a longer shelf life. But consuming a lot of processed foods with added sugar, salt, or fat on a daily basis can be bad for your health. (Source)
However, in some cases, processing is harmless and even helpful. For example, milk is often pasteurised to kill harmful bacteria and make the milk safe for consumption. In the case of sunflower oil, cold-pressing just extracts oil from the sunflower seeds, with no sugar, salt, or fat added.
This means cold-pressed sunflower oil is considered non-paleo not because it isn’t healthy, but simply because our ancestors did not have access to pressing machinery.
Sunflower Oil Contains Good Unsaturated Fats
Sunflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, more broadly known as unsaturated fats.
Unsaturated fats, which have gaps between their fat molecules, are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol levels in your blood, and help maintain a stable heartbeat.
On the other hand, saturated fats, which do not have gaps between their fat molecules, are solid at room temperature. High consumption of saturated fats is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, and stroke.
Dietary guidelines suggest consuming fewer saturated fats and replacing the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats.
Oils high in saturated fats include:
- coconut oil
- palm kernel oil
- palm oil
Oils high in unsaturated fats include:
- sunflower oil
- corn oil
- soybean oil
- flaxseed oil
- olive oil
- peanut oil
- canola oil
The Bottom Line on Sunflower Oil
Sunflower oil is not considered paleo-compliant because it is a processed oil. However, this processing does not add any harmful ingredients to the oil. Sunflower oil is still considered a relatively healthy vegetable oil because it is rich in healthy unsaturated fats that can help reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels. You may choose to use sunflower oil for its health benefits, even if you follow a paleo diet.