Thinking about refugees and the incredible problem of how to feed them, it occurred to me that vegetable oils are extremely calorie-dense, inexpensive and while relatively unpalatable, theoretically not a bad choice as a method of keeping people fed for a few days or weeks as we connect them with more long-term accommodations.

Sunflower oil, for example, contains 1927 calories per cup, roughly the NIH recommended daily value, and most of those calories come from monounsaturated (good) fats. Most exciting is that sunflower oil can be bought in bulk for around $1.25 (US) per cup. Other oils are far cheaper even. That means you can feed refugees for less than $1.25/refugee/day, plus the cost of a multivitamin, using a non-perishable and very easy to distribute ration, and in theory keep them happy and healthy until better arrangements can be made.

For longer-term rations, casein is fat-soluble, fairly complete in amino acid profile and can be purchased in bulk for around $2.75 (US) per 50g, the NIH recommended daily value of protein. This would more than triple the cost of the ration, but would make it capable of feeding people for far longer without adverse effects, theoretically. Plus, it could be dissolved in the oil for easy distribution.

But is it doable?


After some healthy (debatably) experimentation and research, it seems like an oil-only meal can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience. However, this can be largely ameliorated by splitting up the 1-cup meal into smaller amounts spread out over a few hours, similar to how most people snack throughout the day rather than eating 24 hours worth of food at once.

Further, it would appear that most of the discomfort from this meal results from the way in which fats are digested, especially as it concerns the stomach. Basically, fats just sit in the stomach unaltered until they make their way to the duodenum, where bile salts emulsify and break up large fat globules. Yet the liver can only produce so much bile salts at a time, making this a rate-limiting step in digestion. For large amounts of fat (like a cup of oil), this can mean hours of the stomach's enteric nervous system being bothered by large amounts of fat waiting to move on.

I think a decent solution to this could be to add emulsifiers simulating bile salts to the ration, allowing the natural churning of the stomach to far more quickly breakup and emulsify the fats, eliminating this rate limiting and thus speeding digestion and hopefully eliminating discomfort.

  • 2
    I'm new here... I don't quite get this question and think it's a bit #trollface. Basic googling would help this IMHO... nevertheless carry on (and thanks for my first contribution). HTH
    – Crowie
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 9:06
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    Go home and drink a cup of vegetable oil. Tomorrow let us know how that went.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 18:11
  • @CareyGregory In the interest of science, I did. I made the mistake of adding vinegar for flavor, and it wasn't the most pleasant experience. I then tried smaller amounts at a time without the vinegar and I didn't feel any different than usual. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 0:27
  • You drank a full cup of vegetable oil and suffered no effects in the next 24 hours?
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:52
  • @CareyGregory I suffered some stomach ache, severe headache and some nausea for a few hours, and then I tried again after I felt better, but in smaller doses spread out over a few hours, and I was totally fine. This leads me to believe that the ill effects were caused either by basically flooding the digestive system with oil in one fell swoop, the aforementioned vinegar I added for flavor (apparently I don't love salad dressing enough to drink it by the cup), or both. When spread out over time without vinegar, at least sunflower oil is perfectly tolerable in my experience. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 6:14

3 Answers 3



Protein isn't just a calorie source. It's an essential macronutrient that participates in a huge range of metabolic processes. The protein-free diet you're proposing is likely to cause protein-energy malnutrition, and possibly other deficiency syndromes never seen before -- I don't think anyone's ever made a serious study of a diet entirely lacking in protein.

Your proposed casein-supplimented rations might get around this, but it strikes me as a rather pointless and expensive exercise -- my local food bank claims it can feed a person a varied first-world diet for $0.60 per day; other donation drives claim things like a Thanksgiving dinner for $0.78.

  • It's worth noting that fat is essential in diets to enable absorption.
    – John
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 7:00

It's not feasible.

To properly digest food, it needs to dissolve in water to be broken down into its basic components. Fat can't dissolve in water in its most part, that's why the body uses bile salts generated by the liver. Bile salts are amphipatic, meaning that they have an "oily" part and a "watery" part, and allow the formation of emulsions to mix fat and water in a way that allows the digestive system to break them down. However, the liver can't do this with any amount of fat you want, it will eventually get saturated causing some of the fat to be eliminated with stools often accompanied with awful smell, pain, cramps and funny noises (check steatorrhea). I can't tell you exactly what is the limit for a normal human being but for sure it's way lower than the recommended daily calorie intake. The body just can't take it.


I think they would get ill if they drank PUFAs (polyunsaturated vegetable oils) but I do know of people who have been therapeutically 100% ketogenic, eating (saturated) fat only, (which starves cancer cells, for example) and have not had ill effects. The brain needs a certain amount of glucose, but this apparently can be synthesised in the body. Instead of the oils, if the said refugees ate coconuts, it would cover most of their dietary needs. Communities in the Pacific and New Guinea have that as a staple diet. Coconuts are abundant in the world.

  • One coconut might make one meal for an adult, and maybe they could (barely) survive long-term on three per day. If the coconuts are shipped whole, a week's worth for 1000 people would be 3000 coconuts. I'm pretty sure that will fill a large truck. Meanwhile, the same large truck loaded with dried rice and beans would feed those 1000 people for a full year or more (and would provide far more rounded nutrition). I suppose you could remove the coconut meat instead of shipping it whole, but then you have to dry it to preserve it, and you lose the coconut water which contains significant nutrients.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 17:48

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