Healthy Fats 101
By Cynthia Hill, NTP
Olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil, lard, tallow, butter…vegetable oils or animal fats? What should you choose? What are good fats? What are bad fats? What are healthy? What are not? What fats are safest to cook with and what are not? To answer these questions, lets begin with a basic understanding of the composition and properties of fats and oils:
Fats are molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Fats are classified as saturated fatty acids (SFA’s), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA’s) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s). All fats are a combination of fatty acids and are classified by the highest percentage of either sat, mono or poly:
Saturated fats are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Saturated fats do not turn rancid easily even with higher temperature cooking. Butter and coconut oil are examples of saturated fats.
Pure Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and solidify somewhat with refrigeration. Monounsaturated fats are relatively stable and do not turn rancid easily. Olive and avocado oil are examples of monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature or upon refrigeration and are highly unstable. Polyunsaturated fats are fragile and are easily damaged by light and heat turning rancid quickly. Vegetable oils and grape seed oil are examples of polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are broken down into two subgroups: Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
So what fats are healthy? and what fats are safe to cook with??? Animal fats and tropical oils that are high in saturated fat – yes saturated fat! Your body needs saturated fat to function optimally! Saturated fats are the most stable for higher temperature cooking (baking, frying, broiling, grilling, sautéing and roasting). Some excellent choices are lard, Ghee (clarified butter), beef and lamb tallow, chicken, duck & goose fat (from grass-fed/pastured/organic animals), coconut & red palm oil (organic, virgin, sustainably sourced). Vegetables roasted in duck fat are to die for!!!
Monounsaturated fats can be safely used for brief stir-frying, light sautéing, and slow simmering over low heat. Good choices are pure unfiltered/unrefined/uncut olive oil (contrary to popular belief, olive oil is safe for light cooking less than 400 degrees), peanut oil (occasionally as it is high in PUFA’s), avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and sesame oil. High heat cooking may damage MUFA’s resulting in free radical damage. Healthy monounsaturated fats support the immune system and joint health.
Polyunsaturated vegetable oils including flax, hemp, pine nut, pumpkin, grape seed oil and high oleic sunflower oil should never be heated or used in cooking (despite what their labels may say). They should be stored in the refrigerator. Due to their high omega-6 content, these oils should be used sparingly and must be unrefined and unprocessed/cold pressed. (Which can be difficult to find). Omega-3 rich flax oil should always be refrigerated and used sparingly in small amounts only (drizzle on salads, or in smoothies). High Oleic sunflower oil has some MUFA’s so very light heating would be acceptable.
Omega-6 liquid evening primrose, borage and black currant seed oils are highly reactive, and should never be cooked. Use in very small amounts as in supplements only.
Fats I recommend AVOIDING completely:
VEGETABLE OILS, canola, soybean, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower and corn oil (including margarine/spreads made with them). All of these (artery clogging hydrogenated trans fats) oils are used in processed foods, fast food/restaurants. They are cheap genetically modified highly processed industrial oils that have only been in the human diet for a short amount of time. Our bodies do not recognize these oils as food and they are not fit for human consumption! Canola oil is a marketing ploy at it’s best – touted for its omega-3 and MUFA’s it is a highly processed rancid oil, derived from the genetically modified rapeseed plant. It is often partially hydrogenated to increase stability turning the delicate omega-3 fatty acids rancid quickly (free radicals). Soybean, cottonseed, corn, and safflower oils (also gmo) go through similar processing leaving them vulnerable to oxidation and free radical production when exposed to heat and light. Soy/Soybean oil in addition depresses thyroid function. Processed Omega-6 vegetable oils promote inflammation in the body. Best to get your Omega-6’s from vegetables, raw nuts and seeds.
I am a big fan of BUTTER! Butter makes everything taste better and there is no reason to fear it! Quality unprocessed real butter from grass-fed cows contains small amounts of omega -3 and omega-6’s in a healthy ratio along with Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) helpful for weight management, muscle growth and cancer protection. Butter contains the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K which help us absorb and assimilate minerals. Butter also has Butyric acid which provides protection from fungal infections and tumor growth. The Arachidonic fatty acids found in butter aid in proper inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes. Butterfat boosts cell membrane integrity and brain function. Margarines’ fat profile is a total fail in comparison!
Embrace Healthy Fats!
Fats play a very important role in our health and bodies. Healthy fats are imperative to good health and do not make you fat. Thanks to an inaccurate study done over 50 years ago, we were led to believe that consuming fat was bad, and that saturated fat led to high cholesterol and heart disease. This theory has been proven to be completely false. We are now seeing the detrimental side effects and suffering of the low fat no fat era with countless degenerative diseases. So aim for a balance of healthy fats (sat, mono & poly) and improve your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio by consuming less polyunsaturated (vegetable oils) in processed foods and fast food/restaurants. Source fats from quality grass-fed/pastured/organic animals, and oils that are organic/unprocessed/cold pressed and unrefined. Ditch the toxic vegetable oils. Good healthy fats are the preferred fuel of the heart and provide an excellent source of long burning fuel for the body. Fat fear not!
To learn more about healthy fats and the important role they play in our health, please visit the Weston A. Price Foundation for additional information.
Sources: Nutritional Therapy Association (NTA)