Dietary Fats 101
Updated: Jan 22
There still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding dietary fats. Many people are unsure of the proper use of oils. This subject can be very complicated and certainly worthy of writing a book on. The following condensed version of information will highlight the basics in what you need to know in an easy and understandable way.
The Truth About Fats
We’ve all heard about cholesterol and dietary fats that “clog up your arteries and cause heart disease”. In fact, for decades and decades government “experts” have been telling us to choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Yet today, why is it that more Americans than ever before in history suffer from obesity and chronic diseases? With all the low fat foods people are eating, we should be seeing thinner people, not more weight gain. Just the opposite is happening.
Lately, you may have noticed that people have started to question some of the bad light shed on certain fats in the past. In particular, coconut oil is one that people have been talking a lot about. The truth is fat is not a villain. Rather, we need to be concerned about the type and quality of fat we eat. The war that was started on coconut oil by the vegetable oil industry in the 1970’s is finally over and coconut oil won.
Why We Need the Right Fats
First, it is important to understand that fat is an essential nutrient the body needs. Fats are fundamental to the cell membrane; the body cannot function without it. Did you know that 60% of your brain is composed of fat? Besides acting as a carrier for the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K, they also are critical to hormone and prostaglandin production, reproduction, immunity and vital in healthy nerves and nerve impulses. Fats help regulate body temperature, cushion our internal organs, provide us with stable energy throughout the day and taste good too.
Low fat diets limit the amount of anti-oxidant nutrients we have to protect us from free-radical damage increasing risk of cancer. These same low-fat diets also can create nutrient deficiencies because certain minerals need fat for absorption. For example, in order for calcium to be absorbed, it needs fat. Don’t forget to add butter to calcium-rich vegetables like broccoli and kale so your body can use it. The same goes for taking calcium supplements or drinking skim milk; if you don’t have fat, forget calcium absorption. Think about how many women who have been on low fat diets suffer from osteoporosis as they age.
About the Types of Fat
In order to understand what fats are healthy to eat, we need to know about the differences among the types of fats in foods. Let’s take a brief look at the types of fats.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They are mainly found in animal fats such as eggs, cheese, butter and the fat on meat. Some plant sources of saturated fats are tropical oils like coconut and palm.
Also included in this category are trans fats which should be avoided. Trans-fatty acids are liquid vegetable oils that have been chemically processed to become solid at room temperature by adding hydrogen atoms. Trans fats include man-made fats and hydrogenated oils (also known as “modern fats” ie. margarine, deep fried foods, commercial baked goods, etc). These modern, man-made saturated fats are the ones to absolutely eliminate in the diet as they are the culprits of heart disease and other degenerative diseases, not the natural occurring saturated fats like coconut oil and butter. Watch on labels for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated ingredients as these fats impersonate the good saturated fats, but our body does not have the enzymes to recognize and break these “modern fats” down so they end up accumulating causing plaque and damage the cellular membrane.
The special thing about the natural saturated fats is that they have no double bonds so they are highly heat stable because of their chemical structure. When heated, these fats are less likely to go rancid and form dangerous free radicals that are known to cause cancer and heart disease.
2. Unsaturated fats include two types: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond. Your body can make monounsaturated fats from saturated fats as they are needed. These fats are liquid at room temperature and solid when refrigerated. Sources include olive oil, sesame oil, almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, Brazil nuts and avocados. Monounsaturated fats have only one double bond on the carbon atom making them relatively stable, hence they may also may be used in cooking, but be careful not to get the temperature too high to break that bond. That is why it is recommended to only do light sautéing with olive oil, not frying.
Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds on the carbon atom which makes them highly unstable and not suitable for heating because they can easily form free radicals. Polyunsaturated fats stay liquid, even when refrigerated. Never heat these or use these fats in cooking. Examples are fish oils, flax seed oil, chia seed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, walnut oil and soy oil. In addition, the oils themselves are often extracted with high heat making them an unhealthy choice to begin with.
The Balancing Act: Omega -6:3 Ratios
Fats and oils are made up of fatty acids. When we avoid dietary fats, we reduce the number of essential fatty acids we take in too. Essential fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is only obtained through diet – our body cannot make them – and they are crucial for our health.
Omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic) and Omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic) are two types of fatty acids that we need in a balanced amount. The ideal ratio is 1:1, but most experts recommend a 5:1 ratio or less. A typical American diet provides ratios 20:1 to 40:1. Omega 6 fatty acids are often found in processed and packaged foods. A proper ration of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids is the key to optimal health.
What are the wiser choices of fat to achieve this balance? It is well worth our time to choose fats wisely, to learn about different fat sources and know how to incorporate them into our diet in a way that is best for us.
Wise Fat Choices
Nuts & Seeds (Properly Soaked)
Grass fed Meats, Dairy, Cheese and Eggs (NOT corn fed meats!)
Oily Fish – sardines, cod, halibut, haddock, mackerel, salmon (eat only wild caught fish, NOT farmed fish!)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil/Cold or First Pressed (for salad dressings & gentle heat)
Wise Choices of Fats For Cooking Under High Heat
Palm Kernel Oil
Butter – from grass fed cows
Old fashioned Lard or Tallow also will not denature with heat. So go ahead and save that bacon grease!
Cooking with Oils: Critical Information You Need to Know
Cooking at high temperatures can damage oils. Here are recommendations:
For a natural, very high-quality extra virgin olive oil, about 200-250°F range reflects the most likely upper limit for heating without excessive damage. Olive oil will breakdown with high heat cooking.
In other words, this would allow the use of extra virgin olive oil for making sauces, but not for 350°F baking or higher temperature cooking. It is best to add it to your dishes after they have been cooked to enjoy the wonderful flavor and nutritional value of olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is best used as a salad dressing and for light sautéing.
Do not use olive oil when roasting root vegetables, use coconut oil instead. Coconut oil can withstand high temperatures and cooking with it doesn’t denature the health supporting properties of the oil – and it’s not prone to rancidity, like many other more fragile oils. Use it for most cooking and frying.
FREQUENT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT OILS
Q: Is grapeseed oil a good choice?
A: Grapeseed oil contains phenols that raise the smoke point of the oil, making it stable to high heat cooking. However it is very high in omega-6 fatty acids, so I do not recommend it. We need to avoid excess omega-6 fatty acids as much as possible. In addition, grapeseed oil is industrially processed with hexane and other carcinogenic solvents and traces of those will remain in the oil.
Q: How about hemp oil?
A: Just like Grapeseed oil, hemp seed oil has higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids which we need to avoid. Besides that, hemp seed oil contains cannabanoids that have caused people to flunk their urine tests for drugs.
Q: Does coconut oil cause heart disease?
A: When coconut oil was fed as 7% energy to patients recovering from heart attacks, the patients had greater improvement compared to untreated controls, and no difference compared to patients treated with corn or safflower oils. Populations that consume coconut oil have low rates of heart disease. Coconut oil may also be one of the most useful oils to prevent heart disease because of its antiviral and antimicrobial characteristics (Journal of the American Medical Association 1967 202:1119-1123; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1981 34:1552).
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.