I grew up in what I call the Snack Wells-Era. Fat-free was king! The less fat you ate, the better it was for your health and waistline. Eggs, butter, coconut oil were vilified, said to lead to heart disease and obesity. Fat free milk, yogurt, ice cream choices exploded. It didn’t matter that they replaced fat with fillers, chemicals, and sugars--It was fat-free!
We know now that demonizing fat isn’t the answer to overall health. In fact, the link between heart disease and saturated fat that we were told existed just isn’t there. The recommendation to avoid fat at all costs is wrong. While it’s still important to avoid certain fats, it is vital to learn which fats you should consume. Fat is essential for our bodies to function properly. We need it for cell structure and to absorb critical vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Fat is important for satiety, hormone production, brain health, and energy. Without adequate fat intake, your body will not function at its best. But, the wrong kind of fats do great harm, beginning with compromising the integrity of our cells and spreading from there.
How do you decide which fats to eat? How do you know if they’re the best?
The simple answer is to choose a fat that hasn’t been highly processed or “messed around with” too much. Choose one that is as close to nature and as whole a food as possible. For example, compare the process for making canola oil (high heat, chemical extraction, de-waxing, deodorizing) or a trans-fat (where the actual cell structure of vegetable oil is manipulation by the addition of hydrogen to make it more shelf stable) with that of unrefined coconut oil, cold pressed olive oil or butter churned from fresh cream. The less processing the better. This is because fat molecules can be damaged by high heat and release free radicals that in turn damage our bodies. Damaged and rancid fats are the ones you need to avoid.
How to choose a quality fat:
1. Remember, rancid is bad.
When a fat turns rancid, it means that oxygen has broken into the integrity of the lipid molecule (oxidized it) and set off free radicals that harm the body.
Saturated fats resist this process because of the solid structure of its molecule. These fats can withstand higher heat without becoming oxidized, making them preferred cooking fats. Sources of saturated fats include unrefined coconut oil, grass fed butter, grass fed ghee, lard and tallow from quality animals.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room and very vulnerable to rancidity. The process of extracting oils from seeds and “vegetables” (safflower, sunflower, rapeseed, soy, corn, peanut) usually involves heat and chemicals that “refine” them so they don’t taste bad. This subjects their delicate lipids to oxidation. Avoid these polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, can withstand a minor amount of heat before becoming rancid. It is best not to heat olive oil very high and use mainly for making vinaigrettes. Look for cold-pressed, unrefined, organic oil.
2. The Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is important.
Until the invention of modern “vegetable” oils and hydrogenated fats like margarine and Crisco, humans ate various animal products, nuts, and oil-filled vegetables that tended to keep their intake of what are now called “omega” lipids (3, 6, 9) within a certain ratio. Omega-3 and -6 are essential, meaning we must get them from our diet. Omega-9s are not--our body can make them. Omega 3s-are anti- inflammatory. Omega-6s are inflammatory. We need both, but high consumption of liquid oils, grains, and fats from grain-fed animals has shifted that ratio profoundly, so that we’re consuming much more omega-6s, creating an imbalance in the fatty acids and more inflammation.
In summary, the right fats are an important part of your diet. We need it for cell structure, hormone production, brain health, and satiety. But you must choose wisely. Fats that are minimally processed and are not rancid are best. This includes whole food sources like avocado, wild caught fish, or pastured egg yolks.
When choosing a cooking fat, how you use the fat matters. Cooking at high temperatures calls for super stable fats like unrefined coconut oil or butter from grass fed cows. For a quick saute or for salad dressings, use cold-pressed olive oil or avocado oil.
Skip all of the damaged “vegetable” oils like canola, soybean, peanut, safflower, sunflower, and corn to avoid high levels of omega 6 fatty acids. Finally, always, always avoid all chemically modified fats like trans-fats and hydrogenated fats.
Karen is a certified nutrition consultant, trained chef, and real food enthusiast. She earned a B.A. in anthropology from University of Colorado-Boulder in 2000 and a professional Food and Wine certification from CookStreet in 2007. After adopting a primal-type diet in 2009 and finding great health improvements, she attended Bauman College in Boulder, CO to receive her certification as a nutrition consultant in 2011. She has been working with clients since then, helping them learn what foods to eat, how to cook them, and how to find greater health and vitality. For more information, check out her website, Go Primal by Karen.
Main Photo Credit: Tatyana Vyc/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: Marietjie/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Kostiantyn Fastov/shutterstock.com