How to Choose Healthy Fats and Oils
Have you ever been told eating fat makes you fat? Do you avoid saturated fat to protect your arteries? Maybe you eat a low-fat diet because you believe it’s good for you. For decades, fat has been unfairly painted as a villain.
You might be surprised to learn fats are incredibly important for your health. In fact, you can’t live without then, not simply because they provide you with energy, but because they’re also essential for making hormones, keeping your brain healthy and even to control inflammation.
Here’s a round-up of some fat facts to cut through the confusion, so you can choose your fats wisely as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
All Fat is Not Alike
Fats are made up of fatty acid building blocks: chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The various types of fatty acids are grouped according to their length and the types of linkages holding their atoms together.
Most foods contain a mixture of fats, with different fats having varying effects on your body.
Saturated Fats – Not Villains After All
These fats are usually solid at room temperature and contain strong bonds, keeping them stable even when heated. They include animal fats, in other words meat and dairy including butter and ghee. But oils from some plants such as coconut and palm oil also contain saturated fats.
Saturated fat has been demonised over the years because of links with heart disease, but recent research has questioned this association. In any case, even among the family of saturated fats, there are huge differences in the types of fatty acids they contain and therefore how they affect health.
Monounsaturated Fats – Not so Hot
This family of fats are liquid at room temperature. Because the bonds between their atoms are slightly less strong than saturated fats, they’re less stable when heated to high temperatures.
Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil and some sunflower oil labelled high oleic, cultivated to be higher in monounsaturated fats than it would otherwise be.
Polyunsaturated Fats – They Can’t Stand the Heat
These are again liquid at room temperature. The bonds linking their atoms are fairly weak, meaning they oxidise easily, especially when they’re heated or stored for long periods. When this happens free radicals are produced. These can damage body cells if insufficient antioxidants are consumed. Oxidation is more likely to happen if they’re exposed to light and oxygen, so it’s a good idea to store these oils in dark bottles.
Polyunsaturated fats are largely of vegetable origin, especially those pressed from seeds like sunflower, sesame, walnut, corn, safflower, grapeseed and soya oil.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats your body can’t piece together from other fats, so you need them in your diet. They’re known as omega 3 and 6. The modern diet contains less omega 3 than omega 6 because it’s abundant in oils used commercially like sunflower oil, whereas it’s thought our ancestors ate far more omega 3 than 6. Too much omega 6 relative to 3 can increase inflammation, so oils high in omega 3 such as flax oil as well as oily fish are useful to eat to redress the balance.
So, Which Fat is Best?
This depends on how you intend to use the fat. If you’re going to heat it, it’s best to use a stable oil such as coconut oil, butter or a monounsaturated fat like olive oil. These are less likely to oxidise when they’re heated.
Another problem with many polyunsaturated oils sold for cooking is they’ve been heavily processed to make them more stable at room temperature – unrefined oils because of their polyunsaturated fats aren’t at all stable so won’t keep well. The refining process uses heat and solvents to extract the oils, often damaging the fats in the process.
So it’s best not to heat polyunsaturated oils, but in their unrefined form high omega 3 oils such as flax and hemp oil make excellent salad dressings and you can pour them onto cooked food once it’s on your plate.
If you’re using fat as a spread, avoid oils normally liquid at room temperature because to make them into a hard spread they’ll have been chemically processed, changing the structure of the fat and making it unfamiliar to your body.
Coconut oil is a great choice for spreading and contains fatty acids with short chain lengths, believed to beneficially affect cholesterol and act as antimicrobials. Another great choice is butter, especially from cows fed on grass rather than grain because it contains an anti-inflammatory fatty acid called butyric acid.
Functional Medicine and Healthy Food Choices
Healthy eating can be confusing, given the vast array of conflicting information in the media, not all of it based on science. If you’re looking to establish a healthy relationship with food, or you’re concerned about the effect of your eating habits on your health, I’m here to help. Contact me here or book an appointment