The Skinny on Fats

Your body needs healthy fats to survive.  Fats provide a concentrated energy source making you feel full longer.  They are important for building cell membranes and various hormones.   Fats are important for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).  But fats can be confusing for many.  Which fats or oils are good for you, which ones should be avoided, and which ones are best to cook with?

Healthy fats in my kitchen

When choosing oils, cold pressed versus heat-processed is important.  When oils are processed by heat, seeds are heated to high temperatures and pressed to expel oil.  Then, the oil is degummed, removing valuable nutrients.  Then the oil is heated again to remove the rancid odor and yellow color, leaving a clear oil void of nutrients and full of free radicals.

When it comes to cooking, you must take into account the smoke point of the oil you are using.  Some oils, such as olive oil, have a low smoke point and should not be used to cook with at high temperatures.  The smoke point is the point where the oil begins to break down and become rancid, releasing free radicals that damage the liver.  Some great oils to cook with are rice bran oil (never tried it!), grapeseed oil, macadamia nut oil, butter, ghee butter, and coconut oil.  Some oils that have a lower smoke point and aren’t as great to cook with include corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil, and canola oil.

Sweets in Maui

Trans fats are particularly dangerous because they are bigger particles that your body doesn’t know how to break down as efficiently, leading to clogged arteries.  Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are hardened to make margarine or shortening.  Trans fats are also found in fried foods and cookies and pastries.  A way to tell if a product has trans fat is to look for words such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated on the label.

Saturated fats are usually hard at room temperature and tend to come from animal sources.  Examples include butter, lard, palm oil, cocoa butter, and coconut oil.

Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids which are digested more easily than long-chain fatty acids.  Instead of being stored in cells, these fatty acids are sent directly to your liver where they are converted to energy.

Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and tend to come from plant sources.  There are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fat sources include olive oil, peanut butter, avocados, macadamia nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, and canola oil.

Avocados on the road to Hana, Maui

Canola oil goes rancid easily and during the processing procedure, is transformed into trans fat.

Polyunsaturated fats include corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and cottonseed oil.  Polyunsaturated fats go rancid easily with heat so should not be used for cooking.

Too much polyunsaturated oils in your diet can actually contribute to diseases such as cancer and heart disease.  This is usually due to them being exposed to heat through processing or cooking.

I previously covered omega-3 fatty acids and why they are important for health.  Good sources include fish, green leafy vegetables, wild game, algae, certain seeds and nuts.

Spicy pumpkin seeds

Flax seed oil is a great source of omega-3, however it should be kept refrigerated and never heated.  It’s great for things like salad dressings.

Sunflower, corn, soy, safflower, and canola oil are full of omega-6 fats which worsen your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio and lead to inflammation.

There is a misconception that saturated fats are the worst type of fat.  Really, trans fats are the type that should be avoided.  Trans fats are linked to type 2 diabetes and interfere with insulin receptors while saturated fats do not.  Diabetes was non-existent years ago when humans ate a diet high in saturated fat, but has become an epidemic now that trans fats are a common part of the American diet.  The trick is to get your saturated fats from healthy sources that are not processed and contaminated with trans fats – then saturated fats can be good for you (in moderation of course).

Heart disease is responsible for at least 40% of deaths in the US.  In the period from 1910 to 1970, animal fat in the diet decreased about 20%, and butter consumption plummeted as well.  However, the percentage of refined vegetable oils, margarine, and shortening has increased about 400% and the consumption of sugar has increased about 60%.  Before we are quick to blame saturated fat for heart disease, we need to look at the bigger picture.

Salad with avocado

I recommend olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, ghee butter, or grass-fed organic butter as healthy sources of fat.  Always choose cold pressed oils, and keep in mind which fats are appropriate to cook with and which ones are best cold.

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