Healthy fats are such an important part of your diet, and fats have long been demonized unfairly. You need dietary fat for brain health, hormone health, joint health, satiety (read: it keeps you feeling full!), energy, and glowing skin. My guide to healthy fats will help you understand which fats to eat and which to ditch.
Why Do We Hate on Fat?
Remember the fat phobia craze in the 80s? We were (wrongly) told that fat is the enemy, that it makes you fat and causes heart disease. Thus spawned a litany of low fat and fat free snack foods. These foods are high in sugar, refined carbs, and other chemicals to make them taste good because they had the fat stripped from them. These higher sugar and fat free foods that everyone gravitated toward during the fat phobia era actually caused weight gain. Read more here: “Why we got fatter during the fat free boom.”
Avoiding fat had more people turning to the refined carbohydrate-rich foods that are the true culprits of weight gain.
People are understandably confused about “good” and “bad” fats. I frequently speak with clients who consider their diets to be healthy, but they consume fake butter spreads and low fat products– or no fat at all. Many admit that they have cut foods that they love out of their diets, mainly meats, butter (read here why butter is a health food), and saturated fats, because of media info on fat’s role in disease.
The vegetable oil and food industries mounted an attack in 1988 on tropical oils, the main oils in food supply, eliminating coconut and palm oils from the market and wrongly pitting them as the bad guys. These oils contain saturated fats that were (wrongly) accused of causing cardiovascular disease. The tropical oils got a bad reputation for increasing cholesterol and heart disease. An unconfirmed rumor suggests that the soybean industry financed successful campaigns against tropical fats to kill imports and raise domestic soybean oil sales.
Researchers claim that the mega oil industry relied on flawed studies and kept info about health-destroying fats from public to continue profit from newer, less expensive and refined oils such as canola, cottonseed, and soybean. Low fat products blasted into the market with a food industry boom. Ad campaigns terrified everyone into buying low fat products, loaded with sugar and unhealthy fats to replace the saturated fat. Drug companies were making a fortune with cholesterol-lowering drugs. We, as a nation, got fatter and unhealthier as our fat intake went down and out carb intake went up.
Please understand: fat does not make you fat! The main culprit behind obesity and high cholesterol is too much SUGAR, soda, refined food, and man-made trans fats. Clearly, if fat was the culprit, we would all be thin and have low cholesterol thanks to the boon of fat free foods and warnings to avoid saturated fats. But we’ve never been fatter and more unhealthy as a nation.
Why You Need Healthy Fat
Here is the important issue to note. You’ve heard of essential fatty acids like omega 3s and omega 6s. These are deemed essential because your body does not make them; you must get them via diet. They are crucial for healthy cells, hormone balance, skin health, and to counter inflammation. (source) Too often we are eating the wrong types of fats, such as processed vegetable oils in refined foods, which contribute to inflammation and disease.
Omega 6 fatty acids are high in vegetable oils and blends such as corn, peanut, safflower, grapeseed, soy, and cottonseed oils–you know, those plastic jugs of “vegetable oil” you see on grocery store shelves. Typically, these oils are processed at very high temperatures, which causes the oils to go rancid. Chemicals are used during the extraction process, and the resulting oil is then often deodorized. This makes for a highly processed and refined oil that is not health-promoting, and consuming rancid oils may actually contribute to arterial damage. Too much omega 6 in your diet can lead to diseases of inflammation such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis.
Make sure you read my post about why vegetable oil is not healthy.
Omega 3s counter inflammation and have been praised for helping everything from mood swings to joint pain. Find it in flaxseed & hemp oils, chia, salmon, and walnuts. I often recommend fatty acid supplements (like this one), but you can add flaxseed oil or chia to smoothies. When purchasing a supplement, remember that these oils are highly sensitive to damage from heat, light and oxygen. Choose a certified organic product that has been refrigerated and is packaged in a dark brown or green glass jar and be sure to store the product in your refrigerator or freezer.
A Guide to Healthy Fats
First off, purchase organic, hexane-free cold processed oils in glass bottles.
A healthy percentage of fat in your diet is about 30 percent of your total calories, depending on health and needs. Up to 70 percent has been shown to aid weight loss (oh, the irony). Special circumstances for eating more fat include blood sugar issues, infertility, epilepsy, candida, thyroiditis and auto-immune conditions. Therapeutic fats include fish oil, olive oil, butter, and coconut oil – these can help normalize blood pressure, increase metabolism, and treat eczema. Avoid vegetable oils due to their inflammatory effects.
Examples of great fats from whole foods include
- free range eggs
- grass fed beef (better omega 3 content, since grain fed is high in omega 6 fats)
- cold water fish, salmon, sardines
- walnuts, almonds
- olive oil
- coconut oil
For stir-frying, you want to use stable oils with high smoke points that will not become rancid when heated. Saturated fats (tropical oils and butter or ghee) are the most stable, followed by monounsaturated (olive, sesame). Polyunsaturated (flax oil, hemp oil) should never be heated!
Oils for stir-frying:
BEST: stable saturated fats like butter, ghee, lard, tallow, duck fat, coconut oil; avocado oil is good too.
OK: Olive oil is ok for low temp sautéing, but best used at mid to lower temps for roasting and baking.
NOT RECOMMENDED: Grapeseed oil contains omega 6 exclusively but does hold up well under high heat. I don’t recommend it or many seed oils due to the high processing during extraction, so use a saturated fat for baking/frying. Sesame oil is good as a salad oil occasionally, but also high in omega 6, so not good for exclusive use. I don’t use it for stir-frying, or regularly, for that matter. It is delicious though.
- Use extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil for salads
- Avocado oil has a high smoke point and can be used for high temp searing or sautéing
- Olive oil is great for roasting or baking
For high temp searing:
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Butter can burn, so be careful
Avoid these oils at all cost
- Cottonseed, which is usually found in baked goods partially hydrogenated, contains toxic ingredients and pesticides and is unfit for human consumption.
- Soybean oil is mostly refined, often partially hydrogenated and usually genetically modified.
- Avoid vegetable oils and corn, canola, safflower, sunflower oil due to high omega 6 content.
- Avoid any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil!
The fats I use most often day to day are olive oil (for roasting) and coconut oil (for searing). Butter and avocado oil are great too. Always avoid vegetable oils and use seed oils sparingly.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.
Thanks for the cogent explanations. Fats and oils can get way too complicated.
No reference is made to canola oil. I assume it’s an undesirable, but it is widely used (at least in my part of the world). Can you comment on it?
Canola is a big no. Here is a previous posts on the topic (and thanks for pointing out that I left canola out of this post!)
Love your website; easy-to-navigate and full of helpful, clarifying infomation! What about Tea Oil for stir-frying? I purchased some from The Republic of Tea, it is certified organic, extra-virgin, cold-pressed and claims to be made from tea seeds (Camellia sinensis tea bush). Bottle says it’s good for high temperature, quick cooking, since it does not smoke up to 485 degrees. Also claims to be “loaded with stable omega fatty acids”. I’ve used it a few times, with tasty-good success 🙂 but was wondering how truly healthy it is…and if it’s better than other options.
Thanks for the kudos and great question. There isn’t much literature on tea seed oil, and I’m always skeptical of new food “fads.” Seed oils especially are typically high in the omega 6s that we need less of, and their delicate fatty acids are prone to oxidation when heated during the refining process. Tea seed oil seems to be a monounsatured fat (like olive oil) and yes, it does have a high smoke point, but again, I’m skeptical about how it’s refined (it takes a lot to get oil out of a seed. Do they add hexane or other chemicals in the refininf process? Does it smell chemical-like?). I would stick to what’s been around for hundreds of years: butter, olive oil, coconut oil, lard, the “safe oils.” But I would use tea seed oil occasionally, just not as a staple.
I’ve recently become obsessed with cooking tips from Michael Ruhlman, and in the video below he talks about making homemade mayo to avoid the ingredient list of the store-bought variety (as well as for taste.) However, he uses Wesson canola oil which is surely of the devil. What would you recommend instead for making mayo?
I forgot to mention that the obvious choice, olive oil, is said to become bitter when making mayo — hence my quandry. See: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/10/the-food-lab-homemade-mayo-in-2-minutes-or-le.html
Michelle, I’ve always followed my colleague Diane’s (of Balanced Bites) recipe that uses egg + mayo:
it also has mustard in it which maybe balances the acidity.
Thanks! I’ll give that recipe a try.
Doesn’t it take hours for something to go rancid? If a meal that was made with rancid-prone oil is consumed straight away, why is there a problem?
Because vegetable oils go rancid during processing, so they’re oxidized by the time they even make it into the jug.