We’ve been fed so much misinformation about fats and oils that everyone is confused. Which oils are best for high temperature cooking? Which fats are the healthiest? What’s the deal with saturated fat?
I think one of the biggest nutrition myths of our time is the great debate about fats: which are healthy and which are harmful. We learned from the USDA and the American Heart Association that saturated fat is bad and vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are good, heart healthy even, because they contain little to no saturated fat. We need to consume more of these PUFAs to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, says the AHA (and says your doctor who took one class in nutrition 25 years ago).
But what if it’s all a big fat lie? What if the very foods we’ve been told to eat to prevent disease are actually the culprits behind inflammation, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes? I’ve written here about how a grain-based diet can be detrimental, especially to those who have digestive inflammatory conditions. But I want to focus on fats and oils for this post. I wrote here about which fats to use and which to ditch, and which are best for high temperature cooking/frying, so read this post for more background info. Now, I want to touch on why vegetable oils are unhealthy and which fats you should be using.
Vegetable oil is not a Health Food
Go into your kitchen. Look in your pantry. Do you have a jug of vegetable oil? You probably like using it in cooking/baking because it’s been deodorized and doesn’t impart any flavor or smell into your food. Guess what? That’s not normal. We’re used to using oils that have been so highly chemically processed and deodorized that they smell nothing like the plant or seed from which they came.
Back to your pantry. Does you jug of vegetable oil contain soybean, corn, or cottonseed oil? Toss it, gross. That stuff is toxic. Dump your canola oil. Get rid of the sunflower and safflower oils. And for goodness sake, chuck the fake butter spreads like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. You’ve been told these “heart healthy” oils are good because they are low in saturated fat. Curiously enough, the science behind the claims that a diet low in saturated fat prevents heart disease is sketchy. The famous Framingham heart study proved that the more saturated fat (from natural sources) one ate, the lower the serum cholesterol. Probably because they ate natural forms of unprocessed fat like animal fats or butter. No chemicals involves in processing those. Also, of the people who have heart attacks, only about TWENTY FIVE PERCENT have elevated blood cholesterol levels. Click here for the source/study. Guess what? saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease.
Please understand that the recommendations about using PUFAs are wrong and that vegetable oils actually contribute to the inflammation that they are said to prevent. Why? Because they have been highly chemically processed and extracted (it takes a lot to get oil out of corn or a grapeseed) and deodorized, and PUFAs are very sensitive to light, heat, and air due to their unstable molecular structure.
Once they’ve been chemically processed, they become oxidized/rancid and contribute to free radical damage and inflammation in the body. Many of these oils come from poor quality GMO foods, corn and soy being among the most GM crops. Canola comes from the high erucic acid (shown to cause heart lesions) containing rapeseed plant and has been cross-bred to increase its monounsaturated fatty acid content. It’s highly refined and contains very delicate omega 3s that are heat sensitive and go rancid when heated. Not to mention that these vegetable oils are all high in the pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. We should have about 1:1 omega 3:6 for optimal health, but most are around an astounding 1:22. Too much omega 6 is associated with increased inflammation and cardiovascular risk. PubMed says so.
Conditions of inflammation associated with high omega 6 consumption
cardiovascular disease diabetes obesity
inflammatory intestinal issues
high blood pressure
We’re on a quest to eat real food, right? Unprocessed, as close to its natural form as possible? Although all oils must go through some sort of an extraction process, you can choose to buy minimally processed, unrefined (meaning no chemical hexane extraction or deodorization process) virgin oils as close to their natural states as possible. The more saturated they are, the more stable they’ll be. All plants contain toxins. Saturated fats are very low in toxins (provided the animal source from which it came wasn’t factory farm raised).
What to Eliminate
- canola oil
- margarine and “spreads”
- corn oil
- soybean oil
- all vegetable oils
- grapeseed oil (probably ok to use very occasionally, but not really recommended)
- sun- and safflower oils
What to Eat
SATURATED FATS: have a high smoke point. For high temp cooking/sauteeing, use coconut oil, butter or ghee, tallow (beef fat), lard (pork fat), duck fat, palm oil, bacon fat (if from good quality, organic bacon. Be aware that toxins are stored in fat tissue, so get the highest quality animal fats you can find!). Fats have a spectrum of nutrients too, so vary the fats you eat. Let’s take a look:
Coconut oil: great source of immune boosting, anti-microbial lauric acid and a source of energy and metabolism-boosting medium chain fatty acids
Butter/ghee: short chain fatty acids/butyric acid is good for the gut
Palm oil: high in vitamin A! Source from Tropical Traditions only, as it’s sustainable.
Animal fats: part of a traditional diet & totally unprocessed (just have to be rendered).
Macadamia Nut oil has a high smoke point and is good for frying.
The saturated fats are good for cooking/searing and can be used liberally. Necessary for brain, hormonal, cellular health, energy & satiety
MONOUNSATURATED FATS (high in omega 6 & 9): are slightly less stable at high temps but still healthful properties and can be used for medium-temp cooking and to dress salads, veggies, etc. Avocado and avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, peanut oil (use sparingly), sesame oil. Have a lower smoke point, so don’t use for high heat cooking.
BOTTOM LINE: don’t make these fats the staple of your cooking oil/fat intake, but ok to use regularly.
PUFAs (high in omega 6 & 3): in oil form, these manmade fats are very unstable under heat and prone to oxidative damage. Do you want that in your body? Although they typically contain omega 3, the processing and refining methods make them unhealthy, and heating makes them rancid and destroys the omega 3s. Contain significantly more plant toxins than other fats. PUFA oils are corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, margarines made with high PUFA oils. Note that in food, we need the essential omega 3s in the form of walnuts, salmon, sardines, grass fed beef, leafy greens, chia seeds.
BOTTOM LINE: we need omega 3s, best to get in unprocessed natural food form. Avoid the oils.
Check out this awesome graphic from Chris Kresser.
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