Fat- What You Need to Know!
There’s SO much discussion out there right now on oils – should I be cooking with olive oil? Or coconut oil? Should I try avocado or flaxseed oil? Is canola oil worth buying? It’s very confusing.
I’d like to clear some of that up for you today!
First, let's start with a quick rundown on the different types of fats:
Trans fats: the worst of the worst! Trans fats – found in fried foods, baked goods, anything with “partially hydrogenated oils” (read your nutrition labels!) – have been associated with the greatest risk for heart disease and inflammation in the body. Stay away from these at ALL cost!
Saturated fat: long believed to be bad for us as excess consumption of saturated fats has been linked with increased risk for heart disease. Foods with saturated fat – fatty meats, cheese, fried foods, baked goods – are not so great for us, but there are a few potential exceptions (keep reading to learn more!).
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs): richly found in olives and avocado. By definition, their chemical structure includes only one double bond; this is why MUFAs break down and degrades at lower temperatures than saturated fats -- the latter don't have double bonds, explaining why they are solid. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond and polyunsaturated fats have more than one, so MUFAs are generally a better option for high heat cooking as compared to PUFA-predominant oils because MUFAs are more likely to stay intact; PUFAs are more likely to break down, become toxic and lose their health benefits because of their multiple double bonds. Monounsaturated fats are touted for reducing risk for heart disease.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): omega-3 and omega-6 are two types of PUFAs. These are essential fatty acids which means that our body cannot make them so we need to eat foods with these nutrients. We are supposed to consume these omegas in a ratio that is 3:1 or less (omega-6:omega-3) but Americans eat WAY more omega-6 than we should because of all the processed foods in our diet, so the common ratio today among Americans is at least 16:1. Omega-6 fats promote inflammation in the body, while omega-3 fats reduce inflammation. We need to work to incorporate less omega-6 in our diet and add more omega-3. Omega-6 is rich in sunflower, corn, soybean, grapeseed and safflower oils. The best source of omega-3 is that found in cold-water fish (i.e salmon, mackerel, sardines, black cod). However, omega-3 is also found in walnut, flax and hemp, as well as enriched eggs.
And what’s smoke point? Smoke point is the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke, which means that it is breaking down and losing the health benefits the oil may have had.
Now back to the oils…
Olive oil: Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and really is considered the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which we know is associated with a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer and autoimmunity. So- it is incredibly good for you. Because of the way extra virgin olive oil is produced, EVOO has more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power than “olive oil.” Non-EVOO olive oil (labeled as pure, light, refined or just ‘olive oil’) is made from refined oils added to olive oil; because it is not as pure, you can cook this form of olive oil at a higher temperature than the EVOO before it starts to break down, but you won’t get the same health benefits from it. The smoke point of EVOO is ~325 degrees Farenheit.
Take Away: Use EVOO for drizzling on top of salads or cooked veggies, add into hummus or dressings, or use for cooking a sautéed dish. Don’t use this oil for frying.
Coconut oil: Coconut oil was long thought to be unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content. But now it’s all the rage as one of the best things out there for you! So which is it? The saturated fat in coconut oil is different than the type found in animal fat. Over 50% of the fats in coconut oil are medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are more easily used for energy as compared to long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), the type found in most other foods high in saturated fats (e.g. fatty meats, cheese); LCFAs take longer to break down to then be used for energy, and are more readily stored as fat. Coconut oil has a relatively high smoke point, so it’s a good oil to use if you’re cooking something at a high temperature.
Take Away: It’s important not to generalize – not all saturated fats are the same. Feel free to use some coconut oil in your AM smoothie or a drizzle on your toast – just integrate some other healthy fats, like EVOO, as well instead of making it your sole oil of use. It appears that coconut oil can be helpful to incorporate into the diet, but I would be cautious to not have it in excess and to incorporate other forms of healthy fat (i.e avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts/seeds and their butters). Coconut oil is also great in non-food uses like as a skin moisturizer (loving Cocokind right now) or in deodorant (Primally Pure is fabulous).
Avocado oil: One of my faves. Avocado oil is rich in good-for-us monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). Even though avocado oil is a much better option than vegetable oil because of its better fatty acid profile and relatively higher smoke point, it is definitely more expensive. Nevertheless, this may be somewhere that you want to splurge to get some anti-inflammatory MUFAs and be able to more safely pan-fry or sear your protein. As an added bonus, its nutty flavor is delicious and really takes roasted veggies up a notch!
Take Away: Avocado oil is expensive but may be worth it, to add some more healthy, inflammation-fighting fat into your diet. Use drizzled onto protein or veggies, or for sautéing.
Flax and Hemp Oil: Rich in omega-3 fats, these two are great oils for helping us rebalance that omega-6:omega-3 ratio. However, they do have relatively low smoke points.
Take Away: Drizzle flax or hemp oil onto salads or add to dressings to boost your omega-3 intake, but avoid cooking with these because of the low smoke point.
Canola oil: Canola oil is often used in high heat cooking because it has a higher smoke point (~400 degrees F) than some other oils, like extra virgin olive oil. More processed – or refined – oils (i.e. non-EVOO olive oil, canola oil) have higher smoke points as compared to less processed – or unrefined – oils (i.e. EVOO). Canola oil tends to be very processed and because it is high in PUFAs, when it is heat processed, there’s concern over the quality of the oil when you finally use it.
Take away: Choose canola oil that is cold-pressed, organic and non-GMO if you can, to limit the amount of tampering that’s been done with it. If you are to use it, try in cooking and not on top of salads or veggies as it won’t add any desirable flavor.
Sunflower, Corn, Soybean, and Safflower Oils: High in inflammatory omega-6 fats that Americans eat WAY too much of as it is – I’d use less of these oils if you can; not to mention that are also often highly processed. These vegetable oils are those that are most frequently used in frying, and we know that repeatedly heated cooking oil appears to release cancer-causing substances and this is one reason why frying is so bad for us.
Take Away: Limit your use of the above oils to help create a healthier and more desirable omega-6:omega-3 ratio.
Final take away: It’s best to choose oils that are rich in MUFAs for cooking (although not above their smoke point) as compared to those rich in PUFAs, because the latter tend to break down more easily from heat. EVOO and unrefined avocado oils are high in MUFAs and not highly processed so we get our best nutritional bang for our buck with these oils. Limit consumption of oils rich in omega-6 PUFA – such as soybean, corn, and safflower oil – as these are overused in the American diet already and are usually very processed. Instead, get your healthy omega-3 PUFAs from eating cold-water fish and walnuts as well as ground flax, chia and hemp seeds. Do not reuse oil that has been used for frying, as research shows this releases substances that can be very damaging to the body, potentially carcinogenic.
Extra virgin olive oil still takes the crown for the best oil to use on foods, as long as you’re not cooking at a temperature of 350 degrees or above. In that situation, use something like coconut oil or a cold-pressed, organic, non-GMO canola oil.