One of the main problems in our current consumption habits is the types and ratios of fats we have been told to consume. It seems that more and more scientists and nutritionists have come to the conclusion that the percentage of fat in the diet is not related to any meaningful deleterious health outcome. On the contrary, we need a large percentage of good fats in our diet to stay healthy, thinking, strong, and alive. It is the types and balance of fats and oils that make a difference. We need a variety of fats for a variety of reasons:saturated fats to keep our bones and cells healthy and functioning, and to help our bodies be able to utilize essential omega-3 fatty acids;monounsaturated fats to protect our hearts;polyunsaturated omega-3 fats for myriad reasons including their strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Polyunsaturated fatty acids fall into two basic categories:omega-6s and omega-3s. It seems to be the consensus that it’s important for us to maintain a 1:1 ratio/balance of omega-6s and omega-3s, however, in the contemporary US diet, the ratio is more like 25:1, coming down heavily on the side of the omega-6s which are fatty acids that produce inflammation in the body, and have been shown to produce many disease conditions.
Most people in the United States today would be surprised to learn that there is actually very little evidence supporting the contention that a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat reduces death from heart disease or in any way limits one’s lifespan.
The reality of fats is complicated.
For example, coconut oil (extra virgin, cold-pressed, organic) is a saturated fat that is really, really good for you. It is a fat that is made up of over 90% saturated fatty acids called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), the predominant one of which is called lauric acid, which has been shown in numerous studies to be antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral. MCTs in general kill candida and other fungi that can overgrow in the intestinal tract (of special interest to diabetics and anyone with an immune system compromised in this way), while at the same time supporting the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Coconut oil has a neutral effect on cholesterol. For a while, a few decades ago, coconut oil got a lot of bad press, as a couple of studies came out for which hydrogenated (trans fats) oils were used. These oils are not the same as virgin coconut oil.
That’s just coconut oil. Then there’s butter, which, contrary to what we’ve been told for the last 40-odd years or so, is a very healthy food, as long as it’s from grass-fed, organically-raised cows. Grass-fed butter (especially raw!) is one of the best food sources of vitamins A and D (both extremely important especially for diabetics. Did you know that most type 1 diabetics can not metabolize vitamin A from Beta Carotene, the plant pre-cursor?). It is also a good source of vitamin K, and is abundant in Conjugated Linolenic Acid (CLA), one of the most potent cancer-fighting fats in our diet. It is a stable fat, with a wide range of fatty acids, and is recognized as a source of antimicrobial, anti-infective and anti-carcinogenic properties. Like coconut oil, butter also contains lauric acid. Butter raises both “good (HDL)” and “bad (LDL)” cholesterol, and even most mainstream MDs today will tell you that as long as the HDL is high, they’re not worried about the LDL (it’s also been discovered that within LDL cholesterol there are molecules of varying densities, some of which are good for you, some of which aren’t). Whatever. Whether cholesterol really has anything at all to do with heart disease or greater rates of mortality is presently under serious debate, and many nutritionists agree that taking butter out of the diet for this reason seems like overkill. Especially when you look at the alternatives:margarines and “spreads” made from polyunsaturated seed and vegetable oils like canola, soy, corn and safflower, all of which oxidize when exposed to heat, oxygen, moisture, and then become full of free radicals which cause all kinds of damage in tissues and organs and even in DNA/RNA strands.
(For a thorough [and organized and understandable for lay-people like myself!] look at fats and all their properties, see the Fats chapter in Sally Fallon’s book, Nourishing Traditions)
I am going to give canola oil its own little paragraph here, because so many people have been led to believe that this is a healthy oil they should be using every day, and I want to make it clear that this is just not the case. Canola is Rapeseed oil that has been genetically modified to remove most of the erucic acid (a fatty acid that causes heart lesions) this oil contains in its original state. Canola oil (name derived from “Canadian Oil,” Canada being where most of the newly genetically-modified rapeseed first came from, and the name “Rape Seed Oil” not exactly fitting the oil industry’s bill for its advertising image ) was created by the oil industry in the late 1980s in an attempt to come up with an oil high in monounsaturated fats that was easier and cheaper to produce than olive oil. Today’s canola oil is extracted either by solvent use, or by high-temperature mechanical pressing. The safety of these processes has been questioned by such lipid experts as Mary G Enig (see “Related Readings” for her books and articles, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in this subject).
Moreover, the omega-3s in Canola are subjected to such high temperatures for extraction that they become rancid (all polyunsaturates oxidize at very low temperatures, and spoil when exposed to light), and then must go through a deodorizing process, which in turn apparently turns a large number of the omega-3 fatty acids into trans fats. Canola oil used in processed foods is usually hydrogenated (turned into trans fats). There have also been studies done that indicate that canola oil creates a deficiency of vitamin E, and that even low-erucic-acid canola can cause fibrotic heart lesions, especially when consumed over time as part of a diet that is low in protective saturated fat. Furthermore, the FDA does not allow the use of canola oil in infant formula, because it seems to retard growth. Hmmm… If even the FDA says it’s not good for babies, why would anyone think it would be healthy to feed to a 4 year old, a 6 year old, or even an adult?
So, Canola oil out of the way (and hopefully out of your cupboards after you do a little more reading), what oils/fats should you be using? Well, to sum up, and give you a “cheat sheet” for oils and how to use them:
I’ve mentioned butter and coconut oil above, both of which can be used for cooking at medium-high temperatures (and of course eaten raw).
Ghee (clarified butter) is great for cooking, as it has had all the milk solids clarified out of it, so can be heated to higher temperatures, and stores for long periods of time (as does coconut oil) with no problems (unlike polyunsaturated oils).
Extra-Virgin, organic olive oil, which mostly consists of monounsaturated fat, the most important of which being oleic acid, which has been determined to be extremely good for the heart. Olive oil is also very high in phenols, very strong anti-oxidants. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol and raise the protective HDL. This is a very healthy oil, however, the longer-chain fatty-acids it contains are more likely to contribute to building up body fat than the short- and medium-chain fatty acids found in butter and coconut oil, so don’t be drinking it! Can be used to cook at low to medium temperatures, and used raw (contains lots of vanadium, which diabetics especially need more of).
Something most people in this country don’t know, but the french are well aware of:chicken and duck fat are largely monounsaturated, very healthy fats, as is real lard. These are very stable fats to use for cooking.
Sesame oil (again, unrefined, cold-pressed, organic) is very high in omega-6s (inflammatory fatty acids), however, it also contains a potent anti-oxidant called sesamol, plus two related compounds called sesamin and sesamolin. These combined are what keep sesame oil from going rancid, while also inhibiting inflammation in the body. Sesame oil also has 40% monounsaturated fat, but because of its high omega-6 content, I say use it sometimes, for flavor and variety, but use it sparingly (and if cooking with it, only over low-ish heat).
Oil to eat for omega-3s:lots of fish oil from cold-water fish:salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, sablefish, etc., and/or taking it in capsule or other supplementing form (krill oil, fermented cod liver oil are ones we use and I recommend).