Good fats bad fats

Olive oil wins hands down as the healthiest oil to use, whether raw, as in dressings, or for sautéing. Avocado oil has essentially the same fat profile and an even better smoke point, with some other nutritional benefits. Both are excellent choices for good health.

Unraveling the omega-6 to omega-3 fats issue

Boo fat, fat go away. I’ve been putting off writing about fats, because they have a complex biochemistry. But fats are vital to our good health. On the other hand, too much fat or the wrong kinds can do serious damage.

For best health, follow these three rules:

  • Choose fats and oils with the lowest possible unsaturated omega-6 fats.
  • Eat foods that contain lots of unsaturated omega-3 fats.
  • Limit foods that contain large amounts of saturated fats.

Sounds easy. But each of those main kinds of fats are made up of many different compounds, with names you find bandied about everywhere… alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), lauric acid, linoleic acid, partially hydrogenated fatty acids, good and bad cholesterols and etc… even no fat.

How can we choose healthy foods when our grocery basket contains such a hodgepodge of various kinds of fats?

It turns out that what might be good for me is bad for you. If we can sort it all out, then we can consistently buy and use the best foods for our own personal nutritional health.

But let’s go back to my three main rules. They suggest that the unsaturated fat content of foods is more significant to health than the saturated fats we eat.

Unsaturated fats

Olives are an excellent source of healthy unsaturated oils, with very little omega 6 fats.

Unsaturated fats are generally found in oily plant products, like nuts, seeds, and oily fruits like avocados and olives. Problems occur when the ratio of unsaturated omega-6 fats to unsaturated omega-3 fats gets top heavy.

Our bodies are not able to manufacture essential unsaturated fats, so we do need to include them in our diet. Humans are genetically programmed to process omega-6 and omega-3 fats when they occur in a healthy ratio of 4:1 (as occurs in societies that eat mainly meat) or 1:4 (in people that survive mainly on seafood).

But people eating a western diet today consisting of a variety of foods, many of which are highly processed plant products, are looking at omega-6 to omega-3 ratios of 16:1. This top-heavy ratio constitutes a serious health danger.

Omega-6 fats cause inflammation of our tissues. Omega-3 fats serve to reduce inflammation. A diet with insufficient omega-3 fats to neutralize the damaging effects of omega-6 fats leads to serious disease.

Chronic inflammation is one of the leading drivers of the most serious health problems people today have to contend with, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and many types of cancer.

Sadly, the processed seed and vegetable oils people are eating today, particularly in processed foods, are loaded with omega-6 fats. Along side that, people are eating less meat (with low levels of omega-6 fats) and fish (with their high omega-3 fat). This way of eating is contributing to the alarming rise in chronic illnesses we are seeing today.

Saturated fats

An over-consumption of animal fats, as in butter, cheese, and red meats, can lead to early health issues.

Saturated fats also present health problems. Most people have heard that high saturated fat levels in the blood can clog arteries and lead to heart problems and stroke. Saturated fat is also dangerous because it is converted to cholesterol in the body, raising unhealthy levels of bad cholesterol, further impacting heart and stroke risks for people.

People are generally advised to limit foods that contain high amounts of saturated fats, usually foods obtained from animals – red meat, dairy, cheese, and processed meats. But because animal fats do come with very little omega-6 fats, they can be used in moderation as they help balance that critical omega-6 to omega 3 ratio. Eggs are now considered safe in moderation, because the dietary cholesterol they contain is not the type of cholesterol that is considered a risk. Omega-3 eggs are particularly good for us.

There is one popular oil that comes from plants, though, which is top-heavy in saturated fats. It is coconut oil. There is a hot debate raging as to whether coconut oil is a healthy choice. Its fats are medium or short in length compared with those of animal origin. And it contains lauric acid, an antibacterial fat found elsewhere only in mother’s milk. But it is saturated, nevertheless, and recent research advises that we use coconut oil only in moderation.

The following chart is helpful in choosing the best and worst fats and oils for good health. It displays the various fats and oils from lowest to highest amounts of saturated fats (dark pink), with their corresponding amounts of omega-6 fats (blue). Canola and flaxseed oils are the only ones with a decent amount of omega-3 fat to balance out the omega-6 fats.

Choosing the best fats and oils for our health

In spite of recent concerns over genetically modified crops, canola oil is still one of the healthiest oils you can cook with.

What does this chart tell us? On the basis of low omega-6 content coupled with low saturated fats, the healthiest oils are

  • Canola
  • Safflower
  • Flaxseed
  • Olive

In moderate amounts we can also recommend some oils with high saturated fats but low omega-6s, because they help bring the ratio of omega-6 to omega 3 to a healthier balance.

  • Lard
  • Butter fat
  • Coconut oil.

Environmental concerns

Palm oil is the leading cause of orangutan extinction. It’s in 50% of all household and food products sold in the West – in frozen microwave dinners, cookies, peanut butter, makeup and much more!

Palm oil is not recommended in spite of its low omega-6 content for environmental reasons. Harvesting palm oil is doing irreparable damage to tropical forests and the animals who live there.

Canola oil is also sometimes not recommended in spite of its excellent fat composition because it is derived from genetically modified plants, bred to withstand certain pesticides that are used to increase crop yield. Pesticide residues may remain in the plants and make their way into its oil. The science is still out on this. But because the oil is so low in saturated fats and omega-6s, canola oil may be ideal for many people, if it is used in moderation.

Cholesterol concerns

The only plant-based source of saturated fats is coconut.

Research is showing that dietary cholesterol, found in egg yolk and shrimps for example, has limited effect on cholesterol levels in blood.

The chief factor raising cholesterol in the blood is high levels of saturated fats. These are converted into what are called bad cholesterol.

This is the problem with coconut oil. The latest research suggests coconut oil’s plant-based saturated fats raises bad cholesterol levels in the blood as much as saturated fats from animal products. So in spite of its low levels of omega-6, coconut oil should be used in moderation.

Smoke point

Heat changes the chemistry of fats and oils. Some fats and oils denature more quickly when heated than others. They break down into compounds that are bad for our health.

In choosing any of the recommended fats and oils, cold-pressed virgin oils are the healthiest, least denatured options, as they have not been subjected to heat treatments.

This means that for frying at high temperatures, use only oils that have a high smoke point.

Comparing the two charts, the first five oils that have low omega-6 content in the first chart also have respectably high smoke points in the second chart.

Avocado oil, not included on the first chart, has a fat composition almost identical to olive oil and a very high smoke point, so it can also be used for stove-top sautéing and frying instead of olive oil.

For frying, these oils are recommended.

  • Avocado
  • Safflower
  • Canola
  • Olive
  • Lard
  • Coconut oil

Oils best eaten in raw foods, unheated

Walnuts and fatty fish like salmon are good sources of omega-3 fats

Some oils, like walnut oil, are rich in the less common omega-3 unsaturated fat. It has a low smoke point and can be enjoyed unheated, in dressings and drizzles. Walnuts can be considered among the world’s healthiest nuts.

It is important to remember that some omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential to human health and must be consumed in food. It is the ratio that is a concern. The aim is to up omega-3 and reduce omega-6, not eliminate omega-6 entirely.. Fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, are rich in omega-3 fats. As are walnuts! Enjoy them often.

If I haven’t covered an oil that you tend to use often, you can check out its fat composition by googling it on-line and comparing its percentage values and smoke point against the charts here.

What fats and oils to avoid

Margarine and many baked goods contain trans fats – watch out for trans fats and avoid them entirely.

Trans fats are refined from unsaturated fats by heating them, then adding hydrogen to the mix under pressure. The hydrogen stabilizes the oil so that it becomes solid at room temperature. Trans fats are used extensively in processed foods. Science has found them seriously damaging to human health and they are now banned in many countries, including Canada. Avoid trans fats at all costs. Check the labels on margarines and processed baked foods before purchase to make sure there are no trans fats.

Based on levels of omega-6 and saturated fats, plus smoke point and environmental factors, the worse possible choices are these:

  • trans fats
  • sunflower oil
  • soybean oil
  • cottonseed
  • corn oil.

There is plenty more to learn about fats and oils, but I think these two charts give us an excellent place to start. You can check out the article where I found the first chart and the references it contains for more detail about the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio issue.

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