One Simple Change: Eat Healthy Fats and Oils

Happy Friday, my friends! I am back with the third post in my One Simple Change series.

If you missed the last two posts, no worries: you can read them here and here. And to sum up: in my One Simple Change posts, I am giving you focused and specific healthy lifestyle tips. There will be one tip per week- every Friday- in 2012. These are the types of recommendations I made back when I was practicing naturopathic medicine, and I am excited about sharing them here with you. If you’re up for making every lifestyle change I suggest, more power to you. If you’re only up for making one or two, that’s ok, too. It’s up to you.

If all goes according to plan, at the end of the year, I’ll have written over 50 One Simple Change posts. This means you’ll have over 50 tips at your disposal for improving your health and well-being holistically. Sound good? I hope so :)

I want to talk about fats and oils today because I don’t think there’s any topic under the umbrella of nutrition that’s more confusing to people than which fats and oils are healthy and which are not. Now, I realize that if you are not accustomed to eating healthy fats and oils, asking you to examine this aspect of your diet, and make some changes, may not at all be simple. Still, I happen to believe that even if you were to make no other dietary changes, but you made an effort to eat only healthy fats and oils, your health would benefit greatly.

Healthy Fats Part 1 | Healthy Green Kitchen

Which fats and oils are healthy, and which are not, is something about which I could potentially write pages and pages. But I don’t really want to do that (and I am sure you don’t want me to, either); instead, I want to distill the information down so it’s as concise as possible. Also, I am very aware as I write this that this subject is somewhat controversial.

You might already be familiar with this topic, so maybe this is all old hat to you, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe this is all new to you. And maybe you won’t like what I have to say. Maybe it will frighten you. I hope it will empower you. However you feel, I ask that you respect my point of view, which is a direct result of my own personal experiences, as well as my own years of research.

Let’s begin with a definition. What exactly do I mean by the term “healthy fats and oils”? Well, another name for the healthy fats and oils is natural fats and oils, and the way I like to define healthy/natural fats and oils is this: did this fat or oil exist 100 years ago? Did our ancestors eat it? If so, then it’s most likely natural. And healthy.

Healthy/natural fats and oils are not made in a factory. They haven’t been overly processed. They aren’t made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They haven’t been chemically altered or “messed with” in other ways. Examples of healthy/natural fats can be found toward the end of this post.

Up until the early part of the 20th century, natural fats were the only fats available to eat and cook with; they were appreciated for making food taste good, and as being necessary for health.

In the middle of the 20th century, however, when shortening and margarine were invented, and cheap vegetable oils like those made from soy and corn began making their way onto grocery store shelves and into food products, the perception of fats changed. Somehow, the predominant thinking shifted so that people started believing these newer fats were good, and that many of the more natural fats were bad.

Here are some of the beliefs that many people adopted, and which a great deal of people still hold on to, regarding fats and oils (note that I do not agree with any of them):

  • animal fats, including butter, are bad for you as they raise cholesterol and heart disease risk
  • all foods high in saturated fats cause heart disease
  • your diet has to be low fat to be healthy
  • if you’re going to eat fats, they should be from vegetable oils like canola, corn, and soy
  • eating fat will make you fat

In the 1980s when I was a teenager, the above tenets were “the party line”, and believe me when I say I lived by them. Every mainstream article I read about nutrition told me to avoid fat, so I did. I ate non-fat and very low fat alternatives to whole foods because I thought they were good for me, and at the height of my obsession with eating low-fat, when I was in college, I basically existed on plain salads, fruit, bagels, and frozen yogurt. Mind you I had grown up eating fabulous butter-laden food in my family’s restaurant…and now I wouldn’t touch it. And you know where all the fat avoidance got me? Nowhere. I was not healthy. Or skinny. I was chubby and depressed (chubby because I was starving all the time and would binge on high carb foods whenever no one was looking), and I developed a bunch of other health problems, too. All because of the super low fat, supposedly healthy, diet that I followed for years.

Back then, I did not understand that what I should have been eating was natural fats. I did not know that they are necessary for health: that fat provides energy and insulation, and that it is used to make cell membranes, hormones and to decrease inflammation. I did not know that certain fats- the omega-3s- can also protect you from cancer and help to increase your levels of good cholesterol.

I did not know that natural fats are required by the digestive system to help you absorb certain vitamins, mainly the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. If you eat foods that contain these vitamins without any healthy fat, you will not absorb the nutrients well, if at all. On the other hand, if you sauté your dark leafy greens in a little coconut oil, organic butter, or olive oil (some of the best, natural fats), you will be better able to absorb the vitamin K it contains.

I did not know that low-fat diets rarely contain enough healthy fats to sustain health. And that people who follow them long-term often end up with health problems.

Thankfully, about 15 years ago, I stumbled on the book Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This book, and others like Real Food: What to Eat and Why, Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol, The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease, and Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats opened up my mind to a new healthy eating paradigm, one in which natural fats play a big role. When I revamped my diet to incorporate these fats, my weight struggles went away and so did my health problems.

Now I can’t tell you how much fat you need in your diet. I also can’t tell you exactly which fats will be best for you in exact amounts. Everyone is different. Due to genetics, some people need more fat than others: if your ancestors were coastal or island dwellers, you might need more healthy fats because your ancestors ate a largely fish-based diet. If your ancestors were hunter-gatherers, you might need less.

So which are the best fats to eat?

The best fats to eat are a combination of omega-3 essential fatty acids, fats such as organic butter and coconut oil (once maligned for their “saturated” status, these are actually quite good for you), and the following:

  • Avocados- high in omega-9 (a monounsaturated fat)
  • Nuts and seeds, and their oils (including macadamia and walnut oils)
  • whole milk and cream (and cultured dairy such as cheese and yogurt) from grass fed cows (raw if possible)
  • Flax oil (quite “fragile”, so keep refrigerated, do not heat, and use up and replace every 6-8 weeks)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil- high in omega-9 (a monounsaturated fat)
  • Fats from pastured animals: including free-range, organic eggs yolks, lard, duck fat, etc.- (these last two are often labeled as saturated, but they are actually monounsaturated and there is evidence that they lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and leave HDL (“high”) cholesterol alone)

Note that because most people do not get nearly enough omega-3 fats in their diet, you may want to consider taking some healthy oils in supplemental form. Good choices are krill oil, cod liver oil, and/or fish oil.

Unhealthy Fats To Avoid

  • Polyunsaturated vegetable oils
  • including soybean, corn, canola and safflower do not make healthy cooking oils- they are unstable and are easily damaged by heat. There is evidence that they lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol and may contribute to cancer. Fats like soy and corn oil are found everywhere in processed foods but the others are found in numerous products marketed as health foods. Make sure to read labels and avoid them whenever possible.

  • Hydrogenated fats/trans-fats (margarine, “partially hydrogenated” oils, fried foods) are very unnatural fats your body cannot process or digest. These are truly terrible for you and may cause increased blood sugar, increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and increased blood pressure. Excess consumption of these fats may also contribute to the development of health issues including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

What about sesame, peanut, and grapeseed oils? I am of the opinion that these are ok for you, but they contain high amounts of the omega-6s, and because most people already get enough omega-6s in their diet, you should not consume these oils in great amounts…instead, you should focus on consuming more of the omega-3 oils.

For more information, check out the books I linked to above. This post also happens to be pretty great.

I am looking forward to your comments on this topic…please share them below. Do you eat healthy fats and oils already? Or does your diet need some revamping? Are you “in” for this week’s One Simple Change?

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51 thoughts on “One Simple Change: Eat Healthy Fats and Oils”

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  4. Well, myfitnesspal king of forbids eating mono- or poly- fats (O g per day/ week) which means no nuts. What now? Are nut fats really good for our health? Who’s wrong?

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  9. Thank you for the post! I just recently started my own blog to share my love for everything healthy. And finding blogs like yours make me glad I started.
    I have been looking for information on good fats, and of course there is tons of it out on the Internet. I’m restocking my kitchen cupboard and would like to get some good oils.. the trouble is I am not sure which ones to get. Any suggestions?
    Many thanks!

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  11. Hey,

    I am commenting for the first time, and I must say I find your new year’s resolution very cool and I’ll try to incorporate some tips into my lifestyle. (am already drinking my water first thing most of the days…)

    This post about the fats I found very intersting and this was mostly news to me that you consider butter and dairy products as healthy food. Didn’t think of them that way, even though what you recommend is exactly what I use in my every day diet!

    We sorta banned all convenience food from our life leaving only the good, natural oils. Makes me feel good to read about their healthyness!

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  13. I do eat healthy fats and oils – but on normal days I consume little to none, and if I do then I try to consume eight grams or less of saturated fat from the oils. I plan on elminating most oils from my diet, not including oily fruits and vegetables of course. ^^

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  15. I love this series, Winnie! I think the whole “One Simple Change” concept is great because it’s very do-able and not overwhelming. Plus, you’ve got great tips and information.

    Regarding the fats, my go-to oil is always extra-virgin olive oil… I’ve also noticed a difference since I switched over to all organic dairy. It may be partly in my head, but I just feel better. Love that you mentioned avocados, too… I am always happy for an excuse to eat more avocado. :)

  16. Great post! We have started cooking and baking with more coconut oil, and we’ve always used extra-virgin olive oil. I’m looking forward to reading your next post about the best oils to cook/bake with. We’ve recently started making our own butter using organic whipping cream (it’s WAY cheaper than buying a pound of organic butter, and my husband is CONVINCED it tastes much better :) ).

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  18. Thanks for this article. I’ve been making the switch to healthy fats over the last few months, and I’ve definitely seen an improvement in my health. I do want to mention one thing: be careful trying to buy lard at the grocery store. It often has trans fats mixed in to make it more shelf-stable. Learned that one that hard way. :D

  19. Thanks for this post. I grew up in Switzerland and there we eat a lot of cheese, butter and other milk products. People here (now I live in Israel) get a shock, if I tell them this and think it makes you fat and unhealthy… something I never experienced… unfortunately it is hard to get good organic stuff here, so I use the butter and milk I can get- but we do have good olive oil- although I dislike the smell if fried. How about sunflower-oil?

  20. Thank you so much for posting this – I too bought into the low-fat propoganda and ended up with health problems. It is only now that I am incorporating these healthy fats into my diet (along with naturally fermented foods) that I feel better. One thing I’d like to mention is that it has helped me to take Bitters (I like Urban Moonshine brand) while I was getting used to eating more fat in my diet.

  21. Thank you for this informative post Winnie! I am most certainly in!
    To be honest, I’ve never really been persuaded by the low-fat/fat-free craze…I would much rather eat a small portion of really delicious ice cream than a ginormous portion of frozen yogurt or “low fat” ice cream. And I have no desire to eat fat free artificially sweetened yogurt – yuck! I have been taking fish oil with my daily multivitamin for about a year now, and I think it’s made a big difference. I used to suffer from eczema very badly in the winter, but my skin problems are essentially gone (I’ve also changed up my diet a little). And nuts are one of my favorite snacks. I’d like to experiment with using different oils in cooking. Thanks again!

  22. Great informative post, Winnie. I took one nutrition course in college and learned so much, but what I remember most clearly is that so many foods are necessary in order to help nutrients, vitamins, proteins, etc better absorb into the body, help the body use those good things. And what I learned when I moved to France? Everything in moderation, eat happily and with no guilt and eat slowly, regularly and sensibly. It is terrible how much bad or wrong information people receive from the rumor mill and believe. Wonderful post! Thanks!

  23. If you ever fry food at home (we do very rarely, justifying that the homemade version is healthier than going out), what oil do you use? I struggle because vegetable oil is so cheap but not only unhealthy but I totally disagree with GMO farming. I suppose duck lard would taste and cook best but the cost is hard to justify for a few french fries…

    • Good question Rachel. Personally, I’d use (non extra virgin) olive oil. It’s been used for frying foods in Spain and other European countries for a long time….I think it’s better than the other vegetable oils. Grapeseed oil is another option- that’s what I use for latkes, etc. Look for organic, as the non-organic likely contains GMOs. Duck fat is awesome, though, but yes…expensive!

  24. great post! and yes I am all for eating those healthy fats. another healthy fat that I use when making or cooking food is coconut oil. love it. plus all those other ones you mentioned. been taking cod liver oil and loving it!

    • So good to hear! Cod liver oil is a fantastic supplement. I need to get back on it…really important in the winter here in NY :)

  25. Thanks so much for this. Do you think you could expand on what kinds of oils to use for different kinds of cooking? Ex: what to use when baking, sauteing, on salads etc.

  26. Excellent post. You have provided some valuable information that your readers can take away and make some good, healthy and well-informed choices for themselves and their families.

  27. Thanks for this, and like Valeria, i’ll also post it because here in the US people are so confused about what to eat and what not. Perhaps to some people I have an unhealthy obsession with good, extra virgin new olive oil, but alas…

  28. this is a great blog post….i was in my early 20’s when the fat-free craze hit and i was justifying eating half a package of snackwells because i saved up my calories for the day and it was fat-free!
    not until 2 years ago (now I am 40) have I finally undone my belief that fats were bad (not to say that i did not go through times of indulgence and gaining weight since then) until i embraced the plant-based lifestyle did i re-learn what had been inculcated into me for years….now i eat avocados, nuts, coconut oil and do not feel guilty–i cringe to think i felt guilty about it…now i won’t do meat products with the exception of fish–but my grandmothers who lived in europe cooked in animal fat and lived until their late 80’s…and there are many europeans like that–and who smoke!…but they don’t eat processed foods and were not sedentary–ever (i know things are slowly changing in europe now towards our SAD)….
    i am glad i found your blog! thanks for the info…nice to access to a naturopath

    • Eva- I am glad you found your way out of the fat free craze. So liberating, right? Glad to hear about all the great fats and oils you are eating :)

  29. Loving this series big time!!! I cant say as I’ve heard about saturated fats being good for you… i knew that they weren’t necessarily bad for you but I certainly never revered them as being healthy. Just a few questions:)
    So, would you suggest that we eat organic butter and coconut oil slightly more often then the other healthy fats you mentioned, or are they all equally good for you? Also, I find organic butter incredibly expensive, is it worth the extra cost? I have never had coconut oil, does it have a coconut-ty taste?

    Thanks for all the info, great post!

    • Great questions- will try to address them next week in Healthy Fats and Oils part 2. Coconut oil is delicious! Yes it does has a coconut taste…look for an organic, extra virgin one…I love it.

  30. Thanks for this great post. People have become so afraid of fats, but I think it’s great to try to educate people that (good) fat is needed and necessary for you.

  31. This is very very enlightening and informative, thanks a lot! I did not know that duck fat was an healthy fat and that omega-9 are also healthy fats. However, I did know that raw milk and dairy from grass-fed free range cattle is very healthy and contain good fats. I did a lot of research on the topic while working at the Raw Milk Campaign for Slow Food International and I really appreciate that you point that out. Too many times dairy is labeled as unhealthy per se, while there is a huge gap between indutrial dairy and the abovementioned one. There is a lot of confusion on the topic and many people switch to non-dairy milks and yogurts because thet think it is bad for you. We know that it is not, it is just a matter of choosing the right one. Again, thanks for this, I will share it on FB because it is very clear and complete.

    • Thanks Valeria! I am working on a part 2 for next week- will focus on which fats and oils are best for what (raw, baking, frying, etc)…

  32. Excellent article! I appreciate your simple change series and the time you put into all these educated nutritional posts and recipes. Im looking forward to learning more from you. Be well (=