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?