The 411 on Fats & Oils
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
I'm sure you've seen the headline by now:
Harvard researcher touting coconut oil as "pure poison" and one of the worst foods you can eat. Whoa - that's a bold statement! So what's the deal?
There is so much information out there that it's tough to know what the heck is true. Is butter "back" and the reborn "superfood" ? Should we all be eating fat bombs and drinking bullet-proof coffee? Speaking of bullet-proof coffee, is coconut oil the savior from all ailments? Of course not, but you'd be surprised by what people are claiming.
Here's the Deal:
Healthy fats are a necessary nutrient for optimal health. Your body requires fats to produce cell membranes, absorb fat-soluble nutrients including vitamins A, E, D, and K (see vitamins 101), provide protection for vital organs, and play an essential role in maintaining healthy hair and skin. Healthy fat is also an essential energy source, reduces cholesterol and keeps your heart healthy. Healthy fats do not make you fat. In adequate amounts and variety, these fats protect - not harm - you and your health goals. As with anything, the problem lies in consuming too much, whether it's too much healthy fat, unhealthy fats (more on that below), refined carbs, or calories in general.
Learn the Lingo (or skip over this if you're not feeling a bit of science)
There are four main types of fats: Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, Saturated, and Trans fats. All types are named based on their chemical structure, and their structure determines their function in the body. Thinking back to chemistry 101, a fat is made up of a bunch of carbons linked together by bonds, mainly single bonds, but sometimes double. These carbons are surrounded by hydrogens. When a carbon chain has only single bonds, it is considered saturated. However, when a chain contains a double bond, the chain becomes "unsaturated", meaning it is not fully saturated with hydrogen molecules, making it flexible, and liquid at room temperature.
Healthy fats include Monounsaturated Fats (one double bond) and Polyunsaturated fats (two or more double bonds), including Omega 3 and Omega 6's. Consuming a variety of these in our daily diet is essential for the aforementioned processes and positive health outcomes.
Chains that have no double bonds are considered "saturated" with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats have long been linked to heart disease, stroke, and other negative health outcomes, primarily because they contribute to an increase in "bad" LDL cholesterol, which can cause further detriment to our cells, arteries, and heart.
However, we know that not all saturated fats are created equal. Some saturated fats are short (Short Chain Fatty Acids) some long, and others, medium (Medium Chain Triglycerides/Fatty Acids), or as you may have read "MCT's"). New studies in the last several years have shown these MCT's have a different effect on the body, apparently digesting more quickly than long chains. MCT's also appear to lower bad cholesterol levels compared to their long-chain counterparts.
To make things more complicated, the "bad" LDL cholesterol has variations within its family as well. Size matters: the larger LDL particles may not be as bad as the really small ones. Another factor to consider is whether someone consumes saturated fats in the context of an overall healthy diet. Often, individuals consuming large amounts of saturated fats, are also consuming large amounts of processed, refined foods, are physically inactive, and follow other unhealthy practices like smoking.
The research is preliminary, and it's too soon to make a sweeping recommendation regarding saturated fats. However, long-standing strong evidence supports that saturated fats are correlated to negative health outcomes, and should therefore should be limited to <10% of your dietary intake.
On coconut oil:
Coconut oil is an example of a saturated fat that differs from other saturated fats for two reasons:
1. It is a Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT), meaning it may be easier to digest. 2. It is plant-based. Although more research is needed, some studies show that plant-derived saturated fats increase good HDL's, and do not have the same bad cholesterol-raising effects as animal-based saturated fats.
Coconut oil, however, is still made of over 80% saturated fat. We have no long-term studies showing the effects of consuming coconut oil daily or on a regular basis. Currently, the long term effects of coconut oil on cardio metabolic health (heart health, atherosclerosis stroke risk, etc.) are not clearly established as compared to other saturated fats.
Now: is coconut oil pure poison? No. But should we be including it in every meal or every day? No. Studies do show that coconut oil has a better heart-healthy profile than butter.
So if you'd like to replace your butter with coconut oil, go for it! Otherwise, continue to consume small amounts, in moderation, on occasion.
There's nothing good to say about them. They increase inflammation, raise cholesterol and blood pressure, and have all sorts of other negative effects. In 2015, the FDA deemed them not "Generally Recognized as Safe" for consumption. As of June 2018, food manufacturers are required to eliminate their use entirely.
All about the Oils
One key thing to remember, is all oils, no matter the type, should be used as a supplemental, rather than a primary, ingredient. While there are some great oil options, everything should be used in moderation, as oils are calorie dense; a little can go a long way!
Depending on what you're prepping, using the right oil can make all the difference. Oils have different smoke points, or the point when the oil structure starts to break down, limiting the maximum useful cooking temperature. The higher the smoke point, the better for sauteing or frying. Lower smoke points make for better dressings and toppings.
A Handy Guide to Oils
Avocado: Rich in monounsaturated fats, lower in poly-unsaturated fats. Rich in antioxidants. Has a higher smoke point and mild flavor.
Use: Sautéing, grilling, roasting, or dressings.
Canola: High in monounsaturated fats. Lowest level of saturated fats of all oils. Neutral flavor and high smoke point.
Use: Baking, grilling, stirfrys, or dressings.
Coconut: Primarily saturated fats, with over half being Medium Chain Triglycerides. Distinct coconut flavor - include in dishes you don't mind taking on this flavor.
Use: Moderate heat cooking: simmer or reduced-heat sautéing, or baking.
Flaxseed: High in polyunsaturated fats. Great ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 polyunsaturated fats. Very low smoke point. Refrigerate (it spoils).
Use: Dressings, no heat.
Olive: High in monounsaturated fats. Rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. Extra virgin has higher amounts of antioxidants.
Low smoke point.
Use: Ideal for dressings, dips, or low heat sautéing.
Sesame: Balanced mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Lower in saturated fats.
Use: Strong nutty flavor. Use in stirfrys, or Asian-style dishes. Can withstand high heat (grilling, panfrying).
Weigh in: We'd love to hear your thoughts!