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Chewing the fat: which fats and oils should we use in the kitchen?

By Sally Beare, dip BCNH, CNHC

Some fats and oils are crucial for vibrant good health, and should be in everyone’s kitchen. Others are killers, and would be better used for car fuel.  Unfortunately, most of the oils in our diet today are the latter, whilst the former are notably absent. Many nutrition experts believe that this is a big factor behind our current epidemic of chronic disease and accelerated ageing.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do to make sure you consume the good oils and avoid the bad. You just need to know what’s what – so here is a guide to what you need to know.

Fats and oils in the Longevity Hot Spots

There are certain populations around the world where people live to exceptionally ripe ages and yet have some of the lowest rates of chronic disease.  Doctors researching these places have found cancer rates as low as 4.4 per 10,000 and men in their 100s without a single sign of illness (1,2,3). I call these places the Longevity Hot Spots.

The Longevity Hot Spots share basic dietary and lifestyle factors, which I have described in my books. High vegetable intake, fruit daily, legumes, fish, some whole grains, clean pure water, nuts and seeds, and minimal meat are dietary elements which are common to all of the Hot Spots.

The fats and oils the people in these places consume also have certain factors in common which correspond with recommendations from nutrition experts. The basic features of the fat and oil content of the diets in these places are:

  • Minimal saturated fats from meat and dairy products
  • No damaged polyunsaturated fats from cheap cooking oils (such as corn oil or vegetable oil)
  • No trans- fats or hydrogenated fats from processed foods (such as ready meals and crackers)
  • Sufficient omega 3 essential fats from sources such as oily fish, wild grass-fed game, pasture-fed animals, and nuts
  • Sufficient omega 6 essential fats from sources such as nuts, seeds, and plant foods
  • Monounsaturated fats from sources such as extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, and avocados

What to use and what not to use in your kitchen

So, how can we do what they do in the Longevity Hot Spots, given the minefield of supermarkets, restaurants, processed foods and unintelligible packaging we live in?  Here is a basic guide.

Eat only organic, free range meat and cheese

Meat and cheese which come from battery-farmed animals are high in saturated fats which, in excess, may contribute to chronic disease.

If you want to eat meat and dairy products such as cheese, keep amounts to a minimum and choose organic, free range products. Produce from grass-fed animals is best, as their flesh contains higher amounts of beneficial omega 3 fats than grain-fed animals.

Avoid hydrogenated and trans- fats

These fats are created by processing oils in a certain way and have been widely used in processed foods such as spreads, biscuits, and ready meals. They are unnatural fats which are incompatible with our biochemistry and harmful to health in many ways. They have been gradually disappearing from processed foods as their harmful effects have become established.

A new technique for making spreads and margarines is called interestification. This method of giving oils texture and shelf life is a way of avoiding hydrogenated fats, but early studies are suggesting a possible link with heart disease (4).

Palm oil is also increasingly being used in processed foods.  It is often touted as a healthier alternative to other oils, but in reality most palm oil is refined, bleached and deodorized (see below). Palm oil has also been reported to raise the risk of heart disease (5). In addition, harvesting palm fruit to make palm oil destroys the habitat of endangered species such as orang-utans.

Avoid cheap supermarket oils

The cheap cooking oils sold in supermarkets, such as corn oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil and canola oil are greatly damaged during the production process, which makes them damaging to health. They are mixed with caustic soda (commonly used to unblock drains), heated to very high temperatures, bleached, and then deodorized to remove the bad taste of rancidity caused by heating and bleaching.  All common supermarket oils apart from extra-virgin olive oil have undergone this process and should be avoided because they contain toxic molecules which can degrade our DNA.

Buy only cold-pressed, organic oils

The only safe oils to use are cold-pressed, organic oils. Health food shops and some supermarkets stock these – the best ones will cost more and come in a dark container. Beware that cheaper ones may still be labelled ‘cold-pressed’ but will have been refined, bleached and deodorized all the same. Oils are fragile and should be kept carefully sealed in a cool place and used fairly quickly before they have time to spoil.

Good-quality cold-pressed oils which are typically available are:  peanut (groundnut) oil, avocado oil, extra-virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, flax oil and hemp oil. You may also find almond oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil and nut oils such as walnut or macadamia nut oil.

Don’t spoil your oil

Most oils are easily damaged with heat, which is one reason why fried foods are bad for us.  The polyunsaturated oils in seeds and oily fish, also known as omega 6 and omega 3 essential fatty acids, are very volatile, which makes them reactive and highly beneficial in our bodies, so long as they are fresh.

However, this reactivity also means that they can easily become rancid when they are exposed to oxygen, heat, or light. This causes them to have a high content of the free radicals and other toxic molecules which are damaging to our cells.  For this reason, polyunsaturated oils should NEVER be heated and should also be stored carefully.

Use coconut oil, peanut oil or avocado oil for heating

Monounsaturated fat, found in peanut oil, avocado oil and olive oil, is more stable than polyunsaturated fats from seeds and fish and is safer for heating. However, olive oil contains delicate polyphenols which are damaged with heat, and it is therefore best to consume only cold olive oil and to avoid cooking with it.  The safest oils for heating are thought to be peanut oil (also known as groundnut oil) and avocado oil.

Coconut oil is also safe for cooking with since it contains mainly saturated fats, which do not spoil with heat.  The saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fats, which are different to the long-chain fats found in meat and dairy products, and are not associated with any health problems.

Use the healthy sauté method

This is a brilliant method for avoiding using oil in cooking and, culinarily, it works very well. It was devised by oils expert George Mateljan and you can find more about it here: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=whfkitqa&dbid=6

You can stir in extra-virgin olive oil or another good-quality oil after removing your dish from the heat using this method and so get all the benefits of the oil in its unspoiled state.

What about butter, lard, and ghee?

Butter and ghee are not damaged by heat in the way that polyunsaturated fats are and are therefore safer for cooking. However, they are still high in saturated fats and are probably best used sparingly.

Lard, or pork fat, is high in monounsaturated fats and is used in some of the Longevity Hot Spots, where it always comes from organic, free range animals and is used sparingly. If you decide to try using lard, make sure it is of Hot Spot quality.

Consume beneficial fats daily

Don’t forget that it is as important to have a good intake of beneficial fats as it is to avoid the damaging ones. We need monounsaturated and unspoiled omega 3 and 6 fats for gut health, cell membrane health, healthy hormone production, good immunity, efficient metabolism, and to transport fat-soluble vitamins around the body, amongst other things.

Don’t worry about the calories in good fats, because these fats boost metabolism, protect the thyroid gland (which controls metabolism), and optimise the ability of cells to burn glucose for energy rather than storing it as fat.

The best sources of monounsaturated fats are: nuts, avocados, and extra-virgin olive oil.

The best sources of omega 6 fats are: fresh nuts and seeds. A handful a day, or 2-3 tablespoons of ground flax seed, should provide you with a good daily amount.

The best sources of omega 3 fats are: Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring; krill oil supplements; walnuts; flax seeds and their oil, hemp seeds and their oil, chia seeds; and eggs from grass-fed hens.

References

(1) Ze Yang (1981). Systematic Research and Analysis of the Factors Associated with Longevity in Bama Population’.

(2) Zhi-Chien Ho (1982). A Study of Longevity Protein Requirements of Individuals 90-110 Years Old in Southern China. Journal of Applied Nutrition 34 (1).

(3) The Okinawa Way. Bradley Willcox  MD, Craig Willcox PhD, Makoto Suzuki MD.

(4) Tilakavati Karupaiah (1) and Kalyana Sundram (2). Effects of stereospecific positioning of fatty acids in triacylglycerol structures in native and randomized fats: a review of their nutritional implications. 1 Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Faculty of Allied Health Sciences, National University of Malaysia, Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz, Kuala Lumpur 50300, Malaysia.  2 Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), 2nd Floor Wisma Sawit, Lot 6, SS6 Jalan Perbandaran, 47301 Kelana Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.

(5) Chen, BK et al (2011). Multi-country analysis of palm oil consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality for countries at different stages of economic development: 1980-1997. Globalisation and Health 7 (1):45.

 

Sally Beare is the author of The Live-Longer Diet (Piatkus, UK, 2003) and 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest-Living People (Avalon, US, 2006).

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