Life is confusing enough without factoring in the debate over what constitutes healthy eating. Think back to the “olden” days when food consisted of catching the next rabbit or stumbling upon a new berry patch, and that’s if you were lucky. It wasn’t a matter of what we should or shouldn’t eat, but what we could find to eat. And that meant plants or animals in their natural state. No discussion about good fats or bad fats, the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, the link between transfats and sperm motility (hey guys, are you paying attention), or whether you might fail a drug test because you added hemp seed oil to your muffin mix (no worries). Sifting through all the information, opinions, fads, and trends is rather daunting. And if you throw in clueless consumers (which we all are at one time or another), junk food, government regulations, food industry lobbyists, and free-will libertarians – you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Education, awareness, and common sense, that’s what we need. But then we’re back to the starting point – where life is confusing enough as it is. How much time are we willing to spend to figure all this stuff out? Most of us have more pressing matters on our minds than how transfats were industrially created by adding hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats – and what that means to our health. But for our own good, we need to at least have a glimpse of how this can impact the disease process.
So, I’m here to provide you with a little information to add to the mix. We’ll just do a “fats and oils 101″ version because I know you have more important things to worry about than the chemical makeup of fats. Like how to blow off work, get outside, and play in this glorious Colorado sunshine (quick before it snows again).
Fats are lipids in foods or the body, composed mostly of trglycerides. Healthy fats provide fuel, supply essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), aid in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and are an important part of healthy nutrition. Hydrogenated fats and transfats are unhealthy fats. They contribute to heart disease by elevating LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and lowering HDL cholesterol (the good one).
Unhealthy dietary fats are one of the triggers for abnormal inflammation and the diseases and disorders associated with it. This can mean heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, or digestive diseases, which includes celiac, an autoimmune disease marked by inflammation of the small intestine caused by gluten exposure. Inflammation consists of the responses orchestrated by the immune system when tissues are injured – that’s a good thing if kept under control. It’s the body’s defense against injury and infection and is crucial to healing, but if it becomes chronic and out of control, a variety of diseases can result.
There are foods that promote the inflammatory response and foods that mitigate it. Unhealthy fats promote inflammation and healthy fats can shift the body back into a more balanced state. This is important for overall health, regardless of whether you have one of these conditions or not. This applies to all of us and is important in healthy aging, no matter where you are in the chronological process.
A family of compounds that includes triglycerides (fats and oils), phospholipids (lecithin is the best known), and sterols (cholesterol).
Chemically, these are fats carrying the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms and are more stable. Animal fats and the tropical oils are mostly saturated, but only the animal products contain cholesterol. Coconut oil, palm oil, lard, beef tallow and butter are saturated. They remain solid at room temperature and are more resistant to oxidation. All fats become rancid when exposed to oxygen.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
These fats are unsaturated (they lack the necessary hydrogen atoms that would make them saturated). They are not solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated oils include olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Polyunsaturated oils include safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil and are high in omega 6s and low in omega 3s (not so good).
Foods derived from both plants and animals can contain lipids (fats), but only those from animals contain cholesterol (meat, eggs, fish, poultry, shellfish, and dairy products). The fat in plants does not contain cholesterol. The distinction between “good” and “bad” cholesterol is confusing and controversial. “Good” cholesterol is not something found in foods – it is actually the way the body transports cholesterol around in the blood. HDL is the good stuff (remember H is for Healthy). It transports cholesterol to the liver to be broken down and excreted.
Essential fatty acids
EFAs are fatty acids needed by the body, but not made by it in amounts sufficient to meet physiological needs.
Omega-3 & Omega-6
These are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to health, must be obtained through food sources, and are required in specifically balanced ratios. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD), provides us with far more omega-6s than 3s and that’s not healthy.
Omega-3s (good, good, good)
Omega-3s provide the building blocks for an anti-inflammatory diet, which is what we want. These are found in fresh foods, cold-water fish, and grass-fed beef. Here’s a list of foods to choose from to increase your consumption of omega-3s and to help reduce systemic inflammation.
leafy greens (low concentrations, but still important sources)
100% grass-fed beef or bison
Omega-6s (not so good)
Omega-6s, in general, increase inflammation. They are abundant in processed foods, fast foods and refined vegetable oils. Eating the meat of animals fattened on grains increases the amount of omega 6s in the diet.
The bottom line
1. Avoid any product that lists partially hydrogenated oil or transfats as an ingredient. Hydrogenation is the chemical process in which hydrogen atoms are added to unsaturated fats to make them more stable (longer shelf life). So, if your cupcake package has an expiration date of 08/2020, it’s packed with hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenation produces transfats. Don’t go near the stuff.
2. Don’t use margarine, butter is much healthier.
3. Minimize or eliminate the use of polyunsaturated oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed).
4. Use expeller- or cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). “Light” olive oil has been chemically refined, which isn’t the best choice. Most vegetable oils are extracted using heat and solvents that create weird chemicals and are pro-inflammatory (not good). Cold-pressed and centrifuged coconut oil is also a healthy choice.
5. Avoid fried foods at fast-food restaurants. The oils in the fryers often contain hydrogenated fats. Plus, as the current McDonald’s lawsuit shows, can also contain gluten.
6. Don’t eat rancid foods (nuts, seeds, or grains). That sounds like a given, but you can’t always tell. You can determine rancidity by the smell, which is a bit like paint, but you have to have sharp olfactory skills.
7. Don’t heat oils to the smoking point, don’t breathe in the smoke, and don’t reuse oils that have been heated to high temperatures. Do I sound bossy? Sorry about that.
8. So – my current general oil choices are EVOO and coconut oil. EVOO for salad dressings, coconut oil for cooking and assorted other uses. If you don’t use olive oil often, buy a smaller bottle so it doesn’t go rancid. Coconut oil is saturated (solid at room temperature) so it’s far more stable. Protect your oil from heat, light and air. Dark bottles for EVOO are better.
Does that help?
In good health,
Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.