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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
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.

Lipids
A family of compounds that includes triglycerides (fats and oils), phospholipids (lecithin is the best known), and sterols (cholesterol).

Saturated fats
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).

Cholesterol
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.
walnuts
flax
hemp
leafy greens (low concentrations, but still important sources)
sea vegetables
salmon
sardines
herring
mackerel
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,
Melissa

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.

17 Responses to “do you need an oil change?”

  1. Tevis says:

    I’m an avid olive oil person! I love the stuff. And, recently, my dermatologist suggested that when I get hives or have an allergic outbreak to rub some basic olive oil on the inflamed area. Looks like it’s not only good for your from the inside, but the outside as well!!

  2. Melissa says:

    Hey Tevis — good idea! Sometimes I use coconut oil as a hand lotion. I just take a glob of it and rub it in. It’s great stuff and smells good too. Like you’re on an island vacation, which takes some imagination living in Colorado.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the good article Melissa!
    We love the healthy benefits of fresh nuts like almonds and walnuts and add them to all sorts of dishes.
    I use coconut oil as a skin moisturizer as well. I think that it’s really interesting that the saturated fat in coconut is composed of medium-chain fatty acids (as opposed to long-chain fatty acids found in the satuated fat of animal fats) making coconut oil a fairly healthful option.
    Do you store your olive oil in the refrigerator?
    Thanks again for the good information!

  4. Cindy says:

    Melissa,
    Yey, what a fantastic article! I love it. We have done some fat/oil commenting and posts, but your is very thorough. However, I must point out that although no one has the time to track down all the little details, those details (how frying with poly and monounsaturated oils or worse, Omega 3s, turns good oil to trans fats) still hurt us. Ignorance is not bliss. Lucky this world has neurotic nutrition-obsessed bloggers like you and me (and many others, I can’t wait to meet them!) to give everyone else the laymans lowdown. Heck, I need that often. I’ve perfected my blank stare which means “say that again, reaaaalll slow” :)
    I’m looking forward to more!
    xoxo
    Cindy Lou

  5. Melissa says:

    Jennifer — good point. I actually didn’t want to overwhelm people with science (other than Cindy and Michelle), so I didn’t go into detail, but you’re right. Coconut oil is a MCFA and as such is a smaller molecule and is much easier for the body to metabolize. MCFAs require less energy and fewer enzymes to break down and are absorbed more efficiently. Plus, coconut oil has antibacterial properties and helps with healing (even your intestines if you have celiac). I occasionally buy a fresh coconut, use an oyster knife to clean out the flesh and use it in smoothies. It’s good stuff. Thanks for bringing that up!

    Hey Cindy — Your comments are always worth an “ah-haaa” moment, or a smile, or both! Another good point! Thanks! I remember you had a great post about fats, which one was it? Leave the link for us…

  6. Jennifer says:

    Fresh coconut in smoothies? Oh yum! I can’t wait to try that!

  7. Karina says:

    I lurve good olive oil. On everything. Bread (GF of course). Potatoes. Veggies. Fish. My current favorite is an organic oil from Napa Valley.

  8. michelle says:

    Melissa, wow! This was really helpful, because I may be a scientist (aw, thanks) but I don’t know sheet about nutrition other than what I read from intelligent people like yourself who can dummy it down for me! Plus, so many of the magazines, etc. have confilicting information which makes it hard to know what to do! So I have some questions – based on Jennifer’s comment, is coconut oil an okay option to cook with then? And do you have a reference or an article for the sperm motility/trans fat connection? My hubby and I have a disagreement about trans fats (not eating them, banning them) and I want to rub a little more info into my argument – he he he…. ps. i love thinking up how to blow off work…now if we only had some of that colorado sunshine here!

  9. Megan says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Well, for looking forward to this post for so long it sure took me long enough to read it. We are mostly moved into the new house and as always, there were some IT problems that took until 10 minutes ago to resolve.
    Thanks for the valuable information…there were a couple of good tidbits that will help me. Craig has slightly elevated levels of LDL and in my quest ot bring them down, I had mentally removed red meat from our diet. Good to know that grass-fed meat is still OK.
    In my other quest to try more new foods, I bought my first chard today. :)

    Megan

  10. Nick says:

    Hey Melissa,

    Great post about fats. There is so much that the public needs to know about fats and how they AREN’T bad for you and don’t necessarily make you fat. People that diet and cut out all fats are doing themselves harm. In fact, they will lose more weight on a healthy diet that contains a reasonable amount of good fats than on a diet with little to no fat.

    If only everyone around the globe would read this post and many other sources that have this information but aren’t easily discovered. I’ll be posting a “fat” post soon as well because my blog and recipes also revolve around a healthy lifestyle.

    The only thing I contend is that you say to avoid poly-unsaturated fats. While they aren’t as good as mono-unsaturated fats, they are not all together bad. They reduce both good and bad cholesterol but aren’t nearly as bad as saturated or trans fats. Specifically, Omega-3 poly-unsaturated fats are still beneficial like the ones in walnuts, flax oil or fish.

    Or, just eat peanut butter all the time like me!

    - The Peanut Butter Boy

  11. Melissa says:

    Nice comments, Nick. Oh, I agree, fats have definitely been given a bad rap. And you’re so right about the dieting thing. Just think how detrimental that whole “low-fat” trend was/is for dieters. It’s a matter of healthy eating, rather than extremes. That and caloric intake (calories in, calories out). As for the poly-unsaturated fats, I agree, but I do have my preferences. I think I forgot to mention coconut oil in this post — that’s a good one too. I look forward to your post on fats! Do you ever stray from peanut butter? Almond butter maybe?

    Melissa

  12. Melissa says:

    Michelle,

    Yikes, I meant to get back to you on the sperm thing and forgot. And the coconut oil question — geez, sorry about that. Too many things going on right now (although I’m not in the midst of moving, so I shouldn’t complain!).

    Yes, I like using natural coconut oil. It’s a saturated fat, but not evil like you’ve been led to believe. It’s a medium-chain fatty acid, so it “acts” different in the body. Oh, and take a glob and use it as hand lotion. Very nice.

    Okay, on to sperm talk. A friend of mine did a presentation on nutrition and fertility and here are two of the research studies she referred to for information on sperm function and trans-fats. There are a bunch of articles on this and I think the Price Foundation may have info on it as well, but here are two that my friend used.

    West, Zita. Fertility and Conception. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2004, p.67
    Hanis, T. V. Zidek, et al., “Effects of Dietary Trans-Fatty Acids on Reproductive Performance of Wistar Rats,” British Journal of Nutrition 61(1989): 519-29.

    Our bodies don’t want trans-fats — they aren’t naturally occurring fats so they don’t make good building blocks. The real stuff is better.

    Hope that helps.
    Melissa

  13. Nikki says:

    Melissa,
    I am wondering if you can use coconut oil if you are alergic to coconut???
    Nikki

    • Melissa says:

      Oooh, Nikki — that’s a drag. Being allergic to coconut is not very common, but if you have a true allergy to it, I’d think it would be best to avoid all coconut products. What happens to you? Rashes? Sorry to hear that — I’d stick with oils that are non-allergenic to you. Olive oil is probably best. Are you okay with EVOO?

  14. Janet says:

    What if you don’t like the taste of coconut? Are their coconut oils that don’t have a coconut taste?

  15. RI GF Mom says:

    what type of oil do you bake with? I use very little, but have one favorite gf muffin/cake/bread recipe that calls for oil and olive oil doesn’t taste right in it.

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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.
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