What Have They Done To Our Fats And Oils?

Olive oil is a fat with a mission - keeping you full of nutrients and health

For forty years, government agencies and the food industry scolded us about our fatintake. First we were advised to use less saturated fat because it caused heart disease and substitute polyunsaturated vegetable oils. It took some time to discover that polyunsaturated oils were causing new problems. They are highly susceptible to oxygen damage which causes rancidity, and rancid oils promote arterial damage, excess inflammation, premature aging of tissues and cells, and cancer.

Food manufacturers solved the problem of rancidity by hydrogenating polyunsaturated oils, a process that binds the free hydrogen bonds. Unfortunately, hydrogenation produced unnatural chemical configurations known as trans fats that proved to be more harmful than the saturated fats we were told to avoid in the first place. Recently, responding to our fat fears, manufacturers invented artificial fats with the mouth feel of fat but none of the calories. Then we learned that artificial fats cause absorption problems in the intestine and lower fat-soluble nutrients to an alarming extent. It makes a health-conscious person crazy!

People interested in good health worry that a high fat diet causes heart disease, cancer, and obesity, but the more we adulterate our fat intake, the worse our health becomes. The food industry, with little interference from government agencies, takes advantage of our confusion, knowing that we’ll buy any product that claims to end weight problems, prevent cancer, or improve cholesterol levels. Instead of turning to chemistry to solve our problems, we can find healthy natural alternatives.

How Our Body Uses Oils

Our bodies thrive on ample amounts (at least 30% of total calories) of good quality oils. Of course, we need to eliminate unhealthy fats, but people who eat extremely low fat diets are not healthier or thinner than those who eat moderate levels of healthy fats. The people ofCretehave one of the world’s lowest levels of heart disease, and 40% of their calories come from fat, mostly olive oil and fish.

Researchers keep discovering more about our need for oils. Our bodies use oils to make membranes that surround cells. We need good quality oils for both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses, and both these processes are necessary for healing. For example, we micro-damage our muscles each time we push them to do more work. This is a good kind of damage that encourages the muscle to heal with more muscle fiber and strength than it had before, but our injured muscles like any other wound need good quality oils to make the hormones that break down the damaged tissue and prepare it for repair (inflammatory process). At the same time, we want healing to be fast and efficient, so our body needs the right oils to make inflammation controlled and short-lived (anti-inflammatory action).

Each time our body has to go through this healing process to repair illness or injury, it involves our immune system, and healthy oils and essential fatty acids help our immune system work optimally. Oils transport a host of fat-soluble nutrients including Vitamin E, D, K, A, and beta-carotenes throughout the body. Healthy oils protect us from heart disease and cancer and keep our hair and skin healthy. Finally, essential oils are necessary for proper hormone production for men and women.

On top of great health benefits, the right kinds of fats and oils make our meals flavorful and satisfying. So what are the best choices?

Monounsaturated Oils (MUFA): Olive Oil and Others

Oils high in monounsaturated fatty acids should be our staple fats. Olive oil is the best choice, since it’s extracted from the ripe olive by pressing rather than with chemical or heat processing that damages the healthful quality of the oil and produces significant levels of unnatural trans fats. It also has a wide range of tastes and culinary possibilities. Avocado, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds are also excellent sources of unprocessed MUFAs. Canola oil is also monosaturated, but unless it’s cold-pressed, canola oil is extracted from the seed with heat and chemical processes, and it can contain high levels of toxic erucic acid. Light olive oil is a better choice when you don’t want the taste of olives. Peanut and soy oil are also high in monounsaturates, but peanut oil (and peanut butter) can be contaminated with aflotoxins, and both are extracted with high heat. If you use canola, peanut, or soy oil, buy them cold-pressed.

Olive oil tastes terrific both raw and cooked. Healthy Mediterranean cooking prepares most everything with olive oil and uses uncooked extra-virgin olive oil on breads, grains, and cooked or raw vegetables. It’s worth the money to get extra-virgin oil, the first pressing, because this is the least adulterated and most flavorful. Look  in the recipe section of this website for my favorite olive oil salad dressing. I make it in large quantities in the blender and store it in the refrigerator. I also use olive oil in main dish, vegetable, and soup recipes.

Essential Oils: Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Olive oil is deficient in one way—it doesn’t contain two kinds of essential fatty acids we can’t make in our bodies and need to get from food. Essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods high in polyunsaturated oils, but we need to know how to get a healthy balance and how to preserve the healthful quality of these oils.

A whole foods diet provides plenty of essential omega-6 oils from seeds, whole grains, nuts, and cooking oils extracted from seeds and grains, such as corn or safflower oil. We also get omega-6 oils by eating animal fats in dairy products, meats, and poultry. Years ago, range-fed animals grazed on wild plants high in omega-3 and omega-6 oils and we consumed both of these essential oils from animal fat, but domesticated animals raised on grains eat almost no omega-3s. According to Andrew Weil, the balance should be 1 or 2 parts omega-3 oil to 1 part omega-6, but the modern diet is more like 1 part omega-3 to 20 parts omega-6. (Andrew Weil, MD, Eating Well For Optimal Health, Quill, 2000, p. 85). We need to increase our intake of omega-3 oils to improve this ratio.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Unless we make a special effort, we’ll be deficient in omega-3 oils. Omega-3s are vital to all cell membranes. They provide raw materials for hormones, including those used in inflammation and healing, blood clotting and smooth functioning of arterial walls. They help prevent heart disease, stroke, and many autoimmune diseases.

Omega-3s are plentiful in flax seed, soybeans, walnuts, and hemp seed, but omega-3s from vegetable sources aren’t as helpful as ones from fish. The most concentrated source of omega-3s is oily cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and to a lesser extent tuna. Fish get the omega-3s from eating algae. If chickens are fed algae, they produce high omega-3 eggs, and you’ll find these in some health food markets. Get at least one serving of high omega-3 food each day. If you eat cold-water fish, two servings of fish a week will take care of your needs.

Omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated, so they are subject to rancidity. If possible, use whole food sources rather than oils or supplements that easily become rancid. If you do use omega-3 oil, such as flax oil, keep it refrigerated.

You can sprinkle flax meal on most any food—salads, cereals, vegetables, soups—or mix it with yogurt. Inexpensive organic flax seeds are available in health food stores and have a wonderful nutty flavor when ground. If you eat them whole, they’ll pass through your system undigested, so grind ½ – 1 cup at a time in a coffee grinder or blender and store in a tight container in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent rancidity. They can also be bought ground, but keep an opened package tightly sealed and refrigerated or frozen.

What Should We Eliminate Or Reduce?

Hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or trans fats. These oils are unhealthy, although Americans eat them frequently. Hydrogenation produces unnatural chemical configurations that raise cholesterol, promote cancer and damage our arteries, hormones, and cells. Many think they’re implicated in our rising cancer rate. Read labels of commercial breads, crackers, margarines, baked goods, snack foods, and prepared foods so you know what oils are in the product. Despite the public health dangers of hydrogenation, the food industry hasn’t stopped using the process. Still, we’ve come a long way. Most breads and crackers do not contain hydrogenated oils and some margarines contain plant sterols that lower cholesterol.

It’s difficult to detect the use of hydrogenated oils in prepared foods or in restaurants, but they’re in nearly all deep fried and baked goods. There was a public health campaign to get saturated fats out of commercial deep fryers a few years back, but the partially hydrogenated oils used now are more unhealthy than lard. Be suspicious when a label or menu says cooked in vegetable oil, because vegetable oil may mean hydrogenated oil.

Rancid oils. If nuts, seeds, or products such as granola or nut butter smell strange with a bitter or paint-like smell, don’t eat them. Refrigerate foods like nuts or nut butters that contain polyunsaturated oils to protect from rancidity.

Saturated fats. These fats are found in mammal products, like dairy foods and meats, and in poultry skin. Animal-based saturated fats raise cholesterol levels and are high in the hormones and pesticides found in commercially raised farm animals. Palm oil and coconut oil are even more saturated than lard, so avoid them. If your cholesterol level is healthy, use animal fats sparingly, but use low fat (1% or less) dairy products and low fat cuts of meat to prevent problems. Organic dairy products and meat are expensive, but they avoid the hormones and antibiotics found in commercially raised animals. No-fat dairy is best if you aren’t buying organic. Butter can be replaced with good quality olive oil or nut or seed butters kept refrigerated after opening.

It’s time to let go of guilt and enjoy wholesome fats and oils.  Your body and your taste buds will love you for it.