Fats and oils are probably one of the things I get asked about the most – and I am not surprised as there is so much conflicting advice in the press which can be confusing. The most important thing to remember is that not all fats are created equal but good fats should play an integral part of our everyday diets. Please do try the recipe at the end!
Supermarket aisles are packed with ‘fat-free’ products and so many people are taken in with this as they think it helps them lose weight! On the contrary good fats are required by our bodies for so many crucial functions. When you realise our brain is made up of 60% - 70% fat and need fats from our diet to function properly – doesn’t it make you think that without a good supply ... could this be a contributory factor in the incredible rise in Alzheimer’s and dementia in the West? (Just saying?!). Furthermore, by removing the natural fats from products, manufacturers tend to add a whole load of sugar and other additives which are so much worse for us – and don’t fill us up as much - so check your labels!
Trans fats are found in highly processed foods – cakes, pastries, biscuits, margarine, chips, crisps, burgers and other friend foods - and are created through a process called hydrogenation (adding hydrogen), which is done to extend the shelf life of a product. These fats cannot be broken down by the enzymes in our body and definitely cause increases in cholesterol and oxidation and should be limited.
Remember foods do not just contain one type of fat!
We have been told for so long to avoid these due to increasing risk of heart disease and high cholesterol, but now even the medical profession are admitting it is not true!
The best quality (grass-fed and organic if possible) meat, cheese, and eggs (see lower post on eggs) in moderation is generally a good addition to most people’s diets.
Butter - butter contains a wealth of nutrients, making it a veritable health food. These include vitamins A, D and E, antioxidants, and many minerals.
The very best quality butter is raw (unpasteurized) from grass-pastured cows, preferably certified organic. The next best is pasteurised butter from grass-fed or pastured organic cows, followed by regular pasteurised butter common in supermarkets.
One Swedish study found that fat levels in your blood are lower after eating a meal rich in butter than after eating one rich in olive oil, rape seed oil, or flaxseed oil.
The scientists' main explanation is that about 20 percent of butterfat consists of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which are used right away for quick energy and therefore don't contribute to fat levels in your blood. Therefore, a significant portion of the butter you consume is used immediately for energy - similar to a carbohydrate.
Unsaturated and polysaturated fats:
Again the best quality available. They are crucial for maintaining healthy brain function, keeping your hormones regulated, keeping your vital organs protected and maintaining healthy, glowing skin. Not only do they keep the body happy but they also help us absorb more goodness from our food as lots of vitamins (such as A, D, E and K) are only soluble in fat, which means that you need to have some fat in the meal for your body to transport and make use of these very important vitamins.
Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, nuts, coconuts and olive oils. These fats help to lower the levels of LDL (or bad cholesterol) and keep HDL (or good cholesterol) levels high, which is great news.
Polyunsaturated fats meanwhile are divided into different fatty acids, two of which are omega-3 and omega-6. These fats cannot be produced by our bodies and so must be obtained from the food we eat which is why they are often referred to as ‘essential’ fatty acids. Unlike other fats, these fats are not just used for energy – they have vital roles in the body thanks to their inflammatory properties and helping the blood to clot, with omega-6 being pro-inflammatory and omega 3 being anti-inflammatory. For that reason, it is important to have a good balance between the two, which is roughly a 3:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3.
However, as omega-6 fatty acids are present in grain-fed animal products and with the typical western diet being rich in meat and dairy, most people unfortunately get a ratio of more like 15 or 16:1, and consequently have too much omega 6 in their diets. This can cause excessive inflammatory responses within the body. Whilst we need the body’s inflammatory responses in order to react to acute injuries and microbial attacks (when a wound swells up this is the presence of the omega 6), when the body becomes overwhelmed by omega 6, it becomes no longer able to moderate the inflammatory response and therefore decrease inflammation in the body, which in some cases can lead to asthma, cardiovascular diseases, migraines, depression or other inflammatory diseases.
There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is primarily found in plant sources such as pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and dark leafy vegetables and long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found on oily fish – the best ones being salmon (wild and tinned) , mackerel, anchovies (marinated in vinegar – yum!) sardines (I know we are not in the south of Spain where we can enjoy them fresh on the beach but tinned with bones is still very good, cheap and easy) and herring (why do they pickle them with so much sugar though? ) any suggestions on eating more herring gratefully received.
The other important omega fatty acid is omega-9. The difference with this one is that it is actually produced by the body and if you eat good olive oil regularly, chances are you’re already getting enough of it.
Good fats don’t make you fat!
Counter-intuitively good fats can even help with weight loss – they make us feel satisfied so we eat less, and they also burn as energy rather than being stored in fat cells.
So where do I get my healthy fats from?
My favourite fatty foods which I regularly eat are eggs, avocado, nuts, wild salmon, extra virgin olive oil (not cooked) and coconut oil.
Avocado’s fat is a good one to include in your diet as it comes in the form of oleic acid, which aids our absorption of nutrients that are only fat-soluble. Other great sources of healthy fats are nut butters, chia seeds, flax and seeds like sunflower and pumpkin!
Which oils to cook with?
Cook with the oils that have a high smoke point (i.e. wont degrade when heated; the outcome of which causes free radical damage and inflammation in our bodies). The best ones are coconut oil, British Cold pressed (preferable organic) rapeseed oil, and rice bran oil.
Raw coconut oil is one of the healthiest oils to cook with. It contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which the liver uses to burn as energy can actually increase the amount of energy that our bodies burn and boost the metabolism, as well as working to help many other functions in the body. Studies also show that the consumption of coconut oil is actually linked to a reduction in obesity and, in particular, stomach fat. It’s been found that coconut oil helps to protect against insulin resistance, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. I use it in stir fries and oriental cooking where I don’t mind the coconutty taste.
Cold pressed (UK produced only) rapeseed oil - it is, in fact, despite its bad reputation in the US, one of the healthiest oils you can buy here in the UK and the bonus is it is produced locally. It’s a good source of immune boosting, skin enhancing vitamin E and is also high in omega-3 and omega-6 and has a higher smoke point than most olive oils (the point at which disease-causing carcinogens and free radicals are released from the oil) making it a far healthier option when stir frying, baking or shallow frying foods. When used as part of a balanced diet, it has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.
I wouldn’t touch any ‘canola’ oil from the US as it is a GM crop – here it is GM free.
Rice Bran Oil - extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice, this oil's very high smoke point (254°C) makes it suitable for high-temperature cooking. Mild in flavour, it is largely monounsaturated, and rich in vitamin E and phytosterols, which are believed to lower cholesterol.
Olive oil is a great source of heart protecting, cholesterol lowering, monounsaturated fat as well as free radical fighting antioxidants known to protect the body against premature aging and cancer. There have been many studies involving the traditional Mediterranean diet and olive oil is a major reason why this diet has a great reputation for health and longevity. It can be used to cook with up to temperatures of 180 degrees and is mild enough in flavour to be used with most dishes. However, I tend to use other oils for cooking as you cannot always be sure of the purity of olive oils. However, I liberally use good quality extra virgin olive oil (the oil that is extracted from the first press) sprinkled over my salads and vegetables REMEMBER this is not stable enough to be used for cooking and try and buy it in dark glass bottles and keep in the cupboard to protect it from oxidising. (becoming harmful).
Oils for Drizzling, dipping, salad dressings etc – use cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, pumpkin seed oil or any of the other oils listed below– try and get in dark bottles and store in a cool dark place (not too close to your cooker)
Avocado oil has very little if any omega 3 fatty acids but it is a great source of monounsaturated fats and is also rich in skin enhancing vitamin E. It has a slightly nutty flavour that is delicious drizzled over salads or rice dishes. However, it can also be used to cook with as it has a higher smoking point than many oils so it's fine to grill, sauté or stir-fry with it although it is an expensive option, so I would just use it raw.
Walnut oil - a delicious, aromatic, nutty oil that is a good source of omega three fatty acids and is extremely beneficial to the heart. Eating walnuts is one of the very best ways to keep your heart and cardiovascular system healthy. The nut raises levels of the HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, and its oil helps maintain strong blood vessels. People with a higher risk from cardiovascular disease should take a sip of walnut oil after meals, say researchers from Penn State University, and everyone should eat a few walnuts every day. They reckon that people who start eating the nuts and drinking the oil will dramatically reduce their chances of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the West.
Although it’s known that whole walnuts reduce cholesterol levels, the Penn State researchers discovered why it’s so beneficial, and the importance that the walnut oil also plays.
They gave 85 grams of nuts and 51 grams of walnut oil to 15 people with raised cholesterol levels. Within 30 minutes—and for up to six hours afterwards—the nuts and oils raised HDL ‘good’ cholesterol levels, and the oil was especially good for the health of blood vessels after a meal.
(Source: Journal of Nutrition, 2013; 143: 788-94). It tastes delicious (used as a dip alongside a good balsamic vinegar) with freshly torn, warm breads. It's also great for drizzling over salads and risottos and goes really well with white fish, meat, mozzarella and goat's cheese. However, this oil tends to become bitter when cooked and can go off very quickly so buy in small quantities and store in a cool, dark place.
Linseed/flaxseed oil (best for vegetarians) - this is a much richer source of omega 3 than any other oil and a great choice for strict vegetarians who need to get omega 3 fatty acids solely from plant foods. Omega three fatty acids help to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, increase concentration (particularly in children), alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and they may also help prevent Alzheimer's. Flaxseed oil however, is not suitable for cooking as heat can make it taste bitter and it can quickly become rancid if it is not stored correctly (in a cool dark place). Studies show that if this happens the benefits are negated and possibly reversed.
Hempseed oil - often considered the most nutritionally balanced oil: with the highest and most complete profile of essential fatty acids. Rich in omega-3 as well as anti-inflammatory omega-6, it is intensely flavoured. But with a low smoke point, it cannot be used for cooking, as heat destroys its nutrients.
Pumpkin seed oil - a strong, dark-green oil with several medicinal properties. A keen anti-inflammatory, it is also said to help reduce cholesterol levels, encourage prostate health, and ease irritable bowel syndrome. Drizzle it over salads or potatoes or use it as a dip for bread.
Toasted sesame seed oil and tahini - the tiny seeds of the sesame plant have been honoured since biblical times and valued for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine due to its anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, very high stability and long shelf life. The toasting of the sesame oil does not harm it and it resists oxygenation and has a very stable shelf life. So again it is high in vitamin E(antioxidant), and may lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as being hear protective and diabetes protective.
Oil recipe suggestion
A recent family favourite (thanks mum!) Betsy Bayley is an amazing dressing made with 2 tsps toasted sesame oil, 1 tbsp tahini, 1 tbsp tamari soya sauce, 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, half a freshly squeezed orange, some lemon juice, clove of raw garlic, it is heavenly poured over salads or green vegetables.
So don’t fear the fat! Enjoy all of the delicious goodness that natural sources of healthy fats have to offer and try to include them in most of your meals. Add some nut butter or tahini to your porridge, some avocado to your lunch and some seeds to your dinner. They fill you up, protect your heart, reduce inflammation, boost your metabolism and your brainpower and give you beautiful, glowing skin, healthy nails and strong, shiny hair so you’ll both look and feel your best!
Article written by Nancy Towers - Balcombe
Nancy Towers, CNM Dip. mBANT, mCNHC
Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist
Mid Sussex Area
I am passionate about the incredible power of food and want to share my knowledge and experience with as many people as possible. There is so much misinformation out there in the press - my aim is to guide you towards optimising... [read more]