First things first: eating fat doesn't make you fat. Fat is essential to your diet and a way to ensure proper weight control. The nonsense about lowfat diets is total BS. You must have the right fats balanced with the appropriate amount of protein and carbs at each meal. There's no quick way to learn about fats in your diet, but I've done my best here to boil it down to the basic four followed up with a quick rundown on popular cooking oils.
Four Basic Fats - Trans, Saturated, Monounsaturated, and Polyunsaturated:
Trans fats - I'll start with these by simply arguing against any form in your diet. They raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats are not essential fatty acids and are only created through hydrogenation. Yes, trace amounts of trans fats are found in nature, but only trace amounts. It was developed to help foods like margarine sit on the shelf for long periods of time. And they're used to process fast food, most baked goods, and snack foods. Dietary intake of trans fats can increase cardiovascular disease, decrease fertility, increase cancer, lead to alzheimers, diabetes, and liver problems. Oh, and of course, obesity is linked to trans fats because of their use in all the snack foods on your shelf!(Not counting the carbohydrate loading of those so-called foods.)
Saturated fats - essential to overall health and contain three basic acids: palmitic, stearic, and lauric. A lot of saturated fat in your diet can increase total LDL cholesterol, particularly when accompanied by high carb intake. It's a lot more complicated than this, but eating lean meat and limiting palmitic acid production by controlling carb intake is a good thing. Two saturated fats - lauric acid and stearic acid - appear to be okay and essential to our diet.
- Coconut Oil -very good for you as it's high in lauric acid, part of the saturated fats essential for health. Also holds up really well to high heat when used to cook with. Coconut oil is considered a tropical fat.
Monounsaturated fats - specifically oleic acid - is great for controlling insulin response and decreased cholesterol. High in antioxidants and found mostly in plant sources such as olive oil and avocado, and nuts like almonds, make these very favorable in the diet.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil - high in monounsaturated fats; excellent for heart health; #1 on the list of oils; low in polyunsaturated fat; good for cooking, but stay under the smoke point - about 300 degrees and only for a short time - even better to add after cooking/steaming.
- Peanut Oil - fairly high in monounsaturated fats, but peanuts are legumes and legumes are not what we want in our diet.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential because this is where we get both Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fats, BUT:
- Under the Omega-3, you have ALA, EPA, and DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for their anti-inflammatory effects on the body. This is the good stuff! You can get Omega-3s from plant sources in the form of ALA. The process to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is inefficient for long-term good health. The other Omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are found in the the fat in animal sources - especially fish - so eat these and supplement with quality fish oil (because we just can't seem to get enough of this anti-inflammatory wonder "drug" in our diet).
- Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic (LA), gamma linolenic acid (GLA), dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), and arachidonic acid (AA). LA contributes to inflammation, while GLA, DGLA, and AA can be beneficial in small amounts. You need some Omega-6s in your diet, of course, but only in small amounts so as not to counter the beneficial effects of Omega-3 acids. Our ancestors ate a ratio of about 1:1 Omega-3s to Omega-6s, while our Western Diet has altered this to 1:10 due to the overuse of plant oils in cooking.
Popular Cooking Oils:
Sunflower Oil - If you have to use this oil, then go with High Oleic Sunflower oil rather than linoleic sunflower oil. Not high on my list of recommened oils because of the high linoleic acid content.
Safflower Oil - There are two distinct types of safflower oil. Cook with monounsaturated safflower oil if you have to, but not with polyunsaturated safflower oil. Again, this is a vegetable oil I would not recommend due to the high LA content and the manufacturing process to make it more monounsaturated.
Corn Oil - widely used in cooking due to its stability at high temperatures and inexpensive production costs, but like most things in life - you get what you pay for. Very high in linoleic acid and, while it is a polyunsaturated fat, it promotes inflammation through its high Omega-6/linoleic content.
Canola Oil - There's no such thing as a canola plant. Canola oil is engineered (i.e. processed) from rapeseeds. Since rapeseeds had high concentrations of erucic acid that was thought to be harmful to your health, industry genetically modified the plant to lower erucic acid levels. While Canola oil is high in monounsaturated fats and contains a fairly good Omega-3 profile, it's the processing of the oil and its tendancy to result in trans fats that worries people. I'm going to avoid it, even though it's found in almost everything now.
Walnut Oil - Good Omega-3s in the form of ALA (not preferred); can use to cook with, but better to use without exposure to high heat. Not real common and isn't quite as balanced between Omega-3 and Omega-6.
Flaxseed OIl - Also known as Linseed Oil, appears to be great for you, but use in moderation. Like a lot of plant oils promoting Omega-3s, it comes in the form of ALA, which the body has to work hard to break down into the essential EPA and DHA.
Grapeseed Oil - Looks like a pretty healthy oil to use, but still contains a lot of linoleic acid that promotes inflammation rather than controls it.
I'm sure there are more oils out there that people cook with. These are just some of the most popular. Remember, plant oils have high levels of linoleic acid, which carries a high amount of Omega-6 - the pro-inflammatory fatty acid found in polyunsaturated fat.
Post your thoughts on fats and oils to comments.