Avoiding Unhealthy Oils

For those interested in making healthy eating a part of a fitness and weight loss regimen, legislative action, producer labeling, and general public perception has made it more difficult, not less. The science behind the impact of fats and oils on health is less complicated than most would have us believe. Apply these simple principles to avoid unhealthy oils in foods and meet your goals.

1. Only some saturated fats are inherently evil

General public perception is that all saturated fats are inherently evil. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that, although all saturated fats tend to raise cholesterol, they don’t all work in the same way. Most oils fall into the category of long chain fatty acids, and the process of hydrogenating an oil removes most, if not all, of the double bonds in the molecule. Any remaining double bonds are then called trans fats. Long chain fatty acids and trans fats increase low density lipids (LDL) faster than “good” high density lipids (HDL). However, medium chain fatty acids, such as those found in coconut oil, act to raise HDL faster than LDL, which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. This makes coconut oil an exceptional cooking oil for high temperature applications. By contrast the more widely used palm oil is primarily comprised of long chain fatty acids. Government regulation requiring food makers to label foods containing trans fats has pushed manufacturers to naturally occurring sources fats rich in palmitic acid, which imparts similar properties. As a result, palm oil is used in a number of products marketed as healthy snacks, to avoid the trans fat label.

2. Butter vs Margarine -- Which to choose?

For decades, medical experts recommended consuming margarine instead of butter to reduce cholesterol consumption. However, as the risks associated with partially hydrogenated fats became apparent, the pendulum has swung back toward butter. In recent years, trans fat free alternatives to margarine have become available. More recently, products containing plant sterols and stanols have hit the market. Sterols and stanols share similar properties to fats, but are calorie-free alternatives. Although they don’t usually perform well when substituted for fats and oils in recipes, they make excellent alternatives to butter in spreads and toppings.

3. What’s the skinny on animal fats?

The major component of animal-based fats are mixtures of saturated fatty acids. Lard, butterfat, and beef tallow are primarily long chain fatty acids, with palmitic acid being the primary component. What’s less well known is that, in contrast to palm and coconut oil, in their natural form, animal-based fats can be 30% or more monounsaturates and polyunsaturated fat, making them prone to spoilage unless stored refrigerated. Large-scale production eventually led to hydrogenation to improve storage stability. However, many cooks still prefer the flavors imparted by lard and butterfat when used in their natural forms. Unfortunately, while animal fats rendered at home (take bacon grease, for instance) are healthier than store-bought varieties, animal fats still include some level of cholesterol. By contrast, vegetable fats always include some level of the plant-based equivalent of cholesterol, which are called sterols. Plant sterols actually function to reduce cholesterol levels.

4. Know when to use polyunsaturated fats

General wisdom is that the healthiest oils to consume are those rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as flax seed and fish oils. While advice is sound, polyunsaturated fats are notorious for their short shelf-life and poor heat stability. The same characteristics that give polyunsaturated fats exceptional health benefits make them unsuitable for a wide range of uses. In baked goods, polyunsaturated fats, which are present even in canola oil, impart a fishy flavor, and in high temperature applications, like sauteing, they smoke and turn rancid rather quickly. Unfortunately, even polyunsaturated fats can have a dark side, with those having high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats contributing to a generalized inflammatory response, which also has a host of problems. To avoid fats high in omega-6, be wary of corn, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils. Choose instead, flax seed and walnut oils, for their light, nutty flavor as salad oils.

Avoiding unhealthy fats and oils can present a real challenge to those interested in eating healthy and living fit. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “one size fits all” way to solve the problem choosing a healthy oil. The solution is, instead, dependent upon the manner in which the oil is going to be used. Having said that, armed with a little knowledge, you’ll find there are healthy fats suitable for nearly all cooking applications.

Guest author bio: Greg Hayes is the author of Live Fit Blog, where he writes about fitting fitness into busy lives. For more tips on how to selecting the best cooking oil for weight loss, fitness, and general wellness, check it out.


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