My recent night time reading has focused on nutrition and the relationship between what we eat (or not eat) and our health. There were several nights it didn’t help put me asleep! However, I did learn that nutrition is a very complicated topic. It is not just what we eat, but also what we do not eat, and how all the nutrients interact together, and then throw into that mix how our own bodies process food and interact with food, just adds a whole other layer of complexity.
It was this simple question that got me thinking: ‘how come we eat less saturated fats than ever before, yet heart disease in as high as it ever has been?’ As are a lot of diseases such as auto-immune diseases (like arthritis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s diseases), cancer, Alzheimer’s, digestive disorders, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Just 2-3 generations ago these diseases weren’t as prevalent. Granted, today physical activity is generally way down, and we are exposed to different environmental influences, but it seems like there may be something we are eating (or not eating) that is also contributing to the more recent increases in these diseases. This easily becomes a huge topic by looking into fast food, processed food, and how food is manufactured / produced compared to 50-60 years ago. To try and break this topic up into manageable pieces; this blog posting will focus on fat; and in particular the concept of ‘good fat’ versus ‘bad fat’, rancid oil, free radicals, Omega-3 and 6, and cholesterol.
I grew up in England. It wasn’t until I moved to the US in 1990 that I had even heard of the word “Cholesterol”; or even seen any low fat products in the grocery store. I bought into the notion that eating fat, especially saturated fat causes heart disease and makes you fat and I didn’t want to be fat (or have heart disease) so I bought low fat this, and low cholesterol that. It has taken a lot of reading and talking to nutritionalists to convert my way of thinking.
Good fat versus bad fat:
Our bodies need “good” fat to function and thrive, and by good fat, I don’t mean unsaturated versus saturated, but rather stable, fresh fats versus unstable, rancid fats. What do we need fat for? Here are a few reasons:
-building blocks for cell membranes and hormones
-act as carriers for vitamins A, D, E and K
-health of our immune system
-helps with mineral absorption
By depriving our bodies of this good fat and eating too much bad fat can lead to all kinds of consequences (increased cancer, heart disease, immune system dysfunction, damage to the liver, digestive disorders, weight gain, depressed learning abilities and impaired growth).
Saturated fats are very stable. This means they don’t easily go rancid. They tend to be semi-solid or solid at room temperature. Examples of saturated fats are animal fats and tropical oils such as lard, butter, beef tallow and coconut oil.
These fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, yet they are relatively stable and don’t go easily rancid. Olive oil and nut oils are examples of monounsaturated fats. These are ideal for salad dressings, and low temperature cooking.
This classification includes oils like soybean, canola, and corn oil. These oils remain liquid even in the refrigerator. They are highly unstable and therefore easily become rancid.
More on Rancid Oils:
Some oils can easily go rancid when exposed to high temperatures, oxygen and light. My naturopath doctor, Dr Peabody, had talked to me about rancid oils. At the time I just didn’t spend the time to figure it out. This time, I am. Here is what I found:
What is rancid oil?
Oil can go bad. It can decompose and become rancid. When oils turn rancid; the aroma, taste and nutritional value are altered and are characterized by free radicals.
How do oils become rancid?
By the process of oxidation. Oxidation is caused by exposing the oils to warm (sometimes room) temperatures, air and light. Certain oils when used in cooking increases the rate of oxidation and free radical formation.
So what is bad about rancid oils?
Rancid oils contain free radicals.
What can be done to fight free radicals?
You can increase your intake of antioxidants, but you can also decrease your intake of free radicals in the first place.
What oils are more susceptible?
Polyunsaturated oils like soybean, canola, and corn oil. These oils remain liquid even in the refrigerator. Most polyunsaturated vegetable oils sold at grocery stores have become rancid to some degree before you even bring them home due to the way they are produced (high heat) and then stored (clear bottles at room temperature). Some oils are bleached, de-flavored and deodorized at temperatures above 500 degrees. This strips the oils of their flavor and aroma making it impossible to detect their rancidity, but it is still there. Dr. Peabody mentioned that a lot of nuts naturally contain polyunsaturated oils. If you are buying roasted nuts (heat is involved in roasting) make sure they are fresh and have not been exposed to light and air for too long. Or better still, roast the nuts yourself so you know they are fresh and not rancid.
These oils become very unstable when heated, for this reason, it is recommended to not use polyunsaturated oils in cooking at all.
Other sources of rancid Oils:
If you look at the sauces and dressings you have in your refrigerator they will probably contain polyunsaturated oils. Last year I just threw them all out. And in their place bought some good quality ingredients for making my own salad dressings. (I’ll post some salad dressing recipes next week).
A word about Omega-3 and Omega-6 and polyunsaturates:
Omega-3 and 6 are essential fatty acids. We can’t make essential fatty acids by ourselves; we need to get them from the food we eat. Up until recently we have eaten diets that give us an omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of 2:1. However, today this ratio tends to be way out of balance at 10-20:1. Too much Omega-6 is not a good thing, especially when it is out of balance with Omega-3. This imbalance interferes with the production of prostaglandins, which in turn can result increased tendency to form blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, digestive tract irritation, depressed immune function, weight gain, and cancer. So why the imbalance?
Omega-6 is found in polyunsaturated oils in abundance. We have become a society heavily dependent on polyunsaturates. To make this worse, our diets tend to be too low in Omega-3. Thus creating a bigger imbalance. So here is another reason to stay away from polyunsaturated oils. Another reason driving this imbalance: a lot of modern day agricultural practices have purposely decreased the amount of Omega-3 in fish, meats, eggs and vegetables. For example, eggs from grain fed chickens can have up to 19 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Whereas eggs, from chickens feeding on insects and green plants, contain a healthier 1:1 ratio. One good reason to purchase meat and meat products from animals that have had a more natural diet (think organic, free range, grass fed rather than corn fed).
Omega-3 is found in whole grains, leafy greens, beans and seeds.
So what are the good fats?
Duck, chicken, and goose fat, beef tallow, butter, lard, Olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, flax seed oil, tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm oil. Yes these fats are more saturated. But according to Sally Fallon, saturated fats give so much to our bodies, for example:
-help to give cell membranes stiffness and integrity
-aid in bone health.
-enhance the immune system
-protect the liver from toxins.
These fats and oils can also go rancid. Look for oils that have been produced in the absence of high heat (expeller expressed and unrefined; for olive oil I try to buy organic cold pressed olive oil). And you still need to practice good storage practices. It is recommended to always keep oil tightly covered, stored in the dark and away from heat (I store olive oil in an dark or opaque bottle, tightly closed in the refrigerator. By the way, it is Ok if olive oil turns cloudy). Generally unopened oils are good for up to one year if stored correctly. Once opened, they’re good for about four to six months.
What fats can you use for high temperature (240 degrees plus) cooking?
Solid saturated fats are better for higher temperature cooking, such as lard, beef tallow, butter, and coconut oil. Lard makes a good high temperature cooking oil. As a vegetarian I’ve been using coconut oil and butter.
And what are the bad fats?
-Polyunsaturated oils such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soybean, and canola oils.
-Hydrogenated fats (polyunsaturated fats turned into a solid state) such as margarine and shortening.
-Trans fats and homogenized fats.
What about saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease?
According to Sally Fallon in her “Nourishing Traditions” book: “Elevated triglycerides in the blood have been positively linked to proneness to heart disease, but these triglycerides do not come directly from dietary fats; they are made in the liver from any excess sugars that have not been used for energy”.
Fat isn’t necessarily the bad guy. One of the best things we can do for our health is to cut out the amount of sugar and refined sweeteners in our diets, not fats. I won’t get started on sugars…not just yet anyway.
So what about cholesterol?
Cholesterol plays many vital roles in the body.
-It helps heal our blood vessels when they get damaged.
-It also helps give our cells the necessary stiffness and stability.
-It also plays a role in maintaining intestinal wall health
-It is a precursor to vitamin D and vital stress hormones.
-It is a weapon against free radicals.
Cholesterol, like fats, can be damaged due to exposure to heat and oxygen. And it is this damaged cholesterol that can injure the arterial cells and aid the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Damaged cholesterol is found in powdered eggs, powered milks, and meat and fish cooked at very high temperatures.
What about fat and weight loss?
Even the “good” fats are still high in calories, so if you are trying to lose weight, you still need to be careful with the amount of fat you consume. That doesn’t change.
As a result of this whole exercise of reading and learning more about nutrition, here are some of the changes that we have made in terms of our fat in our diets:
1. Oils in smaller bottles so they can be used up before they have a chance to turn rancid.
2. And only oils that have been processed and stored in ways that prevent rancidity.
3. I’ve thrown out all store bought salad dressings and canola oils. Replaced them with some good quality ingredients so I can make our own dressings. (I’ll post some recipes next week).
4. Using quality sesame oil, coconut oil, butter, flax seed oil and olive oil.
5. Eating full fat organic products and loving it!
6. Buying organic eggs that have come from free-range cage-free chickens that are not fed a 100% grain diet. (Organic eggs can still come from chickens fed a pure grain diet).
7. Eating more seeds especially sunflower, pumpkin and flax for good dietary sources of oils. (I grind up flax seeds in an old coffee grinder every morning to add to my granola. And I keep the flax seeds in the fridge).
8. Ice cream…yes, most definitely. Especially Haagen Dazs Five. Love this product. Only 5 ingredients: How ice cream should be made.
“Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
“In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan
“The Conscious Kitchen” by Alexandra Zissu
“Food Inc.” by Eric Schlosser