Fats and oils are good for you; fats and oils are bad for you. Which is it? Well, the bottom line is that it depends: some fats and oils are essential to good health, while others can be harmful.
Poor heart health is common in Western countries in part due to overconsumption of the wrong kinds of fats – the saturated fats in beef and dairy products, and the hydrogenated fats in products like margarine. Healthy fats, found in vegetables, fish, and some nuts, are unsaturated.
Margarine is a hydrogenated vegetable oil, and even many types of soy margarine are hydrogenated. The process of hydrogenation produces fats (trans-fatty acids) that have been linked to poor health.
Butter is saturated fat that should be avoided altogether, or used sparingly. But for baking and cooking, butter is preferable to margarine or vegetable oil. This is because, at high temperatures, the molecular structure of butter remains stable. By contrast, at high temperatures the molecular structure of unsaturated oils (such as safflower oil) can convert into tissue-damaging free radicals.
Coconut oil, like butter, is a saturated fat that can withstand high heat. But unlike butter and so many other saturated fats, it’s a good saturated fat because it’s loaded with healthy medium chain triglycerides. However, coconut oil is still a fat, so use it in moderation – and keep in mind that each gram of fat provides 9 calories, while each gram of protein or a carbohydrate provides 4 calories. Excessive calories can cause weight gain, no matter where they come from.
The healthiest oils are fish oils and flax oils, which are unsaturated fats. Research has repeatedly shown that these oils support “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Healthy fish oils are abundant in salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout. Flax oil can be ingested in the form of capsules or as oil, mixed into foods. (But note that flax oil breaks down under high temperatures, so it shouldn’t be used for cooking.)
Some research suggests that olive oil, which is mono-unsaturated, also supports heart health. But even though it may hold up to a certain extent with some temperature increases, it generally shouldn’t be used in high heat. If you want to use olive oil when stir frying, begin cooking with hot water rather than oil, and add a small amount of oil at the end of frying. This allows you to enjoy the flavor of the oil without letting it become too hot.
Here’s a delicious, healthy-oil salad dressing recipe: Combine a half cup of flax oil, a half cup of olive oil, a cup of rice vinegar, a cup of parsley, a clove of garlic, a cup of basil leaves and a fourth cup of water. Blend all of these together on high speed, and you’ll be delighted with the results.
One of the most important steps you can take toward improving your health and supporting heart health may be to take a closer look at the fats and oils in your diet. If you find that you’ve been using too many of the unhealthy ones, you may be ready for an oil change.
Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist who specializes in women’s health. She is the co-author of Great Sex, Naturally: Every Woman’s Guide to Enhancing Her Sexuality Through the Secrets of Natural Medicine and co-author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health: How the Secrets of Natural and Chinese Medicine Can Create a Lifetime of Wellness.