“When I eventually understood the nutritional myths that had me snookered and miserable, the biggest headline was that REAL FATS ARE GOOD- even the maligned saturated fats and its corollary, INDUSTRIAL FATS ARE BAD. It’s not complicated. Eat real fats and avoid industrial ones.”  Nina Planck, Real Food for Mother and Baby.

I couldn’t possibly allow “Traditional Foods” month to come to a close later this week without addressing the issue of which fats are traditional and which are the modern, industrial fats to be avoided. I love this simple quote from Nina Planck, which sums up my own position on the topic well.

Fats are a tough subject, with so much controversial information and conflicting advice out there. I’ve dug through the research as much as was reasonable for a busy mom and wife, and what I present to you here is a compilation of the kinds of questions that I am most frequently asked when it comes to the fats that we should eat for good health, and my own answers, as thoroughly as I can give them for the purpose of this post.

Which fats are traditional?

Which fats should we avoid?

  • Margarine or other non-butter spreads or sprays (yuck!)
  • Processed vegetable oils (pretty much any of them in the supermarket aisle- canola, soy, sunflower, safflower, corn, as well as non-virgin olive oil)
  • Edible oil products (Cool Whip, International Foods coffee flavorings, etc.)
  • Trans fats or hydrogenated fats or partially-hydrogenated fats (primarily found in highly processed, packaged foods and fast food)

Image by Steve Snodgrass

Aren’t saturated fats the enemy?

No, in fact they’re absolutely necessary for a whole host of bodily functions.

  • Saturated fats are crucial for cell membrane structure and integrity.
  • They are a valuable source of fat soluble vitamins, such as A, D, and K, which are deficient in most North American diets, and these vitamins are necessary for hormone regulation, reproduction, immunity, bone health and much more.
  • Strong bone development requires saturated fats, which regulate calcium levels.
  • Saturated fat makes cells more resistant to oxidative damage.
  • As well, saturated fats are far more stable at high temperatures than other fats, so they are unlikely to become oxidized and turn into cell-damaging free radicals (as polyunsaturated vegetables oils frequently do).
  • More than half of the brain consists of saturated fat and cholesterol, and these fats also comprise a large part of the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers and ensures proper message relaying between the brain and nervous system.
  • Saturated fats contain fatty acids such as lauric acid, myristic acid and caprylic acid, which are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, and all contribute towards a stronger immune system.
  • Saturated fats are actually GOOD for hearth health, and lower a substance called Lp(a), while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).

There are more, but I’ll allowed you to check out the sources I’ve linked to if you’re interested.

Sources- one, two, three, four, five.

What about heart disease and high cholesterol levels?

The implication of saturated fats in the raising rates of heart disease began in the 1950’s when researcher Ancel Keys proposed the “lipid hypothesis”, a flawed study trying to demonstrate a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet, and the resulting incidence of coronary heart disease. There is so much research to support the opposite of Keys’ claims, here are just a couple quotes of the many I could have chosen from:

The question hinges on whether saturated fat raises cholesterol and causes heart disease. One way or the other this trial is a test of that hypothesis. It’s arguably the best such trial ever done and the most rigorous. To me that’s always been the story. If saturated fat is bad for us, then these trials should demonstrate it. They imply the opposite. (source- a NY Times article discussing the results of a study from the New England Journal of Medicine)

Another one:

The more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum [blood] cholesterol….we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.” The study did show that those who weighed more and had abnormally high blood cholesterol levels were slightly more at risk for future heart disease, but weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet. (source- Nourishing Traditions, pg.5) {My note- the ironic thing about this study, the Framingham Heart Study, is that it is often used to prove the lipid hypothesis, even though it does the exact opposite!}

Not to mention the fact that numerous traditional diets have been studied (African Masai, Eskimo, Mediterranean, French, Japanese, to name a few) where saturated fat is consumed in abundance, and yet these cultures display rates of heart disease or heart attack as well as cholesterol levels that are significantly lower than in western countries like the USA and Canada. Additionally, heart disease rates in North America began to rise around the same time that consumption of traditional fats (such as butter and lard) began to decline, and industrial fat consumption (such as margarine and refined vegetable oils) began to rise dramatically. Is there a correlation between those two occurrences? Personally, I think there is.

Image by puuikibeach

Doesn’t eating too much fat make you fat?

This is such a lie of our culture. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat.

Eating a whole ton of carbs (especially refined ones) and sugar (yes, even too many natural sweeteners and fruit juices)- now that is a recipe for gaining weight. Out of control portions makes it worse. Add to that our apathetic, couch-potato tendencies and that’s what is causing obesity in North America. Not saturated fats.

When I first started eating better and consuming more traditional fats, along with decreasing my sugar and refined grain intake, I lost weight. Easily. It just fell off, about 20 lbs of it. I currently eat plenty of fat, as much I feel like eating (no, I don’t gorge on spoonfuls of butter or cream, but I do genuinely allow myself to eat it freely, without guilt, and to taste). My fat consumption does not make my weight fluctuate. So what does make it fluctuate? When I get less active, when I eat too many “easy” foods high in carbs, when I allow my sweet intake to go less checked than usual.

Other reads of interest on this topic: Fats to Eat, Fats to Avoid (Or Why I Eat Butter), How to Lose Weight Fast With Coconut Oil, The Fat That Can Make You Thin, Lowfat Diets, and especially the book Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon.

What about oils like peanut, sesame, grapeseed and walnut?

If you can find them cold-pressed or unrefined, then from what I understand, these types of oils can play a limited role in the diet. When processed at higher temperatures, they are too fragile and quickly burn because of their low smoke points, and they will break down, oxidize and can create free radicals.

One of the things that we also need to take into account is the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. We should ideally consume these two fatty acids somewhere between a 1:1 and a 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Yet, average North Americans consume ratios of anywhere from 8:1 to 25:1!

You will find the highest percentage of omega-6 in the polyunsaturated vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, and yes, sesame, grapeseed, peanut, etc.). Oils like walnut and flaxseed lean more towards the omega-3 end. Our goal should be to decrease omega-6 and increase omega-3 consumption.

It’s not that you want to avoid consuming omega-6 fatty acids, because they are just as necessary as omega-3, hence the term “essential fatty acids“. The issue is that you probably already get plenty (if not too much) omega-6 without even trying, while most of us struggle to up our omega-3 intake to balance out the ratio unless we’re very purposeful about it. Being aware to keep your omega-6  intake on the lower end (especially by keeping vegetable oil use very moderate), and consciously boosting your omega-3 intake (particularly by eating fish and fish oils, including cod liver oil, free-range eggs, and grass-fed beef) will help to ensure that your ratio is a healthy one.

Image by Siona Watson

Which fats for which purpose?

:: For pan frying/grilling/roasting: Butter, coconut oil, tallow or lard (any animal fats). I would also include extra-virgin olive oil in this list, but when it comes to really high-temperature sautéing, I would use something different.

:: For deep-frying: Animal fats only. These are the most stable fats that you can use at such high temperatures. We usually use beef tallow, but lard works as well. It tastes amazing. Wow.

:: For baking: Coconut oil and butter are idea. Palm shortening is another option, and lard is supposed to be great for flaky crusts. I personally like to use a mix of coconut oil and butter, though it depends on what I’m making (for pie crusts and the like, only butter will do).

Apparently you can also use olive oil (if you like the taste of it in baking, which I don’t really). Katie from Kitchen Stewardship helped me out on this topic (which she has researched more than I have) by emailing me this: “You know how info on nutrition is…never 100% certain of anything! But in everything I’ve read, yes, EVOO should be fine in baking. I actually put a small dish of straight evoo in the oven at 400 or so once, and after 20 minutes, it wasn’t anywhere near the 375 smoke point.” I’ve linked to her series on fat below, which includes several different posts on olive oil in particular.

:: For dressings/marinades/mayonnaise (cold-use): Extra virgin olive oil and unrefined vegetable oils in moderation (flax, sesame, walnut).

Want to research it more yourself?

Where to buy good fats

I’ll discuss some of my favorite “real food” sources in a few weeks, as we get into the topic of frugality in May. For now, here are a few reputable places to buy traditional fats:

Tropical Traditions (coconut oil, palm oil and shortening, olive oil, sesame)- buy in bulk, watch for their weekly sales and use that as your time to buy (and Mondays they often put out 10% or free shipping coupons). If you select “Referred by a friend” use the code 6019440 at checkout, you can also get a free copy of their book on coconut oil.

Mountain Rose Herbs (coconut oil, olive oil)

Amazon (olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil- I even saw a bit of butter and ghee)

Wilderness Family Naturals (coconut, palm, olive, sesame, and mayonnaise made from good fats)

Which fats does your family eat the most? Any other testimonials from those who have switched over to traditional fats?

Disclaimer: I am not a certified medical professional of any kind and am not qualified to give you medical advice, to diagnose any illness or prescribe treatment. My goal is to help to educate and inspire you to take responsibility for your own family’s health and make informed choices of your own, not to consult you on medical treatment.

Top image by rainvt
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