Choosing healthy fats and oils: what you need to know

Choosing healthy fats and oils: what you need to know
Ox-powered mill for making coconut oil in Seychelles
Traditional way of making coconut oil using an ox-powered mill in Seychelles

One of the first things we did on our journey to better health was to get rid of the polyunsaturated vegetable fats we had been using in favor of monounsaturated fats like olive oil,  and saturated animal and  tropical fats — coconut and palm oils. Politics and profit, we learned, play a big role in what’s considered correct  nutrition — to the point that the polyunsaturated fats we had been told were healthy are in fact problematic, and vice versa. Not only is it difficult to account for all the variables in a nutritional study, but results of scientific studies can be manipulated to show the desired outcome, particularly when business is paying for the trials, as is often the case. And opposing voices can be effectively silenced (or at least subdued).*

This information was mind boggling at first. Not only was there a lot to digest, but it was hard to get our heads around the fact that what we’d been hearing and reading was not true. Could it really be that we, and the rest of society, had been misled and lied to?  However, reading the information presented, including the structure of the different types of fat molecules and how the body uses them left us no choice but to get rid of the corn, soy, cottonseed, safflower, and other polyunsaturated oils we had been using. And one day we even got rid of the canola oil.

In The Skinny on Fats, Mary G. Enig, PhD and Sally Fallon explain in detail the properties of common oils and fats. Contrary to “popular wisdom”, our bodies depend upon a good supply of natural fats. (Emphasis is mine.)

  • Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of the cell membranes. They are what gives our cells necessary stiffness and integrity.
  • They play a vital role in the health of our bones. For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats should be saturated.
  • They lower Lp(a), a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease. They protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins, such as Tylenol.
  • They enhance the immune system.
  • They are needed for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids. Elongated omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.
  • Saturated 18-carbon stearic acid and 16-carbon palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated. The heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress.
  • Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids have important antimicrobial properties. They protect us against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.

As a result, we stopped removing the skin and fat from chicken (including not skimming the fat off chicken soup), stopped looking for lean cuts of meat, and started buying full fat milk and dairy products. We buy coconut oil and palm oil as well.

One of the casualties of our war against unhealthy food was bottled salad dressings; we began using olive oil and vinegar (red wine and white wine) or fresh-squeezed lemon juice with our salads. Today I also include some sea salt and, depending on what’s available in my kitchen, a variety of dried and/or fresh herbs.

Enig and Fallon also explain that olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which contains a variety of healthful properties:

Olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants, relieves the pain and inflammation of arthritis, normalizes blood fats and cholesterol, stimulates strong gallbladder contractions and is known for increasing longevity. Olive oil can be used for sautéing at moderate temperatures and is a perfect base for salad dressings.

Not only does salad dressing enhance the flavor of veggies, it is also necessary so that we can utilize the fat soluble vitamins contained in those vegetables! An article by Chris Masterjohn in the Winter 2012 issue of Wise Traditions  (a publication of the Weston A. Price Foundation), entitled Nutritional Adjuncts to the Fat-Soluble Vitamins, explains that:

In order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins from our food, we need to eat fat. Human studies show that both the amount and type of fat are important. For example, one study showed that absorption of beta-carotene from a salad with no added fat was close to zero. The addition of a low fat dressing made from canola oil increased absorption, but a high-fat dressing was much more effective. Canola oil, however, is far from ideal. Studies in rats show that absorption of carotenoids is much higher with olive oil than with corn oil.

Similarly, studies in humans show that consuming beta-carotene with beef tallow rather than sunflower oil increases the amount we absorb from 11 to 17 percent. The reason for this is unknown, but it may be that oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids promote the oxidative destruction of fat-soluble vitamins in the intestines before we are able to absorb them. Thus the more fat we eat, and the lower those fats are in polyunsaturated fatty acids, the more fat-soluble vitamins we absorb.

Masterjohn further explains that in addition to fat, we also need adequate levels of magnesium and zinc, two minerals that many of us are deficient in, to utilize of these vitamins. Adding high magnesium seeds and nuts to your salad, such as pumpkin, squash, sesame and sunflower seeds, brazil nuts and almonds will increase your ability to absorb and utilize fat soluble vitamins, as will the inclusion of peppers and tomatoes. There are many more foods that contain magnesium but the most abundant sources are seeds, whole grains, nuts, and vegetables. Fruits and some fish are also good sources. Meat and refined grains contain little to none.

The greatest kosher sources of zinc are red meat, liver, and cheese. Although zinc (at much lower levels) is found in plants and grains; it is absorbed much better from meat than from plant products. Grains must be soaked before cooking because of the presence of phytates which bind zinc and other minerals, making them unavailable for use in the body. To learn how to properly soak grains see my article Thick and hearty oatmeal – the Real Deal.

What happens when we have too much polyunsaturated fat in our system? Aside from just not being healthful, polyunsaturated oils are problematic for a number of reasons:

(1)    When the diet contains an excess of polyunsaturated fatty acids, these replace saturated fatty acids in the cell membrane, so that the cell walls actually become flabby. When this happens, cholesterol from the blood is “driven” into the tissues to give them structural integrity. This is why serum cholesterol levels may go down temporarily when we replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated oils in the diet.

(2)    Polyunsaturated oils are predominantly made up of omega-6 fatty acids which create a serious  omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid imbalance in the body that can interfere with production of important prostaglandins. This disruption can result in increased tendency to form blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain.

(3)    Polyunsaturated oils are usually extracted through a chemical process using dangerous solvents like hexane which can make their way into the final product. The high heat at which they are processed also makes them turn rancid (oxidize) very quickly.

(4)    Polyunsaturated oil can cause diabetes and heart disease. A shocking report on Israeli health and polyunsaturate consumption in the Israeli Journal of Medical Science, 1996 Nov;32(11):1134-43, comes from the Department of Membrane Research and Biophysics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel and is entitled Diet and disease–the Israeli paradox: possible dangers of a high omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid diet .  From the abstract:

In fact, Israeli Jews may be regarded as a population-based dietary experiment of the effect of a high omega-6 PUFA diet, a diet that until recently was widely recommended. Despite such national habits,paradoxically a high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and obesity-all diseases that are associated with hyperinsulinemia (HI) and insulin resistance (IR), and grouped together as the insulin resistance syndrome or syndrome X. There is also an increased cancer incidence and mortality rate, especially in women, compared with western countries. Studies suggest that high omega-6 linoleic acid consumption might aggravate HI and IR, in addition to being a substrate for lipid peroxidation and free radical formation. Thus, rather than being beneficial, high omega-6 PUFA diets may have some long-term side effects, within the cluster of hyperinsulinemia, atherosclerosis and tumorigenesis.

Tim Smith explains, in Our Deadly Diabetes Deception, why eliminating polyunsaturated oils (and for a time, all oils) from his diet enabled him to cure himself of diabetes:

“The biggest culprit, however, seems to be polyunsaturated oil. [13] Studies have shown that when polyunsaturated fats from the diet are incorporated into cellular structure, the cell’s ability to bind with insulin decreases, thus lowering their ability to get glucose. [14] In other words, the “locks” on the cells which open the door for glucose to enter degrade when too much polyunsaturated oil is consumed in the diet. Insulin is then unable to open the door.

Other studies and sites which point out the relationship between polyunsaturates and heart disease include:

Although we do have a need for some polyunsaturated fat in our body, it is at a much smaller proportion than what we are currently consuming. In fact, animal fats do contain some polyunsaturated fats – at the level which our body actually needs.

To your health!

Updated December 2017

What You Need to Know Before Buying Your Next Bottle of Olive Oil
Here’s Why Using Coconut Oil Regularly Contributes to Your Health

* Science, Pseudoscience, Nutritional Epidemiology, and Meat
The Lipid Hypothesis
THINCS: The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics

Additional Sources and For More Information:

Some oily (and other) tips and great latkas for Chanukah.
The Importance of Saturated Fats for Biological Functions
Taking the Fear Out of Eating Fat
Zinc – Health Professional Fact Sheet
Canola Oil Might Impair Memory


5 Comments on “Choosing healthy fats and oils: what you need to know

  1. Do you know where to find kosher-certified MCT oil in Israel? We have been searching and cannot locate anything kosher! (in USA, there are many brands – such as Nutiva)

    • This topic was discussed in May 2017 on the Nourishing Israel Yahoo group, There is no kosher MCT oil, at least as of then, sold in Israel. One of the group members posted this link to understand quality of the oils and know what to look out for: However, they updated the link and the information that she referenced is no longer there, so I’ve copied and pasted it here:

      “The biggest drawback to buying manufactured MCT oil is that you might not really know what you’re getting. In order to produce a liquid MCT oil that does not become solid at colder temps, it might need to be more refined than regular coconut oil. MCT oil might also remove some of the very beneficial lauric acid, which is the star ingredient in real extra-virgin coconut oil.

      “So while some marketers of MCT oil might claim that their product contains more concentrated and diverse MCTs than real coconut oil does, it might be because it’s chemically altered and absent of lauric acid. It could even have “filler” oils like omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Another factor to consider is that most MCT oils on the market are manufactured via chemical/solvent refining, which can mean they require using chemicals like hexane and different enzymes and combustion chemicals.

      “The bottom line? Enjoy both coconut oil and quality MCT oil for their numerous benefits, just make sure you buy a high quality MCT oil that clearly states what the ingredients are and how it was produced.”

      Please let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with. Best of luck

      • Just to add to your well researched article, the company NUTIVA has a quality MCT Oil and they also make it in powder form for other eating uses. iHERB sells it. Here are some of the facts, most imp. are USDA Organic, no hexane, vegan non-GMO:
        USDA Organic
        Non GMO Project Verified
        Mix with Coffee, Shakes & Salads
        Light Coconut Aroma
        13 g Per Serving*
        Medium-Chain Triglycerides
        93% MCTs*
        Dietary Supplement
        Certified Organic by QAI
        Vegan – Non-GMO – No Hexane
        0 g Trans Fat*

        • Hi Nechama Sara
          Thanks for the wonderful information. While I only discuss products you can buy in Israel, many people do look for MCT oil which can’t be sourced here so this will be very helpful to them. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness as I’m sure so many others will.
          All the best.