Staying Whole in a Processed World: Healthy Fats

What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction

Today’s topic is fat. You just cringed, didn’t you?

As a culture I think our perception of fat has been severely distorted. When it comes to transitioning to a clean, whole foods diet, the biggest challenge is to change our mindset.

Just to illustrate how distorted it’s become…. I’ve been using a lot of stock photography in these “Staying Whole” posts to break up the text and (hopefully) make the posts look a little nicer. When I did searches for “healthy fats” and “healthy oils” the only thing that popped up was a cravat of olive oil. Yes, olive oil is super healthy, but there are so many other healthy fat sources that are overlooked or demonized as unhealthy fats…

Like coconut oil, which is precisely why I chose it to be front and center. More about coconut oil later.

Everywhere I look I see references to the outdated mantra “low-fat is best” — comments about dessert recipes claiming they are “healthier” because they have little or no fat (nevermind the pile of sugar that goes into them), blogs or websites dedicated to “fat-free” food, and a talk show I watched recently featuring a medical doctor who recommended canola oil and discouraged ALL saturated fat, regardless of its origin. “Low-fat is best!” is still being shouted from the rooftops, and the whole thing makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Low-Fat” Does NOT Always Mean Healthy

It’s been pounded into our heads for a few decades that “low-fat = healthy”. Fat is an essential nutrient our bodies need! (Our brains are 60% fat…low fat = stupid? JOKING.) Now, while some fats are healthy and some fats absolutely aren’t, it’s important not to use the blanket statement of “I won’t eat it. It’s too fattening.” to all types of fat. If you think you’re making healthy choices by eating low-fat/fat-free dairy or trading in an avocado for fat-free mayonnaise on your sandwich, think again.

When something naturally has fat (like high-quality dairy), and they remove that fat, guess what also gets changed? Its flavor and texture — and it’s not for the better. So what do food processors do about that? They add things to compensate. It might be thickeners or other chemicals to give the impression of richness in the food. Many times they add sugar, artificial flavorings, or flavor enhancers to improve the flavor of the food.  I hesitate using dairy as the example (because of my last post), but low-fat dairy seems to be put on an undeserved pedestal.

In the example of dairy, if you choose to eat dairy, go full-fat, but just eat less. I’d much rather have that naturally-occurring fat for my body than a bunch of additives designed to trick my taste buds. Like the example of meat & dairy, a better question should be asked: “Is this a fat that occurs in nature or has it been engineered and/or overprocessed?”

We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Common Misconceptions About Fat

“Won’t I get fat if I eat all that fat?”

The answer is… it depends. I ran across this info graphic on Pinterest that did a good job of explaining, in a simple way, how carbs are more likely to make you fat than fat. (Steve read it over, and decided it was a pretty good explanation, too.) Both carbs and fat can be stored as fat on your body and used for energy, but fat takes longer to digest and it doesn’t cause an insulin spike (like carbs do, which signals your body to store fat). Other things like activity and stress levels can also contribute to weight gain, as well as the types of fat you’re eating.

“What about saturated fat? I don’t want to get heart disease!”

There are new studies out that show saturated fat intake is not linked to heart disease after all, but despite that, most doctors and dieticians (and the government recommendations) will still tell you to avoid saturated fats. All of them, unfortunately. (It’s hard to admit you’re wrong after recommending something for 60 years.)

The problem is not distinguishing among all the sources of saturated fat. Saturated fat from factory farmed beef, from grass-fed beef, from coconut oil, and from hydrogenated oils like Crisco are so different. You can’t just lump them together and call all of them bad! The studies that originally viewed saturated fats as a link to heart disease didn’t make a distinction and what was actually doing the body damage was the trans fats, not good sources of saturated fat.

My favorite example is that of the Inuits. Whale blubber is a large part of their diet, yet heart disease (and cancer and Type II diabetes) is nearly non-existent among their culture. The same goes for the few hunter-gatherer tribes left on earth who subsist on wild game and whatever edibles they gather. Granted, wild game is leaner than the factory farmed meat you find at the grocery store, but I’m willing to bet they don’t pick off the skin or cut off the fat of their kill before eating it.

Our DNA is not different from these indigenous peoples. We’re all human beings with the same genetic structure. It’s our highly processed, high-carb, high-sugar, low-fat, high-stress, sedentary lifestyle that’s making us sick — not good sources of saturated fat.

The Good Fats

So what kind of fats are the “good” ones? I’ve listed a few down here and how we use them at our house. If you’re interested in the types of fatty acid chains for each fat or the scientific explanation of how it’s beneficial, check the resources section. Or Google it.

Coconut Oil (& Other tropical oils)

Types: Generally there are two types of coconut oil, “virgin” and refined. Virgin coconut oil smells and tastes a little like coconut, but has far more nutritional benefits than refined coconut oil, which is completely odor- and tasteless. Palm oil is also good to use, but it’s harder to find than coconut oil.

Uses: Oh my. Where do I begin? Coconut oil can be used in cooking, baking, applied on the skin as a moisturizer, and I even have a friend who uses a tiny bit to smooth her daughter’s hair when she braids it. And that’s just cracking the surface of its uses. You can heat both types of coconut oil to about 350 degrees (medium to medium-high heat), just don’t let it smoke. I use virgin coconut oil for sauteeing, pan frying, making granola, replacing oil or butter in baking, and in anything where I don’t mind a very slight taste of coconut. (Most of the time I don’t even notice it.)

Where to buy: These days you can find coconut oil almost anywhere, but if you plan on using it on a regular basis, I suggested buying it in larger quantities as it can be expensive at the grocery store. If you happen to have a Trader Joe’s nearby, their coconut oil is fabulously priced for a small quantity. Tropical Traditions is a great source for high-quality tropical oils in bulk. I either buy it from them or buy the large tubs of the Nutiva brand on Amazon.

Olive oil

Types: “Light tasting” (most refined), “cold-pressed, extra-virgin” (least refined), and just plain “olive oil” which is somewhere in between.

Uses: You can heat plain and “light” olive oils to about medium to medium-high heat and use them in sauteeing & pan frying. I wouldn’t use them in baking (unless the recipe specifically calls for it) because olive oils have a strong flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil shouldn’t be heated, but used in homemade salad dressings, homemade mayonnaise, or drizzled as a garnish over the food. I started using it (blended with castor oil) as a face wash about six months ago. I’ll never go back!

Where to buy: Anywhere. I like the Kirkland Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil sold at Costco. It tastes good, and it doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg. Just make sure to store it away from light and heat (not in the cabinet next to the stove) since it will go rancid very easily.

Butter & Ghee

Are you surprised to see butter here? :) High-quality butter is has a lot of nutrients. It doesn’t mean you should start gnawing on a stick for an afternoon snack, but you shouldn’t be afraid to use it sometimes.

Types: Like dairy, using pastured, organic butter is best, but it’s very hard to find. And it’s very expensive. Try to buy organic if you can, but at the very least make sure it’s hormone (RBST) free. Ghee is butter that has been clarified (the milk solids have been removed). Ghee is common in Indian cooking, but it can be hard to find as well.

Uses: Regular butter shouldn’t be heated very high as it burns easily — medium low to medium at the most. Ghee can be used at a much higher temperature because the milk solids (what burns so easily) have been removed. I think we all know what to do with butter. It can find its way into almost anything. :)

Where to buy: Anywhere. Some Costcos sell organic butter at a reasonable price, but most grocery stores should at least carry one brand of hormone-free butter. Pastured butter can probably be found at a local dairy or at Whole Foods.

Nuts & Seeds

Types: Nuts & seeds can be purchased whole, in oil form, in the form of butters, or ground up into flours and used in baking. By the way, I’m excluding peanuts in this section. We try to avoid eating peanuts & peanut butter for a few simple reasons.

Uses: If you eat nuts whole, make sure to buy raw & unsalted. The oils from most nuts (like walnut, almond, hazelnut oils) go rancid very easily, so keep them in the fridge and use them like you would extra-virgin olive oil (no heat or VERY low heat, depending on the oil).

Where to buy: Whole nuts can be found anywhere, but finding raw or unsalted can be tricky sometimes. I can always find them in the bulk section of my grocery store for reasonable prices. Almond butter (and even cashew butter) is appearing in grocery stores as well as few types of oil. Whole Foods is usually a good place to find obscure nut butters, oils, and flours as well. Honeyville is a great online resource for almond flour (scroll down to find alternative flours if you click on this link).

Other sources of Healthy Fats

Avocados, egg yolks (yes, eat the whole egg!), high-quality dairy, and animal fats (from clean sources) are natural sources of fat, and a lot better for you than toxic engineered fats (below).

A few bits about animal fat… 100 years ago rendered animal fat (chicken fat, beef tallow, etc.) was the primary cooking fat/oil used in households. (May I also mention that heart disease was very rare in those days?) The practice of rendering and reserving fat from animals has been coming back as people are realizing the dangers of using vegetable and hydrogenated oils.

Lard is also a better alternative to shortening (and one of our richest sources of vitamin D!), but make sure you don’t buy the snow-white kind on the shelf at the grocery store that has been super-refined and is full of preservatives to prolong shelf life. If you can, find some from a butcher or a local farmer. (Are you sensing a theme here? I think everyone needs a farmer friend.)

Fats to Avoid

The Problem with Vegetable Oils

One of the many problems with vegetable oils (corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola, etc.) is that they are extremely high in omega-6 fats.

Why are omega-6′s an issue? In early human history, it’s estimated that the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in the human body was about 1:1. Americans today range somewhere between 20:1 and 50:1 due to the high amount of vegetable oils in the processed foods that we eat. Omega-6′s aren’t bad for you — they’re essential for health. It’s the uneven ratio that causes problems (mostly inflammation which is an underlying cause of most chronic diseases and early aging).

So, if we can get our ratio as close to 1:1, we’re in good shape. Taking an omega-3 supplement and eating clean sources of omega-3-rich food (hello wild salmon!) helps as well as avoiding vegetable oils, which are in almost EVERY processed food we eat. (Check the ingredient labels!)

Also avoid hydrogenated oils and fats. (also common in processed food… see the benefit of a whole food diet?) And you know that tub of Crisco that’s always sitting in the cupboard? Toss it. Seriously, just toss it. Even if it says, “trans-fat free”. Same goes with the margarine.

There’s one oil that’s classified as a “vegetable oil to avoid” that I use sometimes — grapeseed oil. Grapeseed oil has a high smoke point so it’s good for sauteeing and pan frying. It’s also odor and tasteless so I use it if I don’t want the stronger flavors of coconut oil or olive oil in whatever I’m making. Grapeseed oil isn’t likely to be from a GMO plant, but it does contain a lot of omega-6′s, which is why I use it sparingly.

Here’s a helpful chart I found to guide your oil choices (from http://www.realfooddigest.com)

Assignment!

The moral of this post? Embrace fat. But only the good kinds! By eating a whole foods diet, it’s easy to avoid the bad fats, which are abundant in processed food. Simply swap out your cooking oils/fats and you’re good to go! Here’s a little homework for this week:

1. Toss the shortening and margarine. Yep, it’s that important.

OR

2. Try out some coconut oil and see how you like it. Coconut oil is absolutely fantastic and by far my favorite oil to cook with.

Not too hard, right?

Resources

Related Articles & Books

Why You Need to Avoid Low-Fat Milk & Cheese – Mercola.com
Saturated Fats are Good For You – Mercola.com
7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fats – Mercola.com
Why Butter is Better – Mercola.com
Put Lard Back in Your Larder – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Heart Surgeon Speaks out on What Really Causes Heart Disease — Sott.net
How Vegetable Oils Replaced Animal Fats in the American Diet — TheAtlantic.com (Interesting historical article about how Crisco and the widespread use of cottonseed oil came to be.)
The Skinny on Fats – Weston A Price Foundation website (very thorough, but very long)
The Oiling of America – Weston A. Price Foundation website (also long, but very good)
The Coconut Oil Miracle – Bruce Fife (I recently finished this book and it is EXCELLENT. Coconut oil is absolutely healthy and amazing.)

Are you enjoying the series so far? If so, spread the word!

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Other posts in this series: (links will be added as posts are published)

Introduction
Fruits & Vegetables
Whole Grains
Getting Your Protein
Processed Food
Sweets

Photo Credits: Shutterstock

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37 Responses to “Staying Whole in a Processed World: Healthy Fats”

  1. 1

    cassie — May 1, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Another great post, Natalie. You explained saturated fats really well. You are so right in that there is a distinction in different kinds of saturated fats. I gave up margarine a long time ago and have never used shortening. My mom still uses shortening in baking but I just can’t bring myself to use it! I have done some baking with coconut oil but haven’t used it beyond that. Need to do that!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

      Thanks Cassie! I can’t bring myself to use shortening anymore either. (Part of it has to do with taking a Wilton cake decorating class during the sick phase of my 2nd pregnancy. Making all of that shortening-laden buttercream just about did me in. I can’t even stand the smell anymore!)

  2. 2

    Jill — May 1, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    Very informative. Thanks for taking the time to do these posts. I’m really loving them.
    I recently have started to use organic, virgin coconut oil in my baking, and I love it!
    Going to throw away my shortening now (probably about time!)

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I haven’t used coconut oil in baking as much (just butter mostly), but I want to. Do you think it substitutes well for shortening?

    • Jill replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

      You know, right now I usually just melt the coconut oil when I’m using it in baking, but I bet it would work as shortening…

  3. 3

    Angie — May 1, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    I have loved your series! I have a question on a fat you have not included here than I use – I use unrefined grapeseed oil from WildTree (along with other oils like Olive etc) but wanted to know what your thoughts were on Grapeseed oil?

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

      Grapeseed appears on the chart in the “avoid” column, but I did make a few comments about that type of oil (right above the chart) because I use it sometimes. They tell you to avoid it because it’s high in omega-6′s (I don’t think unrefined would have any less.) I use it occasionally when I need something that is totally neutral in flavor and I don’t want to use coconut or olive oil. (Depending on what I’m making.) Grapeseed oil has a high smoke point and isn’t from a GMO crop, so at least it has that going for it!

  4. 4

    Erin @ Texanerin Baking — May 1, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    I wish I could find unrefined coconut oil here. And I use extra-virgin olive oil all the time in baking. I wouldn’t use it for something with a light flavor, like lemon or strawberry, but it’s great in most things. And nobody even notices that there’s an olivey taste, which I think is a good thing, but perhaps means that I’m using a low quality oil. I looked into it once when somebody said you shouldn’t use olive oil in baking because of something that turned out to be a myth, but then I found this:

    http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=dailytip&dbid=261

    So I’ll look into it again! Thanks for another interesting article. And I like people telling me to use butter. :)

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

      Regular olive oil can handle more heat because it’s been refined, but extra-virgin oxidizes really easily. I wouldn’t use extra-virgin in baking… just plain olive oil. :)

    • Erin @ Texanerin Baking replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

      Then I’ll just have to keep my extra-virgin stash for something else. :) I went on a non-virgin olive oil expedition a few months ago and it was oddly difficult to find and it’s much more expensive. Very strange!

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

      Really?? How strange!

  5. 5

    Kathryn — May 1, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    Wha…. Grapeseed oil is on the bad list? I thought it was good! darn it, I just bought a bottle, too.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

      Just because it’s high in omega-6. I made a little comment about grapeseed oil (kind of above the chart) because I do use it sometimes. At least it’s not GMO! :)

    • Kathryn replied: — May 1st, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

      oh, duh! I missed that part! I guess I kind of skimmed over the “fats to avoid” section. thanks!

  6. 6

    Rosie — May 1, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Loving your posts. I totally share all your food philosophies and it drives me crazy when people always think low-fat is healthier. So glad I found your blog from Tasty Kitchen!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

      TK is awesome. Glad you found your way over! Totally drives me nuts, too, especially when bad advice comes from a professional who should be giving good advice! Makes me want to tear my hair out!

  7. 7

    Sare — May 1, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    I’m kicking myself now for not buying the coconut oil at TJ’s today (I still have some in the cupboard though, so I guess I am ok). This is an awesome post (just like all of the others you’ve been doing. You’re convincing me. I think this healthy fats post is one that we actually follow (pretty much) already. Butter, ghee, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil are the only fats we use (and eggs and avocados). And we use dairy in full fat form. We need to work on the organic stuff. Thanks for the motivation!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

      We need to work on that, too. I tend to rely more on my produce wash more than i should. It’s hard here because we just can’t get good local stuff year round like we could over there. I’m kicking myself for not going to the farmers market in the winter!

  8. 8

    Kristin — May 1, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

    Another great post, loved it! I’ve been trying to use coconut oil more lately, so this is awesome. I’ve thought about using it on my skin too but haven’t tried it yet. I love using it for homemade popcorn! Do you think it would work well in replacing vegetable oil in whole wheat bread?

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

      You know, i don’t know! I never thought about using coconut oil in bread. I’ll have to try that sometime!

  9. 9

    Joanne — May 1, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    LOVE this post and I’m so glad you tackled the “fat is evil” myth! I eat almonds EVERY DAY, eggs a LOT, and olive oil in almost all of my cooking (coconut oil the rest of the time) and I guarantee that any of these fats are not what is making Americans obese. Cows that are fed corn instead of grass, oil that McDonald’s fries are cooked in, and weird shortenings in supermarket cakes…those are a whole different issue. The moral really is, I think, DON’T EAT PROCESSED FOODS. Period.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

      Yep. Pretty much. I’m realizing after writing a few of these posts that the majority of food problems can be solved by just not eating processed food!

  10. 10

    Renee — May 2, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    I buy Kerrygold butter at Trader Joe’s, it’s pastured butter and it tastes SOOO good! And I’ve learned to stock up on their coconut oil – they ran out recently and I almost had a panic attack…!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

      I totally forgot about Kerrygold butter! Thanks for the reminder :)

  11. 11

    michelle — May 2, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    I’ve just started experimenting with coconut oil in my cooking. I have always believed in good fats/bad fats. I love olive oil and real unsalted butter and feel great feeding them to my family. My husband recently read an article about the shelf life of margarine and how it is akin to plastic. Blech.

    This series of posts is wonderfully informative. Thank you!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 2nd, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you like them! Margarine is just plain nasty. Period.

  12. 12

    Courtney — May 2, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    Regarding shortening: it seems like the sort of thing you probably need from time to time–I use shortening made from palm oil, which I pick up at a the Natural Grocers.

    As far as lard goes, if you are searching for it, I believe the kind you want is “leaf lard.”

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 3rd, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

      Courtney, thanks so much for making those distinctions! I completely forgot about palm oil shortening (which is also sold on the Tropical Traditions website). I was solely referring to the vegetable shortening in the post. I’ve gotten so used to avoiding it, that I never considered alternatives. :) And thanks for clarifying which type of lard to look for!

  13. 13

    Rachel Cooks (formerly Not Rachael Ray) — May 3, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    These posts must take you forever to put together! Thanks for all the information :)

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 3rd, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

      Yeah… they do. LOL. Before I started them I had a list of topics and a rough outline of what I wanted to cover, but when I actually sat down and started fleshing it out and finding sources… A LOT longer than I thought it would take! I think it’s worth it though. This stuff’s important. (And it’s nice to have an organized brain dump to refer to!)

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  15. 14

    Jolene (www.everydayfoodie.ca) — May 4, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    I have both coconut oil and coconut butter at home but always forget to cook with them.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — May 5th, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

      Jolene! Use them — they’re great! :)

  16. 15

    Tracey Evans — July 23, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    This is a fantastic post! I don’t use shortening, however, Spectrum makes a 100% Organic Expeller Pressed Palm Oil shortening if any of your blog followers are interested in it for baking etc… :)

    [Reply]

  17. 16

    Tracey Evans — July 23, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    PS: I have been telling family and friends to stay away from Partially or Fully Hydrogenated ANYTHING for years. My problem is I never knew how bad Canola oil was till recently. You even hear the cooking chefs on Food Network etc… using it all the time. Now I just just use light olive oil for sauteing or shallow frying occasionally. I am still weary on the coconut oil thing. Something about its high saturated fat content that still bugs me. :)

    [Reply]

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