Frequently Asked Questions - Fats and Oils
Living Healthfully with Healing Fats and Oils
This is an article by Tarilee Cornish, CNP
Many of Nature’s whole foods are abundant in healing fats and oils. Quality oils are rich sources of essential fatty acids, (EFA’s.) EFA’s are important for all aspects of health - from hormonal balance, mood and immune strength, to skin and brain health.
Essential Fatty Acids
EFA’s are essential to immune, intestinal, liver, and cardiovascular health and are particularly important during times of intense healing. They can be sourced from raw fish and nuts and seeds. Dietary oils expressed from these foods are especially rich sources of Omega three (alpha-linolenic), six (linoleic) and nine (oleic).
Sadly, in recent decades, our food supply has degenerated from whole foods into processed foods. Conventional mass production methods of processing almost always involve destruction of delicate fatty acids. The majority of the foods available in our grocery and health food stores contain virtually no remaining EFA’s. Even worse, they contain oxidized fats and and trans-fatty acid, both dangerous by products of food processing.
Nature’s most healing oils are also her most sensitive to being damaged by common extraction and production methods. Heat, light, oxygen and solvents turn them from health-supporting foods into health-damaging foods.
Thankfully there are some health conscious manufacturers that process healthful oils and oily foods in a way that protects their healing qualities and prevents the fatty acids from being converted into toxins. They use small, low temperature batches and then stored in light and oxygen free packaging. Let’s take a look at what we need to know to choose these healthy oils for our family’s health and avoid the dangerous ones.
Oils are not all created equally
Some oils are good sources of essential fatty acids and others are suitable for cooking. But some of the oils disguised on the super market shelves as food, sometimes even as healthy foods, might be better suited to polishing furniture! Using the right fats and oils for the right purpose will take our diet a long way towards the ideal, immune boosting diet.
Fragile but Healthy- Polyunsaturated Oils
Most vegetable oils belong to a class of fragile oils called polyunsaturated oils and some of these contain highly desirable levels of EFA’s that our bodies need in large amounts. These include omega three, omega six and omega nine. All of these fatty acids can be easily damaged by heat with omega three being the most sensitive of them.
The less saturated an oil is, the less prone to solidifying it is, even in the freezer. Most polyunsaturates stay somewhat liquid even in the freezer. An interesting health related side note is that the lower freezing point of an oil is - the more effective it is as an anti-coagulant in our blood to prevent the aggregation that causes cardiovascular disease.
Food Sources of Omega Three
Of the sensitive plant based oils, those high in omega three fatty acids are the most sensitive to heat damage. Because of this, we need to eat omega three type oils raw as much as possible, and only add the more saturated oils to cooking. Foods high in omega three fatty acids include fish, whole flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Most of us are more deficient in omega three than in any other fatty acid so attention to these food and oil sources in their raw form as much as possible is highly recommended.
Fish oil, contains two special sub-types of omega three, EPA and DHA. These fatty acids can be produced by the body from vegetarian sources of omega three but certain liver conditions or illnesses prevent efficient conversion. EPA and DHA are particularly important for brain health, mood and inflammation control and regular sources of EPA and DHA are also strongly recommended.
Food Sources of Omega Six
Corn, canola, safflower, walnut, and pumpkin oils are polyunsaturated oils high in omega six fatty acids (with some omega three.) Though each fatty acid has special health benefits and our bodies’ need them in varying amounts, the omega six EFA is abundant in Nature so our needs for this fatty acid can be met through a diet rich in raw veggies and seeds without including omega six oils or supplements in our diet.
Oils for Cooking
Healthy oils need to be chosen according to their fatty acid content and for their heat stability. This is because saturation levels indicate how heat stable an oil is and thus, how suitable it is for cooking. Unlike a polyunsaturated oil (like corn or flax oil), when a saturated fat is heated, it is not damaged and so these fats are the best for cooking.
Coconut oil, organic palm oil, macadamia nut oil and butter or ghee are excellent choices for highly saturated oils that have a high heat tolerance, or “high smoke point.”
There is yet another class of oils called monounsaturated. As one might expect from the name, the characteristics of these oils lie somewhere in between polyunsaturated oils and saturated oils. Olive oil, safflower oil and sunflower oils all fall into this category. They each contain some Omega three and Omega six fatty acids but what characterizes them as monounsaturated oils is their high levels of the Omega nine fatty acid. Monounsaturated oils are more heat stable and solidify in the cold. Though they do not have as low a smoke point as saturated oils, they are more stable than polyunsaturated oils. They can be used for brief, low temperature cooking.
Protective Effect of Eating EFA’s
All EFA’s, (Omega three, Omega six AND Omega nine), offer some protective effects. This means that adequate consumption of them can prevent our bodies from assimilating unhealthy dietary fats and inappropriately using them for important healing and tissue building processes. However, of all of the fatty acids, the Omega three fatty acid is the most rare in Nature and thus also the most rare in our diets.
Health damaging fats are almost unavoidable in our food supply and contribute to heart disease, cancer, low sperm counts, immune disorders and more. But fortunately, a healthy diet with special attention to sources of EFA’s, especially, Omega three, can help prevent the health consequences from exposure to some degenerated fats. Fortunately, for additional support, supplements containing these fatty acids are widely available.
Taking supplemental EFA’s is another way we can enjoy their impact on our health. The EFA’s that are typically used in concentrated form for orthomolecular (or mega-dose nutritional) medicine come in liquid or pill form. They have scientific-sounding essential fatty acids like DHA (docosa hexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosa pentaenoic acid) and GLA (Gamma Linoleic Acid.) These natural healers are in many of our regular foods in tiny quantities. The EFA supplements (liquid or pill form) offer concentrated doses for many therapeutic uses.
Shopping for Fats and Oils
Healthy, polyunsaturated oils are labeled as unrefined and their gentle manufacturing process is described on the bottle. These oils are kept in the fridge with expiry dates. A well-stocked supply to make salad dressings and smoothies out of would include the following
- Flax (mostly omega three fatty acids)
- Hemp (mostly omega three and six fatty acids)
- Pumpkin (mostly omega six fatty acids)
- Sesame (mostly omega three fatty acids)
Look for the above oils in dark glass or nitrogen flushed dark plastic bottles.
Olive Oil should be labeled as cold pressed extra virgin and is in a dark glass bottle. It should be mild enough that it does not burn the throat when swallowed.
Coconut Oil should be labeled as cold pressed and virgin or extra virgin. It will taste a lot like coconut.
Ghee is clarified butter and you can purchase it pre-made or make your own from organic butter.
Cooked or Processed Foods made with Saturated Oils are safer. When possible, avoid processed foods that have added vegetable oils (polyunsaturated oils) – especially if it is hydrogenated (a toxic fat that has been artificially saturated). Any processed food that has vegetable oil added or has been cooked in vegetable oil was most likely prepared with a conventional solvent and heat processed vegetable oil and thus is best minimized in the diet.
If you have to use some kinds of convenience foods, prepared foods made with saturated oils are actually much safer and healthier to consume because saturated oils are stable oils for cooking. The old debate about whether saturated fats are better or worse for cardiovascular health is over. If we use the saturated fats for the cooked and processed foods and eat the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils raw, we get the very best of both. Butter, ghee, and organic coconut, palm or macadamia nut oil are saturated and among the healthiest cooking fats. Olive oil is safe for just a quick, light sautéing.
Deep Fried Foods
The overused and heat intolerant oils most fried foods are cooked in contain toxic byproducts and even trans-fats. This is caused by super-heating of polyunsaturated oils, which, as we learned above, are degraded by heat. Many individuals with food allergies and or immune suppression will have a noticeably negative response to deep fried foods though the high and unhealthy oil content makes for a low vitality food for everyone.
Healthy Food Preparation with OilsI recommend that you learn to explore the preparation of foods without fats, when possible. In many cases it is unnecessary. Stir fries for example, can be sautéed cooked in water with a bit of oil added before serving for flavor. If you need to add oils use ghee, coconut oil or macadamia nut oil, or olive oil for quick, sautéing.
You can use the delicious cold pressed unsaturated oils (like flax, pumpkin, olive, sesame) to create healing dressings. Or drizzle them on steamed veggies or porridge. You can mix polyunsaturated oils with saturated ghee or coconut oil to make a high EFA spread that is moderately solid in the fridge.
A spread blended with added herbs can be delightful for use over steamed veggies or a mix of oils with cinnamon and stevia and sea salt could be used on gluten-free toast. Flax and ghee (half and half) mix very well together as a base for the above. This should still only be used unheated however. Polyunsaturates are also are great in cold puddings, smoothies and more. And finally, don’t forget to put your oil in your smoothies!!!
Nuts and Seeds
Roasting nuts and seeds destroys the integrity of the natural oils and, as mentioned above, can create some unhealthy by products. Soaking and sprouting seeds/nuts and then dehydrating for crispness is the healthiest way to prepare them. For more information about this, check out the page on the forum (and the recipe book) page about sprouting seeds.
If you would like to further explore the subject of healthy verses unhealthy fats and oils, Michael T Murray ND has written a great little book on fats and oils, called Understanding Fats & Oils: Your Guide to Healing With Essential Fatty Acids.
Tarilee Cornish is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner with a special interest in immune and digestive recovery including general detoxification and recovery from food allergies and candida overgrowth. She is especially passionate about pure healing food choices that have a democratic, ecological and compassionate production and distribution chain. Tarilee is a moderator on the WholeApproach Support Forum.
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