After years of believing that a fat-free or low-fat diet was the healthiest way to eat, new research and the rise in obesity, in spite of a flood of reduced-fat foods, tells us that’s not the case. “We’ve developed an unhealthy fear of fat,” says Clean Plates’ founder Jared Koch. For optimal health, “we need all of our macro-nutrients: proteins, carbs, and fats.” From hormone production to nutrient absorption and even turning off hunger signals, fats are essential. And those fats (as well as proteins and carbs) should come from high-quality sources.
In a nutshell, Clean Plates recommends that you avoid trans fats as much as possible; they’re typically listed as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oils or margarine.” In addition, we suggest you substantially limit your intake of poly-unsaturated vegetable oils—corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower—which are what most packaged foods are made with. These are also high in Omega-6 fatty acids, too much of which can lead to inflammation, diabetes and heart disease.
“The ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in the human body is supposed to be 1:1, but the average American’s is more like 20:1,” explains Koch. We can improve this by eating more Omega 3s (oily fish, flaxseed oil, chia seeds) and by reducing our intake of the poly-unsaturated oils. We also recommend limiting, but not avoiding, saturated fat (found in animal foods and coconut oil). While saturated fat has been linked to many health problems, the truth is that our body needs some. Mono-unsaturated fats (avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds) should be consumed regularly.
So which oils are better for cooking? Every oil has something called a smoking point, which simply means the temperature at which it starts to burn. The higher the smoking point, the better it is for high-heat cooking. With any oil, you don’t want it to brown or smoke (become oxidized). Once that happens, carcinogenic compounds are forming, so it’s best to use ones with high smoking points.
- Olive oil is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat if you’re using a cold-pressed extra virgin variety. That being said, it doesn’t have a very high smoking point, which explains the concern with using it for cooking. It’s best to use in its raw form as a salad dressing, but it is okay to cook with at lower temperatures.
- Coconut oil is one of the few pure varieties that remains stable at higher temperatures, and is a better choice for cooking. Its saturated fat is composed of medium-chain fatty acids which, because our bodies can break them down faster, are easier to digest. This type of fat is rarely stored, but instead, burned for energy. However, it is still high in saturated fat and relatively high in calories, so it’s best to use it in moderation.
- Grapeseed oil is another that’s safe for cooking at high temperatures, as is macadamia nut oil. Grapeseed oil has a more neutral flavor than coconut and macadamia nut oils, so it’s a good choice if you’re looking for one that doesn’t impact the flavor of a dish like coconut oil will. Keep in mind that while grapeseed oil has a lot of good antioxidants, it does have a relatively high level of polyunsaturated fats (Omega-6s), so if you are still consuming a lot of refined polyunsaturated oils via packaged foods, you may want to opt for the coconut variety or even grass-fed butter or ghee.
Canola oil is often recommended by others as a healthy option because of its very low saturated fat content and neutral flavor. One major concern is that half or more of the canola oil sold in the U.S. is genetically engineered; there’s also concern about residual traces of hexane left in the oil from processing. So we suggest going for organic and non-GE canola oil if you choose to use it, and in general, we recommend using other oils.
Remember that the more refined the oil, the worse it is for you. When purchasing oils, “cold pressed,” “expeller pressed,” “organic” and “non-GMO” are all good words to look for.
Be aware that when looking at product labels, you may notice that items listed as having “zero trans fat” can still contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. This is because the F.D.A. allows companies to claim “no trans fat” as long as there is less than one gram per serving. If a product has half a gram of trans fat per serving and you eat several servings, this can add up. Make sure to read the ingredients rather than relying on marketing claims.
Also, remember that portions are important. Just because olive oil is healthy doesn’t mean you should drown your salad in it: one tablespoon is all you need.