When I first started to write this blog article it was about the benefits of coconut oil, but I quickly realized that it had to be about fat. All fat. Why? Because there are so many misconceptions regarding fat. Fat is not evil. Fat does not make us fat. Fat is very important in the function of the human body and prior to the low fat era, humans received approximately 40% of their daily caloric intake from good fat.
Bear with the quick chemistry lesson or skip to the info on good fats, it’s up to you. There are three naturally occurring classifications of fats (oils, lipids or fatty acids). They are:
Saturated fats: So named because all of the available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. Saturated fats are highly stable and do not go rancid easily, because all of the carbon-hydrogen bonds are filled. They are straight in form and because of this pack together tightly and form either solids or semi-solids at room temperature. These fats are found mostly in animal products and tropical oils. As animals we can produce them from excess carbohydrates as well.
Monounsaturated fats: These have one double bond which is made when two carbon atoms double-bond to each other; therefore, there are two hydrogen atoms lacking. Monounsaturated fatty acids are bent at the site of the double bond and do not pack together as well, making them liquid at room temperature. They are fairly stable and do not go rancid too easily. Nut oils such as almond oil, pecan oil and peanut oil are monounsaturated, as well as olive oil.
Polyunsaturated oils: These have two or more pairs of double carbon bonds and are lacking four or more hydrogen atoms. These oils are not stable and will go rancid easily. They should never be heated or used in cooking. Canola, safflower, corn, flax and sunflower oil are all in this category. These oils should be refrigerated, used sparingly and then only as salad dressing oils. Fish oil is also within this group. It is an omega-3 fatty acid, because of the positions of the double bonds. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning that our bodies do not produce these oils on their own, like they do saturated and monounsaturated fats but are necessary to our health and well-being. Omega-3 fatty acids must be obtained from food sources.
Then there are the hydrogenated oils which are man-made. They begin as liquid polyunsaturated oils like soy, corn, or canola and are turned into solids (tub margarine, brick margarine, vegetable shortening, etc.). This is a highly refined process which adds hydrogen atoms to the oil molecules with high temperatures and high pressure. This process creates the “trans” fats that are so bad for the human body. Our bodies do not recognize these fats as bad and these now “saturated” fats are the fats that contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Fats are classified not only according to saturation, but by the length of the chain in which they appear. There are short chain fatty acids which are found mostly in butter fat from cows and goats. These fatty acids are anti-microbial. They are directly absorbed for quick energy and are not stored in the body. Butter contains 12-15% short and medium chain fatty acids.
Medium chain fatty acids are also found in butterfat and in coconut oil. These fats also have antimicrobial properties, are used for energy, not readily stored and contribute to a healthy immune system.
Long chain fatty acids can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. These must be broken down by bile salts in order to be digested. They can be good or bad.
This may come as a surprise to you, but good fat is necessary in our diet! Saturated fatty acids make up at least 50% of our cell membranes. Fat aids in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, without consuming fat with these vitamins they are not well absorbed. Healthy fats are necessary for the production of some hormones and omega 3-fatty acids are necessary for heart health. Good fats satiate our appetite, they make us feel full longer and help to keep insulin levels lower.
Manufacturers would like you to believe that vegetable oil, margarine and vegetable shortening are good for you, but they aren’t. These fats are often found in mayonnaise, salad dressings, cookies, crackers, donuts, bread, granola bars, and other manufactured foods. There should be no room in your fridge or pantry for any of them. These oils go rancid when heated because they have an unstable chemical composition. These fats are likely derived from genetically modified plants (GMO’s) which I believe have no place on our table (see my article here for this information). These fats contribute to heart disease and cancer, as do trans fats.
By now, I would assume we have all heard that olive oil is good for us. It is. It is in the group of monounsaturated fats with nut oils (walnut, pecan, peanut and avocados). These are great oils to use in salad dressings! These oils are fairly stable and can be used to cook with at lower temperatures. Every oil has a “smoke point”, the point at which it becomes unstable. It is important to note that you should purchase only monounsaturated oils that have been processed under low temperatures and low light and oxygen exposure. These oils will be marked “expeller-expressed, extra virgin or unrefined” otherwise they may be extracted using solvents and heat. These oils may also be cut with vegetable oils without your knowledge, so do your homework.
As I said earlier animal fat is saturated fat, as is coconut oil. These fats are highly stable and do not go rancid easily. These fats are good to cook with for that reason. My mother-in-law always uses lard in her pie crust and for years I thought this was horrible, but now I know better! It is a more stable fat than vegetable shortening and your body knows what to do with it.
Butter is good for you! Say what? Now, there are some caveats: organic butter is better, as animals (including humans) store toxins in fat; butter has short and medium chain fatty acids in it and because of these has antimicrobial properties; butter contains vitamins A, E, K and smaller amounts of B, these are found in much higher amounts if the butter is from grass-fed cows; and butter contains trace minerals including zinc, manganese, chromium and selenium. Adding a tsp of butter to your vegetables, will help you to absorb the vitamins found in the vegetables as well! Moderation is key.
Finally, the reason I started this article coconut oil…. This is a medium chain fatty acid, it is used in the body primarily as energy and not stored as fat readily like long chain fatty acids. It is highly stable and does not go rancid easily making it a good cooking oil. It contains lauric acid which is converted into monolaurin and capric acid which is converted by the body to monocaprin. These substances are antibacterial and antiviral, helping to protect the immune system and fight off yeast, candida and fungus. Coconut oil has been found to improve insulin levels, good cholesterol and thyroid hormone levels. While some people take coconut oil therapeutically, I usually use it as I would use any other fat. I have been known to put it into a smoothie to keep me feeling full longer, or to lick the spoon that I scooped it out of the bucket with though.
As with other oils, ensure that coconut oil is pure, expelled and not highly refined. It can be used in baking as a replacement for margarine or butter, it can be sautéed with and used in a deep fat fryer. Studies have found that women that consumed 2 Tbsp daily did not gain weight, but actually had less abdominal fat than those who hadn’t consumed it.
Phew! We made it through the topic of fat! It is interesting to note that native societies such as the Inuit ate very high fat diets and had low incidence of heart disease and cancer. Here we are living in a society which is all about low fat and we have high incidence of both disease and high obesity rates. It is my opinion that consumption good fat is not responsible for heart disease, cancer or obesity, but that other dietary habits lead to these issues.
Questions? Comments? I would love to hear them!