I have a few oils (fats) in my pantry. Oils are essential in my cooking and I use a variety of oils for frying, sautéing, marinating, and dressings. I also enjoy other types of fats such as nuts and seeds. They are ubiquitous in my kitchen and I add walnuts and flax seeds to yogurt, cereal, and salad. Health care providers advice again eating too much fat while touting the health benefits of fats such as avocado and olive oil. What about coconut oil? Is it friend or foe? That is when the advice becomes muddied and consumers become confused. The advice is reduced to sound bites and the reality is that fats are not created equal.

Why Fats are Essential to your Health

Fat, carbohydrate, and protein are called macronutrients. Carbohydrate is the macronutrient that has the most impact on blood glucose (sugar) levels. Nutrition professionals recommend focusing on the quality and quantity of carbohydrates to manage blood glucose levels. While carbohydrate and protein have 4 calories per gram, fat packs more than double the calories at 9 calories per gram. The advice to keep the amount of fat low stems from the calorie-dense components of fat. Our bodies need fat. Fat is an essential source of energy, and our bodies need fat to absorb some vitamins and minerals. Fat is the component of cell membranes, and it coats the nerve cells. Fat also has a role in muscle movement and blood clotting.

The Good and not so Good Nature of Fats

Let’s break it down. Go to your kitchen and read the food label one of the following foods: margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or a bottle of oil. You will find the total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Total fat is the sum of different fats. The amount of total fat only tells you whether the food contains little or too much fat. If you are managing your calories, choose a lower fat product. Don’t let total fat be your only guide when selecting foods. The type of fat is more important than the total amount of fat.

The Not so Good Fats

Saturated fat exists in many foods that are common in the American diet. They include coconut oil, whole milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt made with whole milk, butter, beef, pork, chicken and turkey skin, and many commercially baked goods such as pastries, cookies, and cakes. Trans fats are created when liquid oils are converted to solid oils in a process known as hydrogenation. Trans fats increase the flavor and shelf-life of products. If a product contains trans fats, you will find partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list. High intake of saturated fats and trans fats increase the risk of unhealthy cholesterol known as LDL or low-density lipoprotein, which may also increase the risk of heart disease. Trans fats not only increase unhealthy cholesterol, but it also decreases the healthy cholesterol or HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Excessive amount of dietary cholesterol may also have some impact on your heart health, although not as high as consuming excessive amounts of saturated and trans fats.

The Good Fats

Let me introduce you to the good guys: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Where do they hang out? When you pour olive oil in a pan to sautée garlic to add to your spinach or slice a creamy avocado for your salad, you are eating mostly monounsaturated fats. Other sources of monounsaturated fats are canola oil, peanut oil, and most nuts. The polyphenols in olive oil contain anti-inflammatory properties that are believed to lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. Olive oil is a versatile oil that can be used in dressings, marinades, and sauces but it has a low smoking point. When an oil smokes, it is a sign that the oil is breaking down, releasing free radicals that can cause harm to the cells in your body. Extra-virgin olive oils smokes at just 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Canola oil smoke point is 400 degrees Fahrenheit, making it ideal for frying. Use oils with lower smoking point for stir-fries or dressings.

Do you cook with corn or vegetable oil (soybean oil)? If so, you are pouring polyunsaturated fats in your pan. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats: omega 3s and omega 6s. A well-known source of omega 3s is salmon, although sardines, herring, and mackerel are not far behind. Walnuts, Plant sources of omega-3s are walnuts, flaxseed, unhydrogenated soybean and canola oil. Omega 3s help lower triglycerides (a fat in the blood) and may help prevent heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends 2 servings of fatty fish per week. Each serving is 3.5 ounces.

Shopping Tips that Make a Difference

Extra virgin olive oil or virgin olive oil? Extra virgin olive oil is made with cold-pressed olives, increasing its antioxidant content. Antioxidants are protective substances that prevent damaging substances from entering the cells. Virgin olive oil contains a mixture of cold-pressed and processed olives.

Regular olive oil or light olive oil? If you want to cut back on calories, don’t let the word “light” fool you. All oils have 125 calories per tablespoon. Light olive oil refers to to color of the oil, not the number of calories.

Fat-free or low-fat? Fat-free foods have replaced its fat with carbohydrates. This will lead to an increase in carbohydrate which may increase your blood glucose. Replace saturated fats and highly processed carbohydrates (sugars, sweets, refined flours) with polyunsaturated fats. It will improve your total cholesterol and decrease the unhealthy LDL and triglycerides.

The Last Word

Choose healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and decrease foods high in saturated fats and trans fats. Remember that the key to good health is about quantity and quality of foods.