The Skinny on Fats:Sep 05, 2023
Exploring Health Risks and Discovering Healthier Alternatives
I have long been interested in nutrition and consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to making healthier food choices. Do I always follow my own advice…. No. But I know when I make less than optimal choices and the affects it will have on my health. They are usually moderate and short-lived as I right the ship and return to my healthy eating patterns. One area that I have tried to be more conscious of and really investigate deeper are the unhealthy fats in our diet. I am referring to the seed oils that health influencers are warning about everyday on social media.
Before I dive into this conversation I want to point out that context matters. Here is what I mean. When you hear everyone on social media telling you to ditch the bad fats it is important to look at this in a practical way. As a pharmacist I always think in terms of dose, frequency and duration. The dose is the single serving or individual item that you are consuming. The frequency is how often and over how long (the duration) you consume the product. When we think of bad fats, think of a serving of French fries as the dose. A single serving, or one dose, at lunch may not be detrimental to your health. More problematic is eating French fries, chips, and conventional salad dressing at every meal for the entire week. This increases the frequency and duration of your doses. And that is where the unhealthy effects begin to accumulate.
You may be asking what are seed oils, why are they bad for me and where do I find them? Great questions! Let’s investigate:
Seed oils have been widely used in cooking and food production. Touted for some time as the healthier option to saturated fats, a closer look reveals several potential dangers associated with their consumption. Seed oils include products such as soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil and as well as margarine and butter substitutes. These oils are often marketed as heart-healthy options due to their unsaturated fat content. However, there are several reasons why they can be detrimental to our health.
Seed oils are high in Omega-6 Fatty Acids, which are essential for our body. However, an excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids, especially when in excess of omega-3 fatty acids, can lead to chronic inflammation and contribute to various health problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity and autoimmune disorders.
Other risks of omega-6 fatty acids include oxidative stress. Seed oils are highly susceptible to oxidation due to their high levels of polyunsaturated fats. When heated, they can form harmful compounds, such as free radicals and lipid peroxides, which contribute to oxidative stress in the body. This oxidative stress is associated with cellular damage and an increased risk of chronic diseases.
So what are the healthier options?
Fortunately, there are several healthier alternatives to seed oils that can be incorporated into your diet without compromising taste or nutritional value. Here are a few options to consider:
- Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, making it an excellent choice for cooking and salad dressings. Its anti-inflammatory properties and potential cardiovascular benefits make it a healthier alternative to seed oils.
- Coconut Oil: Known for its high saturated fat content, coconut oil has gained popularity for its potential health benefits. It contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are easier to digest and provide quick energy. Coconut oil is stable at high temperatures, making it suitable for cooking and baking.
- Avocado Oil: With its mild flavor and high smoke point, avocado oil is a versatile option for cooking. It is rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants, offering potential benefits for heart health and inflammation.
- Ghee: Clarified butter, or ghee, has been used for centuries in traditional cooking. It has a high smoke point and imparts a rich, buttery flavor. Ghee is well-tolerated by those with dairy sensitivities and contains vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Animal Fats: Fats from pastured animals, such as tallow and lard, can be healthy cooking options. They contain a balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids and are less prone to oxidation when compared to seed oils.
But let’s not just stop here, because the cooking oils in our kitchens are only part of the problem. Finding these “bad fats” can be like a game of Where’s Waldo, but if you grab a few items from your grocery shelves you will come up a winner pretty quickly! We are all very well aware of the added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup and additives that food manufacturers put in our foods to make them taste better, but reading the label to some of your favorite dressings, condiments and other pre-packaged foods can lead to the realization that vegetable oil, canola oil, or one of the other damaging seed oils, is one of the main ingredients. I was surprised when I grabbed a bag of frozen french fries at the grocery store to find that they also include canola oil as a coating to make them crispier.
Is it possible to eliminate these oils completely? It would be very challenging. You would need to not only cook your own food every meal but you could rarely buy packaged foods, condiments or convenience items. most every restaurant uses one of these oils in the preparation of their food. It is cost effective for them compared to alternatives. I am not ready to give up going out to eat permanently.
So is it all bad if you continue to consume these fats? The truth is the omega-6 fatty acids have always been in our diet. The problem is the proportion that we currently consume in comparison to the omega-3 fatty acids. In the past our ancestors consumed a 1:1 ratio of these fats. Our diets have evolved and the standard American diet is more closely a 6:1 ratio of the bad fat compared to good fat.
It is this imbalance that causes health risks long term. This is where awareness and making informed choices becomes key. Knowing what is in your foods and how it affects our bodies in both healthy and unhealthy ways is really what I am aiming for. I have been working to decrease the seed oils that are found in my own kitchen. While we have made strides I know I can not be 100%, and sometimes convenience wins out. Additionally we enjoy a meal out to eat nearly once a week.
I recently went down a rabbit hole trying to make modifications in the salad dressing and condiments that we consume. Example: my family really likes ranch dressing, however it is made with vegetable oil. So in search of the healthy alternative I examined the label for the bottle that touted “avocado oil”. And while avocado oil may be included in this product to some degree (less than 2% according to the label), it still had vegetable oil listed as the second ingredient after water, meaning it is the main ingredient! Same came up true for our beloved buffalo sauce! Don’t even get me started on the misleading advertising and questionable practices that these companies use to sell these products as healthier….that is a blog for another day!
It is possible to find alternatives on the grocery shelf that do not contain any vegetable or canola oil. Primal Kitchen makes a high quality and very tasty ranch. However, it can be a bit pricier than the conventional brand, especially if you consume buckets of it like my family might.
The alternative for us is making our own ranch. I have long been a homemade mayo addict, which is quite strange because I never like mayonnaise growing up and well into adult hood. But I promise you will want to lick the spoon for this bad boy! Fortunately the homemade mayo can easily be made into ranch or other dressings and sauces.
As a family we are on a mission to make a conscious effort to reduce these oils as much as possible, and while I know we can’t eliminate them when we choose to eat out (even at the healthiest restaurants), we can make conscious decisions to ditch them in our kitchen and from the products that we enjoy.
While seed oils have become prevalent in our modern diet, their consumption poses significant health risks due to the imbalance of omega-6 fatty acids. By opting for healthier alternatives like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, and animal fats, we can reduce inflammation, promote cardiovascular health, and provide our bodies with essential nutrients. Making informed choices about the oils we use in our cooking, food preparation and products we consume is a small step that can have a big impact on our long-term well-being.
As a reminder, remember to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian for personalized advice regarding your specific dietary needs and health concerns.
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- Schwingshackl, L., Bogensberger, B., & Hoffmann, G. (2020). Diet quality as assessed by the Healthy Eating Index, Alternate Healthy Eating Index, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension score, and Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index in relation to cardiovascular disease and mortality risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(4), 553-571.
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