It’s depressing how the tiny three-letter word “fat” causes one to immediately visualize so many negative images and feel such powerful emotions. When it comes to your health, fat needn’t be a dirty word.
Dietary fats are essential for human health. Fat is one of the three macronutrients that the human body needs to function properly. The other two are carbohydrates and protein. According to the Dietary Reference Intakes published by the USDA, 20% – 35% of daily calories should come from fat.
Your body needs fat for:
- Body energy
- Normal growth and development
- To help absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Protect and cushion vital organs
- Support cell growth
- Provide taste and stability to foods
Unfortunately, the average American’s diet is far too high in poor quality fats. Eating foods that contain fat is an important part of your daily dietary plan. However, you need to choose foods that provide way more good fats than bad fats. Eating plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, legumes, poultry, fish, nuts, and the right fats helps make sure that your diet is low in fats that are good for your health.
How many fats are there?
There are four types of dietary fats:
- Saturated fats (highly debatable if bad or good)
- Trans fats (bad)
- Monounsaturated fats (most are good)
- Polyunsaturated fats (highly debatable if bad or good)
These four fats have different physical properties and chemical structures. Saturated and trans fats are usually more solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are usually more liquid at room temperature.
Most fats are a blend of two or more types of fat. All fats have nine calories in each gram of fat, so the type of fat does not matter when referring to calories.
What are saturated fats?
Chemically speaking, saturated fats have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are “saturated” with hydrogen molecules.
Saturated fats include:
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Lard (bacon fat)
- Tallow (beef fat)
- Shortening, vegetable
- Fatty meats like beef and pork
- Poultry with skin
- Full-fat or 2 percent dairy products like milk, cream, and cheese
- Dark chocolate
Many members of the dietary community believe saturated fats are harmful because eating saturated fat seems to increase levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And this is where those that are pro or con of saturated fat divide.
Proponents to saturated fat insist that there is no experimental evidence on humans directly linking saturated fat to heart disease. Opponents to saturated fat believe that increased levels of cholesterol put you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
We encourage each one of you to do your own research and draw your own conclusion. We mostly eat less fatty cuts of meat, poultry without skin, and use low-fat dairy because these items have fewer calories. However we also use butter, coconut oil, coconut, and dark chocolate in baking and in snacks. We do not use lard, tallow, or palm oil in cooking.
What are trans fats?
There are two types of trans fats in foods, the form that occurs naturally and the artificial manufactured form. Some meat and dairy products contain small quantities of trans fat that occurs naturally.
However, most trans fat is the manufactured artificial form, created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil. This causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. Trans fat, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, is less likely to spoil thus giving foods made with it a longer shelf life.
Trans fat is the worst type of fat. It raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Eating trans fat increases risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Where you find trans fat:
- Snacks: Potato, tortilla, and corn chips may contain trans fat. Many types of popcorn use trans fat to cook or flavor the popcorn. Also check out those pudding cups for trans fats that lurk in the artificial flavorings.
- Baked goods: Many baked goods like cookies, cakes, muffins, sweet rolls, crackers, and pie crusts that you buy contain trans fat. It may also be in packaged frosting, pancake mixes, and waffle mixes.
- Refrigerator dough: Refrigerated dough products like biscuits, rolls, cinnamon rolls, pizza crust, breakfast sandwiches, and pie crusts often contain trans fat.
- Restaurant fried food: Foods like French fries, doughnuts, onion rings, fried chicken or fish may contain trans fat, depending upon type of oil used in the cooking process.
- Nondairy creamers: Both refrigerated nondairy creamers and powdered creamers may contain trans fat.
- Margarine and shortening: Many stick margarines contain trans fat to help hold their solid form. Some shortening manufacturers still use trans fat. The nutrition label may say 0 grams trans fat. However, this may not be true, because companies are allowed to round down and put 0 grams even if product has less than 0.5 grams, Always check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil, for piece of mind.
- Frozen dinners: some frozen dinners and microwave meals contain trans fat to help make the products more stable.
- Meat sticks: Check those jerky sticks for partially hydrogenated oil as many contain trans fat, some naturally and some artificially added.
- Canned chili: Some chili products contain trans fat so check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil.
What are monounsaturated fats?
Chemically speaking, monounsaturated fats are fat molecules that have one carbon-to-carbon double bond in the molecule. Monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature but turn solid when chilled.
Monounsaturated fats are the best fats and they are a healthy alternative to all the other fats. The most controversial is canola oil.
Monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Almond oil
- Avocado oil
- Hazelnut oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Peanut oil
- Nuts (like almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pistachio)
- Peanut butter
Health benefits of Monounsaturated fats
- Reduced cholesterol levels
- Decreased risk of breast cancer
- Lower risk of heart disease and stroke
- Benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control
- Weight loss
- Reduced belly fat
- Improved rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness
What are polyunsaturated fats?
Chemically speaking, polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules that have two or more carbon-to-carbon double bonds in the molecule. Polyunsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature but turn solid when chilled.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats as our bodies require them for normal body functions. However, your body does not make these fats. You must get them from oils or foods.
Polyunsaturated fats contain 2 fatty acids
There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for many functions in the body. Omega-3 is found in fish and some plant sources like flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-6 is found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory and omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is necessary for our survival as it protects our bodies from infection and injury. But excess inflammation is often a primary reason for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and some cancers.
A balanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 4:1 or less. However the average ratio for those eating an industrial diet like we Americans eat is 16:1 or higher. An excess of omega-6 fatty acids increases risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and inflammation.
Polyunsaturated fats include:
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable oil
- Walnut oil
- Fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, and trout
- Fish oil
- Flaxseed oil
The bottom line on dietary fats
You have many options when it comes to choosing fats and oils for baking and cooking. Unfortunately the medical and dietary community is not in agreement about whether many of the options are good or bad.
The consistently best oil to use is olive oil. This is oil we use the most. We also use butter, coconut oil, and a little sesame oil for flavoring.
In the next two sections, I list cooking fats and oils that are either good or bad for you. I’m guessing that if you gave this same list of fats and oils to 100 people and asked them to choose which are good; you would get 100 unique answers. Make your own decision as to which ones are best for you and your family.
11 Good fats and oils to use for baking and cooking
- Olive oil – a monounsaturated fat: Olive oil is oil that is pressed from olives. It is excellent for medium heat cooking. It can also be used in baking. Olive oil has many health benefits including cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, digestive, cognitive, anti-cancer, bone health, and weight management. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), the oil from the first press of the olives, has the most delicate flavor. It is excellent in salad dressings and dipping for breads. However, don’t heat EVOO to extremely high temperatures as it can oxidize and turn into unhealthy oil with damaging trans fat.
- Coconut oil – a saturated fat: Coconut oil is nearly colorless and is extracted from coconuts. Although coconut oil is almost totally saturated fat, it is one of the good fats. The saturated fat in coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) which actually reduce cholesterol and obesity. Be sure to buy expeller cold-pressed coconut oil which is sage to use in medium heat temperature, up to 350 degrees. It is great in baking, candies, and sautéing.
- Almond oil – a monounsaturated fat: Almond oil is extracted from almonds. It has a subtle almond aroma and flavor and is similar in composition to olive oil. Use it in high heat temperature, up to 420 degrees. Use in stir-fries and when sautéing. Add to food after cooking for flavor.
- Avocado oil – a monounsaturated fat: Avocado oil is green and is pressed from the pulp of avocados. It has a soft nutty taste with a mild aroma of avocados. It is great for high heat cooking with a smoke point up to 520 degrees. Use it in stir-fries and when searing meats.
- Butter – a saturated fat (grass-fed is healthiest): Use butter, made by churning the fatty portion or cream of cow’s milk, for baking, cooking, and spreading. Butter is an excellent choice for low-heat cooking methods up to 350 degrees. Butter has both saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Ghee – a saturated fat (grass-fed is healthiest): Ghee is clarified butter, a process that removes the milk solids. Ghee is an excellent choice for high-heat cooking methods up to 485 degrees. Use for frying, sautéing, and searing.
- Hazelnut oil – a monounsaturated fat: Strong flavored hazelnut oil is either cold or expeller pressed from roasted hazelnuts. It is similar in composition to olive oil. It is expensive and often hard to find. It has a smoke point of 430 degrees. But it more commonly used in salad dressings and marinades than in cooking. Add to food after cooking for flavor.
- Lard – a Saturated and monounsaturated fat: Lard is the fat rendered from a hog. This once popular fat for cooking and baking is not used as much today. Vegetable shortenings are often used instead of lard, causing many to wonder which fat is the worst. Lard is lower in saturated fat than butter and tallow. It has 50% healthy monounsaturated fat. Use lard in medium heat temperature, up to 370 degrees. Use for baking and frying.
- Macadamia nut oil – monounsaturated fat: Light, rich-flavored macadamia oil is cold pressed from macadamia nuts and is very expensive. Use in medium high heat temperature, up to 390 degrees. It is a great choice for many types of cooking, but due to its cost, may be better used in salad dressings.
- Sesame Oil – a polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat: Highly flavorful sesame oil is pressed from sesame seeds. Sesame oil has nearly identical amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, which is why many list this oil as bad. It is high in antioxidants and very high in omega-6. Use refined sesame oil in high heat cooking up to 410 degrees. Use unrefined in medium heat temperature, up to 350 degrees. Sesame oil is popular in Asian cuisine and is often added near the end or after cooking.
- Walnut oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Walnut oil is extracted from walnuts and it has a great nutty flavor. Walnut oil is expensive. If semi-refined, use in medium heat temperature, up to 400 degrees, otherwise use in very low heat cooking. Use occasionally as walnut oil is higher in omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acid. Use it in salad dressings or as an accent to winter vegetables.
12 Bad fats and oils to avoid for baking and cooking
- Canola oil – a monounsaturated fat: Light colored canola oil, is extracted from rapeseed plants that contain low levels of toxic erucic acid. It goes through heavy processing which includes caustic refining, bleaching, and degumming at high temperatures. Rapeseed oil is heavily deodorized as it is so foul-tasting and smelling. Use refined canola oil in high heat temperature, up to 400 degrees.
- Corn oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Medium-yellow corn oil is highly refined and extracted from GMO corn by the solvent hexane which is a cheap by-product from gasoline. It is also high in omega-6 fatty acids that are unstable when exposed to high heat, producing free radicals that damage cells, increase risk of cancer, and may damage the liver. Use refined corn oil in high heat temperature, up to 450 degrees.
- Cottonseed oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Pale-yellow cottonseed oil is a by-product of industrial waste from the textile cotton crop that contains pesticides, chemicals, and GMO’s. Most cooking oils no longer contain cottonseed oil. However it is sometimes still present in many highly processed products like boxed cereals, crackers, cookies, salad dressings, marinades, and even breads. It has a smoke point of 420 degrees.
- Grapeseed oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Medium-yellow grapeseed oil is processed from the seeds of grapes, a by-product of wine making. Manufacturers use the toxic solvent hexane to extract the oil under high heat conditions. Grapeseed oil is very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Use grapeseed oil in medium high heat temperature, up to 392 degrees.
- Margarine –a polyunsaturated fat and trans fat: Margarine is an imitation butter product often used for baking, cooking, and spreading. It comes in stick and easy to spread forms. Margarine is made from vegetable oils, usually soybean or safflower oil. Check the ingredients on all stick margarines as they may contain trans fat or partially hydrogenated oil.
- Palm oil –a Saturated fat: Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The largest producers of palm oil are Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil is found in many processed foods and household products. Clearing land for palm oil production has led to widespread deforestation and pushed many species like elephants, rhinos, orangutans, and tigers to brink of extinction. Studies show palm oil may increase risk of heart disease and raise cholesterol. Use palm oil in high heat temperature, up to 446 degrees.
- Peanut oil – a monounsaturated fat: Pale yellow peanut oil is pressed from steam-cooked peanuts. It is high in omega-6 fatty acids. Use peanut oil in high heat temperature, up to 450 degrees. It is popular in Asian cooking.
- Safflower oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Safflower oil is a colorless, flavorless, and odorless. It is extracted from the seeds of the thistle-like safflower plant. There are two kinds of safflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil which is a monounsaturated fat and high-linoleic safflower oil which is a polyunsaturated fat and is the most widely available. Both are very high in omega-6 fatty acids and are best left on the shelf. Use safflower oil in high heat temperature, up to 450 degrees.
- Shortening (vegetable) – a saturated and trans fat: Shortening is a solid fat made from a hydrogenation process that transforms liquid vegetable oil like soybean or cottonseed oil to a solid. Shortening is 100% fat, both saturated and trans. Shortening is popular because it makes baked goods very tender. When used along with wheat flour in dough or pastry crust, it shortens the gluten strands resulting in a tender and soft texture. Many older recipes call for shortening. Modern recipes now call for butter or margarine. Use shortening in medium heat temperature, up to 360 degrees.
- Soybean oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Soybean oil is extracted from the seeds of soybeans loaded with GMO’s. Most products labeled with “vegetable oil” are made or partially made from soybeans. Soybean oil is widely used in highly processed foods. Soybean oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids. Use refined soybean oil in high heat temperature, up to 460 degrees.
- Sunflower oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Light colored sunflower oil is pressed from sunflower seeds. It is high is omega-6 fatty acids. Sunflower oil is sometimes hydrogenated producing saturated fats. Use sunflower oil in high heat temperature, up to 450 degrees.
- Vegetable oil – a polyunsaturated fat: Any oil that is derived from a plant can be called vegetable oil. Some products labeled vegetable oil are a blend of several different refined oils like canola, corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower, or peanut oil; all on the avoid list. Vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Vegetable oil has a high smoke point, depending upon the ingredient or the blend. Vegetable oils are relatively new to the human diet (within the past hundred years or so). Vegetable oils are unstable and can become hazardous to your health. When heated to high temperatures, they breakdown into toxic oxidation products when heated.
Wrapping up on Dietary Fats
We talked about why your body needs fat and the four types of dietary fat. We discussed each type of fat in detail and learned that monounsaturated fats are the best for you while trans fats are the worst. We reviewed which good fats to use for baking and cooking and which bad fats to avoid.
There is so much more we could discuss, but now the choice is yours. Each day you need to decide which fats are best for you and your family. Let us know if you have any questions.
Need more information about dietary fats? Below are a few articles for you to check out.
Sources and Enlightening Reading
Processed To Death – Get These Cooking Oils Out of Your Pantry STAT! By Vani Hari from Food Babe
Fats and Oils by American Heart Association
Saturated Fat: Good or Bad? By Kris Gunnars, BSc from Authority Nutrition
Macronutrients: the Importance of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat by McKinley Health Center
The 22 Worst Foods for Trans Fat by Health
The 6 Benefits of Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs) by Body Ecology
Good oil/bad oil. Now you’ll know the difference. By: Leanne Ely from Saving Dinner
A Comprehensive Guide To Cooking Oils: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly by Dr. Killebrew from Daring Gourmet
How to Optimize Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio by Kris Gunnars, BSc from Authority Nutrition
Olive Oil, Extra Virgin by World’s Healthiest Foods
Types of Cooking Fats and Oils – Smoking Points of Fats and Oils by What’s Cooking America
Why You Should Never Eat Vegetable Oil or Margarine by Wellness Mama
The Many Dangers of Excess PUFA Consumption by Paleo Leap
Use All-Natural Coconut Oil To Soothe These Common Health Problems by Angel Chang from Little Things
Healthy Cooking Oils – The Ultimate Guide by Kris Gunnars, BSc from Authority Nutrition
We Appreciate You!
Thanks for stopping by and letting us share a little about our healthy philosophy for dietary fats.
We are here for you as a guide and as a friend. Let us know how we can help you embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s to lower calorie, great tasting recipes, and living well! And remember, what you eat really matters!
Linda and Steve
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