February 2008: Combating Winter with Good Fats and Oils


  • Ayurveda Model of the Seasons of Life and the Seasons of the Year

  • The Role of Good Fats in Health and the Postwar Shift to Unhealthy Fats

  • Guidelines for Using Fats and Oils for Health and Wellness

  • The Structure of Fats and Oils:  Why Omega-3s and -6s are Essential for Health

  • The Complexity of Fats and Oils:   Selecting Healthy, Stable Fats for Cooking

  • Front-Runners:  A Spectrum of Fats and Oils for General Health

 

February is a tease:  It foreshadows spring, as exponentially the sun gains energy and power to propel itself each day to higher arcs in the sky and to spread brighter light across our path…for longer, and into longer evenings.  By the end of February’s first week, we are two solid months past the longest night of the winter season. 

 

Yet, by the first week of February, we have not reached the half-way point of winter!   Even a friendlier sun cannot muster, for some weeks still, sufficient force to push average temperatures into consistently warmer zones.  As we feel winter’s presence, it is a good time to think about good fats and oils, some of the best buffers to the drying chill.

 

Ayurveda Model of the Seasons of Life and the Seasons of the Year

According to Ayurveda theory, winter is “vatta” season, a time in the life cycle that corresponds to wisdom and old age, and the drying out of the body that occurs at the later phase of the life cycle.1  Seasonally, it is also a time of general retrenchment and drying out, before the cycling back to the rebirth, growth season of spring.  In the cold, contractive days of winter, energy draws inward.

In winter, the need to keep the system “well-oiled” is particularly important for middle-aged and older people who are dealing not only with the dry vatta season of the year but also with the drying-out “vatta” season of life.  Adequate good-quality fats are important for younger individuals, too, since fats and oils play many important roles in good health.

 

See the Ayurveda Life Cycle


                                 

The Role of Good Fats and Oils (Lipids) in HealthGood fats and oils:

  • Provide heat and energy,
  • Help in the assimilation of the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, as well as a variety of minerals,
  • Are vital to proper brain function (the brain is 60% fat), mood regulation, proper hormone function, and nerve regulation,
  • Help boost metabolism, contribute to satiety, so they support weight loss,
  • Are vital to give the body the right materials to build healthy cell membranes, which are made of fats.  Cell membranes need to be “smart” to police and monitor traffic in and out of the cell, just as the lining of the digestive tract monitors and prevents toxic materials from entering the blood stream.  This requires avoiding trans fats, while ingesting good fats, including saturated fats and cholesterol,
  • Help cushion organs and prevent chronic disease.

 

The Postwar Shift in Fat Consumption

There is a world of difference between the good fats from traditional animal and vegetable sources that were consumed by our ancestors for generations and the refined vegetable oils and trans fats that have entered the scene in dramatic fashion in recent decades.  In the 50 years following World War II, the edible oil industry pushed their products as “healthy” substitutes for traditional fats and oils, while also giving butter and tropical oils a bad name.  They were wildly successful in this effort, for over this period:

 

  • Consumption of omega-6 polyunsaturates (refined vegetable oils such as corn, soy, and cottonseed, much of it hydrogenated), soared 75%.
  • Consumption of saturated fats dropped by more then 20%
  • Trans fats, which did not even exist prior to the 1940s, began to “saturate” packaged food products, accounting for one-quarter to one-half, and even as much as 70% of the total fats in supermarket prepared bakery and snack foods.2
  • With convenience foods, Americans consumed ever increasing amounts of inflammatory oils:  The ratio of pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils to anti-inflammatory omega-3 oils (a healthy ratio is thought to lie between 1:1 and 3:1) ballooned to 20:1.3

 

So, in the postwar period, while the consumption of butter and saturated fats dropped and “healthy” oils soared, we have seen skyrocketing rates of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a myriad of other inflammatory, chronic diseases.

 

Understanding fats and oils and modifying nutritional habits to incorporate good fats and to limit the bad ones is one of the very best strategies for health and wellness.  In the words of Paul Pitchford, a leading expert in the field of nutrition and health:

 

“Bad fats and oils will destroy your health faster than sugar.  They cause more problems than any other class of food.”4

But which fats are “good” and which are not?  And how can we decide how much to consume?

 

  • Fats and oils should account for 30% of total calories (with 30% from protein and 40% from complex carbohydrates, see September ’07 Newsletter).  How much actual fat depends on how many calories an individual needs.
  • Essential Fatty Acids, omega-6 and omega-3 oils, need to make up between 3% and 5% of total calories, with the split anywhere from 2-3% of total calories for omega-6s and 1-1.5% for omega 3s.5 This leaves the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 oils at 2:1.  Should inflammation be an issue, a ratio closer to parity might be called for, since omega-3 oils help crowd out inflammatory fatty acids to cool inflammation.
  • Non-essential fatty acids (saturated fats and monounsaturated fats) account, then, for the remaining 25% of total calories.
  • Using mother’s milk as a guide to good nutrition (where about half the fat calories are saturated) we might conclude that saturated fats could make up about 10%-15% of total calories, which would allow for adequate cholesterol.  This might seem an outlandish proportion for someone with high cholesterol, but research suggests that the more cholesterol is ingested, the less the body makes.6   Cholesterol is essential for cell membrane structure and for all kinds of bodily functions.  The body will make it from carbohydrate and protein if it is not sufficiently supplied by the diet.
  • Avoid trans fats.7  Trans fats upset cellular function, metabolism (encouraging obesity and diabetes), lower “good” HDL cholesterol and raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, affect brain development and visual acuity in infants,  and immune response.  As much as 70% of fats in processed foods are trans fats.8

 

 Alone, this leaves you no tools to know what fats are which, nor WHY some are so important.  To truly understand these guidelines in a way that can encourage a lasting change in eating habits, we need to go a bit further and embark on a journey to explore the structure and complexity of fats and oils.

 

The Structure of Fats and Oils

To understand fats requires knowing a little bit about their structure so that we can appreciate such things as why some fats are more stable and suitable for cooking than others and also why omega-3s and omega-6 are so essential (the body cannot itself create double bonds in these early third and sixth positions of the carbon molecule).

 

Confusion about oils is partly brought on by the edible oil industry who throughout the postwar period has tried to tie cholesterol and saturated fats to chronic disease.9   But another source of confusion stems simply from the multiple names that are used for an oil.  Flax oil is called an omega-3, for example, but it is also known as a polyunsaturated oil, and alpha-linolenic acid.  Labeling categories for lipids include:

 

  • monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, super-unsaturated;
  • omega labels, -3,-6,-9; and
  • oleic, linoleic, and alpha-linolenic acids
  • hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated trans fats

 

This does not have to be confusing.  Let’s look at the structure of oils, since these labels are related to their physical makeup.  The format in the accompanying box (see next page) is a simplified way to outline a lipid’s structure, showing just the carbon atoms and the placement of the double bonds in each.  (The table omits the hydrogen atoms and the methyl and carboxyl ends).  A saturated fat like butter is a simple 4 carbon molecule, in contrast to omega oils’ 18 carbons and double bonds starting as early as the third carbon.  Now, let’s clarify some labels….

 

Saturated versus Unsaturated.  Fats with single bonds throughout are called saturated, while those with one or more double bonds are unsaturated.  Saturated fats (fully saturated with hydrogens) are more stable since carbon and hydrogen atoms share electrons in lock-step, with each carbon linked to the next. Unsaturated oils are less stable since at a double bond, one pair of electrons is shared.  This makes an oil more vulnerable to free-radical damage and oxidative stress since an un-paired electron at the double bond invites other elements to try to steal the single electron to form a new bond.  Thus, unsaturated oils are more chemically active and reactive.

 

 

Table 1:  The Carbon Structure of Saturated and Unsaturated Fats and Oils

 

Butter…saturated.  Butyric Acid (BA)…the easiest to digest saturated fat.

 

C-C-C-C.                                                                         (no double bonds)

 

Omega-9s…monounsaturated.  Oleic acid (OA)….the most stable unsaturated oil.:

 

C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C==C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C           ( one double after 9th carbon)

 

Omega-6s…polyunsaturated.  Linoleic acid (LA)

 

C-C-C-C-C-C==C-C-C==C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C        ( two, after 6th & 9th carbons)

 

Omega-3s…super-unsaturated.  Alpha linolenic acid (LNA)…the most fragile unsaturated oil.

 

C-C-C==C-C-C==C-C-C==C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C       (three:  after 3rd, 6th, 9th carbons)

 

 

Oleic, linoleic, and alpha-linoleic acid. Oleic means “from oil.”  The names of oils get longer with the addition of more and more double bonds:  oleic acid (omega-9), linoleic acid (omega-6), and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).

 

Why omega-3s and omega-6s are called essential fatty acids (EFAs).  Plants and animals can use enzymes to insert double bonds into saturated fatty acid carbon chains in order to create unsaturated fats that are necessary and vital to human life.  In a fatty acid carbon molecule, plants are able to create double bonds as close as the 3rd and 6th carbon from the methyl (omega) end.  In contrast, human enzymes can only create double bonds starting at the 7th carbon and beyond.  Thus, plants supply us with omega-3 and omega-6 oils that we call essential fatty acids (EFAs), vital building blocks for our health, that we cannot make ourselves.  With plant-based omega-3s and -6s as raw materials, we use special enzymes to elongate and to desaturate these further, retooling them to serve a variety of critical sophisticated “electrical” functions…for brain activity, cell regulation, and nerve impulses.

 

Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and superunsaturated oils.  Double bonds repeat after  triple sets of carbons.  For example, an omega-3 oil would have a double bond after the 3rd, 6th, and 9th carbon in its 18-carbon chain, and we would call it a super-unsaturated oil since it has more than two double bonds.  Omega-6s have two double bonds after the 6th and 9th carbons and are called polyunsaturated oils.  You may guess that omega-9s, like olive oil, are monounsaturated oils, with just one double bond after the 9th carbon.

 

 

The Complexity of Fats and Oils

To understand fats also requires an understanding of their complexity:  No fat is totally saturated.  Neither is any natural fat entirely unsaturated.  Fats are blends of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.  For example, most people think of olive oil as a monounsaturated omega-9 oil.  In reality, its fat composition is three-quarters monounsaturated omega-9s, with 8% polyunsaturated omega-6s, and a rather significant 16% share in the form of saturated fats (see Table 2). The information in Table 2 that follows is important since the makeup of an oil has a direct bearing on health.  Not only do omega-3s, -6s, and -9s perform different functions in our body,  but also the mix tells us a lot about how they can be best and most safely used, especially in cooking. 

 

Complexity of Lipids and Implications for Cooking and Health

 

Saturated fats like butter and unrefined coconut oil are the most stable and the best choices for cooking.  Olive oil, with only one double bond, can be used with care at low temperatures and for water sauteing, and it may be a better choice than peanut and sesame oils, due to their higher omega-6 content of the latter two (Table 2). Omega-3 and omega-6 oils are fragile and should never be used in high-temperature cooking.  This is especially true of omega-3 oils, which are five times more fragile than omega-6s.  These oils need to be protected from light, oxygen, and heat, all of which damages them.  They quickly go rancid. Coconut (and palm kernel) oil is not only stable, but is also extremely rich in lauric acid, a potent antimicrobial.   These two facts make unrefined coconut oil my first choice for cooking.  (Chicken fat is also high in lauric acid, a key to why at the first sign of a cold, we reach for the chicken soup.)  Note that butter also offers some anti-bacterial protection, with its modest share of lauric acid.  The table also shows that nature provided antibacterial protection for young infants, with a generous lauric acid component in mother’s milk. Supermarket vegetable oils (corn, safflower, canola) bottled in clear glass are best left on the grocery store shelf.   Refined oils do not promote health and should not be used in cooking.  Processed in huge factories, these cheap oils have been damaged by light, oxygen, and heat.  They are exposed to light and oxygen throughout the extraction process, as well as to toxic solvents like benzene.  Heat used in extraction breaks apart the carbon bonds, setting loose free radicals.  Oils are then “deodorized” at temperatures as high as 500 degrees to give them a “pure” appearance.10  The result is “white” oils that are stripped of anti-oxidants and other nutrients…similar to sugar and white flour, but with the added risks associated with free radical oxidative damage. Frying at high temperatures does create a variety of toxic breakdown products but these are not the same as trans fats.  Trans fats are created by a special chemical catalytic process (hydrogenation) that involves high temperature and pressure and the presence of limestone elements for filtration.11 The “Cold-pressed” label on standard vegetable oils has been abused.  This label has not been “regulated” since the Federal government has never agreed on a definition for “cold-pressed” oils.  Manufacturers have freely taken advantage of this.  It is true that much of the extraction process with modern presses does not require the application of external heat (except to derive the last 10% of yield).  But, extraction itself does indeed involve heat that builds up from the normal friction and pressure of the pressing process (well above 200 degrees in large presses).  Even if manufacturers can try to claim that their oils were pressedwithout heat, their advertising ignores the extreme heats used in the refining process, both before (the cooking stage before pressing with average temperatures of 250 degrees) and after pressing (during the deodorizing process when oils are heated to close to 500 degrees for a period of six to eight hours.).12

 

Every good fat and oil has its own strong points for health:

Butter is a short-chain saturated fatty acid that is very stable.  Since it is digested and absorbed easily, it as a quick source of heat and energy (a good choice for the athlete and people who feel cold).  It helps strengthen the immune system and has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties.  This is especially true of ghee (clarified butter), which is known for its healing powers.   Butter is the best readily-available source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and carries these to the body in a form that is very easy to absorb and assimilate.  These vitamins help with the absorption of a host of minerals that are vital for healthy bones and for the proper functioning of the nervous and reproductive systems.  Buy organic, non-salted (you know it is not rancid) butter from grass-fed cows. Coconut oil is a stable oil (it is 92% saturated) with essentially no cholesterol since it is a plant-based oil.  Its high natural saturation, nature’s way of keeping coconut leaves stiff in tropical climates, adds to its value as a cooking oil in our own temperate environment.  Coconut oil’s bad name is undeserved:  it has antimicrobial powers and is the most cancer-reducing of all the fats.13  Ultima is a brand available in many health food stores.  Olive oil is a monounsaturated, omega-9 oil that can help lower cholesterol.  It is liquid at room temperature and becomes solid when refrigerated.  Its health benefits make it a good choice, particularly when it is used with foods that have already been cooked.  Be sure to choose oil olive that is labeled “Extra Virgin, First Cold Pressing” and that is bottled in dark glass.  Keep in a cabinet when not in use.  Omega-6 oils are polyunsaturated oils that are too fragile for cooking, but that are vital to health (an EFA that the body must get through foods).  They are especially important for proper functioning of the heart, liver, kidney, and reproductive organs, for hair and skin, for growth and behavior, and for the proper functioning (the inflammatory response) of the immune system, as well as for wound healing.  Omega-3 oils, also EFAs, are super-unsaturated, with an extra double bond that makes them very fragile and reactive, never to be used in cooking, and yet vital to health in its own specific ways.  Omega-3s are especially associated with proper brain function, mood and depression, behavior, vision, and motor coordination.  They work on the opposite spectrum when it comes to inflammation, since they perform an anti-inflammatory role to help put out the fire that is fanned by omega-6s.

 

Three Simple Rules for Using Oils:14

  1. Use only unrefined oils.  Refined oils are stripped of vital nutrients and antioxidants.  All things that could make it taste rancid are removed…you never know if it is bad.
  2. Avoid hydrogenated oils
  3. Use only polyunsaturated oils pressed without exposure to light, heat, & oxygen.

 

 

Composition of Seed Oils15 Versus Butter and Mother’s Milk

(A Guide to Choosing Oils for Cooking)

 

Unsaturated:               Super-              Poly-                Mono-

Name                           Omega-3         Omega-6         Omega-9         Saturated         Lauric  

Use:                             (Table Use)      (Table Use)      (Low-temp).    (Cooking)        Acid

Flax                             58%                 14%                 19%                 9%                    0

Evening Pmrose        0                     81                    11                    8                       0

Sesame                          0                     45                    42                    13                      0

 

Peanut                         0                     29                    47                    18                      0

Rape (Canola)           7                     30                    54                    7                       0

Almond                       0                     17                    78                    5                       0

 

Olive                             0                     8                     76                    16                      0

Avocado                     0                     10                    70                    20                    0

Coconut*                    0                       3                      6                    91                    44

 

Palm Kernel*              0                       2                    13                    85                    47

Safflower                      0                     75                    13                    12                      0

Sunflower                    0                     65                    23                    12                      0

 

Corn                              0                     59                    24                    17                      0

Soybean                       7                     50                    26                    15                      0

Wheat Germ                5                     50                    25                    18                      0

 

Pumpkin                      7                     50                    34                      9                      0

Pecan                            0                     20                    63                      7                      0

Cashew                         0                     6                      70                    18                      0

 

Butter                           1.5                   2.3                   29                    63                    2.8

Mother’s Milk             6                      12                    35                    50                    <18

 

*Saturated oils are best for cooking.              Source:  Udo Eramus and Pathways4Health

 

Copyright 2008 Pathways4Health.org



  1. John Douillard, Speech to Institute for Integrative Nutrition, 1/7/07. []
  2. Mary Enig, Know Your Fats. []
  3. Patrick Holford, The New Optimium Nutrition Bible, p. 71.  As Holford allows, this is a bit misleading since much omega-6 oil is hydrogenated, which acts more like saturated fats. []
  4. Speech to IIN, April, 2007. []
  5. Enig,  p. 190 []
  6. Enig, p. 57.  Saturated fatty acids (SFAs) help lower cholesterol when it is elevated and raise it when it is too low. []
  7. Trans fats are “plastic, man-made fats that are much firmer than natural baking fats…a baker can pack more into a product without a greasy feel and they hold their shape well and do not melt at room temperature.”…Enig, p. 20. []
  8. Enig, p. 44. []
  9. As Mary Enig points out, this idea was created in the 1950s to protect the margarine and shortening industries who were coming under attack by scientists who linked hydrogenation with heart disease. []
  10. Edo Eramus, Fats that Kill, Fats that Heal, p. 96-7. []
  11. Enig, p. 228, 271. []
  12. Eramus, p. 141-3. []
  13. Enig, p. 81 []
  14. Paul Pitchford, speech to IIN, April, 2007. []
  15. Many of these oils are not available in healthy, unrefined versions.  Listing them here does not suggest we recommend their use. []