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UnConventional Monday IX: What Kinds of Oils Are Healthy?

On Mondays I like to be sure to post about something that I either do personally or believe to be true that goes against Conventional Wisdom – like bacon is health food.   By Conventional Wisdom (CW), I mean anything that the vast majority of people believe to be true, though it may or may not be in actuality.  Some historical examples of CW that turned out to be just a bit off include the belief that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that cigarettes are good for you.

Today we’re talking about the various cooking oil options.  As more and more people that I know learn about the blog that I write, I am more frequently asked questions about what makes up a healthy diet.  One of the hardest things for people to wrap their heads around is the fact that they should be eating more heart-healthy saturated fat.

I was discussing french fries the other day with a friend, “so these french fries are healthier than the bun on my burger?!” he asked me.  The answer isn’t simple of course, because what the potatoes are cooked in goes a long way towards how healthy or not healthy they might be.  “Probably not, because I’m sure these are cooked in vegetable oil.  Now if they were deep-fried in lard it might be another story…”  I thought the guy’s head might explode in disbelief!

Vegetable oils are not very healthy oils at all.  In order to get them from whatever source they’re coming from (corn, soybeans, canola, safflower, etc.) they often need to be highly processed and refined.  In some cases the use of solvents is necessary, traces of which can be found in the oils when they reach you.  High heat used in extraction can also degrade some of the beneficial parts of the oil and start the process of it becoming oxidized.  In certain types of oils, the extraction process can also create trans fats, and artificially created trans fats are bad news for your body.

One’s great, the other not so much.

The main problem with the vegetable oils is actually the types of fats that they contain.  Each of them has a different profile mixture between monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat.  Many vegetable oils are very high in polyunsaturated fats.  You will see this commonly abbreviated as PUFAs, or PolyUnsaturated Fatty Acids.

The PUFAs are prevalent in most vegetable oils.  This becomes a problem when these oils heated for use in cooking.  As I mentioned above when discussing extraction, heat can cause oxidation of the fatty acids.  This in turn can create free radicals which are not a good thing to have floating around your body.  Free radicals are associated with a higher risk of things like premature aging, degenerative diseases, and cancer.  Not good.

It’s also important to look at the ratio of fatty acids in the oil you choose.  Eating omega-3 fats is considered to be a good thing by pretty much everyone.  Omega-6, on the other hand, it’s important not to eat too much of.  In our modern diets we get ratios like eating 30:1 in favor of the omega-6, which is far higher than what would be available naturally without processed food.  Having that ratio out of whack is a possible source of inflammation in the body, which again can lead to chronic illnesses.

So when it comes to healthy oils, you should try to go with ones that stand up well to heat and also have a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.  Definitely avoid hydrogenated oils that contain significant amounts of trans fats.  That’s something that everyone agrees upon these days.

If I’m going to be using an oil, I prefer that it be olive oil.  Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat (healthy) which makes up for it’s lower level of omega-3 than some other oils.  If you choose extra-virgin olive oil, you know it won’t have been processed at high heat and with solvents like most of the other vegetable oils, so the PUFAs that it contains are less likely to be degraded and oxidized.

Another Primal favorite is coconut oil.  I admit that I haven’t gotten out to get any of this yet, as it isn’t readily available at grocery stores where I live.  I need to make a trip to a bigger city or check the health-food store. This oil can be more costly than the others but it’s worth it for the health benefits.  Coconut oil will probably get a post of it’s own one of these days.

I need  to get some coconut oil to join these champs.

If I’m going to be cooking or frying, my go to choices are generally bacon grease, lard or ghee (clarified butter, which I’ve just gotten into).  All are natural, can take high heat and are full of heart healthy saturated fat.

We no longer have any “vegetable oil”, corn oil, or any other kind of mainstream cooking oil in our house.  The only exception is soybean oil which I noted tonight make up the bulk of our salad dressing.  As they are used up though, we will be switching to making our own using extra virgin olive oil and vinegar.

I know there are some other very healthy oils out there (macadamia oil, for example), but I have no experience with them.  What oils do you find most useful for cooking or for salads?  Have you also gotten rid of the mainstream vegetable oils from your house? (Further reading and more detail on individual oils available here.)

Share this post with someone who you know has one of those giant jugs of corn oil in their pantry!

Shaun

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