Healthy Fats?

The quick answer:  Plain and simple, most of what you’ve heard about fat in your diet is wrong.  Enjoy the traditional fats in moderation.


Politics  and Food

We’ve nothing to say about the current presidential race—we’re keeping our focus on the food reformation.  Well, one thing.  Because this blog is about “wisdom,” won’t you all take a thoughtful view of what’s best for our country and vote wisely? 

But we do have something to say about the role of politicians in our current food mess.  Maybe it’s because women are more about nurturing and politicians are nearly all men, but on nutrition the pols do have a way of getting things backwards.  Take the subject of fats for example, as recounted in Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food.

If the consequences of this tale weren’t so dire, it would make a hilarious story.  Back in 1968 the esteemed Senator George McGovern convened a select committee that addressed the role of diet in chronic disease.  After ten years the committee got to a reasonable conclusion:  We should eat less animal products (and, thusly, more plants).  There are other factors that affect chronic disease—such as lack of exercise, smoking, and our high sugar diet—but this was a pretty good start.

Well, the dairymen and cattlemen saw this is as bad for business and brought all their guns to bear on Senator McGovern and his committee.  You’ll recall that McGovern was from a state with a lot of ranches.  A compromise resulted:  Rather than recommend less red meat and dairy, the committee meekly suggested that Americans “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

It was bad enough to replace “eat less” with the verb “choose,” which kind of sounded like a recommendation.  But there was a worse mistake:  The committee decided that the villain was saturated fats, which had been safely eaten for centuries.  Even worse, traditional fats like butter were condemned and new factory-made fats—mainly trans fat-laden hydrogenated vegetable oils found in Crisco, margarine, and salad oils—were recommended. 

Though the outcome was a bonanza for Food Inc, it was a disaster for the average American.  And for McGovern also—in the next election the meat and dairy industry threw their support behind his opponent and drove him from office.  It was a display of power and vengeance not missed by other politicians. 

Healthy Fat Basics

Four of our 52 Healthy Changes are dedicated to eating healthy fats and avoiding unhealthy fats.  HEre is a summary of the frist three:

  1. Our 2nd Healthy Change addressed the danger of trans fats, particularly from deep fried foods:  “Never buy deep fat fried foods.”  We also noted the role of a remarkable woman, Dr. Mary Enig, in exposing the danger of trans fats.
  2. In Healthy Change #15 we talked about the vital role of omega-3 fats in our diet and recommended consciously adding them to every meal, either in the short-chain form (dark greens, etc.) or the long-chain form (fish, eggs, etc.).  Your brain is 60% fat and 25% is long chain omega-3 fats.  Healthy fats protect against many ills, including dementia.
  3. Omega-6 fats are necessary but we eat them to excess.  Because they compete with omega-3 fats, it’s important to have a balance in order to benefit from omega-3 intake.  Two ways to reduce omega-6 fats are to avoid deep fat fried foods, and to avoid starchy foods fried in man-made fats, like chips.  Americans eat a lot of chips so Healthy Change #28 said, “Limit chips to national holidays, or for scooping healthy dips and salsas.”

Cutting Calories

Our fourth and final Healthy Change on fats encourages the consumption of traditional fats (olive oil, butter, etc) in moderation.  As you know a gram of fat, regardless of the type, contains 9 calories.  By contrast, a gram of carbohydrate or protein has just 4 calories.  Because the modern American diet (MAD) has an excess of calories and fat is calorie dense, we’re often told to avoid fats.  We think it better to restrict the worst source of calories—excessive sugar intake—and enjoy healthy fats in moderation.

In Healthy Change #9, we asked families to work together to reduce their intake of meat:  “Agree on a ‘sparing’ meat intake goal as a family and write it down.  Let your goal guide your menus.”  Although we defend the consumption of saturated fat, we agree that Americans eat too much, particularly with their meat.  We need to be moderate.  There’s a natural and beneficial outcome:  If you’re sparing with the meat in your menu, you’ll also reduce your intake of saturated fats to a healthier level and cut calories.

Healthy Change #41:

Eat traditional fats (olive oil, butter, coconut oil, etc.) in moderation.”  It's naturally simple—eat the fats your ancestors ate.

Toxic Buttery Flavor

Because we support the use of traditional fats like butter, it’s important that we distinguish between real butter and foods described as “buttery.”  Buttery is a taste claim attached to many factory foods, like the new spreads that have replaced margarine, microwave popcorn products, some candies, and many baked goods.  You won’t see the chemical behind that buttery taste on the ingredient list; it’s usually hidden under the chemical stew of “artificial flavors.” 

The chemical commonly used to give the buttery taste contains diacetyl.  Diacetyl is toxic to humans and has been linked in the laboratory to Alzheimer’s disease.  If you watched this week’s Dr. Oz (see it here), he spoke about the possible danger of diacetyl and recommended it be avoided until more is known.  Sounds like a good application of the “century rule” to me.  (Century Rule:  Avoid foods that haven’t been around for at least a century.  This rule basically rules out most factory foods, especially those containing “artificial flavors.”)

Please comment:  Is there a fat or oil you see as particularly bad?  What are your favorite healthy fats?  What oils do you most use in cooking.

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  • Response
    Not all fats are bad for health, actually we need some fats in our daily diet. Cutting off completely might have bad effect on your health. This post is very informative and I also agree with the point that we should cut on easting deeply fried fat food.

Reader Comments (8)

Olive oil and real butter for almost everything.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Brown

I use Olive Oil and Butter regularly, but have recently become obsessed with Coconut Oil in baking. I substitute it for oil and butter, and the health benefits are amazing. The coconut flavor is so delicious, too.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

I love using butter, coconut oil, and olive oil. I was using a vegan butter (earth balance) for a while but once I read Michael Pollan's books I decided it didn't seem like "real food" by looking at the ingredients list. I try to stick to the real stuff now. As a nursing mother, it's nice that I don't even have to worry too much about calories--- I eat when I'm hungry, nurse when my baby's hungry and still seem to be shedding pounds!

Thanks for this post, it had valuable information.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I like to saute vegetables in equal amounts of olive oil and butter. I prefer Kerrygold butter from Ireland; it tastes better, melts at a lower temperature, and I know it is from pastured cows!

I am also a popcorn fanatic and often use coconut oil. Here's the recipe:

2 Tablespoons popcorn kernels
1/2 Tablespoon coconut oil, butter, or walnut oil
salt and pepper to taste

Measure popcorn kernels and fat in a large microwave-safe glass bowl; use a glass/stoneware plate on top. Melted fat can be added after cooking, if preferred, instead of during. In my microwave, it takes 5 minutes for this amount, but anytime the popping stops for more than 5 seconds, it is done. To double the recipe, add 1-2 minutes. For kettle corn, add 1 - 2 teaspoons of sugar before popping and watch carefully to avoid burning.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Morris

Hi Skip,

I wanted to stop in and say how much I enjoy your blog. I am 27 and originally from New Zealand - so I grew up with very good food habits, but having recently moved to Canada I am noticing I need to be more concious about the food choices I make; for one thing, your fibre>sugar rule is excellent (the bread in North America is PACKED with sugar, compared to what we have at home). I am currently reading through your archives and although I might only read one or two posts per day, it really keeps me motivated and educated about my food choices, so thank you. It's important work that you're doing.

I wanted to ask about the use of olive oil in cooking. I don't know why I think this, but for some reason I am under the impression that olive oil should be used "raw", i.e., it becomes toxic once heated over a certain temperature and is no longer "good" for you, so is better for use as a salad dressing, dipping your bread into, etc. Not only that but I understand it has a low smoke point, so isn't ideal. For cooking, in that case, I use sunflower oil, which I understand is a "good" oil - and doesn't introduce a foreign flavour into your cooking which I find the likes of peanut oil does. What are your thoughts on this?

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichaela

Hi Michaela

Sorry you can't get that healthy New Zealand food anymore. I'm curious about how often you ate lamb or mutton, and how you prepared it. Sheep are the last of the grass fed animals; there's not a version of the "feed lot" used for cattle, as far as I know, so it's presumed that lamb or mutton is healthier. Can you add to that?

Regarding cooking oils, we mostly use olive oil and butter for frying or to saute as the heat isn't that high. Like Sandra (above) we often combine them, put a little EVOO in the frying pan and drop a little butter in the center of it. I like the taste. We keep some organic, cold pressed canola oil for hotter use but usually use peanut oil if we're going to stir fry, which we don't do very often.

No oil should be cooked to the point of smoking as it becomes charred, oxidized, and unhealthy. So the next issue is how hot you need your pan. The worst case for heat is stir fry where peanut oil (smoke point is 450 F) is often used although grape seed or canola are also used (smoke point around 400 F). Extra light olive oil also has a high smoke point.

The medium temperature oils (smoke point around 400 F) include olive oil, canola, and grape seed.

Butter, sesame seed, and sunflower oils are for lower temperature use, like to saute, and have a smoke point around 300-350F.. Sesame oil is often added to stir fry, but not generally used in the first, hottest cooking. Hope this helps. You can read more in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_oil)

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Hi Skip,

Thanks for your reply. That does clarify things for me!

Back home my family eats lamb regualrly - gosh I miss it! My favourite way of preparing it is to roast a leg of lamb, and eat it with mint sauce. On the side, we'd have roasted potatoes and pumpkin, and steamed beans and carrots! You really can't beat it. As a side note, it's interesting to me that North Americans in general treat pumpkin more like a 'sweet' than a 'savoury' - pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice lattes and sweet pumpkin muffins are just a few of the things I've tried since being here...!

Mum also used to braise lamb chops in milk and slow-cooked lamb shanks in a casserole are also delicious. I don't think we ever ate mutton - just lamb. Much of the lamb here in Canada is actually imported from New Zealand so I can always get a fix - just at significant cost!

In fact, both sheep and cattle are almost exclusively free-range and pasture fed year round in NZ. It's good stuff! However, obesity and poor nutrition is a concern at home too - I know this is an ongoing discussion but I think it goes to show that education and a family-focused approach is at the heart of improving habits - going back to my comment that your work on this blog is truly worthwhile!

Thanks again!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichaela

I use only grass-fed (or grass-fed clarified) butter and organic, unrefined coconut oil for cooking. Beware that cooking with EVOO destroys the poly- and mono- fats! Not good!

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

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