- Two Base Kinds of Fat
- Unsaturated Fats Also Have Two Kinds
- Health Benefits of Monounsaturated Fat
- What is Monounsaturated Fat?
- Super Food Star Nutrients
- Polyunsaturated Fats Have Two Kinds, Too
- All Fats Contain All Fats
- The New Kid on the Block: Trans Fats
- The Bottom Line: Take Baby Steps
- Need More Baby Steps?
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to check your pantry for industrial oils or trans fats and root out any remaining stragglers.
Today we’ll review the basic structures of fats and why you want to stock up on some and send others packing.
Before you’ll be able to embrace the fact that some fats are good for you, however, you’re going to have to examine the culture’s low-fat mentality, and if you’re still a bit entrenched in it, release your own fear of fat.
I was the kind of teenager who sopped the grease off her pizza with a napkin. I used to rail at my dad when he would slather (seriously, multiple tablespoons) butter on his toast or use half a stick on his baked potato. Once I was on my own in college, I always drank skim milk, bought fat-free dairy products and reduced-fat treats, and I always trimmed every bit of fat and skin off my chicken breasts.
I’ve come around a bit.
Our family drinks and eats only full-fat dairy now. I leave the fat in my chicken stock and relish the fact that I can throw in the skin. I put fat in my oatmeal instead of sweetener.
And just as butter incites fear and trembling in most Americans who think Paula Deen is headed for destruction with her stick-at-a-time saturated fat consumption, traditional foodies get a little quivery when presented with powdered milk, shortening, or artificial sweeteners.
It’s been a fat full year for us (but no one is getting fat). Now let me share a Fat Full Fall with you! And if you missed the Real Food Weight Loss and Exercise series, you’d appreciate that my husband lost weight while eating 40% and higher of his calories in FAT!
You might not be able to quick being afraid of fat this week. It may take some convincing. That’s why I’m not asking you to stop being afraid of fat…just begin to release your fear and be open to learning some new information…
Yes, fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbs. But our bodies (1) need fat for optimal health and (2) don’t store fat for later – not even on your hips! – but use it for quick energy now. If you must be afraid of love handles and pants getting tighter, point the finger of blame at carbohydrates, which like to stick around your system much longer than fats.
It was over a year ago that I did an extensive series called A Fat Full Fall, exploring everything I could about the fats we eat. It’s very comprehensive, and we’ll finally be revisiting it today.
Two Base Kinds of Fat
You’ve probably seen so many terms used to describe different kinds of fat that your head is whirling when you try to remember which ones are healthy and which ones are evil: saturated fat, unsaturated fat, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans fat or transhydrogenated oils, omega-3 fats and omega-6s, the new interesterified oils, and more. It’s no wonder we don’t know what to eat!
At the very basic level, there are only two kinds of fats:
saturated and unsaturated
Saturated fats are fats that have all their atoms bonded to one another in a line, like a ladder. There are no unfulfilled atoms, which is why they’re called “saturated” – no room for anyone else! The molecule is a straight line. If you don’t like the science explanation, here’s how that plays out in the real world:
Saturated fats include
- beef tallow
- egg yolks
- most animal fats (like that on beef or in dairy products)
If you’re hungry for more, I highly recommend this post on Saturated Fats: Healthy or Unhealthy? It includes how saturated fats have gotten such a bad reputation and the research-based rebuttals, how saturated fats have been consumed throughout history, 7 reasons we need more saturated fat and why I personally land on the side of “yes!” in this controversial issue. I just read it for the first time in a year, and it’s striking how clear it all seems. Read it.
Unsaturated fats have one double bond at the end of the ladder-shaped molecule, with either one or two hydrogen atoms “missing”. This makes the molecule form a kink at that place. The upshot?
Unsaturated Fats Also Have Two Kinds
Unsaturated fats are further broken down into two categories:
Monounsaturated fat and Polyunsaturated fat
Monounsaturated fat is missing just one hydrogen atom, so they are more stable than their polyunsaturated counterpart, don’t go rancid as easily and can often be used for cooking. Popular monounsaturated fats include:
- olive oil
- peanut butter (the right kind)
- lard (actually this is an unpopular one, but true!)
Monounsaturated fats are almost universally agreed to be “the good guys”.
Health Benefits of Monounsaturated Fat
Each food has its vitamin shining moments, but the monounsaturated fat is great for many reasons:
- Lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and has potential to raise HDL (good) cholesterol
- Reduces breast cancer risk
- Better blood sugar control
- Helps prevent belly fat and improves insulin sensitivity
- Anti-inflammatory benefits (less severe pain and stiffness for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis)
- Lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Supports gastrointestinal health
- Helps weight loss
Read more at World’s Healthiest foods and Body Ecology.
Before we get too excited about healthy fats, there’s one thing you need to understand: all foods containing fat are a combination of the big 3: saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. I can’t say that an avocado IS a monounsaturated fat any more than I can claim that my body IS water – there’s just a lot of water in there. Foods generally get points for the fat that they contain the majority of. Olive oil is over 75% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Avocados and peanuts have more mono- fat than the other kinds of fat, but they still contain all three.
What is Monounsaturated Fat?
The Weston A. Price website explains: “Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other and, therefore, lack two hydrogen atoms. Your body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in a number of ways. Monounsaturated fats have a kink or bend at the position of the double bond so that they do not pack together as easily as saturated fats and, therefore, tend to be liquid at room temperature. Like saturated fats, they are relatively stable. They do not go rancid easily and hence can be used in cooking. The monounsaturated fatty acid most commonly found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil as well as the oils from almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts and avocados.
Super Food Star Nutrients
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO (use the code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at that site!)) – Vitamin E, antioxidants
- EVOO isn’t a super food for nothing – look for more details in a special olive oil primer later this week!
- Avocado – B Vitamins, Vitamin A & E
- Peanut Butter – protein, fiber, niacin, zinc, vitamin E
- Important note: peanut butter is a huge trans fat monster! If you don’t have a “natural” style of PB, I can almost guarantee the trans fat in the ingredients (see this post for how to read the labels beyond the numbers). There are so many yummy, frugal natural brands on the market now, many of which don’t require refrigeration or constant stirring. (The one above is Skippy.) Try some. You really have no excuse. It doesn’t really count as a Super Food if you eat peanut butter that has bad fat in it too!
Here’s some food for thought: LARD is also mostly monounsaturated. Who would have thought it would belong in the same group as avocados and olive oil?
Polyunsaturated Fats Have Two Kinds, Too
Polyunsaturated fat is missing two hydrogen atoms, are quite unstable and generally not safe under heat. Polys get more confusing yet, because there are two kinds, one of which is largely good for you and one which we need to root out:
Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats
In general, omega-3 fats are found in the leaves of plants and some well-fed animals. Omega-6s are found in seeds of plants. As our food supply has become more industrialized, we rely more on seeds than leaves. Seeds include all our grain products plus corn and soybean oil, which are, believe me, everywhere you look.
The trick with the omegas is that we need the proper balance, somewhere between an even 1-to-1 ratio and a 3:1 balance, with slightly more omega-6s than 3s. The problem is that our American culture is hanging somewhere closer to a 20-to-1 ratio, with more omega-6s than our bodies can handle.
This post on balancing polyunsaturated fats is an important read if you really want to understand the issue and all its implications. The practical bottom line:
Eat more omega-3s, like:
- salmon (like my husband’s favorite spicy fish recipe, and some other fish, but not farmed tilapia – see more on Sustainable Seafood.)
- walnuts (use the code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at that site!)
- cod liver oil
Eat fewer omega-6s, like:
- corn oil
- soybean oil
- “vegetable oil”
- sunflower oil
- safflower oil
- grapeseed oil
- never use any of these oils in cooking, if you must use them at all
- just about anything you buy in a restaurant is soaked or fried in these oils
- read more about understanding polyunsaturated fats
All Fats Contain All Fats
Before we read another word, it’s important to understand that any fat you eat is a blend of all three kinds of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Look at most “nutrition facts” labels on food products and you’ll see the amounts of each listed, even when you’re just reading a single fat like olive oil or butter.
Fats and oils are classified as one or the other based on which fat wins the majority. For example, olive oil is nearly 90% monounsaturated fat, although it does have other fats blended in there.
What that means is that you never have to worry about becoming completely deficient in a certain kind of fat just because you’re focusing on rooting something out. You won’t get too few polyunsaturates, for example, even if you never, ever consume corn or soybean oil. Your polys will come from all your other sources of fat just fine.
The New Kid on the Block: Trans Fats
Only in the last 100 years have people actually managed to add a completely new fat to the basic list of three: trans fats.
Trans fats, or hydrogenated oils, were created by food scientists in an attempt to make processed foods more stable and use less saturated fat. To achieve this end, liquid oils are hydrogenated, or changed at the molecular level to make them (a) more stable and (b) solid at room temperature.
Remember that unsaturated fats have a hydrogen atom or two missing. The hydrogenation process jams one back in, making the molecule more of a ladder shape like a saturated fat, which enables the molecules to line up nice and straight and become solid.
Shortening is the classic example of a hydrogenated fat: a liquid oil, made solid at room temperature that lasts for a long, long time. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t recognize these fats and aren’t able to process them without causing major health issues.
I can’t rudely attack trans fats enough: they are unnatural, unhealthy, and downright dangerous. Don’t touch them with a 10-foot pole, if you can help it. Learn to find trans fats in your food (hint: labels emblazoned with “0 trans fats!” and “no trans fats!” are actually much less helpful than you’d think). Click here for a very helpful primer on the health issues caused by trans fats and how to find trans fats. If you’re not already on patrol for this one, you need to start RIGHT NOW.
The Bottom Line: Take Baby Steps
Overwhelmed yet? I hate to throw so much out at you, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a detailed explanation of everything all in one place.
For more reading, the entire Fat Full Fall series can be found HERE and HERE is a helpful chart of how to use ALL the various fats in cooking and what to substitute as you try to make changes.
Your Monday Mission for today is to make a positive change – not 20 positive changes, but one at a time, starting with either the most important or the most possible. If you aren’t sure where to start, here’s how I would put the fat action steps in order:
- Avoid trans fats – get rid of your margarine tubs (switch to butter!) and shortening immediately and learn to read labels
- Cut down on corn and soybean oils – switch to olive oil for your liquid oil (just don’t saute on high heat) and melted butter or coconut oil for any recipes that call for “vegetable oil”
- Eat more monounsaturated fats: avocados, find good olive oil
- Embrace saturated fats: find opportunities to eat more butter, coconut oil, tallow, and healthy eggs
- Increase your omega-3s: eat more salmon, walnuts
But don’t forget that God’s in charge. He’s bigger than food.
Disclosure: Green Pasture is a KS advertiser this month, which means they receive one link in a post. I wouldn’t recommend any product or company I don’t patronize myself, however, so don’t worry about that! See my full disclosure statement here.
Need More Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.
Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.
39 thoughts on “Monday Mission: Refocus on Healthy Fats”
I’m looking for a substitute for vegetable and canola in our pumpkin, butternut squash, banana, etc breads….I tested grapeseed oil today and it worked beautifully…and now I read that it’s NOT good to use. sigh. Olive Oil is too, well, oily in sweet breads, and I don’t want to use coconut oil. what would you advise?
I use coconut oil myself, so if you don’t like that option, melted butter is another good one. You can also sub more pumpkin/applesauce/banana for half the fat.
For use in baking try untoasted sesame oil. It doesn’t have a strong sesame flavor like the toasted type used in Asian cuisine, and enhances the flavors of whatever is in your quick bread. My dtr made some apple bread with it that she took to a friend’s party. Everyone loved it and asked for the recipe, then complained that theirs hadn’t turned out nearly as good. The oil makes a HUGE difference.
Do you happen to have links on the grapeseed oil concerns? That’s one I’m currently grappling with (getting rid of canola and finding a decent liquid replacement – when butter and coconut oil won’t quite work). Thanks!
Not much, maybe here: http://kellythekitchenkop.com/2009/05/is-grapeseed-oil-a-good-choice-random-reader-question.html
What do you need the liquid for? 🙂 Katie
I want to replace the canola oil that we use in things like brownies and the little misto thing we have for greasing pans and such for baking. Sometimes butter and olive oil just aren’t what we want to taste (and I have yet to get some expeller pressed coconut oil because hubby’s not fond of coconut taste, but it’s still not going to be an easy liquid form). I know, lame sounding reasoning, but I really, really miss being able to use the little Misto (the one with canola died not long ago, just in time for me to switch to something better if possible).
So sorry it took me so long to respond…I got absolutely behind on comments when I released the second edition of the snacks book and truly have never caught up.
I used to use EVOO in my Misto, but it got too finicky for me. I use butter wrappers to grease pans now, just as quick – I just keep the wrapper in the fridge when I put a stick of butter in the butter dish, and it’s usually the perfect amount to grease a pan. 😉 I hear sesame oil is also good for sauteeing, so maybe it would be good in a Misto.
Also, when you get your refined coconut oil, just leave it in a glass jar on the stovetop, and it will often be liquid because of the heat of cooking.
Hope that helps! 🙂 Katie
I have been researching where to buy animal fats. I would love to know where to buy high quality fats for a good price. Also, I buy grass fed beef from a farmer – what should I ask for to render tallow?
I love your site and it is one of the first I recommend to friends who are interested in the way I eat.
As animal fats go, it’s tough to recommend many places that aren’t “local farmer.” US Wellness Meats is very reputable, but pricey. Here is where I get olive oil and coconut oil: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/08/13/a-good-deal-on-top-fats/
Ask your farmer for “suet”, and if the butcher processing the cow will grind it for you, the rendering process will be easier than pie.
Thank YOU! Katie
I’m so glad you gave us this wonderful (scientific) information! I was able to have a conversation with my chem major boyfriend about the different kinds of fats, and now we have an understanding (I was surprised at how much he already knew, and so glad he could help me understand what you said even better).
I’m already using organic extra virgin olive oil, butter, and virgin coconut oil, so my goal is to slowly switch over to coconut oil for heating purposes, I haven’t done it all at once because of the taste, but I’ve done half olive half coconut and neither my mother nor my boyfriend (nor I) noticed! Thank you so much for this important information!
Refined coconut oil is almost as healthy and has no flavor. So neat to hear that a science person agreed! 🙂 Katie
Thank you! I’ll look into that 🙂
And I kind of wonder about that, if a science person can understand that saturated fats are actually healthy, then why are doctors and everyone else telling us it’s not? Ah well, I guess doctors don’t really learn a lot about nutrition or chemistry.
Anyways, thank you again! You are amazing.
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ok, I was using grapeseed oil as an alternative to olive oil for high temp saute-ing and also (I know!), occasional pan frying…what should I use? I use coconut oil for this when the flavor fits, but, my husband expecially, doesn’t want to have that taste on everything.
So, in general…
baking = butter, Coconut oil, or olive oil
high temp = ??
Refined coconut oil (no taste) is the easiest option! Lard and tallow work too. 🙂 Katie
This is a subject I’ve been thinking about lately. I did some research on lard last week and wrote a blog post and was surprised at what I learned. (lard wasn’t quite as bad as I thought!) I’m going to have to try harder to give up my tubs of margarine – that will be a tough one for me!
Good to see a comprehensive post on the benefits of fat! This is by far the most difficult part of my way of life to explain to others. Most agree on healthy fats being necessary, but our definitions of “healthy” fats are very different. Just last week, after being complimented on a perfect bill of health at my prenatal appointment, my midwife asked what I eat since I don’t eat grains. I replied, “Fat, lots and lots of fat” somewhat jokingly, but it sparked a great discussion on all the misinformation, even among naturally minded practitioners, about good and bad fats. Thanks for the article!
Could you use coconut oil? My mom has dairy allergies and uses it in place of butter.
I have started using Coconut oil for our family just 2 weeks ago. We have always been a family that used Butter and olive oil. I would migraine when any other oils were used for cooking. So far the coconut oil has not trigered any migraines.
Jill – how awesome! 🙂 Katie
Great post! We used to raise pigs for our own use, and I’ve rendered down a lot of lard [miss it now]. Used to make all my pie crust with lard, and about a Tablespoon of chicken fat. Made a very flaky crust. Smart Balance used to put out a great shortening, but never went nation wide with it. I live in upstate NY and used to go to my sister’s in Indiana and get it. Don’t even know if they still make it?
I used that Smart Balance shortening and they said it was discontinued. I don’t remember now if it was good stuff based on what I know NOW though. Thanks! 🙂 Katie
Katie, you just have to check something for me. Someone said that grapeseed oil has a very high smoke point, about 425, so it is safe to use in cooking in small amounts. I’m really curious about this, because if it is okay in small amounts, I might add it to salad dressing like 30%, 70% EVOO. While most peoples’ diets
are high in omega-6s and so they’d want to skip this, but mine is not, so I wonder if it would be a good or bad thing? I know Sarah at The Healthy Home Economist uses it occasionally for homemade mayo for the simple reason that traditional diets are NOT high in omega-6s and a small amount is not harmful. We do NEED omega-6s, just not in the quantities SAD provides…. Anyway, your thoughts on this?
I spent yesterday rendering about 25 cups of tallow! I’m posting a tutorial later this week. We just got a whole grass-fed cow, and I requested suet. So they sent me this huge bag! So we have a TON now. I’m almost out of lard, though. 🙁 I try to eat ONLY saturated fats if I can help it, except on salads (use EVOO there). But I have lots of coconut oil, lard, beef tallow, butter, etc. in my house!
I know you’ve had this experience too, but I have NO cellulite. At all. Just in case anyone thought that, you know, fat makes you fat. 🙂 My husband lost 60 lbs. too, thinner than any other time in his life. My kids are both super sturdy and strong but have no rolls of fat. I was feeding them cracklins’ earlier! Hahaha…in case anyone doesn’t know what that is, it’s the fried bits of fat leftover after you render tallow or lard.
I love fat!!
I have to admit, I never looked into grapeseed oil during the Fat Full Fall, and then I didn’t take time after that b/c I read briefly that it’s just not worth it. Sometimes I just write things off b/c they’re not worth my time! You might want to listen to Sarah on that one…although I can’t imagine why you’d add it to salad dressings when EVOO is so healthy. If I were to use it, it would be for the easy saute when I just. want. liquid. oil.
re: cellulite, genetically I inherited a bunch…but it actually decreased once I changed my diet and ate more REAL fats. For real.
What fun w/tallow! 🙂 Katie
Hey Katie, great timing on this mission.
All last week I kept reading in the news about how palmitic acid, found in animal-derived saturated fats and our friend coconut oil, was found to cause weight gain by stimulating appetite:
“More than other fatty acids, palmitic acid is implicated in fatty acid–induced insulin resistance in the periphery and recently in the CNS. Picinato et al. demonstrated that rats fed a diet enriched with olive oil for 6 weeks (10% of energy, 90% oleate acid) have improved glucose tolerance and insulin secretion compared with rats fed a diet high in animal fat (10% of energy, 30% palmitate acid, 50% oleate acid) diet.”
Original journal article at: http://www.jci.org/articles/view/36714.
Less boring summary at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=lard-lesson-why-fat-lubri
So it sounds like there may be a mechanism of weight gain relating to some saturated fats, by way of stimulating the appetite. I have read that coconut oil “stimulates metabolism” — and a reasonable response from your body to an increase in metabolism would be to increase appetite — so maybe that seems reasonable?
Google brings up a lot of “lose weight with coconut oil” hits — although many of them are scammy weight-loss products — but it also revealed that body builders also commonly use coconut oil to bulk up… Maybe we need another Katie-style investigative series? 😉
Yeesh! What are your thoughts on this?
Have you considered Spectrum Organics All-Vegetable Shortening as an option for people who cannot tolerate dairy? According to all information I could find, it is non-hydrogenated expellar pressed palm oil, making it trans-fat free. While it is not a strong source of saturated fat, we use it for my son because he has a severe dairy allergy.
Good call! Palm shortening is another good solid fat option. I use it in my tortillas regularly. Thank you! 🙂 Katie
I usually use canola oil. What category does canola oil fall into?
Polyunsaturated; not healthy (and full of omega-6s). Also, canola oil is made from the rapeseed, which is toxic. I switched away from canola oil as soon as I learned this, long before I ever started my real-food conversion.
Sheesh! I switched because I thought it was better for you! I swear I read that somewhere.
Canola is billed by the common health culture as “healthy omega 3s”, however – it’s not a traditional fat. Here’s a post you’ll want to read: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/10/27/food-for-thought-canola-oil-a-unique-omega-3-thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down/
I have been using a yogurt based butter for years but am slowly making the switch to butter. I was one of the people that believed butter was bad for you but always enjoyed the taste when I had it. What do you know about palm shortening? Another blog that I read says it is different than other vegatable oils and is ok. Thanks for your research on this confusing topic.
According to all information I have found, it is nonhydrogenated and trans fat free. We use it for my son because he has severe food allergies.
Yes, palm shortening is healthy! It’s also called “palm kernel oil” and is natural. I have used it before.
Sometimes you need a liquid cooking oil (I think olive oil or butter would burn)… what would you recommend? (My husband loooooves fried chicken and we occasionally indulge. ) Lard?
A lot of people are looking for an easy liquid to pour into a saute pan, but I think you’re looking for more of a deep fry option? I make gorgeous french fries in beef tallow, and lard would be fabulous for fried chicken too. Coconut oil can also handle the heat for french fries, at least. You’re right about olive oil, no good for temps that high. I use it for a low saute, but you wouldn’t want to sear meat in it. Does that help?
Great post! Thanks to my mom doing all this research back when I was in high school, we are a happily healthy-fats household (and all of us are in good health – no clogged arteries, haha)towards healthy.
I think switching to butter is the easiest step toward healthy fats. After all, who honestly doesn’t like butter?
Besides, it makes almost everything taste better, so it’s even more rewarding than a lot of other healthy changes we make to our diet 😉
I’ve been using the Spectrum palm oil shortening. The website says: Made with organic palm oil, Spectrum Organic Shortening is non-hydrogenated making it an excellent alternative to traditional shortening for flaky crusts and crispy fries.
Where does that fall on the fat scale?
Also, I bought coconut oil (at Whole Foods), but everything I make with it tastes like coconut. Did I buy the wrong thing?
Great question – I don’t know why I always forget about palm oil/shortening. Palm oil is a tropical oil naturally solid at room temp. It’s all good! 🙂
Coconut oil comes in two ways: refined and unrefined. The unrefined is better for you, but it does taste like coconut. If you don’t like coconut, use refined and it’s still just about as good. 🙂 Katie