Oils and fats are probably the most hated and undervalued part of our diet. They inspire fear and loathing and motivate people to obsessively read ingredient labels when shopping so they can exclude foods that contain them from their diet.
Fats and oils don't just have a bad reputation, they are also blamed for weight gain and even accused of clogging up the pores of our skin and giving us acne and more seriously, of clogging up our arteries and giving us heart attacks.
Understandable then that so many people go on low fat diets and buy low fat foods believing all the while that reaching their calorie goals with low fat foods will lead to a lower weight for them and better health too.
This is all what we may call "Conventional Wisdom" and if you follow this line of thought you generally find that it is hard to stay on such diets in the long term and that your health has not improved as much as you expected.
Maybe then we need to look at what I may call "Unconventional Wisdom"?
Maybe eating fat does not make you fat; perhaps oils don't clog your skin and arteries like "everyone" says?
And even more – suppose we need oils and fats to survive, let alone thrive?
I'd say it's time to be unconventional and look at the facts and the science and not worry about what "everyone" knows and says. So here goes…
Practical Wisdom On Fats and Oils
As far as a cook is concerned fat and oils have an important role simply because they provide certain necessary functions in meals.
But before we cover those I just want to briefly look these 2 words, fats and oils.
When you read the word "Fat" what comes to mind? Do you think of a fat person or some marbling on meat or something else entirely? Likewise for the word "oil" do you think of oily faces, oil wells, or aromatherapy oils?
Whether we take conventional or unconventional wisdom we need to be clear about these words we use…
Let's pick butter as an example. At normal kitchen temperatures butter exists as a solid block so we'd call it a fat but when we warm it up and it melts then we call it an oil.
Similar with other foods; olive oil in a normal kitchen is a liquid oil and we can pour it on a salad but if we put the bottle in a fridge the oil can freeze into a solid.
So a fat is an oil and an oil is a fat – the only difference is how warm or cold it is.
From a nutrition point of view they are the same.
Back to the kitchen now – why does a cook or chef need fats and oils?
Oils are yummy, they add something to the food with their distinctive and enjoyable flavours and mouth feel. I love olive oil for most shallow frying but for mushrooms I will only use butter – the taste is spectacular.
Oils provide satisfaction! If you "can't get no satisfaction" then you need oils and fats in your food! The technical word is satiety and we feel satisfied and comforted by cheeses, oils and butter!
Fat Soluble Nutrients
Oils also provide nutrients. Some vitamins we can get easily from juices but some we need to get from oils and fats. Beta carotene is an essential vitamin that we find in carrots and other vegetables and we absorb much more of it when we eat them along with oil.
Oils have other nutrients too – not just oil soluble vitamins. Essential for our health and found in nuts and seeds omega 3 oils help our immune system, nervous system and cardiovascular system work properly.
Without omega 3 oils found in flax seeds, walnuts and greens our physical and mental health deteriorates.
We need omega 3 oils as much as we need oxygen! We know that if we don't get oxygen we die. The same is true for the oils in our diet – we sicken and die without them. The difference being that oil deprivation takes longer to kill than oxygen deprivation.
That being the case what are we to make of the media stories that oils will clog up our arteries, make our skin greasy and push us to be overweight and obesity?
Who To believe About Oils ?
When Scientists, experts and Doctors disagree or seem to give conflicting advice how do we decide what's going on and who to truly believe?
As a Naturopath I believe in using Nature as my guide to heath so what do we find in healthy diets?
Extensive research into diets, longevity and health has found that 2 diets stand head and shoulders above all the rest and they are the Mediterranean diet and the Okinawan diet.
By Mediterranean Diet I mean the general diet enjoyed in several Mediterranean countries which feature high amounts of vegetables including greens and garlic, generous amounts of fruit and healthy grains and small amounts of bread, olive oil, cheese, fish and meat.
Putting in very rough numbers vegetables and fruit make up 80% of this diet and 5% each of bread, cheese, fish and meat.
So there's plenty of oil in the Mediterranean diet – it is in the vegetables, especially greens and olives as well as in the small amounts of cheese, goat's milk, fish and meat. No need really to add Olive oil to all that!
Turning to the other main healthy diet – the traditional diet followed in Okinawa. The staple or main food is sweet potato surprisingly and not rice as we might expect.
It is not as varied as the Mediterranean diet and has little fruit. It does include frequent Tofu, greens and other local veggies and does include fish and a little meat.
The oils in the Okinawa diet are supplied by the greens and other veggies along with those in Tofu and fish.
These diets may or may not appeal to us but they both support communities who enjoy greater longevity and better health than the average Western diet.
In other words, "They work"!
I would call them "natural diets" in that they are followed by millions of people as part of their traditional life style and not due to modern advertising and marketing. And they consist of local fresh organic produce.
This is food from nearby farms not from supermarket boxes and packets
Both include foods which supply oil especially omega 3 oil and the fat and oil phobic response of many people wanting to lose weight is damaging their health if they avoid these healthy oils.
So the oils and fats in these healthy natural diets do not hinder these populations from long healthy lives. It is eating heavily advertised artificial food that does that.
So we need oil just like our cars and hinges do. But which oil should we use? Not for us the WD 40 or 3-In-1 can or spray to keep us running smoothly. We need the oil in healthy foods like green leafies and olives and nuts. It is omega 3 oil in particular that we need. The other oils – omega 6 and 9 and others that we can read about we get very easily and we need make no particular effort to get.
Do You Need An Oil Change?
So you might need an oil change if your diet right now does not contain these healthy oils.
Oil Change Tips
If you buy food in packets and tins then reading the labels is important. Most foods now are free of trans fats, an artificial and unhealthy gimmick that occurred in response to misunderstandings about fats and oils.
Saturated fat is fine if it is healthy! When you buy butter try to get organic butter. Likewise coconut oil. It is the oxidation of these and other fats and oils that causes problems. Fresh organic saturated fats are not a health problem, nor are omega 3 oils from powdered flax and fresh vegetables.
I recommend avoiding fish oil – not because I recommend a vegetarian diet but also for pollution issues. I see no reason at all to take risks while you can get all the health benefits of omega 3 fish oils from omega 3 vegetables and grains.
You don't have to slather olive oil or any other on your food to get your essential dose of healthy oils!
Eat olives, nuts and greens – that's enough.
The only reason I add powdered flax to my oat porridge in the morning is the yummy taste and not for the fabulous omega 3 in the flax!
Now it's time for you to look at your diet – do you need an oil change? And how are you going to do it?