The Real Heart-Healthy Oils

30 03 2014

As much as I like to believe that we’re making progress in the world of nutrition, sometimes I see something that makes me stop and think otherwise.  The other day Precision Nutrition posted this chart from the great minds at the Cleveland Clinic:


Not all the information on this chart is wrong, but boy do they make some terribly outdated suggestions. It’s doubly disappointing to me, because I sadly love everything Cleveland (Go Browns!), but also because this is one of the top hospitals in the US, and no doubt the world. A while back I wrote a piece on how doctors shouldn’t give nutrition advice if they don’t have a formal education on the subject, and this might just be more of the same.

If you’ve read many of past articles, you already probably have a good idea about what I’m going to criticize about this chart, but here’s the skinny:

 1) “The FDA recognizes cooking sprays as safe”

Um, OK? Is that a suggestion that they should be used? Do we have permission? Seriously people, stay away from cooking sprays. If you need to spray your oils, do what it says on the following line and buy some extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil and put it in a manual spray bottle. Steer clear of the packaged cans that contain nitrous oxide, additives and whatever weird oil they claim to be inside.

 2) Suggesting several times that Canola oil is a good choice.

Canola oil isn’t the worst oil in the world, but it’s far from the best. Canola is a huge American cash crop, which is why I’m sure it gets such praise on this chart. Canola oil is convenient because it has a high smoke point, but there are serious question marks about the manufacturing process (GMOs, etc.) and the majority of canola oil used in food processing is at least partially-hydrogenated.  If you are using natural canola oil it won’t hurt you much, but make sure to avoid anything hydrogenated, as this is closer to an industrial-grade lubricant than it is an oil for human consumption. There are simply many better options out there.

 3a) “Saturated fats cause heart disease”

This is me, banging my head against a wall. Research has shown that saturated fats are not the enemy, but are only a problem when consumed in an unbalanced amount in an unhealthy diet. Saturated fat should be balanced with unsaturated fat to ensure optimal health.


3b) “Steer-clear of tropical-sounding oils like coconut, palm, palm kernel and cottonseed oils. They all contain saturated fats”

As we just covered, saturated fats aren’t evil. As a matter of fat, coconut oil is one of the best oils to cook with and has a plethora of health benefits. Cottonseed oil on the other hand, with it’s 50:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio should definitely be avoiding. It’s ridiculous that these oils were lumped into the same category.


For cooking, stick to coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil (for when you want to cook with extreme heat). For sauces and dressings, use flaxseed oil, walnut oil, extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil.  If you balance these different saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, along with a diet containing eggs, lean meats and fish, you’ll have an excellent fatty acid profile and be in the best position to ward off cardiovascular disease.



Balance Those Fats!

10 05 2013

Precision Nutrition posted another great article today that I wanted to share: Research Review: Should you balance your fats for better health?

If you’ve been following along, the results won’t be shocking, but to recap, for optimal health you should:

– Consume a balanced fat intake (saturated and unsaturated)

– Avoid processed, chemically-created fats (hydrogenated/trans fats)

– Beware polyunsaturated omega-6 cooking oils- these are some of the most harmful fats to the human body



– Fats from whole foods (meat, fish, nuts, seeds, veggies, dairy, etc.) are almost universally healthy

– Fats from packaged, processed food is generally unhealthy (if it comes in a cardboard box, you’re on the wrong track…)

– Cold-pressed and extra-virgin oils are generally the healthiest/least processed

– Butter oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil are the best cooking oils due to their high smoke point and low levels of omega-6 fatty acids

– Same old bottom line: Eat REAL food, increase omega-3 balance, and be healthy


That’s all for today folks, enjoy your weekend!


Macronutrient 411: Fat

24 01 2013

Our diets are composed of 3 macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. I’m going to write a separate article on each explaining why certain macronutrients are preferable to others, which types of macronutrients should be ingested at which times, and other useful tidbits along the way.

Fat fast facts

1 g of fat provides 9 kcals of energy.

Dietary fat is absolutely necessary. The human body can produce most types of fats, save for the two Essential Fatty Acids: linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).

The breakdown of fat in the human body is a lengthy process (small intestine -> lymphatic system -> slow release into bloodstream), and fat does not actually enter the bloodstream until several hours after ingestion.

Dietary fat has several important functions in the human body, including:

– Energy (as per the 9 kcals per gram, fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient)

– The manufacture and balance of hormones

– The formation of our cell membranes

– The formation of our brains and nervous system

– The transport of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K

Types of fat

fatsThe smallest unit of fat is a fatty acid. Fatty acids combine to create the two primary types of fat: saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids. The latter can be broken down into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The ever important omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats tend to be liquid.

Most dietary fat sources are a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is rare to belong entirely to one of the three types. The fat breakdown (roughly) for a few common foods:

Eggs: 39% saturated, 43% monounsaturated, 18% polyunsaturated

Beef: 55% saturated, 40% monounsaturated, 4% polyunsaturated

Avocado: 14% saturated, 72% monounsaturated, 14% polyunsaturated

Almonds: 6% saturated, 70% monounsaturated, 24% polyunsaturated

Aside from these naturally occurring fatty acids, we are also heavily exposed to another type of fat: trans fat. Trans fat is unsaturated, but created through industrial fat processing, or hydrogenation (take an unsaturated fat in liquid form and bubble hydrogen ions through it, causing it to become solid at room temperature, last longer, and taste better). These processed fats do not behave naturally in the human body (the bonds cannot kink, or adapt appropriately) so they pack into cell membranes very tightly and diminish blood vessel function and elasticity. These fats have been linked to countless health problems (high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, several other chronic diseases, etc.) Note: some trans fats exist naturally (eg, conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA); stick to a diet based on natural, unprocessed foods and you don’t need to worry about harmful trans fat.

The omega fatty acids

Humans evolved by eating a diet consisting of marine life, wild game, and/or inland plants- three important sources of the essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6.  The ratio between the two was 1:1. In our modern diet, the ratio is now closer to 20:1 in favour of omega-6, which is completely out of balance for optimal cellular health. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn oil (50:1 ratio, with margarine being the most common offender), safflower oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, and from corn-fed meat. This does not mean that you should remove all omega-6 fats from your diet however, as these fats are important for blood vessel constriction, inflammation, blood clotting, pain, etc. (these may all sound like bad things, but they are all critical to overall health).

The most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Flax and walnuts are great sources of ALA, but the most beneficial omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA) are found in marine sources such as fish oils and algae. Omega-3 fatty acids are so important because they keep our cells fluid (think: opposite of trans fat). Fluid cells facilitate many important functions, such as the transmission of neurochemicals like seratonin (which makes us feel happy!), and increased muscle cell insulin sensitivity (think: gain muscle, lose fat). These fatty acids also enhance our immune system, and low levels of DHA have been linked to memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and other mood disorders. As you may have guessed, omega-3 fats promote blood vessel dilation, anti-inflammation, anti-coagulation, decreased pain, etc.- or the absolute opposite effect of omega-6 fatty acids. Thus, it is easy to understand why a balanced ratio of 1:1 is required for optimal health.

Good fats vs. Bad fats

The general understanding of fats is that saturated fat and trans fat are bad, that unsaturated fat is good, and that omega fats are so good that you should consider supplementing. Although there is some truth to this, let’s set the record straight:

Saturated fat gets a bad rap because it is associated with an increased risk of cardivascular disease (among other health problems). Although there is a positive relationship between the two, the correlation only exists when dietary saturated fat intake is excessive and out of balance with the intake of unsaturated fats (and the relationship is further amplified if the diet is high in sugar/refined carbohydrate). Therefore, as long as your dietary fat intake is balanced between saturated and unsaturated fat, your health is not in danger. Saturated fat is not bad. Excessive irresponsible eating habits are bad. Also, some saturated fats (such as stearic fat, found in cocoa butter and beef) may actually lower bad cholesterol. So again, if you’re eating a healthy diet, saturated fat will be a part of the diet and will do more good than bad.

Bonus fact: Human breast milk, the “perfect” food for the rapidly developing human body, contains 54% saturated fat.

As discussed, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential (must be consumed in the diet, as they are critical to health and the human body is unable to manufacture them), so technically they are so good that you may need supplementation. However, we must not downplay the importance of all unsaturated fat, both mono and poly, as they are all extremely important for their beneficial effects on blood triglycerides, cholesterols, blood vessels, inflammation, and metabolism.

Sources of dietary fat

Wondering where to get your dietary fat? Here are some great options to include (Saturated, Mono, Poly) and those to avoid (Trans):

Saturated fat: from animals (beef, butter, cheese, eggs, etc.) and from tropical oils (cocount and palm)

Monounsaturated fat: from olives and olive oil, avocado, nuts (peanuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, etc.), eggs, and some cheeses (Parmesan, Monterey jack, Roquefort, etc.)

Polyunsaturated fat: from omega-3/omega-6 supplements, flax, fish, algae, hemp and canola

Trans fat: from fried food (donuts, french fries, fried chicken, etc.), margarine, vegetable shortening, chips, microwave popcorn, frozen dinners and most processed/sugar-filled foods

Long story short

– For optimal health and functioning a balanced dietary fat intake, with a fairly even mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, is necessary.

– Linoleic and linolenic acid must be consumed in the human diet.

– Most foods contain a mix of saturated and unsaturated fat.

– A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats is also very important; we should try to achieve a 1:1 ratio by reducing our omega-6 intake and by increasing our omega-3 intake.

– Trans fats, not saturated fats, are linked to high cholesterol, health problems, and chronic disease- trans fats in the diet are the single most important correlate to heart disease.

– A high dietary intake of saturated fat is only detrimental to health when intake of unsaturated fat is low. Some saturated fats are beneficial to overall health.

If you have any additional questions on dietary fat, please don’t hesitate to send me a message or to post a comment below. Stay tuned for an article on the final macronutrient: Protein.

Happy Hump Day!