- Fat is a crucial nutrient for metabolic health, but not all sources of fat are created the same.
- Our modern diet is composed of up to 15 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 due to the fact that they’re widely used in processed foods and they tend to be less expensive than other options.
- Olive oil and avocado oil are excellent sources of monounsaturated fats that have been shown to be beneficial for heart and metabolic health.
- Coconut oil and butter are two sources of saturated fat that come with unique metabolism-boosting properties.
etting enough healthy fats in your diet is crucial for metabolic health, but not all fat is created equal. Today, most of the products on the shelves are filled with low-quality fats that can wreak cellular havoc. And to make matters worse, there's a lot of conflicting information about what types of fats are beneficial and which should be avoided.
There's no shortage of options for cooking oils and culinary fats, but which ones should you choose?
In this article, we'll look at which types of oils should be staples in your kitchen and which are best avoided.
The Pros and Cons Of Cooking With Fat
Adding enough fat to your meals not only enhances taste and mouthfeel but also increases the overall nutritive value of your food. For example, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K all require fat in order to be absorbed by your body. The same is true of phytonutrients like lutein and beta-carotene.
Fat also plays an important role in slowing down digestion and therefore blunting the release of glucose into your blood. This is especially beneficial for anyone with insulin resistance or diabetes who may need assistance with blood sugar regulation.
And, of course, fatty acids themselves are required for a myriad of physiological functions such as cell maintenance, energy production, hormone synthesis, and the insulation of vital organs.
That said, the type of fat you choose to cook with makes a significant difference in the potential health properties. So how do you know what type of fat to choose?
There are two primary things you want to assess when it comes to cooking with fat:
- The structure
- The quality
One of the biggest differentiators among the varieties of fat comes down to structure. Without getting too deep into the chemistry, here's a basic breakdown:
Saturated fats are solid in structure because they are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms. When there is a missing hydrogen atom in a fatty acid, it allows for double bonds to be formed, which makes the fat less stable. Therefore, the more saturated a fat is, the more stable its structure. Why does this matter? Unstable fatty acids are more readily oxidized, and oxidized fats can create chaos on a cellular level.
Examples of sources of saturated fats include butter, ghee, and coconut oil.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA's) have one area of "unsaturation" where a hydrogen atom is missing. This allows for the creation of a single double bond, making monounsaturated fats slightly less stable than saturated.
Examples of sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil and avocado oil.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have multiple areas of unsaturation, which means that they have multiple double bonds. These fats are the least stable and therefore are most likely to undergo oxidation.
Within the umbrella of polyunsaturated fats, there are two distinct types; omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. While both of these types of fat are necessary for biological health, the balance of the two is crucial. Unfortunately, our modern diet has thrown this ratio far off course, and today we're consuming about 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3.
Why are we so out of balance? It's likely a combination of people not consuming enough omega-3s from sources like fish and algae, along with the robust use of vegetable oils (which are rich in omega-6) in packaged and processed foods.
Some sources of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats that you're likely familiar with include canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and peanut oil.
Omega-3s are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and also vegetarian sources like algae, flax, and hemp seeds. Although these foods are excellent additions to your meal, they don't make for great cooking oils.
In addition to the structure of the fat, the quality of the fat you're consuming also makes a difference.
For example, most vegetable oils are highly processed, which means that they may contain toxic impurities.
Furthermore, high-heat processes like deodorization can change the structure of polyunsaturated fats and create trans fat. Trans fat is toxic to your cells and has been linked to cellular death, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Metabolism-Friendly Oils (And How To Use Them)
Now that you have a good overall view of the structure and quality of cooking oils let's take a look at which ones are particularly beneficial for metabolic health.
Avocado oil is one of the richest sources of monounsaturated fats. In fact, on average, avocado oil is composed of about 70% mono's and only 16% polyunsaturated fat. This makes avocado oil an excellent high-heat cooking oil as its smoke point is around 520 degrees Fahrenheit.
What's more, the type of monounsaturated fat found in avocado oil, oleic acid, is well-studied for promoting heart health. Specifically, studies show that oleic acid may help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and reduce inflammation.
Furthermore, research indicates that consuming monounsaturated fat may be protective against insulin resistance due to its impact on specific gene pathways. Studies also show that by regulating both food intake and energy expenditure, oils high in oleic acid may help fight obesity.
Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and is another oil that's rich in oleic acid. While it has a similar fatty acid profile to avocado oil, its smoke point is a bit lower at around 410 degrees Fahrenheit, so you may prefer olive oil for stir-frying and sauteing instead of baking.
In addition to its healthy fat profile, olive oil also contains a host of antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols, beta-carotene, lutein, squalene, and tocopherols (vitamin E).
Due to its rich antioxidant profile, olive oil has been shown to protect against various metabolic conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other inflammation-driven conditions.
In one animal study, the intake of olive oil helped to improve glucose control by enhancing insulin sensitivity and directly improving the health of insulin-producing cells in the liver.
With an average smoke point between 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, you can use coconut oil in both moderate-heat baking and pan or stir-frying, but you wouldn't want to try to deep fry with this oil.
Although coconut oil is around 80 to 90% saturated fat, a large proportion of the fatty acids fall under the medium-chain triglyceride category (MCTs), which explains its lower smoke point as medium-chain fats are more readily oxidized than longer-chain ones.
That said, the MCTs in coconut oil give it a unique metabolic advantage against most other options, so this is definitely a staple to keep around.
Specifically, MCTs are metabolized differently than other types of fats. While most fatty acids have to travel through your lymph before getting into circulation, MCTs are sent directly to your liver, where they can be converted into ketones for energy.
Coconut oil has also been widely studied for its impact on weight loss and metabolism. One animal trial found that including coconut oil in the diet reduced obesity and measures of metabolic syndrome, including visceral and liver fat accumulation, glucose tolerance and sensitivity, and abdominal circumference.
Of course, human trials are needed before we can make a conclusion about the impact of coconut oil for metabolic health. With that being said, clinical studies do show that MCTs can improve weight loss outcomes.
Butter or Ghee
Of all the types of fat out there, butter has received the most criticism in the press due to its saturated fat content. Luckily, times are changing, and the once-demonized butter is now finding its proper place back in the kitchen as a staple cooking fat.
Why did butter get such a bad rep? Mostly misinformation and lack of scientific vigor. There was a time when pointing the finger at saturated fat as a singular culprit for heart disease was a popular idea among the medical community, but science has caught up, and we now know that the issue is much more complex, and most importantly, saturated fat is a crucial part of a healthy diet.
Butter has a relatively low smoke point of around 300 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you go for butter in its clarified form, known as ghee, that smoke point shoots up to around 460 degrees Fahrenheit.
Along with a host of vitamins and minerals, butter is a natural source of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid naturally produced by gut bacteria. Butyrate plays an important role in gut health, specifically in maintaining your gut barrier and the health of your microbiome.
Studies also show that due to its wide-reaching impact, butyrate exhibits a broad range of activities in your body, including the regulation of metabolic pathways, the reduction of inflammation, the reduction of body fat, and blood glucose regulation.
Furthermore, butter is also a source of CLA, a unique type of fatty acid that has been shown to prevent hyperinsulinemia in animal trials.
While there's no debate that dietary fat is vital for metabolic health, choosing the right types of fat is equally important. If you look at the ingredient list on most packaged foods, you'll see seed oils and vegetable oils like soybean, cottonseed, corn, safflower, and so on. These oils contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which could be detrimental to your metabolic health, especially when cooked at high temperatures.
Alternatively, heart-healthy oils like avocado and extra virgin olive oil are rich in monounsaturated fats that are not only cardio-protective but may also improve a range of factors related to metabolic disease.
And coconut oil, with its rich MCT content, is an excellent option for revving up your metabolism with ketones and may potentially help trim your waistline as well.
Finally, butter and ghee offer a rich and creamy mouthfeel along with unique fatty acids that may specifically target metabolic markers like insulin resistance, inflammation, and body fat.
So which one should you choose? Variety is the spice of life, and you want to ensure you're getting a range of healthy fats in your diet, so mix and match your options depending on your cooking needs, and don't forget to get some omega-3s in from dietary sources as well.
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