When it comes to nutrition, there are many long held beliefs to dismantle – such as the counting calories myth, or following restrictive juice cleanses. A good place to start is understanding how these trends began so you can make informed decisions for your health. When it comes to fat, the misinformation began in the seventies, in what was dubbed the “Fat-Free Food Boom,” pedalled further in the UK by the low fat queen, Rosemary Conley, two decades later.
Since research uncovered a connection between heart disease and fats, carbs were deemed “good,” fat was villainised, and fat-free replicas of everything from yoghurts to baked goods emerged in supermarkets everywhere. By the nineties, the fear was fully fledged and the shelves were stacked high with highly processed, sugar-laden “foods.”
Fats: The Good, The Bad, and the Shades in Between
In a world where avocado on toast reigns supreme and coconut oil is an all-over wellness panacea, what has changed? It turned out that the study from the seventies had oversimplified the problem – the fats that raise harmful cholesterol, or LDL (low-density lipoprotein), come from trans fats and overconsumption of saturated fats. These include: deep fried foods, red meat, and processed dairy. The good varieties – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – increase HDL high-density lipoprotein – beneficial cholesterol), which are critical building blocks of the brain. Therefore, long chain omega-3 fatty acids should be included in the diet, as well as minerals like zinc, magnesium and folate, which are linked to reduced signs of depression and greater potential for neuroplasticity, or the growth and evolution of the brain over time as new connections are made.
Along with cognitive health, fats are juicy allies to your hormones and can tame inflammation. The precursor of what makes oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, and many other hormones is cholesterol. And the only way to have enough is by consuming enough fat in your diet. Fat as a macronutrient is also essential for healthy skin. Essential fatty acids build healthy cell membranes and protect your skin’s natural oil barrier. Healthy fats also balance your microbiome, supported by healthy hormone function, and that symbiosis is reflected in clear, glowing skin.
“Along with cognitive health, fats are juicy allies to our hormones and can tame inflammation.”
Oil Shopping 101
Shopping for oils can feel overwhelming. When it comes to healthy shopping guidance, it’s important to know how to distinguish quality oils from their nutrient-lacking counterparts, which to cook and when, and how to decode omega-3 from omega-6 in a healthful, practical way.
The first consideration is smoke point. Many low-quality oils lacking nutrients – hydrogenated varieties, canola, palm oil – are used frequently because they are government subsidised, have extremely high smoke points, and offer a neutral flavour profile. There are other nutritive oils that have a mild taste and can be cooked at high temperatures without degradation. These include: avocado, almond, or grapeseed. These oils are ideal for roasting, sauteéing and stir frying.
Low smoke oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, pumpkin, and other seed oils, are ideal for making salad dressings, or as a finishing oils for cooked vegetables or soups. For baking, oils that offer delicious flavour profiles and added nutrients include coconut, walnut and hazelnut oil, which act as nutritional baking binders for breads, crackers, etc, while coconut MCT oil makes for a healthful addition to coffee or an adaptogenic latte.
DHA, EPA, ALA
Two specific types of omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, receive a lot of praise, for good reason, as they help reduce inflammation, fight against certain cancers, aid in muscle recovery, and enrich everything from eye healthy to memory. The long-standing belief was that these nutrients were only available from fish. However, fish get DHA and EPA from eating microalgae and seaweed. To prioritise quality and protect the environment while caring for your health, you can get your omegas like a fish instead of from a fish, with plant-based omegas sourced from marine microalgae and seaweed.
Along with thyroid-supporting iodine, you can take in bioavailable sources of these fats by incorporating chlorella, spirulina, and sea vegetables into your diet. Incorporate organic sea vegetables like nori and kelp into salads, soups, sauces, and macrobiotic bowls for more plant-rich EPA. Or, blend a little spirulina or chlorella to your morning smoothie or lunch salad dressing. ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, is the third essential omega-3 fat that is critical for human growth and development – potent plant sources include: walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and dark green vegetables such as: Brussels sprouts, kale, chard and cabbage.
Almond Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Olive oil (for sautéing only)
Low Smoke Point (Ideal for Making Salad Dressing or Drizzling on Soup)
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Pumpkin Seed Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Sesame Seed Oil
Hemp Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Flax Seed Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Pistachio Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Baking Binders (Ideal for Adding to Muffins, Breads, Tart Crusts, etc.)
Hazelnut Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Walnut Oil (store in the refrigerator)
Coconut Oil/MCT Oil
Oils to Avoid
Safflower, soybean, sunflower, corn, and cotton seed oils, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, margarine and shortening.
Whole Food Fats to Buy
Avocado, olives, cacao butter, dark chocolate (minimum70% cacao), almonds, macadamia, walnuts, pecans, and Brazil nuts. Hemp, chia, pumpkin, sesame and flax seeds. Nut and seed butter (without added sugars or palm oil).
The olive oil business is a lucrative one. Sourcing is a key marker for quality. Single-source regions are the highest echelon. When multiple regions are involved, manufacturing becomes blurred, quality gets diluted, and other oils (with varying expiration dates) beyond olive oil are likely to be incorporated. Look for small-batch, local brands. Local oils will always be the highest quality, and most farmers markets will have at least one olive oil stand. Choose organic, cold pressed, unfiltered olive oil, which will contain the highest nutrients.
Oxygen is what gives us life, renews our cells, and provides us energy. Oxidation, on the other hand, is enemy number one for anti-aging and cellular health. Think of the rust on an old car – that is oxidation. That same process occurs in your body when you consume foods (including fats and oils) that have been oxidised: highly reactive compounds called free radicals are created, which are harmful to the body’s cells and increases inflammation.
Like most things in life, higher quality usually means less manipulation. Oils are at their most nutrient dense when they are minimally refined, with the lowest possible amount of extraction, heat, and exposure to light and air. This is why it’s important to look and read labels and be careful when choosing oils. In general, look out for labels that say “cold-pressed,” “unrefined” and “extra-virgin” on your bottles of oils and avoid the word “blended,” as this means the oil contains other vegetable oils or additives.
Of all the information printed on the bottle about its processing, “unrefined” is the most important. As well as the information on the label, proper olive and precious nut and seed oils should be manufactured in dark glass bottles to protect them from light and will provide clear expiration dates. If you are unsure if your oils are oxidised, rancid, or past expiration, take a sniff. A spoiled oil will have a distinct smell that has been likened to wood varnish. The colour of the oil should also resemble the plant it originated from.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 vs. Omega-9
Omega fatty acids can be a complicated topic. Omega-3s take a lot of the spotlight because they lead the anti-inflammation brigade and support hormone production. Omega-6 fats include arachidonic and linoleic acid, and are found in nuts and seeds (and many processed oils such as sunflower and corn oil). Omega-9 fatty acids are considered non-essential because the body already makes them, but they are found within some of the most nutrient-dense oils on the planet, including extra-virgin olive oil and almond oil.
The issue comes into play in terms of the 3 to 6 ratio. Many fast food restaurants and processed foods cook using the nutrient-lacking oils (the aforementioned sunflower and corn oil, but also soybean and safflower), which tip the scales toward omega-6 fats and increases inflammation. This critical omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is often disproportionate – it’s recommended to be 4:1, while Western diets are 10:1, even 50:1 – due to processed and acidic, preservative-filled foods, so often default options for modern life. As with all things, navigating fats and oils is about finding the balance. To nourish your body with anti-inflammatory fats, increase your intake of foods with DHA, EPA, and ALA, and cook and prepare food at home with oils like extra virgin olive oil, grape seed, walnut, pumpkin, avocado, and coconut.
Drink Your Oils
Using oils high in ALA therapeutically, makes sense as a preventative measure for nearly everyone, since most people are severely deficient in it. I like to recommend flax-seed oil, which should be cold pressed, without exposure to oxygen or light, and kept in the refrigerator, as it spoils easily. Taking one tablespoon of flax-seed oil daily, with food is a good therapeutic dose for most people. For those with an inflammatory background, such as autoimmune disease or other acute, chronic conditions, two tablespoons can be taken daily. Ground flax-seeds can also be added to soups and smoothies. It’s best to buy the whole seeds and grind them at home (spice or coffee mills work well), storing them in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.
After you’ve mastered oil shopping, fill your kitchen with more whole food sources of fat like Brazil nuts (which also offer additional benefits in the form of selenium); avocado, pumpkin seeds, coconut yoghurt, flax, chia, and hemp seeds, macadamia nuts and cashews; coconut and cacao butter. See my plant powered pantry staples guide for the best things to keep stocked in your pantry (and in your fridge and freezer too).