Oils and health: give me a primer, please!
December 29, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm a little bit confused about whether oils (olive, etc.) are healthy, and in what quantities they belong in a balanced diet (given their high caloric content). Should I be aiming to add them into my diet (pour a couple of spoonfuls over salad, or cook with them), or should I be aiming to avoid them, substituting other things in their place and largely or entirely forgoing them. What nutrients or other benefits do they offer my body that other foods wouldn't, if any? If they are healthy, which are the healthiest? Which are the least healthy? Are some better for eating fresh and others better for cooking with? Help?
posted by UniversityNomad to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I went to a diet and nutrition class and was told that fats are all about 45 calories per tbs (I think). Plant fats (ie oils) are better overall for you than animal fats (butter, lard, etc.) which tend to be solid at room temp. I think the oils in fish are the exception to this rule. How much you use depends on what your diet goals are and a smart use of fat can help you feel fuller for longer.
posted by brilliantine at 12:18 PM on December 29, 2012

The cooking oil comparison chart may be of interest (link goes to a post explaining the chart, with a link there to to the place that has the actual pdf chart).
posted by gudrun at 12:22 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's totally reasonable to be confused, given all the wildly-varying opinions out there. I go with what the Harvard School of Public Health has to say about fats and try to get in at least a little of a good source of omega-3 fats every day.
posted by sculpin at 12:31 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your body won't absorb certain nutrients well if you exclude all fats from your diet. You need them for your skin and hair and general workings. It isn't all about the calories.
posted by zadcat at 12:38 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some vitamins/nutrients can only be absorbed efficiently in the company of oils. Striving to have a "fat-free" (or salt-free, whatever) diet can actually harm your health. IMO a good approach to life (in general) is a "harm reduction" orientation. Better fats (i.e. monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, rather than saturated) rather than No Fat; better cardiovascular style (if gym workouts aren't your thing, walk briskly for a little bit each day) instead of being a couch potato, etc. Healthier lifestyle is not an all-or-nothing thing. Enjoy olive oil in your salad, and cook with it when you wish to cook with oil. Bake things when possible. Have some wine now and then. And enjoy life.
posted by RRgal at 12:40 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Joel Furhman of the "Eat to Live" phenomenon discourages oils of all kind, even olive oil, due to the low nutrient-to-calorie ratio:
He would advise getting your healthy fats in through avocado or nut-based dressings.
Just one viewpoint.
posted by indognito at 12:42 PM on December 29, 2012

"Vegetable" oils (really seed or grain oils) are high in omega-6, a type of polyunsaturated fat that most people get far too much of. An excess of omega-6 and a lack of omega-3 likely contributes to systemic inflammation, which in turn causes or exacerbates most diseases of civilization such as heart disease, depression, obesity, and diabetes. This does not apply to olive oil, tropical oils like coconut, and most animal fats.

Fats in their natural form generally are fine, and as others have said, a very low-fat diet can have negative consequences such as depression or reduced vitamin absorption.

Oils added to food also increase the caloric density and may contribute to non-homeostatic eating (which makes you gain weight).
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:05 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Earl has it exactly. The book you want to read is Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan. Also Know Your Fats by Mary Enig.

Note while omega 3 fats are healthy generally, you do not want to cook with them as they oxidize and become inflammatory when heated. This is why many vegetable fats -- typically unsaturated and prone to oxidation -- are terrible for you the way they're usually processed in modern food. Monounsaturated are somewhat more stable -- I only heat olive oil briefly at low temperatures -- and saturated fats are the best for you, many of which have antiviral properties. The irony of people turning to unsaturated fats that are high in omega 6s is because of fear of saturated fats is rather sad.

You can probably find the easiest to follow information by reading paleo websites, but some low carb communities are versed in it, as are "traditional food" communities or communities associated with the Weston A Price Foundation.

Please do not be scared of fat. My father was able to go off his diabetes and heart medications when I cooked low carb food for him high in saturated fats, and it is the only thing that has solved my lifelong fatigue, illnesses, and autoimmune problems. When I did low calorie and/or low fat (did all permutations) I literally had limbs go numb, rashes, severe fatigue, PCOS and accompanying hormonal issues, constant cold sores, etc. You want to eat an anti-inflammatory diet for optimal health, and the right fats prepared the right way are a crucial part of that.
posted by Nattie at 1:40 AM on December 30, 2012

A good starting point:

I was too sick to hold down a job outside the house for years until I did the Whole 30. That was my springboard, and it has worked wonders for a few friends I have suggested it to, so I hope it is a good starting point for you too. You will find a ton of information about fats there, and other nutritional quandaries that will come up in the future.
posted by Nattie at 1:44 AM on December 30, 2012

It's a controversial topic. As someone who follows a low-carb/high-fat diet, I'd encourage you to ask yourself why it is relevant that they have a high caloric content (by which you mean caloric density.) I suspect you are assuming that satiation is based on weight of food and therefore lower caloric density is good, but I do not think that is the case. Satiation is a complicated state that involves hormones and multiple bodily processes. You might find, as I have, that e.g. 50 grams of fat is much more satisfying than 100 grams of carbs, even if you are only eating half the weight.

The following point is a very rough correlation and can not be taken to prove causation, but it may change the way you look at things. Obesity and diabetes began skyrocketing in America right after the government and other organizations starting pushing the idea that we should reduce our dietary fat intake.

The point about nutrients seems like a red herring because you can gorge yourself on broccoli, spinach, and other non-starchy vegetables and get a ton of nutrients while still eating a lot of fat. If you get rid of the starches and sugars, you have plenty of room for healthy fats. (What is a healthy fat is another controversial topic -- everybody agrees that hydrogenated/trans fats are bad, while there is some disagreement about saturated fats. Personally, I think that they are healthy, but do your own research.)
posted by callmejay at 7:23 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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