Vegetable Oil Confusion

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Butter is good for you, low fat diets are good for you, vegetable oil is good for you, and vegetable oil causes inflammation… with all the nutritional snipits that are displayed as headlines it’s easy to see why the American public is confused about fat.

Fat has been vilified as a substance both on our bodies and in our food but it is essential to life. Fat insulates nerve fibers and increases nerve impulse transition rates allowing you move and respond faster. Fat protects organs by providing both shock absorption and insulation. Fat helps to transport nutrients and metabolites across the cell membranes. Fat is needed for the assimilation of fat soluble vitamins and is used as a building block for hormones, neurotransmitters and immune cells.

Excess fat is related to numerous health problems including obesity, heart disease, and liver disease. Fat deficiency is also a cause for concern and is related to hair loss, poor immune function, loss of sexual hormones, anemia, poor wound healing, and bone loss. There is a sweet spot that we need, both in terms of quantity and in the type of fat you consume.

Fat Facts:
• Healthy saturated fats from natural sources like grass-fed organic beef, butter and milk, coconut oil and eggs are good for you. Unhealthy saturated fats from conventional (corn/soy) raised animal products and trans or partially trans fats (chemically hydrogenated fats) are unhealthy. See the Demystifying Saturated Fat Article in Massage Magazine from 2012 for more reference
• Monounsaturated fats found in olive, hazelnut, peanut, sesame, macadamia nut oils and in avocados are unanimously good for you (except in the case of allergies of course). These fats do become rancid however so only buy what you need or store them properly and be aware of the appropriate cooking temperature for the oil you are using.
• Polyunsaturated fats are a term for any fat that has room for additional hydrogen to attach to it. These include omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9 fatty acids… omega-18 fatty acids and more. Our body can manufacture all the polyunsaturated fats we need for health except for the omega-3 (α-linolenic acid) and omega-6 fats (linoleic acid); these are known as essential fatty acids and they must be eaten to have healthy nerves, eye and brain function and to manufacture the other needed polyunsaturated fats used in biochemical processes.

Vegetable oil facts:
• Vegetable oil is a generic term used for an oil extracted from a vegetable.
• Not all vegetable oils are polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but the common ones found in restaurants, supermarkets, and store bought packaged foods are: corn, soy, canola, sunflower, safflower and cottonseed oils. Omega-6 oils are essential fatty acids, but unfortunately they can increase inflammation when eaten in excess. If you eat packaged foods or at a restaurant you are getting enough omega-6 fats and should not purposefully add them to your diet.
• Some vegetable oils are healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil and peanut oil, and some are healthy saturated fats like coconut oil.
• Some are omega-3 fats like flaxseed, hemp oil, walnut oil or borage oil (a non-vegetable oil source of omega-3 fats would be cold water fish). Omega-3 fats promote normal cell growth and function, helping to maintain healthy tissues and prevent degenerative disease. The omega-3 fats are cardio-protective and can increase HDL cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids are very rarely used in packaged, supermarket or restaurant foods and should be purposefully consumed to ensure you are getting enough.
• When vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make shortening they change from liquid to solid at room temperature. They are used often to make fried foods and crispy, flaky baked goods. They have a very high heat tolerance and a long shelf life. Hydrogenated oils are indisputably unhealthy for you.

When I see a study with a title of “vegetable oil is good for you” I share the layman consumer’s frustration at how hard navigating the dietary landscape is. The title is misleading and it doesn’t state what type of oil they are referring to. The type of fats you eat, the quantity, your stress levels and level of inflammation in the body all play a factor in your health. To keep your heart healthy, cut out trans fats completely. Moderate your weekly intake of saturated fats and ensure you are getting some saturated fat from healthy sources like grass-fed organic animal products or coconut oil. Purposely consume 1-3 total servings of monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats daily. Again, if you eat out or eat packaged foods you are getting plenty of omega-6 fats.