We know that fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. Fats act as an energy source and protect our organs from damage; dietary fats boost the immune system and are required for the absorption of certain nutrients.
But what kinds of fats should we be consuming? Which food sources should we be eating to ensure that we are eating the right fats? Is one form of fat better than another?
Oils, used often in cooking and baking, are a great place to start cleaning up your fats intake.
Fats are divided into saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are those found in animal products and coconut and palm oils. Although our bodies need saturated fats, we should limit our consumption of them because they have been shown to increase risk of heart attack by raising cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fats are found in most plant sources. They are divided into monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated are considered the healthiest fats because they lower the risk of heart attacks and heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated fats, including omega-6s and omega-3s, are necessary because these are essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own. Our overly-processed North American diets, however, include too many omega-6 oils and too few omega-3s. Eating natural foods can remedy this problem. Cold-water fish, soybeans and nuts all contain omega-3s so they are good choices.
Olive oil, canola oil and safflower oil are some of the most common oils used in cooking and baking. They all contain plenty of healthy monounsaturated fats. Olive oil is flavorful and added to baked goods it offers a dense texture. It is best used for cooking food at low heat. Canola and safflower oil, on the other hand, are both fairly tasteless and can be used at a range of temperatures, so they are generally the go-to oils for cooking most dishes.
Peanut oil is usually used for cooking at high temperatures and is therefore good for stir fries. High in omega-3s, flaxseed and sesame seed oils burn at a low temperature so it is better not to cook with them; rather, add them to sauces, hummus, and dressings to reap the benefits of these nutritious oils.
Partially hydrogenated oil is man-made, contains trans fat and is incredibly detrimental to your health, so these kinds of fats should be avoided at all costs. Fully hydrogenated oil does not contain trans fat but it is incredibly high in saturated fat so it too should be avoided.
There are many kinds of oils on the market and plenty of opportunity to experiment with them to determine your preferences. Using a variety of oils will help provide you with a nutritious balance of different kinds of fats. As long as you use them in moderation, oils are an excellent way to incorporate healthy fats into your diet.
Sagan Morrow is a University of Winnipeg student.
Published in Volume 63, Number 29 of The Uniter (July 16, 2009)