Thankfully the faddish trend of eating a “fat free” diet has waned. There is now a greater understanding of fats’ role as an essential dietary component for lubricating cell membranes, nourishing brain cells, and helping with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. However, not all fats have positive health implications and can actually cause harm. Dietary fats should mostly be consumed from plant products and as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The chemical structures of these fats help protect against cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory states. Conversely, animal fats which are high in saturated fats are more directly linked to heart disease and bodily inflammation.
There are many vegetable fats available for cooking. However, the goal is to avoid processed oils, mostly use omega 3 fats, and sparingly use fats containing omega 6s. Oils sold as “vegetable” oils use a blend of highly processed (and inflammatory) corn, soy, palm, and safflower oils. Corn and soy oils sold individually are also usually highly processed and refined. The high temperatures of refining decreases and almost completely eliminates any positive attributes of the plant oil. Better choices include:
Olive oil: Extra virgin and cold expeller pressed are the best. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that provides excellent flavor and can be used in cooking at lower temperatures. EVOO is also great in sauces and dressings.
Avocado oil: This oil is also a monounsaturated fat but has a higher smoke point making it a good choice for higher temp cooking – think sauteés and pan-searing.
Sesame oil: Sesame oil has large amounts of monounsaturated fats and can cook at high temps BUT with its strong flavor it is usually used in small amounts typically to flavor Asian dishes.
Flaxseed oil: Flax oil has many anti-inflammatory health benefits but is not a good oil for cooking and instead should be reserved for dressings or added in smoothies.
Sunflower oil: Sunflower oil contains high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids and should be used sparingly. However, it does provide a large dose of vitamin E and can be a healthy addition if done so thoughtfully. Make sure to purchase unrefined and cold pressed! Another great use for sunflower oil is topically for eczema patches to improve the skin barrier.
Walnut oil: Walnut oil has a very low smoke point making it difficult to use in cooking. It does have a good balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids and its nutty flavor makes it a great option for sauces, dressings, and drizzling atop dishes.
Coconut oil: While coconut oil is plant-derived it is a saturated fat. It is a medium chain triglyceride and is metabolized differently than some saturated fats. We typically recommend using only in moderation or recommend patients avoid it if there is a history of high cholesterol or a genetic marker indicating poor metabolism of saturated fats.
Grass fed butter/ghee: Used in moderation, butter or ghee produced from grass fed cows and goats can be another flavor booster when cooking. However, livestock that is raised on corn and other genetically modified grains instead of a natural diet of grass results in higher omega 6 fatty acid content. There is a better ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 ratio with grass fed products, however, since saturated fatty acids are still high it is best to use sparingly!
Most importantly, using the above fats in conjunction with a plant based diet will provide the nutrients needed for the body to keep systemic inflammation at its lowest and protect it from disease.