The conundrum of good fats, or why I don’t eat fries when I’m out (it’s not what you think)

When you think about the first words people associate with unhealthy eating habits “fatty” has got to be on top of the list. It’s one of those refrains that is thrown around so often that it’s considered to be a truism by most reasonable people. Dietary fat and cholesterol, the thinking goes, clog your arteries and cause heart disease — if you haven’t already become obese along the way.

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So if you’re like most people, you probably think that you’d do well to ditch the butter and change over to olive oil or liquid vegetable oils. Well we can all agree that olive oil is a healthful fat (don’t worry, I won’t be rocking the boat that much) but let’s ponder the rest for a minute, shall we?

Spoiler alert: two things I’d love for you to take out of this article are 1) vegetable oils are the root of all evil and 2) saturated fats are not only innocent of all they’ve been accused of, they are downright essential in a healthy diet.

Now I hope I have gotten your attention!

Let’s start with the second part of that. My first inkling that saturated fat was perhaps not the nutritional devil it was purported to be came with Gary Taubes’ 2002 New York Times Magazine cover What if it’s all been a big fat lie? In this in-depth article he took on the medical and nutritional establishment for their ridiculing of Dr. Atkins with his carnivorous ways and their refusal to see that their low-fat dogma had ushered in an epic increase of obesity and heart disease.

Now most people are familiar with the idea that fats are an essential macronutrient but when they think of “good fats” they don’t usually conjure up images of full-fat dairy and lard. But believe you me, your body craves saturated fat as they are indispensable to the absorption of essential minerals and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, and provide building blocks for the body. Fats also help with satiety and can be a better source of energy than sugar.

But you wouldn’t know that in this world of the American Health Association’s “heart-healthy oils” and the French nutritional authority promoting the use of canola oil at the expense of butter!

So how did we get here?

Here in France supermarket aisles are mostly stocked, aside from olive oil, mostly with sunflower, peanut and canola oils, with endless variations that claim to meet your every need: frying, baking, seasoning… And they are cheap. And plentiful.

What if I told you that these oils did not even exist before the 20th century nor would anybody even dream of deeming them fit for human consumption when they were first introduced? For a fascinating history of the advent of the mother of all vegetable oils, Crisco, and how it came to replace the butter and lard that stocked kitchens until then, check out this free chapter from Denise Minger’s nutritional page-turner (yes you’ve heard that right), Death by Food Pyramid: How shoddy science, sketchy politics and shady special interests have ruined our health. Here’s  just one juicy bit:

P&G had pioneered what’s now an American tradition: getting rid of agricultural waste products by feeding them to humans. The company had effectively bridged the gap between garbage and food.

I will not go too far into the historical and scientific rigamarole that brought us here (she’s already done that so well) but will instead focus on what I have gleaned about the choice of healthy fats from all this.

First, here’s my very unscientific explanation of the biochemistry involved:

  • A saturated fatty acid has all its carbon atoms bound by a hydrogen atom, which is what renders it stable and solid at room temperature. Examples are most animal fats like butter, tallow (beef fat), duck fat, etc, and plant-based fats like coconut oil.
  • A monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) has just one carbon atom that is unbound. Olive oil, mostly composed of MUFAs, is a good example.
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) have multiple carbon atoms that are unbound. Because of this, they are very unstable and prone to oxidization (meaning they go rancid when exposed to light and oxygen). Vegetable oils that line supermarket shelves (canola/colza, sunflower, peanut, soybean, corn, etc) are very high in PUFAs.

So contrary to what we’ve been told for years, saturated fats are actually good for health owing to the fact that they are very stable and are not nearly as vulnerable to degradation as the vegetable oils. It makes intuitive sense if you think about it. These are fats that humans have traditionally consumed for much longer than the last century or so that saw the rise in the popularity of the industrial vegetable oils, thanks to much aggressive marketing.

The fact that these oils are so unstable and oxidize rapidly means that they set off an inflammatory response in our bodies and low-level inflammation has been linked to everything from cancer to diabetes to heart disease. And because they are so cheap to produce, they are ubiquitous in all kinds of processed and restaurant foods. This is one important reason to avoid packaged foods and chain restaurants altogether or at the very least, to be vigilant about reading ingredient lists. If you buy ready-made cookies from time to time, just make sure they are made with butter. And if you buy jarred baby food, make sure it does not list vegetable oil as an ingredient (and if there is no oil listed, go ahead and add a dollop of butter or coconut oil!)

Here’s something else: whether or not the vegetable oil is organic does not matter one bit – they are  problematic because of their chemical structure and also because their ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats is way out of whack.

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My bottom line

For salads, I mostly use olive oil. For cooking, I favor traditional fats like butter, ghee (clarified butter), lard, duck fat, tallow (beef fat), as well as coconut oil. I also like this product, a mix between coconut oil and ghee from the great Green Pasture brand (the odor is quite neutral which makes it good for those dishes where the smell of coconut oil is not appropriate). I was personally relieved to learn that olive oil can also withstand cooking for the most part which is good news for us Turks who have an entire category of dishes that are cooked with olive oil. I also use duck or goose fat regularly which are particularly good for roasting vegetables.

To go back to my title, the reason I don’t eat fries when I’m dining out is because more often than not they are fried in bad oils prone to randicity (usually sunflower) and not something traditional like lard, tallow or duck fat. Now fried foods are not “healthful” foods in general but using cheap vegetable oils adds insult to injury, if you will. Now, if you order a steak and fries every once in a blue moon, I am not about to tell you to forgo all your worldly pleasures. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d rather pick a fight about something that I’m likely to do on a regular basis. That is why you should probably start by cleaning out your kitchen cabinets…

To put all this another way, you do not need to shy away from butter and cream, although there’s no need to exaggerate it either, and go for a good variety of cooking fats. And stop with the (good) fat phobia already!

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