by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
When I tell people I’m a Dietitian they either hide their plate or tell me they always feel confused because the information is always changing. Guess what? I totally agree! The information can and does change, and it’s frustrating to say the least. However, just because it changes (due to new scientific findings or qualitative research) or is applied differently doesn’t mean we stop listening and trying to make the best choices for ourselves and our families. In this article I’ll take on one of the most confounding topics: FAT!
Shampoo, skin cream, grocery aisle…everywhere you look there is coconut oil. Then in mid-summer 2017, the American Heart Association published an article stating one thing we’ve known for decades, saturated fats (fats that are solid at room temperature, can be positively correlated to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In the write up for the article, it was pointed out that butter, palm oil, and coconut oil are all considered oils/fats that are higher in saturated fats. You probably saw the fall out on your social media feed and it was very easy to become quickly confused.
Before you completely chuck the coconut oil out of your kitchen or disregard the American Heart Association’s findings, let’s review the basics of the different types of fat:
Fat: one of the big 3 macronutrients found in food; contributes 9 calories per gram
Saturated Fat: solid at room temperature; found mostly in animal fats, tropical oils, and prepared food items (ie: coffee creamer and some desserts); is thought to raise LDL cholesterol levels (bad).
Trans Fat: altered by a process called hydrogenation to increase its shelf life; found in processed foods, chips, crackers, cookies, some margarine and salad dressings, and foods made with shortening and partially hydrogenated oils; is known to negatively impact cholesterol levels
Monounsaturated Fat: at type of unsaturated fat; found in avocado, nuts, and vegetables oils; is believed to raise HDL cholesterol levels (good).
Polyunsaturated fat: a type of unsaturated fat; mainly found in vegetable oils and is the main fat found in seafood; believed to lower LDL cholesterol
- Omega-3 fatty acids: a type of polyunsaturated fat; found in foods from plants (think: soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts, flaxseed); also found in fatty fish as EPA and DHA (standing for super long words eicosapenaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid); they help brain function, and aid in normal growth and development; the current recommendation is 250mg daily of omega-3s
- Omega-6 fatty acids: a type of polyunsaturated fat; found in vegetable oils; they help they help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain reproductive system.
**Side note: you hear so much about omega-3 fatty acids because they are the ones typically low in an American diet. The goal is about a 1:1 ratio of omega-3s:omega-6s; however, estimates put a typical diet at 1:15 due to the abundance of omega-6s in common oils. There is evidence that a lower ratio can help prevent chronic diseases. If you do not consume seafood and primarily stick with oils such as safflower oil, palm oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, or sunflower oil you will need to supplement omega-3s as these oils contain none.
Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, 6% monounsaturated fat, and 2% polyunsaturated fat. For comparison, olive oil is 14% saturated fat, 77% monounsaturated fat, and 9% polyunsaturated fat.
There have been studies that show a type of fat found in coconut oil can increase metabolism and boost weight loss (cue the fanfare!). The fat that helps? That’s medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs). In the study the coconut oil used was 100% MCT, while a typical over-the-counter coconut oil is 13-14%. You would have to eat a LOT of coconut oil to see that impact.
Bottom Line: You can’t count on one food to be a magic bullet and just because we see coconut oil everywhere doesn’t mean we need to go overboard with it. If you are enjoying coconut oil (it does add that extra hint of flavor and creaminess we can’t deny!) there’s no reason to stop, just add a little. Finally, as dietitians, we are trained to look at the diet at a whole. If you are eating fast food two out of three meals, not exercising, and over indulging on a regular basis no amount of coconut oil is going to boost your metabolism and aid in weight loss. However, if you are eating less processed, whole foods, being active daily, and incorporating small amounts of coconut oil to your diet you may see your blood lipid profile improve.
Gaining popularity in the “fats” world is ghee, mainly due to diets such as Paleo and Whole30 who allow this as a butter substitute. This type of butter can also be used by those following a vegan lifestyle. Ghee is a type of clarified butter, where the butter is simmered and the impurities are removed – this is different than clarified butter due to the simmering process that takes place. This leaves the clear butter used for cooking and is often considered nutty-tasting. Nutritionally speaking, ghee is made purely of fat and contains approximately 110 calories per tablespoon. Each tablespoon contains 12 grams of fat, 7.9 of those grams coming from saturated fat. Ghee does provide about 12% of the Vitamin A you need in one day.
There are other vegan butters out there – which tend to be a made from an oil blend. The average vegan butter contains about 100 calories in one tablespoon and 10g of fat. The main thing that makes it different from ghee is the saturate fat content is around 3g per serving.
Now that you’ve read all the info, the real question is “What do I keep in my house?” To save you time searching the grocery store aisles here are some tips:
Spread on your bread/daily use...If you love toast or want something to cook with a soft or whipped butter is best. The harder the butter, the higher in saturated fat. A vegan or clarified butter can be used in the same way. Spreadable butters and vegetable oil-based butter have about half the saturated fat as regular butter. The brand is up to you, you just want to flip it over and make sure there are no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ingredients.
You can skip the spread...Applesauce, Greek yogurt, avocado, and even pumpkin puree can be used as a substitute in cooking. Oil can typically make up the rest.
Best oil...the best sautéing and cold oil is olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality olive oil you can buy. It does have a lower smoke point (375 degrees F) so you’ll need other oils on hand. If you are looking to create some more flavorful meals you can also look at flaxseed oil (nutty flavor, low saturated fat, and is a 0:3, omega-6 to omega-3s); or you can try an avocado oil which is very similar (nutritionally) to olive oil.
We covered a lot here, but the bottom line is to start where you get the most bang for your buck. If you rarely use butter, then don’t worry about the details, buy what tastes good. If you cook with oils every night, pick up a high quality EVOO. If you bake on a regular basis, load up on applesauce, avocado, and other healthier substitutes. If coconut oil is your jam, slather it on your skin and hair, but use a lighter hand when adding it to your coffee.