Just the Fats - Better Nutrition

Just the Fats

Think you know your fats? Take our myth-busting quiz on oils, cooking, and health, and find out.

1. You should only use virgin coconut oil, never refined.


2. Buy oils in plastic containers to minimize danger in the kitchen from breaking glass.

3. Lard is the best choice for high-heat cooking and frying.

4. Nut and seed oils always should be kept in the refrigerator.

5. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats reduce the risk of breast cancer.

6. Trans fats are found primarily in
A. Salmon, tuna, walnuts, and flax
B. Pizza, ice cream, and butter
C. Pancake mix, potato chips, and frosting

7. Trans fats, such as margarine, are unhealthy, but saturated animal fats, such as butter, are worse.

8. All saturated fats raise cholesterol levels.

9. Flax seeds and walnuts are good sources of omega-3 fats.

10. The American Heart Association recommends total fat consumption be:
A. 5-10 percent of total daily calories
B. 15-20 percent of total daily calories
C. 25-35 percent of total daily calories

11. To avoid trans fats, look for foods that are labeled "0 grams trans fats."

12. Olive oil labeled "extra virgin" is always 100% pure olive oil.

13. Unrefined oils are always the best choice.

14. Eighty percent of the canola oil sold in the United States is genetically modified.

15. Avocado oil is a good choice for high-heat frying.

[1] False. It's true that virgin coconut oil is higher in antioxidant polyphenols. But both virgin and refined coconut oil contain lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that has antiviral, antibacterial, anticancer, and immune-boosting effects. Both have their places: virgin coconut oil is ideal for low- to medium-heat cooking and baking where you want a pronounced coconut flavor. For higher-heat cooking and a more neutral flavor, refined coconut oil is best. If you do use refined coconut oil, choose organic varieties to be sure you're not getting unwanted additives.

[2] False. Oil can absorb endocrine disrupting compounds and other toxins from plastic bottles. Cans may also be lined with BPA-containing film. Choose glass bottles to avoid toxins. Even better, look for dark brown or green glass, since light exposure can damage oils and reduce the antioxidant content.

[3] False. Lard and animal fats are highly saturated, making them more stable and harder to damage with heat. But for a higher smoke point and neutral flavor, tea seed oil may be a better choice. It's high in healthy monounsaturated fats and has a smoke point of almost 500°F. Other good choices include refined avocado, coconut, almond, and organic peanut oils.

[4] False. Or, rather, it depends. Oils with a high content of polyunsaturated fats-such as flax and hemp-should be refrigerated to prevent the oils from going rancid (polyunsaturated fats are less stable). But nut oils with a high monounsaturated fat content, such as olive, peanut, macadamia, or hazelnut, can safely be stored in a cool, dark place.

[5] False. Or, again, it depends. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer. For polyunsaturated fats, the results are mixed. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In general, studies suggest that omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, found in fish, walnuts, and flax, can reduce the risk of cancer. On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids, found in soy, safflower, and corn oils, may promote tumor growth, and tend to offset the beneficial effects of omega-3s. It's best to avoid high intake of omega-6 fats, usually found in chips, baked goods, and processed foods, and focus primarily on omega-3 fats.

[6] C. Trans fatty acids, chemically altered oils that cause inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, are found primarily in commercial baked goods, fast foods, chips, and anything containing margarine or shortening, such as pancake mix or pre-made frosting. Many food manufacturers have removed trans fats from their formulas, but some are still lurking. Check labels, and steer clear of those that contain "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" fats.

[7] False. The fact is, stick margarine is one of the most harmful foods you can eat. Margarine is the primary source of trans fats in the American diet. In 2007, one large study reported that women with the highest levels of trans fats had triple the risk of developing heart disease. In a recent review in the New England Journal of Medicine, even small amounts of trans fats-1-2 percent of calories per day-were linked to a 23 percent increase in heart disease.

[8] False. Although it's high in saturated fat, virgin coconut oil doesn't raise cholesterol and may actually reduce total and LDL cholesterol, while raising HDL levels. Additionally, virgin coconut oil, unlike saturated animal fat, has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

[9] False. It is difficult to get an adequate amount of omega 3s from seeds and nuts alone due to the high fiber content. You would need to thoroughly chew through 1 cup of ground flax to get 1-2 tsp. of oil. Although it's true that walnuts, flax, and some leafy greens contain omega-3 fatty acids, they're in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). But ALA must be converted by the body to EPA and DHA, the forms of omega-3 fats that reduce inflammation, lower triglycerides, improve mood, and offer other healthy benefits. It's an inefficient conversion process. As little as 10 percent of the ALA you eat may be converted into EPA and DHA. If you're trying to get more omega- 3s, and you do eat fish, then salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and fish oil supplements are the best sources. If you don't eat fish, look for vegan EPA/DHA supplements made from algae.

[10] C. That's right: as much as one-third of your daily calories should be in the form of fat. But here's the catch: it should be the healthy, monounsaturated kind. In the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart), people who swapped their high-carb diet for one rich in monounsaturated fats had lower blood pressure, better lipid profiles, and reduced risk of heart disease.

[11] False. You'd think it would be enough to choose foods labeled "0 grams trans fats." But if the amount of trans fat in a food is less than .5 grams per serving, the FDA allows food companies to list the amount of trans fat as "0 grams" on the Nutrition Facts panel. So if you eat four or five servings of these foods, you could exceed the daily recommend limit of less than 2 grams of trans fats. The best way to avoid trans fats: cut back on processed foods, and steer clear of those that contain "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" fats.

[12] False. Olive oil-even those labeled extra-virgin-may be adulterated with cheaper oils such as sunflower, soybean, or hazelnut. And your "Italian" olive oil may be grown and harvested in North Africa or Spain, then shipped to Italy for packaging. How to tell if you're getting the real thing? Organic varieties are better regulated, or look for brands with the COOC (California Olive Oil Council) seal. For more information, visit www.truthinoliveoil.com

[13] False. While unrefined oils have a fuller flavor, more pronounced aroma, and a higher antioxidant content, they also have small amounts of particulate that can burn and lower the smoke point. Use them for low-heat cooking, salad dressings, sauces, and soups, or serve them with bread for dipping or drizzled over cooked foods

[14] True. Most canola oil on the market has been genetically modified, and because it's cheap in price and neutral in flavor, many restaurants-even "healthy" ones-and supermarket prepared foods sections use canola oil for most cooking. If you do use canola oil in your kitchen, always buy organic versions to avoid GMOs, and if you're eating out (or at your local health foods deli, salad bar, or prepared foods section), ask what kind of oil they use-and whether or not it's organic.

[15] True. Refined avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points of any cooking oil, and a neutral flavor that works well with most dishes. Use the unrefined versions for dressings and drizzling on cooked foods.

Saturated Fat-a brain food?

Yes, saturated fat is critical for the brain. David Perlmutter, MD-an integrative neurologist who is also a fellow of the American College of Nutrition-points out that both cholesterol and saturated fat are vitally important for brain health. He's right. A Mayo Clinic study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that those individuals consuming the most saturated fat experienced a whopping 36 percent reduction in the risk for developing dementia. Low cholesterol is also associated in a number of studies with higher rates of depression-further evidence, thinks Perlmutter, of the importance of both cholesterol and saturated fat for brain health. "Saturated fat is a fundamental building block for brain cells," says Perlmutter. "It's certainly interesting to consider that one of the richest sources of saturated fat in nature is human breast milk." Perlmutter is the author of the bestselling book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar-Your Brain's Silent Killers.


1-4. Oh, dear: it's time for you to face the fats. Learn more about them in Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill, by Udo Erasmus, or Good Fats, Bad Fats, by Rosemary Stanton. Follow their advice, and be prepared to overhaul your pantry, cooking habits, and restaurant choices.

5-8. You could do better. Start by ridding your kitchen of the worst offenders: non-organic canola oil; refined sunflower, safflower, soy, or corn oils; and margarine. Then replace them with healthier choices (see the books listed above for details).

9-12. Not bad. You're likely to cook with, buy, and eat the healthiest fats and oils. See which questions you missed, and you're ready to move toward expert status.

13-15. Great work. You're an expert on fats, and probably have the sleek physique and glowing good health to show it!

Our Healthy Fat Favorites


Barlean's Wild & Whole Salmon Oil features the full spectrum of omega-3s found naturally in salmon, is unrefined to maintain integrity, and each batch is tested for purity.


Carlson's Super Omega•3 contains a concentrated blend of fish oils rich in EPA and DHA derived from cold-water fish including mackerel and sardines.


Flora Organic Hydro-Therm Walnut Oil lends a delicate flavor to salad dressings and in baking. It's cold-pressed, unrefined, and comes in an amber bottle to prevent damage from light.


Garden of Life Extra Virgin Coconut Oil has a clean, fresh taste that comes from using only organic coconuts. And rest assured: It is never refined, bleached, or hydrogenated.


Ovega-3 Omega-3s EPA + DHA is a vegan omega-3 formula derived from DHA- and EPA-rich algae. You get the health benefits of fish oils without an aftertaste or burping.



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