The importance of optimizing dietary oils and fats is a common theme in health news and with health practitioners. In this Natural Truth post, we will consider our need to control oils and fats in our diet, and cover what we believe are the most important guidelines for this practice.
At one point or another, and especially of you live in an affluent country, you likely have been advised to reduce or change the mix of oils and fats in your diet – whether at school, at work, by a physician, or by a health-focused and well-intentioned friend.
Olives – Rich In One Of Nature’s Most Healthy Oils
Unfortunately, and as with other nutritional health areas today (such as the companion topic of carbohydrate optimization), the advice we get is often ambiguous or contradictory. And this is not simply a matter of differing opinions. In fact, the scientific consensus regarding ideal oil and fat consumption is now more fractured than it once was and clearly changing, based on both newer research and fresh investigations of older studies.
Adding to this ambiguity is the fact that our personal ability to healthfully process oils and fats depends on a number of factors. One important factor is our genes, with both familial and regional genetic differences affecting our ability to manage dietary fats and oils of all kinds – including saturated animal fats and unsaturated vegetable oils (see Genes & Saturated Fats and Genes & Fatty Acid Metabolism).
In particular, our genes may: 1) either promote or limit tissue inflammation and other negative health effects in the presence of either saturated fats or Omega-6 fat-rich foods, 2) allow us to tolerate high amounts of specific oils such as olive oil or coconut oil, or 3) engender allergies to specific oil-rich foods, such as fish or avocados.
Another important factor influencing our ability to healthfully process oils and fats is our personal lifestyle, including effects from our environment. Our level of physical activity, the quality of our overall diet, and lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, and chronic stress can influence the way, and how well, we metabolize oils and fats (see Exercise & Blood Lipids, Diet Quality & Fat Metabolism, Smoking & Fat Metabolism, Alcohol & Fat Metabolism, and Stress & Fat Metabolism).
Oil & Fat Optimization
Given the current scientific ambiguities and personal differences we have highlighted, you may be tempted to give up trying to consume oils and fats more attentively and ideally. But this would be an enormous health and even life-limiting mistake.
Despite the complexity and current scientific controversies regarding dietary oils and fats, there are a number of principles and practices related to oil and fat optimization that we know with fairly high certainty can lead to better health, longevity, and quality of life outcomes in nearly all people.
To explore this area, we would like to begin by highlighting four key principles for oil and fat optimization:
> #1: Oils & fats are essential to life – it’s important to start by highlighting that dietary oils and fats are critical macronutrients – required for energy, metabolism, hormone production, and tissue health, to begin a list – and we would not survive for long without them in our daily diet (see Wikipedia Fat).
> #2: Oils & fats have an optimal range – the ideal total amount (and types) of oils and fats we should consume each day, typically understood or measured as a percentage of total calories, is an area of current scientific debate and also one where there appears to be natural variation between people, individually and regionally. Some diet programs today recommend low dietary fat levels, while others directly or implicitly (for example, by promoting low carbohydrate consumption) encourage high-fat diets. HumanaNatura believes both of these approaches are less than ideal, and that there is weakening science to support them. Our Natural Eating guidelines for oils and fats are between these extremes, based both on our reading of current nutritional science and considering the likely proportions of oils and fats in our long-evolved or pre-agricultural diet. In the OurPlate healthy eating model that HumanaNatura advocates, oils and fats comprise roughly 40% of our daily calories, but with important qualifiers related to the quality or types of oils and fats we consume (which we will discuss next).
> #3: Some oils & fats are healthier – even with personal and regional genetic differences, on average some oils and fats have been shown scientifically to be healthier than others (importantly, ones that are generally a more natural or longstanding part of our human diet). In general, monounsaturated vegetable fats like olive oil and coconut oil appear healthier for us, as are Omega-3-rich oils from fish and others sources (see Wikipedia Monounsaturated Fat and Omega-3 Fatty Acid). By contrast, high amounts of saturated animal fats, especially from fatty farm-raised red meats, and vegetable oils rich Omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn oil and sunflower oil, appear much less healthy for us (see Wikipedia Omega-6 Fatty Acid).
> #4: Oil & fat excesses have consequences – overall, excesses in oils and fats, especially unhealthy or less natural ones, will tend to reduce our health and may shorten our lives (here, and below, our use of the term natural refers to foods with a longstanding place in our evolutionary line, rather than simply being present in wild nature). On their own, excessive oils and fats, particularly hydrogenated oils and saturated fats can lead to cardiovascular disease and other health disorders (see AHA Trans Fats and Saturated Fats). And when combined with high amounts of refined carbohydrates, excesses of oils and fats of all kinds can add to the negative effects of high sugar consumption and lead to unhealthy weight gain, elevated body fat, and insulin resistance (see Dietary Fat & Insulin Sensitivity)
Oil & Fat Guidelines
We will assume that some, though perhaps not all, of these foundational ideas are familiar to you. What is often less intuitive or well-understood are the core, scientifically derived practices for optimizing oils and fats in our diets.
Given this, as part of this Natural Truth review and to shed light on the science of oil and fat optimization, below are several guidelines that are applicable to all or most of us (since there is individual variation, please review this list with a physician or nutritionist before using):
– Avoid trans-fats, hydrogenated oils & other modified fats – these undesirable and unnatural oils and fats are vegetable oils that have been modified for palatability or to aid the manufacture of various food products. They are notable for their strong link to cardiovascular disease (again, see AHA Trans Fats). Owing to their negative health effects, modified oils are becoming illegal or are otherwise being phased out in many countries. In any case, we have good reason to avoid or greatly limit them in our diet.
– Moderate saturated animal fats – as discussed above, we have a good scientific basis to limit saturated animal fats, but not to avoid them entirely. Indeed, some studies have found that people had better health outcomes with moderate saturated fats in their diets than others who substantially reduced them and replaced the lost calories with either Omega-6-rich vegetable fats and/or added carbohydrates (see Saturated Fat Replacement and High Carbohydrate Diets)
– Ensure Omega-3 fats – as we have highlighted, it is important to ensure that a significant amount of our oils and fats are rich in (natural) Omega-3 fatty acids, since they broadly produce tissue health and have other important health effects. Key sources of Omega-3 fats include fish, fish oils, eggs, dairy, canola oil, and several types of seeds and nuts (again, see Wikipedia Omega-3 Fatty Acid for a fuller discussion and food list).
– Consume other healthy vegetable oils – in addition to olive, coconut, and canola oil, the oil-rich flesh of avocados, olives, and raw-edible seeds and nuts are natural and normally extremely healthy for us (see Avocado Health Effects and Nut Health Effects).
– Moderate Omega-6 fats – also in keeping with our discussion, it is equally important to limit (generally unnatural) vegetable oils and other foods high in Omega-6 fatty acids, since elevated intake of these foods are associated with arthritis, tissue inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. Key sources of Omega-6 fats are corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and animal meats (again, see Wikipedia Omega-6 Fatty Acid for a fuller discussion and food list)
– Avoid fried foods & fatty meats – both are easy steps that can greatly reduce total fat in our diets, especially unhealthy excesses in both Omega-6 rich cooking oils and saturated animal fats. On this last point, it is important to note that fatty meats are generally unnatural in themselves, and are typically produced by feeding animals unnatural and environmentally harmful diets high in grains and legumes. By contrast, naturally-fed animals are almost invariably lean, as are meats derived from them.
– Avoid high temperature frying – in addition to avoiding fried foods, research suggests that we should further avoid cooking with oils and fats at high temperatures, especially to the point of smoking, since this tends to destroy nutrient quality and may produce carcinogens (see Wikipedia Deep Frying/Hazards). Steaming, roasting, or mid-temperature sautéing of foods are all preferable options, and in this order.
– Maintain a vegetable-rich diet – as suggested before, a diet (naturally) rich in vegetables and fruits will help you to process fats more efficiently and healthfully, and likely both directly via improved nutrition and indirectly by fostering healthier intestinal bacteria (see HSPH Vegetables & Fruits). Indeed, vegetables and fruits, rather than proteins and fats, should be understood as the natural foundation of our diet and ideally the largest part of our food volume (though not calories) each day.
– Ensure daily exercise – like a green diet, (natural) daily exercise has been shown to greatly improve our ability to metabolize fats and of course promote our health generally (again, see Exercise & Blood Lipids).
– Avoid chronic stress – as mentioned earlier, chronic lifestyle stress has been shown to reduce our ability to process oils and fats, and to lead to reduced health and quality of life outcomes more generally (again, see Stress & Fat Metabolism).
– Avoid smoking and limit alcohol – both smoking and high alcohol use have been shown to reduce our ability to metabolize fats and oils, or are associated with diseases driven by excessive or otherwise unnatural oil and fat consumption (again, see Smoking & Fat Metabolism and Alcohol & Fat Metabolism).
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given our discussion, HumanaNatura rates the idea that careful control of our dietary oils and fats is essential to our long-term health an 8/10 (Strong Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on the above referenced research, which broadly recommends care with oils and fats, and supports the dietary oil and fat guidelines we have covered. However, our rating is less than a perfect score because the precise optimal mix of oils and fats in our diet is not yet known, is controversial scientifically in several areas, may be strongly influenced by the overall quality of our diet and lifestyle, and may vary by a person and region’s dominant genetic make-up.
But even with these caveats, the guidelines we have presented should help most people successfully consider and progressively control their oil and fat consumption, and their diet overall, for superior health and fitness. For a more complete view of HumanaNatura’s modern natural diet recommendations, see our OurPlate healthy eating guide and comprehensive Personal Health Program.
You can also click the following link to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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