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"Dr. Hyman, I'm so confused about what fats to cook with," a reader recently wrote. "For so long I've been using vegetable oils because I heard they were best to cook with and now I hear that we can cook with butter or coconut oil."
I completely understand your confusion, especially with rampant misinformation about fats and nutrition in general. For instance, the American Heart Association recommends adults get no more than five percent of their calories from saturated fat, urging people to use vegetable oils instead.
When cooking, use extra-virgin coconut oil, avocado oil (which can be used at higher temperatures because these are highly stable oils) and even ghee (clarified butter).iStock
They also advise people to eat at least 5 to 10 percent of their calories from polyunsaturated fat. Unlike saturated fat, the American Heart Association rationalizes the linoleic acid in polyunsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol levels.
As a result of this and other poor nutrition advice, the average intake of this omega-6 fatty acid has risen sharply: Americans consume at least twice the amount of linoleic acid today than they did in the 1960s.
Increased consumption of omega-6 vegetable oils, which are highly inflammatory to the body and unstable, has subsequently increased inflammatory diseases. Over-consuming omega-6 fats and under-consuming omega-3 fats increases numerous health issues including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, pre-diabetes, IBS, arthritis, asthma, cancer and autoimmune diseases.
These ubiquitous omega-6 fats like vegetable oils (soybean, safflower, sunflower and canola oils) undo any health benefits from consuming omega-3 fats. They also reduce conversion of plant-based omega-3 fats (called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) into active forms of omega-3s (calledeicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid or EPA and DHA, respectively) by about 40 percent.
This misguided dietary advice to swap traditional omega-3-rich fats for inflammatory omega-6 fats, although it may have begun with good intent, has yielded disastrous results. Consuming too many omega-6 fats also increases mental illness, suicide and homicide. In fact, studies show a connection of mental health with inflammation in the brain.
Big food companies have played a big role here. The oil industry played a major role pushing trans fats. When that didn't work, they resorted to "healthier," highly refined vegetable oil and other omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.
We need to eliminate these highly processed vegetable oils that are so prevalent in the standard American diet. Instead, I suggest using more plant-based and animal-stable fats such as butter, coconut oil and even lard.
Based on misinformation, you might think using these fats is unhealthy. I did too at one time, yet after closely evaluating literature on this topic from a neutral perspective, I completely changed my diet and those of my patients.
Today, I embrace coconut oil, ghee and even some grass-fed butter as part of my diet. After all, we've been eating these and other traditional fats for centuries before flawed science and so-called experts told us they were unhealthy and caused heart disease.
Saturated fat is one reason these animal-stable fats got a bad rep. While studies show saturated fat raises LDL (your so-called "bad" cholesterol), it actually has been found to improve the quality of your LDL by increasing its size, making it less likely to promote heart disease. Saturated fat also raises HDL (your "good" cholesterol).
While research shows coconut oil contains higher amounts of saturated fat and does increase total cholesterol, it also raises HDL and improves your TC/HDL ratio (a good thing), a far better predictor of heart attacks than LDL alone.
Time for an Oil Change
So what are your best cooking choices? I recommend cutting out all refined oils except extra-virgin olive oil. When cooking, use extra-virgin coconut oil, avocado oil (which can be used at higher temperatures because these are highly stable oils) and even ghee (clarified butter).
Ghee has a higher smoking point at 400 to 500 F and provides the same nutrients in grass-fed butter like cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Ghee and butter are also high in vitamins D and A, omega-3 fats, and butyric acid, which can boost immunity and help inflammation, as well as protect against colon cancer.
Coconut oil tolerates temperatures up to about 350 F, so it's great for most baking and medium-high heat sautéing. Olive oil is best for low-heat cooking or used raw for dressing salads. Avocado oil, macadamia oil and walnut oil also are wonderful raw and make great dressings.
Whatever you choose, always go for organic, unrefined, cold-pressed or expeller pressed oils. Do your research and don't be afraid to contact a company directly to ensure its products are truly cold-pressed. Organic production prohibits GMOs and the use of hexanes for extraction in oils.
Storage and shelf life are crucial with cooking oils. Store oils in dark, not clear, bottles and keep in a cool, dark place away from light and heat. Don't store oils on kitchen counters or next to the stove. Always close the lid tightly and immediately store oils after using them because oxygen contributes to rancidity.
Oils go bad over a span of months depending on the type. I recommend only purchasing the amount you will actually use within two months.
To further learn how to cook with healthy fats and which fats to choose, look for my new cookbook, the Eat Fat, Get Thin Cookbook in which I present more than 175 recipes that support healthy cooking and eating
If you're confused about what fats to use and how to use them, I highly recommend checking out this cookbook, in stores on Nov. 29 and available now online.