Fats and Oils : the good, the bad, the ugly

Fats and oils have a much bigger picture in the overall health story than simply whether they make us obese or not.  Or whether we have too much cholesterol or not; or whether margarine is better than butter (which it is not); many vital body systems are affected by not merely how much fats/oils we consume, but by what types of fats/oils we have, how have they been treated - is it fresh, or has it been exposed to light, oxygen, heat, hydrogen, water, acid, base or metals like copper and iron?  How old is it? How has it been used in food preparation? How much is consumed?  What balance of different fats/oils do we get?

In order to achieve good health, maintain health and avoid disease, we need to change (among other things) our consumption patterns of fats, oils and other fatty substances.  Not only cardiovascular health, but cancer, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, PMS, certain mental illnesses, skin problems, fatigue, indeed most diseases have poor fats and oils consumption patterns as implicit causative factors.

If you want health for yourself and for your family, you cannot afford to take as "gospel" the sales pitches of vested interests; for example, one cannot depend on the propaganda which comes from Dairy Corporations, or the Beef industry, or the Margarine manufacturers, as to the health or otherwise of their products; they have one primary consideration, the bottom line, and that is profit.  Health concerns are often overlooked, downright lies are told, most "information" is misinformation, worse than useless, and positively dangerous when it comes to what real health is all about.

Fatty acids are the main building blocks of fats (solids) and oils (liquids).  There are 100 trillion fatty acids in just one drop of oil.  They make up short chains and long chains.  They have many functions in our bodies, eg provide insulation and absorb shock; provide energy, calories, heat; form membranes for cells;  form cholesterols; create electrical potential and move electrical energy; form hormones and prostaglandins (present in every body cell), among other things.

There are 5 families of fatty acids

  • Superunsaturated omega-3s, contained in flaxseed, hemp seeds, canola seeds, soybeans, and uncooked cold water fish eg salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines
  • Polyunsaturated omega-6s, contained in seeds and oils of safflower, sunflower, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, flax, borage, evening primrose oil; also in meats and other animal products
  • Monounsaturated omega-9s, as in olive, almond, avocado, peanut, cashew and macadamia nut oils
  • Monounsaturated omega-7s, especially in coconut and palm oils
  • Saturated fats and oils family, especially concentrated in animal products.

Our bodies need all of these families in varying amounts;  the body can make some of them, (for example, it converts excess sugar and starches into saturated fatty acids), so we don't need these in our diets; others are considered to be essential, that is, the body cannot make them, we need them in our food. The story with fats and oils is about necessity, balance, and sources. 

The Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

The Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are those which we need from outside, in our diets, since our bodies cannot make them, and these are the "good" ones (called such because the average western diet does not get enough), the ones we need to balance out the "bad" ones (called such because we get too much in the average diet).  They are called Alpha-Linolenic Acid (omega-3s) and Linoleic Acid (omega-6s).  Absence, or deficiency of these EFAs can cause many different symptoms, such as (any one or several of the following): eczema, dry skin, psoriasis, asthma, some behavioural disturbances such as some psychoses (eg some schizophrenias), and depression, liver and/or kidney degeneration, glandular atrophy and dysfunction, some tumours and cancers, arthritis-like symptoms, heart and circulatory problems such as high blood pressure, high serum triglycerides, and sticky platelets, growth retardation, weakness, vision and learning impairment, motor incoordination, tingling in arms and legs,  tissue inflammation (eg as in asthma), oedema, low metabolic rate, and immune dysfunctioning, symptoms of MS etc.  Omega-3 fatty acids also improve calcium and some other mineral absorption and metabolism. It has been shown to improve energy and stamina levels, shorten tissue healing time in cartilage damage (eg arthritis) and general bruising, sprains etc, and benefits all skin tissue, including nails and hair.

EFA deficiency (especially of the omega-3 type) is far more widespread than is commonly believed.  Quite apart from the fact that the modern Australian diet is abnormally high in saturated fats and oils (in red meat, chicken, dairy such as milk, butter, icecream, cheeses etc; used in cooking especially fried foods, TV-dinners and junky "fast foods" of the chicken and hamburger types - we know which ones, don't  we), studies have shown that omega-3 consumption has decreased to 1/6 the level found in food supplies of the 1850s, whilst omega-6 consumption has doubled in that time, drastically changing the ratio of n-3 to n-6 in our food supply, and this altered ratio (ie imbalance) is reflected in the "modern day" disease profiles where fat-based metabolism is implicated, as noted above.

Flaxseed and Flaxseed oil

Flaxseed oil (cold pressed; in dark bottles; from Healthfood shops) supplementation is the quick way to make up for this imbalance.  It is the richest source of edible omega-3s known in the world.  Omega-3 deficiency can be reversed by good quality flaxseed oil consumed over the course of 3 or 4 months; we advise diagnostic and treatment supervision, as you don't  want to tip the balance the other way.

So we need more EFAs in our diets. How much each day?  The best available source of the omega-3s is flaxseed oil, and we need from 1-2 Tbsp / day (Dr Johanna Budwig recommends up to 8 Tbsp in her cancer therapy; the Gerson Clinic (anti-cancer) regime uses 2 Tbsp per day).  See footnote (4) for serving suggestions.  The omega-6 fatty acids are readily available in soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, safflower, sunflower, sesame seed oil, canola, almond, olive and other seeds and nuts.  We tend not to lack these in a balanced diet, and special supplementation (eg with Evening Primrose Oil - EPO) may be unnecessary except in particular circumstances.

Requirements vary also with levels of physical activity, stress, nutritional state, sex, and individual differences.  However, 1 to 2 Tbsp per day is enough to prevent deficiency symptoms in most healthy adults; obese people, and those who intake high levels of saturated fats (eg heavy red-meat eaters) and olive oil, and who may be in the risk categories as listed above, may need more to achieve proper balance. However, part of achieving balance would be to reduce such saturated fat intake at the same time.

In order for the body to effectively use these EFAs, there must be adequate supply of vitamins B3, B6, C and magnesium and zinc;  these are known co-factors and synergists in EFA utilisation and conversion in the body.

Flaxseed oil can be put into Soy Smoothies, or can be formulated into a salad dressing (see p.4).

How to look after your EFAs

Air (oxygen), light, and heat destroy EFAs; that is why Nature packages these oils in seeds.  EFAs attract oxygen; this is one of their beneficial activities inside our bodies (involved with oxygen transfer across lung tissue (alveolar) membranes, across plasma, into the red blood cells, into our body cells and even within the cell itself, to specific sites of oxygen utilisation within the mitochondria themselves.  But outside our bodies, EFAs need to be protected from oxygen, so ensure lid is fastened tightly, and use as soon as possible once having dispensed it.  Store in fridge once opened. Keep away from light and sunlight; and never heat EFA oils (use olive oil or canola oil for cooking).  Heat denatures EFAs and can convert them into dangerous free-radical (oxidation) states. For this reason, I question the safety of any breads which contain linseed meal, such as SoyLin.   So use only those vegetable oils which have been cold-pressed (for this reason, avoid margarine too). In this context we question the use of linseed meal in breads, as the baking process might oxidise the omega-3 fatty acids and cause free radical damage in our bodies. Use flaxseed oil up within 6 weeks once opened, or it can go rancid and turn into linseed oil.

Another Problem

Apart from the fact that the average Aussie diet is far too high altogether in saturated fats, consuming any fats and oils which have been heated has some very negative effects in the human body.

For example, modern methods of food oil refining and processing has meant that the essential omega-3s (lost when heated) were sacrificed to achieve a more stable oil, good for storage, not good to eat.  In processing too we lose other constituents of seed oils, such as phospholipids (including lecithin with important fat-emulsifying and membrane functions), phytosterols (which block cholesterol absorption from our intestine), fat-soluble vitamin E complex, carotene and their precursors (which protect oils against damage in storage and act as antioxidants in our body), chlorophyll (rich in magnesium), aromatic and volatile compounds, and minerals.  So most commercial oils have been denatured.  Go for the ones which have been unrefined, cold pressed, fresh, stored in dark bottles, cold-stored, and ideally organic.

Cooking with Oil

We have said that heating oils further denatures and damages them.  It is best to eat foods which have not been cooked in oil.  You can steam or dry-bake fish and vegies (wrap in Alfoil). 

If you do cook with oil, however, then use as little heat as possible, and use olive oil, butter, refined peanut and avocado oils, high oleic sunflower and high oleic safflower oils (both hard to find);  these are more stable for low temperature frying, and are less damaged than others in normal kitchen cooking.  The best frying method is to put some water in the pot, wok or frying pan first, and then the vegies and meat before the oil. As long as there is some water present in the utensil, the temperature will remain about 212 degrees F (100° C), which is the boiling point of water, and thus protects the oil from overheating and oxidation; the food tastes less burned, retains more of its natural flavours and nutrients, and is less damaging to our health.

Keep Away from Margarines

Manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oils to make products spreadable (eg margarines) and to provide shelf stability.  It is at the expense of nutrition and health.  For example, remnants of nickel and copper (catalysing agents) remain.  Partial hydrogenation, used to make margarines, shortenings, and some vegetable oils, produces dozens of new, unnatural fatty acid fragments, including trans-fatty acids created during the process, and some of these are toxic. Trans-fatty acids alter the balance between LDLs and HDLs (cholesterols), as a large, well controlled study in 1990 and many other studies as well, show conclusively that trans-fatty acids increase total cholesterol and the so-called "bad" LDLs, disproving manufacturers claims that margarines can be good for the health of the heart.  They interfere with the liver's detoxification systems, and affect cardiac and vascular function as well.

Trans fatty acids impair cell membranes (phospholipid bilayer) affecting cell metabolism and energy output, and allow for allergic reactivity and immune impairment. They affect the electrical energy systems of the body membranes.  And they disrupt the vital functions of EFAs, by interfering with the enzyme systems that transform fatty acids into highly unsaturated fatty acid derivatives (found especially in the brain, sense organs, adrenals, and testes - anyone a chronic fatigue sufferer?). Trans-fatty acids also interfere with inflammation pathways (esp prostaglandin function) which directly affects blood pressure, platelet (blood clots), kidney function, inflammation responses anywhere in the body, and immune system competence.

Mary Enig's research (1993) has examined the effects of trans-fatty acids for years.  She shows that they predispose towards atherosclerosis, affect immune function, reduce sperm count, reduce libido, interfere with pregnancy, reduce the quality of breast milk, increase blood insulin in response to glucose, decrease insulin response (undesirable for diabetics), interfere with liver detox systems (cytochrome P-448/450), alter membrane transport and fluidity, cause obesity, interfere with omega-3s and fish oil metabolism.

Heart attack, as a specific risk category was largely unknown, until the advent of margarines and hydrogenated vegetable oils.  The growth of these products in popularity is closely followed by the epidemiological emergence of myocardial infarct (heart attack), coronary heart disease, and atherosclerosis.  The so-called "Israeli Paradox" demonstrates a high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, cancer and mortality in Israelis who have the highest intake of mono- and polyunsaturated fats.  Let the blame fall where it should.

Another Problem on the Doorstep

Already, GM oils (genetically modified) are being used in many food preparations.  GM cottonseed and canola oil is being used to make margarines, used in baking biscuits and cakes, deep frying, and is being fed to animals which end up on dinner tables across the nation.

Given the Australian Government's seeming ambivalence on this issue (they have agreed that all GM-containing foods be labelled, but they have still not enacted appropriate legislation - as at 1/6/99), it is prudent not to use any oils containing cottonseed or canola oil unless it is labelled organic.  For this reason, we recommend cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil (organic) as the preferred cooking oil.

More Omega-3 Serving Suggestions

AJs salad dressing, to be made and kept in a dark bottle with lid, in the refrigerator : 50 mls flaxseed oil, 50 mls extra virgin olive oil, 50 mls balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard seed, 1 tsp chilli (eg 'sambal oerlick' ), 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, 1 tsp grated ginger, 1 pinch 'Celtic salt',  50 mls water, 1 tsp honey (optional), shaken up well, and refrigerated. Apply liberally over fresh vegetable salads.  Bueno apetito !!  

Soy Smoothie Blend together:

  • 1 cup organic soy milk (can be vanilla flavoured);
  • 1/2 ripe banana* (banana amount dictates thickness of the smoothie)
  • flaxseed oil 2 Tablespoon (child -1 or 2 teaspoon)
  • psyllium powder / husks - 1 dessertspoon
  • optional extras: 1 raw egg - (3 times per week only); 1 tbsp sunflower seeds, 1 tsp honey

(* bananas are good in smoothies, however for variation you can use / or add some ripe peach, mango, rockmelon or pawpaw.  Also, you can add lecithin, chlorella, spirulina or kelp). 


(follow exactly, do not double it etc - makes 1&1/2 cups)

  • set aside 1/2 cup flaxseed oil, 1/2 cup olive oil
  • break an egg into a blender
  • add 2 Tbsp lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
  • a dash each of mustard (dry or prepared) and cayenne (or ground white pepper)
  • put 1/4 cup of the above oil in
  • begin to blend at LOW speed until it begins to thicken.  Immediately add the remaining 3/4 cup of oil in a heavy stream whilst blending at low speed, until the desired consistency

Flaxseeds not only provide wonderfully nutritious essential fatty acid oil, but are 26% protein (NB a vegetarian source of complete protein containing all amino acids essential to human health; however, it is low in lysine, methionine and cysteine), 26% fibre and mucilage and lignans.  The seeds need to be ground fresh; use is healing in digestive disturbances, constipation, blood sugar glucose levels, cardiovascular, tumours etc.  Ground flax meal in plastic containers is usually rancid, so avoid; best to grind your own in a blender. Once ground, keep away from light, oxygen, heat; store in airtight container, in fridge; best eaten fresh, can make a muesli with it by adding ground almonds and sunflower seeds.

Make your own LSA (or just buy it)

Grind separately in a coffee grinder or strong blender each of the following:
  • Linseed meal, 3 parts (by volume)  
  • Sunflower seeds, 2 parts   
  • Almonds, 1/2 part
  • Keep in freezer until used. Can be eaten as a muesli with stewed, dried and/or fresh fruit with soy milk and a dash of honey if desired, or put into a soy smoothie.
  2010 - 2015 © Adrian Jones Naturopath   Global Star Services