I don’t know how I manage to not give up trying to eat healthy. There’s so much conflicting information out there, and the “better” and “worse” foods for you seem to be constantly changing.
This is especially true of dietary fats. We, as a western society, have swung full circle – from eating an abundance of animal fat and butter and hardly any oil, all the way to trying to completely avoid fats in food back in the 80’s, to trying to eat more polyunsaturated oils and less animal fats in the 90’s on, and now all the way full circle and back to more animal fats, but especially fish oils and much less of the vegetable oils. Here is a link to a CBC article on this issue published Feb. 10, 2013.
I remember when my Mum and also my Mother-in-law would spread a sandwich very thickly with butter and I would just cringe and scrape it off. Very luckily for me, I never switched from butter to margarine, simply because even back then, I considered it a “fake” food. Luckily, it seems that margarine has lost its favour in many people’s eyes and they’re back to butter.
So, pretty much all my adult life I was under the impression that the polyunsaturated oils, such as sunflower and safflower, were so much better for you and I used them almost exclusively. Now it turns out that they are way too high in Omega-6 fatty acids, and that they’re actually BAD for your heart health, not good for it.
In doing my research on the food oils that are out there, the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 pops up as being critically important, followed by the smoke point of the oil, if you’re planning to cook with it. For instance, flax oil has a great ratio, tons of Omega-3’s, but a very low smoking point, so you are not supposed to cook with it or bake with it, just eat it in its raw state, and preferably bought refrigerated as it goes rancid very quickly. Sure enough, doesn’t this fall in line with exactly what they did in my Grandparents’ generation. My Grandfather grew flax and hemp for making very strong rope, but he would collect the seeds, do a simple pressing and give his 7 children spoonfuls of this oil for their health. The rest of the time, they ate butter or lard, and they were very healthy people – no heart disease at all.
Then there are oils that have a much higher smoke point, such as peanut, safflower, canola etc. so they’re safe to cook and fry with, but they have a lousy ratio, having far too much Omega-6’s and are (now) considered unhealthy for your heart.
So, what to do?
Well, the very best thing you can do is eat more oily fish, such as salmon, trout, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, etc. This way, even if you do eat vegetable oils, you can at least get a better balance during the day. If you don’t eat a lot of this type of fish, i.e. daily, then you can purchase fish oil supplements just about anywhere nowadays. This reminds me so much of my childhood, when we had to down a tablespoon of cod-liver oil every morning. It had such a foul flavour though, that it turned me off for life. Now the fish oils can be flavoured, and some people, such as my Grandson, really love it! (I take capsules!)
Then there are the better-for-you oils, with Avocado oil being top of the list as having a very good ratio and a high smoke point, so if you are frying food quite a bit, you might want to switch to avocado. It has a lovely flavour to it, and so is great for salad dressings as well.
Next comes Ghee, which is basically clarified butter which has been allowed to brown just a bit to get a nutty flavour to it. For some reason it’s very expensive in the stores but seems to be very simple to make – you basically melt high quality butter until the milk solids settle out at the bottom and then strain it off. Here is a link to a recipe for ghee if you want to try it. Ghee has a very high smoke point and a good ratio of Omega’s so it’s better for cooking with than butter. The process of making ghee also stabilizes it so you can even keep it unrefrigerated. I haven’t tried making it yet, but I intend to, and I’ll be keeping mine in the fridge.
Olive oil comes next in terms of a healthy oil. It’s different in that it has mostly mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which behave differently in the body than Omega’s and are very healthy. However, it has a fairly low smoke point, which means it’s good for sauteing at medium temperatures only. That means if your recipe calls for some “browning”, olive oil is not the best for that.
Then there is coconut oil, also considered a healthy fat. It is solid white at room temperature, so that makes me a bit worried. How can it be healthy if it looks like lard? That’s just my internal judgement kicking in, though. In fact, just like lard, it is a saturated fat, however, it contains mostly medium-chain-triglycerides, which are heart healthy fatty acids. Unfortunately, like olive oil, it should only be used for medium heat cooking as well, as it has a smoke point of 350. I have been using it mostly for baking, as I find it makes a great base when combined with honey. Luckily, when using honey you can lower the heat by 25 degrees, so that brings it to below the smoke point.
Here is a link to a chart of all the food oils, their smoke points and Omega-3:6 ratios.
And finally, as with all things, using everything in moderation is the key. It seems that the more research that is done, the more I realize that sticking to one type of food, one way of eating, one diet or one anything, is just not good for you. We are omnivorous, which means that we thrive on a variety of different foods. And Thank Goodness for that!