Whether you’re a fitness buff, a weekend-warrior, a professional athlete, or just someone committed to optimizing your health and well-being, you’ve probably figured out that diet and nutrition are worth paying attention to. A clean and healthy diet plays an important role in both basic wellness and elite athletic performance.
What you may not know is just how vital healthy fats and oils are to any nourishing and well-rounded diet. Basically, we ignore these “good fats” at our own peril!
There’s quite a bit of confusion around this topic, because certain fats and oils are indeed best avoided—while others provide essential fuel for the health of our brain, nervous and immune systems, and overall cellular function. In this blog, we’ll help you understand which to include and which to avoid—on route to maximizing the effectiveness of your diet and nutrition game.
A Nutritional Fallacy That’s Worth Debunking
If you’re in the habit of avoiding all fats and oils, believing them to be detrimental to your health, you’re not alone. One of the biggest nutritional fallacies—given legitimacy through all kinds of media hype—is that saturated fat is bad for us.
The truth, however, is that healthy saturated fats—such as coconut oil, ghee, olive oil, almond oil and avocado oil—are not only good for us; they are absolutely vital for the body’s proper functioning.
“Since the anti-fat health education initiatives of the 1980s and early 1990s, certain dietary fats have been increasingly recognized as actually beneficial to health.”
The same article goes on to report:
“Athletes, like the mainstream populace, are now getting the message that wise dietary fat choices offer essential fatty acids, blood lipid management, maintained endocrine and immune function, inflammation control, metabolic effects and even potential body composition and performance benefits.”
The bottom line is that healthy fats have the potential to improve performance in all kinds of ways, for recreational and professional athletes alike. But why exactly is this? What makes fats and oils so crucial to the health of a human body?
To begin answering these questions, let’s take a look at the role that essential fatty acids play in the health of our brain.
The Good Guys: How Healthy Fats/Oils Support a Healthy Brain
The human brain is comprised of almost 60% fat—and the essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-3 and omega-6 are necessary for its proper functioning. Because the body doesn’t produce EFAs on its own, it’s vitally important that we get these from dietary sources.
“Foods containing polyunsaturated fatty acids (nuts, seeds, fish, leafy green vegetables) and monounsaturated fatty acids (extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts) may reduce your risk of both depression and dementia.”
Most of us eat greater quantities of foods containing omega-6 (e.g. eggs, poultry, and avocado) than foods high in omega-3 (e.g. oily fish, flax seeds, and walnuts). As a result, it is particularly important to up our intake of omega-3 fatty acids—which are polyunsaturated fats that are responsible for constructing cell membranes in the brain and throughout the body.
The best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines. Eating two 3.5-oz servings of these fish varieties each week is a great way to provide your body with the omega-3 fatty acids that it needs.
Alternatively, you can use salmon, krill, or cod liver oil capsules as an omega-3 supplement.
Now that you have a sense of the importance of essential fatty acids, it will be easy to understand why it’s best to avoid another kind of fat …
The Villains: Which Fats & Oils To Avoid
The fats that we want to avoid are trans-fats, also known as partially hydrogenated fats or—for good reason—”killer fats.” These are fats that prevent essential fatty acids from doing their job of keeping the brain working well. For this reason, they are damaging to the brain and entire nervous system.
The consumption of trans fats tends to raise our bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower our good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating these sorts of fats increases the risk of stroke and heart disease and is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In short, these chemically altered manmade fats are almost always toxic to our health. The specific kinds of fats/oils that are included in this must-avoid category include:
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
Artificial coffee creamers (both dairy and non-dairy)
If you read the ingredients list on packaged foods, you’ll see these toxic fats appearing in many store-bought cookies, crackers, doughnuts, cakes, pies, biscuits, muffins, and almost all commercially fried foods.
For all the reasons we’ve discussed here, they are best avoided. It’s the trans fats that give all fats and oil a bad name!
Now that we’ve clarified the kind of fats/oils that damage the body, and hence should be avoided—let’s return to singing the praises of the friendly oils.
Sublimely Healthy Fats & Oils
Here are some of the healthiest fats and oils. In combination, these can nourish your wellbeing and boost your fitness. Try to have at least two or three of them in your cupboard at all times (or more, if inspired). Remember to choose unrefined, organic, cold-pressed and extra-virgin varieties, whenever possible:
Fatty fish (as mentioned above, for omega-3 content)
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia)
Seeds (chia, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp)
Coconut flakes or chunks
Full-fat yogurt (with live active cultures)
Make it a habit to include one or two of these healthy-fat foods in each meal—and enjoy new levels of vitality.
What Are The Healthiest Cooking Oils?
Some oils, like olive oil, are best drizzled on a salad. Others, such as butter and ghee for instance, make luscious spreads for warm toast or muffins.
But you might be wondering which oils are best to use for moderate- or high-heat cooking. According to Dr. Axe, the top eight healthy cooking oils are:
Ghee (clarified butter)
Extra virgin olive oil
Red Palm oil
So if you’re hankering for an Asian stir-fry, heat some unrefined sesame oil in the bottom of your wok. For a Mediterranean dish, start with extra virgin olive oil. For super-high-temperature cooking, go for avocado oil.
Several times already we’ve mentioned coconut oil, but given its myriad benefits, it truly deserves a section of its own.
Coconut oil has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal capacities. It helps prevent heart disease and high blood pressure. It reduces inflammation, arthritis, and because it is easily broken down in the body, it provides a quick burst of energy.
Regular consumption of coconut oil can also help to decrease lactate production during exercise, which helps fight fatigue and reduce post-workout muscle aches.
For all of these reasons, it makes for a fantastic pre-workout food for athletes. If you could have only one healthy fat in your athletic-performance bag, coconut oil would have to be it!
Coconut oil can be added to warm drinks such as coffee and tea. It’s also a great addition to your morning or pre-workout smoothie. You can add a spoonful of coconut oil to oatmeal or other hot cereal; or substitute coconut oil for other kinds of fat in homemade sweetbreads and muffins. And, finally, coconut oil can be spooned—deliciously—straight from the jar!
Contemporary Diets Rich in Healthy Fats
Improper dieting, like the kind that eliminates all fats and oils, can have a variety of negative consequences, such as fatigue, mental fogginess, and unhealthy weight loss or weight gain.
That said, there are some excellent contemporary dietary protocols that skillfully incorporate healthy fats and oils. For instance:
2. The Mediterranean Diet—featuring olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish.
3. The Paleo Diet—eliminates grains and refined sugar, featuring instead a wide variety of healthy oils, along with protein and vegetables.
4. The Keto Diet—a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that puts the body into a metabolic state called ketosis, which allows it to efficiently burn fat for energy.
It’s always best, of course, to consult with a trained professional, before changing your diet dramatically. For most people, however, the addition of healthy fats is a good thing. As a rule of thumb, aim for having around 30% of your total daily calories from healthy fats.
The Bottom Line
Though we’ve gone into quite a bit of detail here, the take-home point is simple:
Avoid trans fats
But don’t skimp on healthy fats and oils!
If you are looking for more information on fitness and nutrition, feel free to browse around our blog to find great pieces highlighting those concepts.
*Please consult with a medical professional if you have any medical issues that may be affected by the suggested activities.