A common mistake people make when they switch to the paleo lifestyle is not taking in enough healthy fats, which are important for satiety and getting through workouts.
Typically what comes to mind when we think of “healthy fats” are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, fish, and flax oil.
A lot of the fats consumed today are highly processed fats which are designed to be nonperishable. This allows them to have longer shelf lives, which is great for food manufacturers. These fats are trans-fats and hydrogenated fats (hydrogen is added to liquid fat to make it solid) like margarine, Crisco, Earth Balance, Smart Balance, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
It can be easy to forget that our primitive ancestors’ diets were mostly made up of fats of the saturated kind and from the organ meat of wild game, the blubber of sea animals, and plants. We didn’t have access to olive oil or coconut oil.
So which fats should you be eating more of and cooking with?
A Little Fat Science
In chemistry, what makes a fat a fat is the –COOH group at the end of the molecule. A fat can have as few as 2 carbons or more than 20 carbons. Fats are called short chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids, or long chain fatty acids.
- Short chain fats are less than 6 carbons in length. They are found in food and made in the body when a longer fat is broken apart by enzymes.
- Medium chain fats are between 6 and 12 carbons long and they are the fats found in coconut oil. There was a scandal several years ago when baby formulas were missing these fats and the babies did not do too well until these fats were added back into their diets.
- Long chain fats are essential if we want to survive, and include omega-3, 6, and 9 fats. These are 13 carbons or longer. The omega signifies where the double bond is located. For example, omega-3 means the double bond is at the third carbon position.
The two primary types of dietary fat we’ll be focusing on are saturated and unsaturated fat. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats can be found within their bond structure. Saturated fats have a carbon (C) and two hydrogen (H).
Unsaturated fats are divided into two separate groups:
Saturated: Do not contain double bonds as each carbon (C) has two hydrogens (H). Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. These fats are considered to be very stable which means there is less chance of them going toxic or becoming rancid in some way. A fat can become rancid when it is exposed to heat, light, or air for a prolonged period of time.
When a fat becomes rancid it tastes and smells “off” and can actually do more harm than good to your body on a cellular level. Most oils bought from grocery stores have become oxidized or would be considered rancid because of the way they have been processed.
These fats are used in the body to strengthen cell walls, so the cells can fight against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Saturated fats also contain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as cholesterol, which your body uses for hormone production.
When shopping for oils it is best to look for:
- Cold pressed
These types of fats usually do well under heat and for cooking:
Unsaturated: Do contain double bonds or hydrogen (H) attached to the carbon (C). These are typically liquid at room temperature. Most of these fats do well as dressings or food toppers.
Monounsaturated: Are also considered to be fairly stable but under lower heats.
Polyunsaturated: Usually less stable than saturated and mono saturated fats, which means they can become rancid and toxic quickly. The more PUFAs you consume, the more you will reduce your levels of EPA and DHA, both of which are essential for brain and other bodily functions. PUFAs also create more free radicals in the body and are associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other inflammatory diseases.
The polyunsaturated fats you should be weary of are the industrial seed oils like:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
Smoke Points for Cooking
Smoke points let us know how well an oil fairs while being exposed to heat (during cooking). Oils with higher smoke points are much better for cooking, while those with lower smoke points should be used for dressings or as food toppers.
However, smoke points don’t tell the entire story. As mentioned earlier, the oils that are best for cooking are those which are more stable and less susceptible to becoming rancid.
The seed oils like canola, safflower, soybean, and cottonseed are often marketed as having high smoke points but, because of their high levels of mostly polyunsaturated fat, they are very susceptible to oxidation and can become rancid fairly quickly.
The saturated fats like palm and coconut oils, as well as grass-fed butter, are stable fats and hold high smoke points because of their chemical structures, which means they do well at all cooking temperatures.
Unsaturated fats like olive oil can are fairly stable but hold a lower smoke point than the saturated fats mentioned above. Olive oil in particular does fairly well under medium to low cooking temperatures.
Nut oils like almond oil should be used primarily as dressings and food toppers to add flavor to dishes. That said, they can be used for cooking but under very low heat.
Something to keep in mind when cooking is that the smoke point of an oil lowers if it has previously been exposed to high temperatures (that is, if you’ve already cooked with it ). For example, if you are reheating some left-overs from a recipe you made last night that you cooked in olive oil, the smoke point of that olive oil will be lower. So reheating it at a very low temperature would be in your best interest.
A Few Paleo-Friendly Fats You Should Definitely Be Cooking with
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is probably the most popular cooking fat amongst the paleo community. It is roughly 90% saturated fat, very stable, and has a high smoke point. The medium chain triglycerides (MCT) in it are converted to energy better than any other fat source that you can consume. Read our whole guide to coconut oil.
- Grass-fed butter: Wait a minute, butter? Is that even paleo? The benefits of grass-fed butter are too powerful to ignore. Although grass-fed butter has a lower smoke point than some of the other fats on this list, it adds tremendous flavor to foods and even your coffee. You can also include ghee (milk solids removed and very low lactose) with butter.
- Duck fat: Duck fat is excellent for frying vegetables and starchy carbohydrates like sweet potato.
- Lard: In this case, I’m specifically referring to leaf lard which comes from the soft fat around the kidneys and loin of a pig (this is often be referred to as pork fat).
One way to ensure you are cooking the right way with your fats is by not using any. Try eating fattier cuts of grass-fed meats. Instead of 90/10 try 85/15, 80/20, etc…
You can also eat whole olives instead of consuming olive oil or eat raw coconut instead of cooking with coconut oil. By doing this, you’ll consume more essential nutrients, which are often damaged when heated.
If you do plan on cooking with oil, stick mostly with saturated fats that are solid at room temperature.
Cooking with Plant Oils
When using plant oils like the following, stick mostly with organic, extra-virgin, and unrefined options.
- almond oil
- avocado seed oil
- cocoa butter
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- palm kernel oil
- pumpkin seed oil
- rice bran oil
- walnut oil
Refined oils in particular can be very damaging to the body due to the harsh ways in which they are processed. Choose brands that store the oil in dark bottles (the darker the better) because this makes them less susceptible to damage from light. When you get them home, keep them in a cool dark area. A cabinet away from the stove is an excellent place.
Because oils and healthy fats are extremely dense energy sources, small doses contain an awful lot of calories. Stick to our serving size recommendations and you should be able to use them for satiety and energy rather than for fat accumulation.
When cooking over the next few days, keep this in mind:
- Use paleo-friendly fats that are solid at room temperature.
- Consider cooking at medium temperatures and at very low temps when reheating food.
- Opt for fattier cuts of meat instead of cooking with oils.
- Consider serving size recommendations.
What are some of your favorite cooking oils to use?
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