The truth about fats

The truth about fats

The truth about your fats


We all need fat, but fat can confuse us. It took me a long time to understand where my good fats came from. To use or not to use oil (liquid fats) was the question I faced before I understood the mechanics behind good fats. There has been so much written about fats and so much controversy around the subject that it can all get very confusing. The fact is that we need fats for a healthy body, normal weight, great skin, and hair. And if you've reduced your fat intake, become a vegetarian, or go off dairy, the need to include quality vegetarian fat increases even more. Some fats promote our health positively while others increase our risk of heart disease. Fat will make you fat if eaten in excess. This also includes liquid fat (the oil you are eating), padding up your hips, and thighs, and contributing to cellulite. What you have to learn is which fats you need and the ones you can do without. And to also rethink the 'no oil in your food' mantra.

If we go back to the balance chart, fats are yin as they create a sense of security and heaviness. So for people who are overweight, mentally disturbed, or highly emotional— the wrong fats can worsen these issues. Have you ever wondered why you feel heavy and sluggish after eating a greasy meal? This is because your meal was possibly full of saturated fat, which lurks around in your system, making your blood sludgy; so you feel this sluggishness. Fats, when right and when ingested in the human body, gather momentum and become the mechanism that starts transporting nutrients to all your organs; it warms and energizes you (gaining a yang nature). Hence, good oil will make it easier for the body systems to function at their optimum and give you a sense of grounding and make you feel secure.

Fats should be consumed moderately by people who have a high degree of heat in their bodies, which is manifested by redness in the face, bloodshot eyes, high blood pressure, people who tend to feel hot more than others, or people who have candida—yeast in their bodies tumours, cysts, and oedema.

The bad boys of fats: trans fats

You’ve heard enough about it. But if you haven’t paid attention, these are the first types of fats which need to go. Trans fats can be found in all commercially packaged foods—everything from biscuits, cakes, pastries, French fries, chicken nuggets, burgers, pizzas, microwave popcorn, margarine, and a whole lot more, and all the yummy restaurant food. The range is so wide that you invariably end up eating a large dose of trans fats daily. Trans fats should be limited to 2 grams per day in a 2000-calorie diet. Minimize trans fats and saturated fats. We need to get our fats from natural foods and good quality oils.

Calculating hidden trans fats

You can calculate how many hidden trans-fats there are in a food packet, especially when it isn't mentioned. Go to the total fats section of the food label, and add up the polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fat amounts. If the number is less than the number of the total fat, the unaccounted part is the trans fats.

Smoking points

Cooking oils and fats react differently to heat. But in general, the hotter they get, the more they break down and eventually start to smoke. The smoke point is the temperature after which different oils begin to break down and become unhealthy. Just remember:

  • The higher the smoke point, the healthier the oil (canola, ghee, avocado, coconut, mustard, rice bran, extra virgin olive).
  • The lower the smoke point, the unhealthier the oil (butter, lard, hydrogenated vegetable oil, sunflower, and a low-grade olive oil).

However, certain oils are better for deep frying and sautéing than others (Butter has a low smoke point and is good for sautéing, whereas mustard oil has a high smoke point and is good for deep frying).

Tip#: When deep frying food, dropping little bits of batter or bread into the oil accelerates its breakdown, lowering its smoke point even more. therefore not making it suitable for frying.

Choosing a healthy oil

The subject of healthy cooking oils is probably one of the most misunderstood subjects in health. The usual recommendation from nutritionists and dietitians is to use polyunsaturated oils such as corn and soybean oil, as well as monounsaturated fats like olive and canola. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, and soybean contain an ingredient called linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid). When heated, as we do in Indian cooking, they become unstable and break down as they are polyunsaturated. This leads to the formation of what we term 'free radicals in the body. The essential fatty acids, which should help you, are broken down and cause you more harm.

Picture a clean wall (your cell structure) with cracks and holes. Free radicals are cracks and holes. What you need is a primer (the right antioxidants and the right oil) to fill up these cracks and holes. But what we do instead is keep making more cracks and holes by constantly eating the same oils. With an increase in the cracks and holes, you set the stage for diseases of all sorts to hit you sooner than you can imagine. If refined oils are consumed over long periods, they cause inflammation and lead to lifestyle diseases.

Polyunsaturated vegetable oils like flax, sunflower, chia, walnuts, and soybean should be eaten in their raw form and also used raw. Oils which are polyunsaturated are best for salad dressings, but not for cooking. If at all you wish to use polyunsaturated oils, make sure you buy cold-pressed oils. Do not allow the oil to smoke. That’s when it starts to turn bad.

What do we cook our food in?

Monounsaturated fats are the best for cooking, especially when coupled with some blended oils. These fats are like polyunsaturated fats since they provide EFAs or essential fatty acids which nourish many of the body's functions including maintaining healthy skin. Many sources of monounsaturated fats are usually good sources of Vitamin E which is an excellent antioxidant. These oils will not break down or become unstable.

Preferred oils for cooking are olive oil (cold pressed, also called extra virgin), sesame oil, rice bran oil, and certain blends. Blending improves the usage properties of certain oils like shelf life, smoke point, frying stability, taste, and odour. Some blends in the Indian market use safflower seed (kardi) oil, rice bran oil, soybean oil, and corn oil. For example, using a blend of rice bran and safflower oil, rather than either of them separately, can help reduce cholesterol. Remember, don’t let your oil go beyond its smoke point or reuse your oil.

Sesame oil (cold pressed) can be heated to a higher temperature. If you are stir-frying, tempering (tarka) your dals, or making stews or curries, use sesame oil. This method of cooking also kills the nutty smell. I figured this out when I was in Orissa conducting many focus study groups on sesame oil. Orissa is the biggest consumer of sesame seed oil in the Indian market.

Good quality olive oil (extra virgin) has a high smoke point and is perfectly safe to use for frying.

Do not heat your flax seed oil as it destroys the Omega 3. It is best consumed raw in salads and juices and should be stored in the fridge.

Excerpt from Shonali’s book The Beauty Diet published by Penguin Random House, 2012



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