Eliminate or drastically reduce trans fats and vegetable/seed oils
This is probably not a surprise when it comes to the trans fats, but many are surprised to know that most industrial vegetable and seed oils are also likely less than ideal for your health. They came into popularity early to mid last century for a number of reasons, particularly in the 1960s & 70s, when people were convinced of the supposed detriment of animal and saturated fat. As time has gone on and American health has worsened, many blame the increased rates of disease, particularly heart disease and diabetes, on these new manufactured fats that replaced the more traditional fats eaten for most of human existence.
Trans fats (hydrogenated fats) are the big, bad one right now, and are being blamed by many to be a major, if not the main, factor in heart disease. Time will tell how bad they are for us or if we’ve misunderstood this dietary demon too (and they’re not as terrible as we fear). Chances are they aren’t great for our health nor terribly bad unless you consume a lot of them, have a diet high in sugar/processed carbs/fat or have a less than ideal overall health profile.
Known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat/oil, these are manufactured by injecting nickel and hydrogen atoms into a fat (often polyunsaturated) with a little bleach and coloring, creating a product that either looks and acts like saturated fat and/or gives majorly extended shelf life.
There appears to little in these fats that our bodies know and/or can deal with well. The consumption of these fats and the resulting metabolic derangement can lead to a number of problems including higher risk of heart disease & diabetes, hormonal disruption, immune system damage, increased risk of allergies & asthma and interference with healthy fat metabolism.
The bottom line with trans fats: until we know more- stay away. Unfortunately these fats are similar to the multitude of sweeteners, appearing literally everywhere in our food supply. If you see “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil/fat in the ingredients, look for another option. Soy/soybean oil and canola oil are in this category because they contain some trans fats, however government regulations allow these to often be labeled as trans fat free if it falls below a certain serving size. You can usually find trans fats in prepared foods, such as packaged goods and fast foods. In general, if a product has shelf life, it likely has something concocted in a lab in it to help it stay fresh. For example, almost every pastry or snack food that you can find wrapped up on a shelf has something trans fat related in it. Although many companies are dropping trans fats due to demand and regulation, they often get around it by using other oils that serve the same purpose. Many nut/seed companies roast the nuts & seeds in canola or soybean oil. Staying aware is key.
Vegetable oils and seed oils are right behind trans fats, although they are thought of as not quite as damaging. Many people still think vegetable and seed oils are good, due to 1) immense belief and commercial demonizing of animal fats and 2) these oils theoretically come from vegetables and seeds.
To point one above- The thinking (particularly in the scientific and medical realms) that animal fat is uniquely bad is fading quickly (and rightfully so in my opinion). And second point above- Unfortunately, vegetables don’t have much naturally occurring fat so they are processed immensely to create a fat. Chemical extraction (usually with hexane), heating, bleaching, deodorizing (and often much more) are required to produce fat from a grass substance like corn. Seed oils have a little more fat to start with but often go through a very similar process to extract it, creating a similarly unnatural product. These isolated, quite unnatural fats/oils are full of inflammatory properties and have become the antithesis to health. The big ones to be aware of are soybean, canola, sunflower, safflower, corn, peanut and cottonseed oils.
These oils contribute negatively to health, in particular due to their rancidity and atherogenic (arterial) impacts. One of the main reasons for avoiding these fats is the high amount of omega 6 fat they contain. Although necessary to our diet and physiology in small amounts, omega 6 fats cause rampant and unnecessary inflammation when consumed out of balance with omega 3. Since omega 3 (the balancing fat to omega 6) intake is typically not very high, over consumption of omega 6 can lead to many of the same health problems as the trans fats. They are particularly dangerous when oxidized (exposed to light, heat or air) rendering them very reactive and inflammatory. So, if you can avoid it, do not use them at all, particularly when cooking and especially when cooking at high heat and/or frying. As you can likely guess, commercially fried foods (e.g. french fries, fried chicken) are cooked in these types of fats and oils (they actually used to use animal fat, which is could end up being much healthier for you). To make things even worse, these oils and fats are used over and over again and become more toxic with each use. In general the same awareness rules apply, look for these everywhere. They are easy and very cheap ways to add flavor, substance and shelf life so almost every food product has defaulted to use vegetable and seed oils as part of its ingredient list. On a closing note, many of these are GMO derived, another note of caution.
If you find yourself buying these oils or things that contain them, look for the more traditional versions that are expeller pressed and limit the heat, light and air the fats get exposed to.
So what oils/fats can you use in place?
The best for cooking are coconut oil, palm/palm (kernel) oil and animal fats, including butter/ghee (particularly from grass fed sources), beef tallow, pork lard, and duck fat.
Dressings made with olive oil, avocado, pistachio or macadamia oil (primarily monounsaturated fat but still ideal to keep safe from heat, light and air).
In general be very aware of the fats you are consuming. If they are from a vegetable/seed source, highly processed and unnatural, think twice and look for a more naturally occurring fat.
Once again, let me know if you have any questions.