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The fats of life

Not all fats and oils are bad, but how can you make sure you choose the most healthy for cooking and eating?

Do we need fats?

“Fats are a macronutrient that give our body energy,” says Cork-based nutritional therapist Anna Caulfield. “They are essential in helping the body to absorb certain vitamins and minerals.

“Fats give the body energy, support cell growth, protect organs and help with the absorption of nutrients,” say Grainne McLaughlin and Claire Longwill from health store Food for Thought in Buncrana, Co Donegal.

“Fats help you feel fuller for longer and they help aid the essential functions in your body,” agrees Oliver McCabe of Select Stores in Dalkey, co Dublin.

Explain the different fats

Polyunsaturated fats: fish oil, flax oil and walnut oil, vegetable oils (sunflower, sesame, soy), omega-3 and -6 from salmon, sardines, herring and oyster.

Anna Caulfield: “Polyunsaturated fats can be found in flaxseed oil, oily fish such as trout, mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies, nuts such as walnuts, almonds, seeds such as flaxseeds or chia seeds.”

Monounsaturated fats: olive oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, nuts, avocadoes and olives. Help decrease cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease.

Saturated fats: butter, cheese, red meat, baked and fried goods. These fats can raise levels of cholesterol in the body and consumption should be kept under 10 per cent.

Anna Caulfield: “Saturated fats are somewhere in the middle and have attracted some debate recently. Sources include animal foods such as meat and dairy products and coconut oil.” Current advice is to only eat limited amounts of saturated fats.

Trans fats: margarine and in biscuits and chocolates; fats that have been hydrogenated and have been linked to inflammation, obesity and heart disease.

Anna Caulfield: “Trans fats are the damaging fats that should be avoided and are found in highly processed, refined, deep fried foods.”

“The problem with trans fats is that your body does not recognise them, and so can’t digest them,” says Oliver McCabe, “so they end up settling out on blood vessel walls or in fatty tissue.”

Whatever oils we eat or cook with, the aim is not to make any trans fats. The simple rules are:

  • very light seldom cooking with polyunsaturated oils
  • only medium fry with mono-unsaturated oils
  • use saturated oils for very high temperature cooking

Healthy cooking with fats and oils

According to Grainne McLaughlin and Claire Longwill you should choose your cooking oil or fat based on its degree of saturation. Avoid ‘light’ or ‘refined’ oils and instead choose extra virgin oils. “Extra virgin olive oil is a great all-rounder for cooking such as stir-fries, roasting and marinating,” they say, “whereas vegetable oil is more suited for deep fat frying. Both of these oils are high in antioxidants.”

“Those oils that are more resistant to high temperatures such as butter and coconut oil are safer for higher heat cooking,” says Anna Caulfield. “Olive oil and good quality cold-presssed rapeseed oil are suitable for frying or roasting. Extra virgin olive oil is best used for drizzling over food once cooked and for salad dressings or making hummus. Coconut oil can be used sparingly in cooking and baking. Aim for a variety of oils in everyday cooking at home. Keep your cooking oils in a cupboard away from light, heat and air to keep the oil fresh.”

So, in brief:

Best oils for high heat cooking – almond, avocado, ghee (clarified butter), coconut, rapeseed.

Best oils for moderate heat – organic grassfed butter, macadamia, refined olive oil, peanut, sesame, walnut, olive, sesame.

Best oils to eat raw – grapeseed, hemp, extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed, sunflower.

Some oils such as avocado, hazelnut, flax and hemp should be kept in the fridge.

When choosing an oil or fat look for terms like’ cold-pressed’, ‘raw’ or ‘virgin’ on the label to ensure it has not been heavily processed and will retain its natural flavour and colour.

What about fish and nut oils?

“Omega-3 and -6 oils are vital for nerves, for the health of skin and hair and to reduce inflammation and are most commonly found in fish oils and in plant oils,” says Oliver McCabe. “The body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids so they must be obtained from the diet or a supplement,” says Anna Caulfield.

Good dietary sources of omega-3 are salmon, fatty fish, avocado and walnuts.

According to Grainne McLaughlin and Claire Longwill, healthy fats can be found in: nuts such as Brazil, cashew and walnut; seeds such as chia and super seed mix; and a number of supplements including fish and seed oils.

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