Fats and Oils

Fats and oils are FUNCTIONAL FOODS; important for the structure of the body plus many functions within it including fueling energy production.

They are vital foods, we need quite of lot of dietary oils, also a range of oils for the different types and lengths of fatty acids.

Fats and oils are

  • A sustaining form of energy
  • Build brain and nerves, form cell walls
  • Encourage a healthy flow of bile from the liver
  • Carry and store the fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E, K
  • Give us shape, protect organs, regulate body temperature
  • Form complex chemicals: eicosanoids, prostaglandins, and the cholesterols which become steroid and sex hormones

We need the right kind and quality of building blocks for such important structures and functions. As Udo Erasmus’ book says, there are “Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill”.


So what kind of fats should you be eating?

The simple answer is always “eat real food”? If it’s a traditional fat or oil with minimal processing it should be an excellent food. The body is able to manufacture most of its needs from a mix of healthy fats, which are enjoyable and easy to include in the daily diet.

We also need the “essential fatty acids” which cannot be made in the body. They are the Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils which are explained below in the poly-unsaturated fats.

So, what are the good fats?

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It’s easy. Buy natural, traditional, minimally processed oils. There are plenty to choose from and they are delicious. Eat a mix of grass fed animal fats, tropical vegetable oils and olive oil.

The tropical vegetable oils are virgin coconut and virgin red palm.

The growing popularity of coconut oil has brought a lot of different brands on to the market, its even available in supermarkets now! But is it good quality? Simple tests are to have a sniff, does it smell like coconut? Also, observe how easily it becomes liquid (purer grade oil tends to stay more solid). Avoid buying in plastic containers; plastic is made from petroleum oils and coconut oil must absorb compounds from it – it loses the good coconut smell and can even smell rancid.

Red palm oil is one of the healthiest foods on the planet but the global palm oil industry is creating ecological and nutritional mayhem. Virgin red palm oil from sustainable organic plantations is available in Australia from Elaeis Organic. This oil is perfect for cooking any savory food and makes a curry taste divine. Its also high in Vitamin E and Vitamin A with noticeable benefit from using it.

Olive oil is a wholesome food but imported oils have had problems with adulteration. There are different grades too; virgin, extra virgin, light, etc. Because any processing of an oil creates some kind of damage the best to buy is Extra Virgin. Australia now has an olive oil industry with high standards and high quality product, it is a credit to our country. Buy any Australian Extra Virgin olive oil and enjoy liberally.

There are conflicting opinions on the suitability of virgin olive oil for cooking; some say the high anti-oxidant content protects the oil against heat damage, others say the numerous nutritional elements are too delicate to withstand heat damage. I feel that such a fine oil should be eaten raw most of the time but using it to lightly saute something delicious is irresistible and forgivable!

Ghee is a tasty and heat stable oil to enjoy in moderation. It’s clarified butter so not suitable for everyone.

Enjoy some nuts and seeds, some oily foods like avocado. Eat as much as your constitution enjoys. Avoid seed oils and have enough Essential Fatty Acid’s.

Different Types of Oil

Saturated Fats.

These fats are solid at room temperature and usually from animal sources and in meats. Examples are ghee (clarified butter) and the tropical vegetable oils coconut and virgin red palm. Saturated fats have different lengths; there are short, medium and long chain; all have different effects and functions.

Some of these functions are particular to saturated fat; cell membranes, hormones, heart fuel, cholesterols, lung surfactant, white blood cells.

Short chain saturated fats have anti-microbial properties, medium chain saturated fat is easily burned as an excellent energy fuel. Long chain saturated fat is a heart fuel; it is metabolized for energy using a carnitine dependent enzyme.

Mono-unsaturated fats.

Mono-unsaturates are longer fat molecules with one double bond. They differ in length and have the single bond at different positions.

Mono-unsaturated fats are easily burned for energy. This is via a fairly complex conversion requiring special enzymes, however they seem to be used about as well as saturated fats. The single double bond in the molecule is actually used as a pivot point in this process, temporarily creating a trans fat before the fat is converted to a form which may easily enter the energy cycle of the cells.

The main healthy sources are olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. The fat from grass fed meats also may also contain large amounts, about 40% .

Canola oil has similar amounts of the same mono-unsaturate as olive oil but has 3 times the poly-unsaturated content. It’s also an industrial seed oil with much global production coming from genetically modified (Roundup resistant) varieties. The extraction process is highly mechanized using many chemicals and the high proportion of poly-unsaturates makes it unsuitable for cooking due to excessive trans fats and oxidation.

Poly-unsaturated Oils and Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s).

These are long chains with two or more sets of double bonds at varying positions in different oils. The chains are long, fragile and prone to damage such as oxidation (rancidity). This oxidative stress applies to us when we eat them, meaning we need ample anti-oxidants available to safely digest and assimilate them.

All the oils named “omega” are this type. Omega (ῳ) is the last letter of the Greek alphabet; Omega 3 (ῳ3) means the first double bond is 3 carbons from the end of the chain and so on.

Two vital poly-unsaturated fats are the Omega 6 and the Omega 3 oils. These oils can’t be made by the body so must be obtained from food, thus they are the Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s). They are building blocks for prostaglandins which regulate blood clotting, inflammation, immune response, contraction/relaxation of smooth muscle as well as other functions.

The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 oils regulates prostaglandin function. Too much omega 6 will create excessive inflammation, too much omega 3 can thin the blood.  It is said that hunter gather societies had an ῳ6 to ῳ3 ratio of 1:1 or 2:1.

Factory farming of animals and fish has become the standard method of providing meat to our tables and has resulted in chronic EFA imbalances and deficiencies. Omega 6 oils are easy to obtain in the diet, they are in most animal foods, in seeds and seed oils. Dietary omega 3 oils are usually deficient (grain fed animals have very little) so the current ratio in an average diet has been estimated at 50:1 or worse. This is a principle driver for most of the inflammatory maladies and chronic conditions we are afflicted by, right up to the cancer epidemic.

This imbalance of ῳ6 to ῳ3 can be fixed by increasing ῳ3 intake but ῳ3 oils need anti-oxidant protection for safe metabolism, so it’s easy to have too much. The best remedy is to reduce ῳ6 oils as much as possible and take a small to moderate ῳ3 supplement, supported by an anti-oxidant.

Our forefathers didn’t have essential fatty acid deficiencies. They had a vegetable patch, some laying hens, a milking cow and their meat was from pastured animals. Fish oil capsules were unheard of.  So it’s worth seeking out and paying for grass fed meats and wild caught fish. Support local growers and butchers trying to provide healthy foods.

Omega 3 oils are built from Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) which comes from grass and seaweed (linseed has a high amount). Animals that eat grass have stomachs to convert ALA to the functional forms of EPA and DHA. In fish the oils are passed up the food chain from seaweed; bigger fish from the deep colder ocean have the largest amounts.

Humans do not convert ALA to EPA/DHA so easily though we can make enough as long as the ALA is not rancid and the necessary enzymes for conversion are functioning well. This means being fully sufficient with Magnesium, Zinc and Vitamin B6.

EPA is the anti-inflammatory essential fatty acid. This is why fish and krill oils have become so widely used as medicine.

DHA is the building block for the brain, nerves and retina. Mother’s milk will have a lot of DHA for growing babies, especially if she has enough in her diet.

A great source of quality ALA is freshly ground linseed which has numerous health benefits like mucilages, lignans and anti-oxidants. A couple of teaspoons of seeds in a coffee grinder only takes a few seconds and can be added to many foods. It should be eaten soon because those fragile oils will oxidize within hours. Flaxseed meal from the health food shop will have oxidized ALA even if it’s in the fridge.

Many people take flaxseed oil as an essential fatty acid but unfortunately this oil is extremely prone to rancidity, which can easily be detected by the waxy coat that develops on the bottle. Good quality flaxseed oil is bottled or canned under nitrogen but this is released as soon as the bottle is opened; refrigeration makes little difference to spoilage.

A better way to get flaxseed oil is to freshly grind a spoonful of organic seeds in a coffee grinder and mix with a suitable food. The enzyme doing the conversion needs Magnesium, Zinc and activated B6 so be sure your diet includes enough of these. Magnesium is in green leafy vegetables, zinc is in pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and red capsicum seeds are said to have high amounts of activated vitamin B6.


A liquid poly-unsaturated oil can be converted to a solid fat by boiling hydrogen through it; double bonds in the carbon chain are broken and hydrogen attaches to available bonding spaces. This is a “hydrogenated oil”, typically margarine. The degree of hydrogenation can be controlled to make a wide range of melting points for various foods in industry. During this process some broken double bonds will re-attach the opposite way creating a “trans fat”.

Understanding the Character of Fats – A Quick Chemistry Lesson

We’re always told about “saturated fats” and “poly-unsaturated fats”, but what are they really?

It’s interesting to understand the basic chemistry of fat molecules; they are chains of different lengths with differing bonds along the chain. The chain is a string of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached.

Let’s start at the beginning!

Hydrogen has 1 available bond

Carbon has 4 available bonds

Thus 1 carbon atom could be bonded to 4 hydrogen atoms

If 2 carbons joined with a single bond there would be six places for hydrogen. This is a “saturated” fat because its saturated with hydrogen.

If 2 Carbon atoms joined with a double bond there would only be four places for hydrogen. This fat is “un-saturated” because its not full of hydrogen.

Now we can see what happens in a long chain.

If the chain of carbons is joined by single bonds for its entire length there will be a maximum number of spaces available for hydrogen atoms; the chain will be “saturated” with hydrogen. If there is a double bond somewhere in the chain some hydrogen will be displaced; the chain will be “unsaturated” (not full of hydrogen). One double bond makes a mono-unsaturated oil (the “unsaturated fatty acid” in this diagram is mono-unsaturated). A chain with two or more double bonds is poly-unsaturated.

In a saturated fat the carbon chain is a straight line. Unsaturated fats have kinks at double bonds. Straight chains pack flat, the oil is solid at room temperature. The more unsaturated (the more kinks) in a carbon chain the less an oil is able to become solid. For example olive oil (mono-unsaturated) will set in the fridge but sunflower oil (poly-unsaturated) will stay liquid.

Poly-unsaturated fats have their double bonds at differing positions and are usually quite long.