When you’re diving into the “real food” movement and trying to learn what’s healthful for your body, it can be so overwhelming. There’s a lot of information out there and even more ways to change your diet and lifestyle. If you are looking to change, it can be very helpful to just start small. No need to overhaul everything at once (though if you are up for it, feel free!) These small changes are much more sustainable in the long run than being overwhelmed by one huge one. When I first started reading about real foods, my mind was boggled because it was just so radically different from anything I had ever heard before. I was committed to trying it though, and I began by making simple changes, such as swapping out bread for a lettuce wrap.
One simple and fairly easy change that can have a drastic influence is switching up the fats you use. Fats are so important to the proper function of our bodies. Taking it back to high school biology, every one of our cells has a lipid (that is, FAT) membrane, which gives the cell its integrity. It prevents molecules from entering and exiting the cell all willy-nilly. There are a few different kinds of fats:
-Saturated fatty acids (SFAs). They have no double bonds in their carbon chain allowing them to sit very tightly next to one another and remain stable. Because of this, these fats are often solid at room temperature.
-Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). They have a single double bond in their carbon chain, which throws a “kink” in the chain and makes them slightly more unstable than SFAs. They are usually liquid at room temperature, but solidify when chilled.
-Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). They have multiple double bonds in their carbon chain, causing more kinks and even more instability than MUFAs. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are PUFAs and are necessary in our diets, as our bodies cannot synthesize them.
-Trans fatty acids. These are unsaturated fatty acids that have been hydrogenated in a lab to change the type of double bond in the fatty acid chain from a cis to trans double bond. This removes the “kink” in the chain so that the fat resembles a SFA. These fats are rarely found in nature, and they are very reactive in the body, making them a pretty bad deal. Some countries have even banned them.
So, what’s good or bad?
Saturated and monounsaturated fats are good! We need both in our diets and in our cell walls. SFAs give our cell walls rigidity, while the MUFAs provide enough flexibility to our cells they can slide around without causing damage.
Trans fats (sometimes called partially hydrogenated oils) should be avoided at all costs. They are foreign to our bodies and have been found to be associated with heart disease. There is just nothing good about them!
What about PUFAs?
Polyunsaturated fats are… well, it’s complicated. We certainly don’t need a ton of PUFAs in our diet, and what we get from eating a well-balanced, whole foods, diet should provide us with exactly what we need. They are found in nuts, seeds, seafood, and meats. However, because of their instability, PUFAs have a tendency to become oxidize, form free radicals, and wreak havoc in our bodies. This is especially true when you are using high-PUFA oil for cooking and eating, where it has a huge opportunity to oxidize, which can happen anytime it’s exposed to heat, light, or air. Generally, it’s best to steer clear of these types of cooking fats and plan on getting your omegas from food sources,
Now that you’re an expert in fats, here’s a list of some common cooking/eating fats to avoid, followed by a list of what you can use to replace them!
-Butter: no one needs to be told how delicious butter is. Now you can eat it without fear!
-Ghee (clarified butter): It’s better tolerated by those with dairy intolerances and great used anywhere you use butter. Ghee also has a fairly high smoke point, making it great for sautéing and roasting. I love roasting sweet potatoes in ghee, cinnamon, and salt!
-Rendered animal fats: lard, tallow, duck and chicken fat… it’s all pretty darn tasty. They are great for frying or roasting, and lard in particular is perfect for baking. Try to source your fats from the best possible source to ensure they haven’t been bleached, hydrogenated, or had anything else weird done to them.
-Avocado oil: this fat is mild in taste while also being quite stable, allowing it to hold up well to heat. It’s great for roasting or for making mayo and salad dressings.
-Coconut oil: coconut is high in SFAs, making it veeeeery stable and excellent for high heat cooking. Not to mention it’s delicious. Try to stay away from the refined and stick to the virgin oil. I use it every day to fry my eggs in!
-Olive oil: it’s no secret olive oil is a good fat! However, it’s best for use at low heat or for finishing a dish and in dressings. It doesn’t have a high number of SFAs, allowing it break down more readily when exposed to heat. Plus, the flavor is much better when it hasn’t been cooked!