If you're eating a healthy (Paleo) diet you should be getting 30-70 percent of your energy requirements from fat. This sounds like a lot but keep in mind that fat is more than twice as energy dense as carbohydrate or protein (1).
Many of the fats we consume on a Paleo diet come from whole foods such as oily fish, full fat cuts of meat from (grass-fed) ruminant animals, avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.
But we also need to liberally add fats and oils to our foods to make them more nutritious and palatable.
Many vitamins are fat soluble which means they need to be consumed with fats to be properly absorbed. I highly recommend everyone use healthy cooking fats liberally and always add at least some fat to your vegetables, salads and green smoothies.
So let’s take a detailed look at most of the commercially available sources of fats and oils and then consider which ones we should cook with, which ones we should not cook with but can consume raw, and which ones we should avoid completely. At the end of this post I have embedded a .pdf infographic summarizing this guide, which you can download for future reference.
But first we need a basic lesson in fatty acids.
There are many different fatty acids, each with their own structure, benefits and potential detriment. Basically without exception any naturally occurring fat in healthy, unprocessed whole foods can be safely consumed in its natural state. Even naturally occurring trans fats are completely healthy (Kresser, 2013). And we certainly now understand how saturated fats are healthy if they are from the right sources.
However, when fats are refined and processed many of them become unhealthy. For example, if you were to take a handful of sunflower kernels and eat them - yes they would be relatively high in omega-6 linoleic acid - but they wouldn’t be harmful.
Yet take those same sunflower seeds and process the bejesus out of them using extremely high heat and chemical solvents and what you are left with is an unhealthy refined substance - nutrient-poor, unstable and prone to oxidation - that is simply not fit for human consumption.
Polyunsaturated fats are not inherently unhealthy. Omega-3 is a PUFA and we all know how healthy that is, even though most of us don’t consume enough of it.
Nuts, seeds and poultry have high levels of omega-6 PUFA but I wouldn’t avoid eating them just because of this. We do require some omega-6, but not in the prodigious amounts that a Standard American Diet dishes out.
The problem is that unhealthy refined PUFAs like corn, soybean and canola oil absolutely dominate the Western Diet and we are unwittingly consuming them by the truckload.
Pick up any processed food and you will more often than not find one of these three junk oils listed as an ingredient. Go into any restaurant and they will almost certainly be using one of these oils to cook with. Even seemingly healthy "organic, gluten-free, vegan” snacks tend to use sunflower or canola oil as their fat source.
This is the reason why our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is completely out of whack - close to 20:1 where in Paleolithic times it would have been closer to 2:1 - because we are completely inundated with very highly concentrated omega-6 vegetable and seed oils (Sisson, 2014).
Americans get 70% of their polyunsaturated fats (mainly omega-6) from oils, shortenings and margarines (ibid).
It would be impossible to get such high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 by eating whole foods. But refined vegetable and seed oils can contain up to 75% omega-6 by weight so you can see how easy it is to consume 20g of omega-6 by eating half a bag of corn chips. And how much omega-3 is in that piece of salmon you ate for lunch? Maybe 3-4g at the most. You see my point?
The effect on our health of all these cheap, crappy, inflammatory oils should not be underestimated. We’re slowly getting the message that added sugar is bad for us but most people are still completely unaware how harmful these industrial PUFAs are and the role they play in metabolic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. You have been warned!
Fat v Oil
Fats and oils are both compounds of glycerol and various fatty acids. The only difference being that at room temperature, fat is solid and oil is liquid. For the purpose of this article the terms 'oil' and 'fat' are interchangeable.
Saturated Fats (SF)
Have no double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. This makes them very stable when heated or exposed to light and oxygen. Examples include Coconut oil and butter.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFA)
Have only one double bond between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. These are fairly stable when heated but can still go rancid if exposed to light and oxygen. Examples include olive oil and avocado oil.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFA)
Have many double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. These are the most unstable fats and do not stand up well to heat or oxidation. Examples include sunflower, canola and corn oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are the worst to cook with because those double bonds are reactive - they tend to react with oxygen when heated, forming harmful compounds and free radicals (Grootveld, 2006).
The longer and more often these oils are heated (like over several weeks in a restaurant fryer) the more dangerous they become. Dietary linoleic acid that has been oxidized via heat has been shown to directly lead to atherosclerosis (Starprans, 2005).
Smoke Point is simply a measure of the temperature at which heated oil starts to break down and burn. The more leftover (protein or sugar) particles there are in a fat the lower the smoke point will tend to be - so an unfiltered extra virgin olive oil will have a lower smoker point than a more refined light olive oil; just as butter will have a lower smoke point than clarified butter (ghee).
It is important to note that smoke point is not the most important factor though when it comes to the health outcomes of consuming cooking oils - the number of double bonds is far more important (Gunnars, 2013).
So you can take smoke point into account if you are cooking at very high temperatures but you should never choose to cook with a polyunsaturated fat like grape-seed oil just because it has a high smoke point.
For example, olive oil may smoke slightly when you cook it at really high heat, but it won’t necessarily inundate you with harmful compounds or free radicals. Or more accurately, even if there are some free radicals produced they seem to be countered by the anti-oxidant properties of olive oil.
By contrast, grape-seed oil probably won’t burn even at very high temperatures but it may still be causing havoc to your metabolism from all the nasty toxins produced when those double bonds react to heat and oxygen.
The last thing I would like to mention before going through each of the oils in detail is that it is worth considering the source of the oils you are consuming: do they come from naturally fatty substances like olives or coconuts and therefore require minimal processing? If yes then they are probably fairly healthy.
Or do they come from industrial by-products like corn cobs, cotton seeds or grape seeds that aren’t very oily at all? If yes then they require extreme processes to extract that fat and the end product is effectively refined waste that big corporations have found a way to trick consumers into eating. Who in their right mind would eat oil from cotton? It’s a con.
92 % Saturated Fat
6 % Monounsaturated Fat
2 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Coconut oil is a real Paleo darling. It has countless scientifically-backed benefits from enhancing weight-loss to its antimicrobial properties. It’s high saturated fat content means it is stable at heat and stores well for years. I think it is delicious and I even use it as moisturizer.
Verdict: Use liberally for cooking or eating raw
14 % Saturated Fat
74 % Monounsaturated Fat
10-20 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Olive oil is one of those unique foods that everyone can agree is healthy. It is a time-proven staple of the Mediterranean diet. It is delicious raw and should be a mainstay in everyone’s pantry. My Italian Nonna basically drinks the stuff and her skin at 87 is better than most 50 year olds’.
I used to think that Olive Oil wasn’t suitable for cooking but some recent research has completely quashed those fears and it seems that it is completely safe even at high temperatures for very long periods of time. Due to its relatively low smoke point though I don’t personally use it for high heat cooking. I prefer ghee or coconut oil for baking.
You need to be careful to find a good quality olive oil as some generic blends will actually add in cheap vegetable oil. To avoid this go for an Australian brand if you’re in Oz or a Californian if you’re in the U.S.
My Abruzzese family in Italy make 500 liters every second year and go through it all!
Verdict: Use liberally raw and for lower temperature cooking
64 % Saturated Fat
26 % Monounsaturated Fat
3-6 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Our grandparents were right. Butter is amazing. Not only is it delicious but it is packed with nutrition - one of the best source of vitamin A, E and K2, as well as the fatty acids butyrate and conjugated linoleic acid.
I love the stuff so much I put it in my coffee and now use it as my main cooking fat.
It is very important to get pastured/grass-fed butter. It is slightly more expensive but still relatively cheap compared to good coconut oil. I pay $3.29 for 250g sticks of Kerrygold Irish butter.
Like olive oil, butter has a relatively low smoke point due to some leftover protein or sugars but if this concerns you then you can use clarified butter (ghee) for cooking at higher temperatures.
Verdict: Use liberally for cooking or raw - even as a condiment or in your coffee.
50 % Saturated Fat
40 % Monounsaturated Fat
10 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Palm oil is highly controversial because of it’s reputation for destroying native orangutan habitats. However, sustainable palm oil, particularly the less refined red variety, has a lot of reported health benefits - notably it’s high content of CoQ10 and Vitamin E. Like coconut oil it is fairly unprocessed, heat stable and tasty.
Verdict: Great for cooking or raw but look for a sustainable source
51 % Saturated Fat
46 % Monounsaturated Fat
2-4 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Personally I don’t use beef tallow but only because it isn’t easily accessible to me. Like all animal products it is best to buy organic, grass fed. I would happily use it for cooking though if I had it.
Verdict: A great cooking fat
LARD (PIG FAT)
39 % Saturated Fat
45 % Monounsaturated Fat
11 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Except for some occasions where I will render the leftover grease from my bacon I don’t use too much lard. However, I think it can be completely healthy to use as a cooking fat so long as you can guarantee it is from a healthy source. Unfortunately most pork production in the U.S is questionable at best.
Verdict: Can be a good cooking fat but I think there are better options
7 % Saturated Fat
63 % Monounsaturated Fat
28 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Canola oil come from rapeseeds. Because it has a high level of monounsaturated fat and a decent amount of omega-3s it has been (incorrectly) labeled as a “heart healthy” oil. The problem is that it is highly refined and requires temperatures upwards of 500 degrees and chemical solvents to extract it, meaning that most of the omega-3s are destroyed or rancid on the shelf. It is a cheap, industrial seed oil with little to no nutrition.
FLAX SEED OIL
8 % Saturated Fat
20 % Monounsaturated Fat
72 % Polyunsaturated Fat (47% Omega-3)
Flax Seed oil has been proffered as a healthy source of omega-3 for a long time. It is very high in omega-3, up to 50%. However, because it is so high in overall PUFA it is highly unstable and prone to oxidation and rancidity. People taking it for a supplement would be better off taking fish oil. I certainly wouldn’t recommend consuming too much of this stuff, let alone cooking with it.
Verdict: Don’t bother
13 % Saturated Fat
24 % Monounsaturated Fat
59 % Polyunsaturated Fat
This is one of those industrial bi-product oils that is just heinous. Getting oil from a corn cob is clearly a bad idea and nothing good can come of it. It is very high in omega-6, has zero nutrition and is not even close to being a real food.
Verdict: Strongly Avoid
17 % Saturated Fat
46 % Monounsaturated Fat
32 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Peanuts are legumes and along with wheat are one of the very few foods that I recommend people strictly avoid. The reason being is that peanut lectin is the only anti-nutrient I know of that is not broken down by heat or digestion and has been shown to penetrate the gut lining and enter the bloodstream in at least one study (Lalonde, 2012). Peanuts are also prone to mould and rancidity.
SUNFLOWER SEED OIL
10 % Saturated Fat
19 % Monounsaturated Fat
63 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Another ugly industrial oil that also happens to be utterly pervasive in packaged food and restaurants and egregiously marketed as healthy. It’s not healthy. Very high in omega-6 PUFAs with no nutrition.
Verdict: Strongly and actively avoid
6 % Saturated Fat
14 % Monounsaturated Fat
75 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Similar to sunflower oil but actually worse, if that’s possible. Even higher PUFAs.
Verdict: Strongly and actively avoid
14 % Saturated Fat
23 % Monounsaturated Fat
57 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Along with canola, corn (U.S) and sunflower oil (Aus), soybean oil is freakin’ everywhere. It is another cheap, subsidized (GMO) crop oil that is even partially hydrogenated… all round bad news. If I see another can of ‘tuna in olive oil’ that has soybean oil listed in the ingredients I’m going to drop my shopping basket and scream until the Whole Foods security dudes frogmarch me onto the street.
Verdict: Strongly avoid
GRAPE SEED OIL
9 % Saturated Fat
16 % Monounsaturated Fat
70 % Polyunsaturated Fat
The only thing going for this oil is that it has been very cleverly marketed. It is actually just a pig with lipstick on. The health claims are bogus at best and even though it has a high smoke point it is very high in PUFAs and is therefore unstable and potentially harmful to your health. The final kick in the guts is that it’s expensive... Well done Don Draper.
26 % Saturated Fat
18 % Monounsaturated Fat
52 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Like corn oil this one makes me laugh/cry. In fact it’s even worse than corn oil. If you can’t eat cotton why the hell would you eat cotton oil? It is a farce and a tragedy that this ever made it to the shelves.
RICE BRAN OIL
25 % Saturated Fat
38 % Monounsaturated Fat
37 % Polyunsaturated Fat
I am pretty suspicious of this stuff. Rice bran is definitely something us Paleo folk like to avoid and I very much doubt its highly refined oil is a substance we want to be putting in our bodies. It is neither a traditional fat nor a minimally processed one and it has no known health benefits.
12 % Saturated Fat
70 % Monounsaturated Fat
13 % Polyunsaturated Fat
With a similar fatty acid profile to olive oil and also from a naturally, fatty source it’s probably fair to say that avocado oil is fair game. Honestly I have no experience with it but from what I’ve read it is a healthy and tasty option. I’m not convinced that it would constitute a good cooking oil though.
Verdict: Consume raw
9 % Saturated Fat
23 % Monounsaturated Fat
63 % Polyunsaturated Fat (10% omega-3)
Walnuts are indeed healthy nuts with a decent amount of omega-3 but this is far outweighed by their high omega-6 content. Like other nut oils its high PUFA content makes it prone to oxidation and rancidity. Definitely not suitable for cooking but could be used as a condiment on salads. Store in a cool dark place.
Verdict: Consume raw in moderation
SESAME SEED OIL
14 % Saturated Fat
43 % Monounsaturated Fat
43 % Polyunsaturated Fat
The only real benefit I can see of sesame oil is the specific flavor profile that is perfect for some asian dishes. However, it just can’t compare to olive oil, butter or coconut oil in terms of nutrition and it is less stable than these oils. I would be wary to consume too much of this stuff or to use it for high heat cooking.
Verdict: Consume in moderation
MACADAMIA NUT OIL
12 % Saturated Fat
71 % Monounsaturated Fat
10 % Polyunsaturated Fat
Macadamia nuts are awesome. In terms of fatty acid profile they are probably the best nut out there, with a relatively high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Like brazil nuts, walnuts and flax seeds, though, these fragile nuts are prone to mould and rancidity. It is also rather expensive so you may want to use it sparingly.
Verdict: Consume raw or for low temperature cooking.
Fats are a huge part of the Paleo diet and it is paramount that you are consuming the right ones. Like with all foods you need to consider nutrient density, potential health benefits or detriments, price and accessibility, taste and convenience. Personally I stick with the big three that I know are healthy for cooking or raw: Grass-fed butter, organic virgin coconut oil and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.
For your final take away in this comprehensive guide to oils and fats consider the following rules that generally hold true:
- The less processed the oil the better - if it requires extreme heat or chemicals to refine it, avoid.
- The healthier the source of the oil the better - if it is a whole, Paleo food that you can eat raw, even better. (e.g. Coconuts, olives).
- If you can’t eat the source material, don’t consume the oil. (e.g. Cotton seeds or corn cobs).
- Animal fats from healthy animals are a good choice for cooking due to their high saturation.
- The more saturated a fat is the better it will stand up to heat and oxidation.
- The more unsaturated a fat is the more harmful it will become when heated and the more prone it will be to oxidation and rancidity - cooked or raw.
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils should be stored in dark glass bottles in cool, dry cupboards.
- Vegetable and seed oils tend to be very high in (omega-6) PUFAs and low in nutrition and should generally be avoided.
- Always opt for organic, grass-fed animal fats and extra virgin, cold-pressed olive/coconut oils.
To download this free .pdf infographic click here:
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- Think of it this way… Say you eat 270g (10oz / 2 cups) of cooked kale sautéed in 28g (1oz / 2 tbsp) of butter. The kale is 90 percent of the volume of this meal but only 25 percent of the energy (70 calories). The butter, by contrast, is only 10 percent of the volume of the meal but it makes up 75 percent of the energy (200 calories).The point is that fat is an incredibly rich and efficient fuel source that also happens to be very easy to consume, digest and utilize as fuel.Unfortunately our messed up and perverse modern take on diet and nutrition has vilified fat and made us fear calories. How fat became the enemy is beyond me. And we were all a lot less neurotic about food (and leaner) a few decades ago when we didn’t know calories existed.It is an unfortunate fact that we use the same word for delicious dietary fat like avocado and dark chocolate as we do for the disgusting adipose tissue that wobbles on our arms or hangs over our belts.Still, blaming fat and calories for making us fat is as stupid as blaming diesel for making trains run faster, further and more efficiently than steam. Ludicrous!I laugh when I see restaurants promoting certain meals because they have less calories."This low-fat Caesar salad has only 240 calories.”Why the heck would I pay $10 for a salad with 240 calories and more highly processed ingredients when I can get a tuna salad with eggs and olive oil that has 480 calories for the same price and is also healthier? It’s terrible logic. It’s like paying for a full tank of gas but only getting it filled half way.Anyway, rants aside a Paleo diet tends to favor fats over carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel, with protein consumption fairly similar to a Western diet but much from higher quality sources.
Gunnars, 2013: http://authoritynutrition.com/grape-seed-oil/
Lalonde, 2012: http://chriskresser.com/rhr-what-science-really-says-about-the-paleo-diet-with-mat-lalonde
Sisson, 2014: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/why-the-omega-3omega-6-ratio-may-not-matter-after-all/#axzz3OL4AnNAn
Staprans, 2005: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16270280