The Truth About Dietary Fat: What YOU Should be Eating

by Dr. David Minkoff October 22, 2020 8 min read

Athletic woman jogging in the sunshine on a dirt path surrounded by yellow flowers.

Over the last 50 years, “fat” has become a bad word.

Foods are marketed as “low fat” and “fat-free” based on the idea that dietary fats are bad for your heart and are linked to weight gain.

Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth, according to modern scientific research by experts in the health field.

Dietary fats, in their pure, unadulterated forms, are exceptionally healthy – especially when consumed in proper ratios. They are involved in many important bioactive functions, including:

  • Providing energy to the body and brain
  • Breaking down and absorbing nutrients
  • Supporting cellular growth
  • Producing hormones
  • Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Keeping your arteries clean and clear
  • Fighting inflammation
  • Lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke

Today we’re going to discuss what fats really are and give you some real, honest advice to help you decide which products to keep in your home and which you should avoid.


What are Dietary Fats?

Unlike the fat that adorns the waistline of so many Americans, what we’re talking about today is dietary fat – the fat in the foods you eat.

If you read the labels on cooking oils and foods or research them online, you will see claims that most foods contain various quantities of saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. The first step in understanding dietary fat requires a little bit of science and chemistry.

Let’s start from the beginning:

Dietary fat: A macronutrient composed of glycerol and various fatty acids.

Fatty acids are compounds that vary widely in their molecular configuration but are always composed of two elements: hydrogen and carbon. There are four common types of fatty acids, each of which has unique properties:

Saturated fats

When a fatty acid has chains of carbon atoms that are each bonded with hydrogen, they are called saturated fats.

Elemental makeup of Saturated Fats

They are usually solid at room temperature and are found in certain vegetable oils and animal fats, such as coconut oil, butter, and lard.

Monounsaturated fats

When the fatty acid has a single pair of carbon atoms that are double-bonded to each other instead of hydrogen, they are considered monounsaturated.

Elemental makeup of Monounsaturated Fats

These fatty acids are liquid at room temperature but turn solid when chilled. They are often found in plant-based liquid oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and sesame oil.

Polyunsaturated fats

If the fatty acid has multiple pairs of carbon atoms that double-bonded to each other, it is polyunsaturated (poly=many).

Elemental makeup of Polyunsaturated Fats

These fats tend to remain liquid unless chilled, many of which can remain liquid at much cooler temperatures than monounsaturated fats or saturated fats.

Unhealthy trans fats

The concept of healthy fats holds true for almost every naturalfat. Trans fat is a special form of fat that is rarely found in nature but is manufactured through artificial means. It is created through a process called partial hydrogenation, where liquid, unsaturated oils are processed to become more solid. You will often see trans fat as “partially hydrogenated oil” on labels, though it is becoming increasingly rare since 2013 when the FDA made a statement that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).


Dietary Fats ARE Healthy

Contrary to some earlier beliefs, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats are all important nutrients that your body needs to survive.

There are many excellent sources of healthy dietary fats, including certain oils, butter, and the fat of healthy meats.

Two of the most well-known and healthiest types of fatty acids are Omega-3s and Omega-6s. They are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means your body cannot create them – they must come from dietary sources.

Unlike many other forms of fat that are used by your body, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are involved in many biologically active processes. Omega-3s are critical for your brain and eyesight and are known to help protect your body from a wide range of diseases and illnesses, including:

  • Cancers
  • Mental illnesses
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Dementia
  • Neurological disorders

It’s important to understand, however, that Omega-6s and Omega-3s must be consumed in the proper ratio – which is 4:1. In most modern western diets, people consume a ratio of 16:1, which can trigger inflammation and counteract the benefits that Omega-3s provide your body. It has become increasingly popular and effective for people to supplement their diet with Omega-3 fish oils to restore this ratio and enjoy improved health – but this balance can also be achieved with proper nutrition.


How to Choose Healthy Fats and Oils

As with any type of food, however, you must understand that not all dietary fats are created equal. It is important to understand which products are healthy, which are not-so-healthy, and which are downright toxic.

There are several factors to consider when choosing which oils and fats to stock in your kitchen:

Smoke point:

Each type of oil and dietary fat has a smoke point, which is the temperature at which the fat begins to burn and produce smoke. Smoke from burning fats is toxic, and the burning process releases high quantities of free radicals into your food. Saturated fats have a high smoke point and are resistant to cooking heat (making them an excellent choice for cooking), while liquid, unsaturated fats tend to burn and oxidize more rapidly when exposed to heat.


Health benefits:

Each fatty acid is unique, and many of them are vital for digestion and many other bioactive processes. Fat-soluble nutrients, such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K, are paired with healthy lipids (fats) during the digestive process, which allows your body to absorb and utilize them.

A “no-fat” diet, which has been promoted for weight loss, can bring about nutrient deficiencies and lead to several health conditions.

Furthermore, many common forms of dietary fat bring their own unique health benefits – especially when they are minimally processed and consumed without cooking. Olive oil, coconut oil, and almond oil each have recognized benefits when it comes to heart and coronary health, digestive health, and brain health.


Sourcing and production:

While organic, non-GMO, and minimal processing are important qualities in any food – they are especially important when it comes to fats and oils. Why? Because fats are repositories for toxins. Drugs, chemicals, pesticides, and many other unwanted particles are suspended within fat molecules, which makes choosing a healthy, organic source for your oils and meats vitally important.

Butter, for example, can be very healthy – but it can also come with a wide range of toxins if it comes from cows that were fed GMO corn and dosed with antibiotics. Grass-fed butter has a much more complete nutrient profile, including up to 26% more omega-3 fatty acids when compared to corn and grain-fed butter.


Oxidation (going rancid):

Oxidation is a continuous reaction that many substances have when exposed to oxygen. Rust is a visible example, where the metal molecules are exposed to oxygen in the air and turn to red, flaky rust. Oils and fats also oxidize, and this process turns the oil rancid and produces high quantities of harmful free radicals and toxins that produce inflammation and promote oxidative stress in the body. The oxidation process is sped up by exposure to light, heat, and air.

It is critical to select oils and fats that are fresh, that you store them properly to slow down the oxidation process, and that you toss any oil that has turned rancid. Important tips to keep your oil longer include:

  • Store oil in dark glass bottles
  • Keep your oil in cool, dark places
  • When you use oil, close the bottle as soon as you are done pouring or using it – do not leave the bottle open
  • Smell the oil before using it to ensure it is not rancid
  • When purchasing your oil, look at the date it was produced and choose a bottle that was produced in the near past.


The Best and Worst Oils to Stock in Your Kitchen

To keep it simple, here are our recommendations of the BEST and WORST oils to stock in your kitchen:

For cooking:

If you are going to cook, your best options are:

Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is the hands-down winner for high-heat cooking. It is composed of 92% saturated fats and is full of essential fatty acids that can help improve your cholesterol levels while supporting your immune system. The extensive nutrient profile of coconut oil has led to it being considered a superfood.


Butter: When used in moderation, butter is also an excellent choice for high-heat cooking – as long as you use the right butter. Butter from grass-fed cows has an excellent nutrient profile, with high quantities of calcium, vitamin K2, vitamin A, vitamin E, and conjugated linoleic acid – an essential fatty acid with excellent health benefits. Much commercial butter has some sugar in it, which will burn if you cook too hot. For high-heat cooking, use clarified butter or ghee.


For salads and other cold dishes:

When you are making salad dressings, cold dishes, dipping sauces, or other foods that do not require heat (or only require a slight warm-up), high-quality unsaturated oils are your best bet:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils on the market, with a 14% saturated fat content. It has a great flavor and is full of nutrients and antioxidants that support overall body health and can boost your immune system. It is excellent for salad dressings or to top dishes.

Be sure to choose “extra virgin” olive oil, as this indicates that it is the highest-grade oil from the initial pressing of the olives – and it contains the highest nutritional value.


Avocado Oil: For those who are not fond of the flavor of olive oil, avocado oil provides an excellent substitute. It has a similar composition, is chock full of nutrients, and can be used in place of olive oil.


Avoid “vegetable oil,” soybean oil, and canola oil

While this list covers some of the better cooking oils on the market, there IS a dark side to the oil-producing industry.

One of the most effective sales gimmicks is offering inexpensive cooking oil promoted as “vegetable oil.” This product is almost always made from soybean oil, which is the most genetically modified food on the planet. Consumption of soybean oil has been linked to genetic changes in the brain and a wide range of health issues. Avoid it at all cost!

Canola oil is another highly promoted cooking oil touted as “healthy” and “safe” – but it too has a dark side. The manufacturing process is intensive and toxic, using the solvent hexane (which is a chemical agent used in industrial products like gasoline, glue, varnishes, cleaning agents, and roofing products). In addition to the toxic manufacturing process, the creation of canola oil is harmful to the environment, and it should be avoided.


Healthy Meats as an Excellent Source of Dietary Fats

Many grass-fed, organic meats also have excellent nutrient profiles and contain high-quality fatty acids that are vital to maintaining health. Fatty fish like salmon, for example, are some of the best natural sources of high-quality Omega-3s and Vitamin D available. Eating organic fish two to three times per week is an excellent way to maintain your Omega-3 levels to support body health.

Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chickens, and many other forms of organic animal fats also contain many of the fatty acids and nutrients you need to properly digest and absorb the nutrients you eat. Key is to remember that the sourcing and quality of the meat is important, as the same fat that can be healthy is toxic if it contains pesticides, toxins, and antibiotics!


The Bottom Line

Dietary fat is a healthy must-have in any healthy diet – but optimizing your health requires an understanding of what you put into your body and making sure you get the right fats and oils.

Here’s to a healthier kitchen!




*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.