Gerda Explains: The Best Fats to Eat and Burn

Gerda Explains: The Best Fats to Eat and Burn

gerda explains

The Best Fats to Eat and Burn

gerda endemann

Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley and a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT. As an undergrad, she researched omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and she moved on to cholesterol and ketone bodies in grad school. She still loves to eat fats.

Have you ever had peanut butter with whipped cream and honey? My parents never bought into low-fat anything. They’d trade vitamins for raw cream and pastured eggs. I felt sorry for my friends who had to eat margarine instead of butter.

Eating real, whole foods sounds like such a simple concept, but it can be a little confusing at times, and I get asked a lot of questions about fat nutrition. (You can send me your own at [email protected].)

Nutritional scientists never thought that fat was bad for you, or eggs for that matter. We just haven’t been very good at communicating what science knows and doesn’t know. When your parents’ doctor told them to eat fat-free salad dressing and not to eat eggs, that wasn’t based on science. There’s a yin and yang to fats, and although they are complicated in a way, it’s really not that difficult to learn to use them wisely.

The Healthy-Fat Basics

  • Any kind of fat will give you slow, steady energy (and work for a ketogenic diet).
  • Olive oil is the best for most cooking and frying.
  • Use EVOO and walnut oil in salads to lower your blood cholesterol.
  • Walnut oil and other oils high in polyunsaturated fats become oxidized, rancid, and unhealthy after too long in the cupboard—store them in the fridge.
  • Coconut oil and dairy fat are good at increasing blood cholesterol, sadly.
  • Seafood isn’t the only way to get the omega-3s that your brain and eyes need.

Burning Fat and Ketone Bodies

There’s no one best fat—what’s best depends on what you’re using it for. If you just want a steady, dependable source of energy, any kind of fat will do. Fat is digested and absorbed more slowly than carbs, so you don’t get sugar spikes followed by crashing, which is even more significant for people who tend to have low blood sugar. And most cells in the body are very happy to burn fat for energy instead of carbs.

Fat is also used to make ketone bodies, another good fuel that cells—especially brain cells—are happy to use instead of carbs. There’s even evidence from a few studies that providing the brain with ketone bodies can improve test scores in people with dementia. To get the liver to make ketone bodies, the only option used to be a very low-carb, high-fat diet. A new option is to eat medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are made by concentrating “ketogenic” fatty acids from coconut and palm kernel oils. Taking a prescription MCT product improved scores on tests of cognition in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Olive Oil and Monounsaturated Fat

Olive oil is considered the most perfect fatty food in large part because it’s used in Mediterranean countries where people live long, healthy lives. One of the good things olive oil does in the body is lower blood cholesterol. This surprises people—that eating fat would lower blood cholesterol—but it has been so exhaustively researched that even the most conservative public health agencies won’t disagree.

EVOO is cloudy and peppery because it contains all sorts of valuable plant components, including antioxidants that can be bitter. Even though EVOO doesn’t have the highest smoke point, it’s probably one of the best oils to use for frying. The antioxidants protect the fat from becoming oxidized, and oxidized fats don’t taste good and aren’t good for you. In addition, EVOO contains mostly monounsaturated fat, which is resistant to the oxidizing, damaging effects of heat and air. Less-expensive olive oil that is not extra virgin doesn’t contain as many antioxidants, but it does have the healthy monounsaturated fat, so it’s a decent less-expensive choice for frying.

(To learn more about picking an olive oil, see this goop Q&A with journalist Tom Mueller, the author of Extra Virginity. And while you’re at it, check out this guide to cooking oils.)

Coconut Oil and Saturated Fat

Coconut oil is similar to olive oil as far as frying. It has a high smoke point, is very resistant to heat and oxygen, and doesn’t become rancid easily. (Most hard fats are resistant to oxidation—that’s why McDonald’s used to fry its French fries in beef tallow.) As extra virgin olive oil does, unrefined, extra virgin coconut oil may smoke and burn.

Coconut oil is a great example of the yin and yang nature of fats. It’s easily absorbed and burned for energy or made into ketone bodies, all of which are great. On the other hand, there is a downside to solid fats. Somewhat similar to the way bacon grease can solidify and clog a drain, hard fats can also cause clogged arteries. They do this indirectly by making your blood cholesterol go up. Will a little bit hurt you? No. Should someone with high cholesterol eat a ton of coconut oil? No.

The cholesterol-raising fats are the saturated fats in coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and dairy fat. In contrast, the saturated fat in cocoa butter is pretty neutral. In nutrition facts panels, you’ll see saturated fat, which includes cholesterol-raising and more-neutral fats.

Meat Moderation

Meats are not bad, especially if they are grass-fed. It’s all about moderation and context. Eating moderate amounts of beef as part of a healthy diet with lots of veggies does not raise blood cholesterol.

Seed and Nut
Oils, Plus Polyunsaturated Fats

EVOO is not the only kind of oil you can use for salads. My favorite salad oil is roasted walnut oil. There’s a wonderful walnut oil made in California—La Tourangelle—that has a rich flavor just right for beet salads or just about any other salad. It’s so good for you that there is absolutely no reason to skimp on salad dressing.

Walnut oil and most other seed and nut oils contain essential nutrients. Two polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for life: linoleic acid (an omega-6), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3). They are found in every membrane of every cell, with an especially important role in skin health.

So look for polyunsaturated fats in the nutrition facts panel. Or just eat nuts and seeds. These essential fats feed your skin and are even better than olive oil at lowering blood cholesterol.

The polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils do have a downside, though. They tend to become oxidized. Have you ever taken a bottle of oil out of the cupboard and caught an unpleasant, rancid smell? The first time I helped make dinner at my future mother-in-law’s, I told her that we couldn’t use her oil and that it needed to be thrown away. Needless to say, not a smart way to begin a relationship.

Once oils with a lot of polyunsaturated fat are opened and exposed to air, unless you go through them quickly, store them in the fridge to prevent oxidation. Heat and oxygen are the worst combination, so don’t fry foods with these oils. Just because an oil has a high smoke point does not mean it’s the best for frying—if it has a lot of polyunsaturated fats, they can break down and become oxidized.

Sources of
Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are all the rage these days, for good reason, but there’s also plenty of hype. The easiest way to get omega-3s is to eat walnuts, flax, chia, and soybeans. Your body uses the essential fat in these foods, ALA, to make the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, of fish-oil fame. Seafood is the best source of DHA and EPA, but pastured meats and eggs also have some. The most sustainable source is vegan supplements made from algae.

Your brain and eyes need lots of omega-3s, so it’s worth making sure you get plenty. An easy way to get your omega-3s is with any of the goop vitamin protocols. The protocols are daily packets containing multiple supplements to take care of all your vitamin needs. Each protocol includes over a gram of omega-3 fats, so choose the one that sounds like you.

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.