For a majority of us, a large proportion of the fat we consume comes from our cooking oil, making the right selection of oil an important aspect of a healthy diet.
All cooking oils are not equal
For the past few decades, fat has been a controversial issue. On the one hand, fat has been historically blamed for the rise in heart disease and other lifestyle diseases, whereas on the other, ‘healthy’ fats are promoted as the cure-all for many of these same diseases.
The reason for this is largely because of the wide variety of fats that are a part of our diet, with some of them being beneficial to our health while others are harmful.
All oils are a combination of different types of fats in different proportions, which gives each cooking oil its distinctive characteristics. Understanding these fats and how they affect our body is the starting point to choosing the right cooking oil.
A detailed account of the types of fats can be found here. However, below is a summary of these types with respect to the cooking oils we use.
1. Trans fatty acids: Found in Vanaspati ghee and margarine
These are the actual “bad fats” that promote insulin resistance, increase inflammation and are linked to a number of diseases. It is best to limit the intake of trans fats as much as possible.
2. Saturated fatty acids (SFA): Found in butter, ghee and coconut oil
Saturated fatty acids have a high resistance to heat and make for excellent cooking mediums. SFA’s can be used by our body as an energy source, and when consumed in excess, can contribute to weight gain. Consuming these fats in appropriate quantities for our specific requirements is generally recommended <link to perfect plate final blog>.
3. Monosaturated fatty acids (MUFA): Found in olive oil, mustard oil, canola oil, and most nut oils
MUFA’s have been shown to reduce the risk of a wide range of lifestyle diseases, and is believed to be the one of the reasons behind the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
These oils tend to be a little more sensitive to heat than SFAs, and while the can be used for cooking, its best to avoid using unrefined MUFA rich oils for deep frying. Unrefined MUFA rich oils also have strong flavours which makes them a great addition to salads as well.
4. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA): Found in most oils.
There are two types of PUFAs that are incredibly important for our health – omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation while Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. While both are essential for good health, we need to consume them in balanced quantities, with a minimum of 1 part of omega-3 for every 5 parts of omega-6. Refined cooking oils, such as sunflower, soybean and safflower oil, are incredibly high in omega-6 fats. These oils can promote an imbalance without the adequate omega-3 intake.
Historically, the Indian diet has used a variety of oils based on the region, season and availability. For example, coconut oil is widely used along the west coast of India where coconuts are commonly available, while mustard oil is used in the north and east, especially in winters. An interesting study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has shown that diets with mustard oil as the primary cooking source had almost optimal ratios of omega-3 and omega-6 consumption, while those using sunflower oil were the most imbalanced.
We can optimize our intake of fats by including a variety of different cooking oils in our diet and following a few simple rules:
1. Limit consumption of refined, processed oils with high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. These include refined sunflower oil, safflower oil, and groundnut oil.
2. Use omega-3 rich oils that can tolerate heat such as mustard oil to optimize omega-3/omega-6 ratios.
3. MUFA-rich oils such as olive oil are a great addition to our diet, both as a cooking medium and in salads.
4. Avoid taking MUFA rich oils to a temperature where they are smoking. For cooking methods that include very high heat, use SFA rich oils such as coconut oil or ghee.
Making a few informed choices on cooking oils and adding variety can help us optimize our fat intake, especially when combined with omega-3 rich foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
For example, for a 2000 calorie diet, an intake of 1 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp of ghee and 10g of flaxseeds, will provide an ideal amount of calories from fat while improving the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Replacing ghee with mustard oil (especially one that’s cold-pressed) can further improve this ratio.
This not only ensures we remain within the recommendations of fats, but can also help improve our health.
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