There’s something ubiquitous in our foods, a sinister ingredient prevalent in almost all processed foods, often labelled as heart healthy, vegan, gluten free and even keto friendly. It’s insidious and we unwittingly consume it while it rusts us from the inside out and disrupts our DNA. What I am talking about is seed oils.
This article is based on my talk presented at the Keto Festival in London, 2022. You can view the full talk here:
I am Sara Alam, a health anthropologist, sports nutritionist, and the founder of Keto Supplements—one of Europe’s first ketogenic websites that I set up to alleviate my partner’s epilepsy (as ketosis reduces neurological inflammation). And now I have joined forces with Real Ketones—we have a stand there—bringing you the most efficacious exogenous ketones, so do drop by to find out how we can help you to support your keto journey.
I am passionate about the ketogenic diet because I have seen, first hand, how it can reduce chronic inflammation, heal illnesses and ultimately save lives and I am sure we have all experienced benefits from being on this diet.
However, on this complex keto journey, we can get things wrong by eating too many unstable vegetable oils—these are a major culprit in derailing our best intentions toward our health. Today we will explore the dangers of this hidden ingredient that can be found in many keto friendly items.
I want us to explore what unhealthy fats are, how they pose a threat to our health, how you can spot and avoid them on food labels; and then we will discover the healthy fats to consume instead that will heal your body. So that together we can formulate a healthy, healing, anti-inflammatory ketogenic diet.
When we focus too heavily on maintaining macronutrient ratios, we can overlook the micronutrients and nuances between the foods that we eat.
Right now, understanding what is and is not healthy is becoming increasingly difficult, especially given the misinformation around fats, sugars and carbohydrates and even animal produce with meat being vilified. How do we know what really constitutes a healthy diet? Particularly when companies go to great lengths to market their foods as healthy. We have all been victim to this misinformation around saturated and polyunsaturated fats. We live in a deceptive food environment, and I want to equip us with the information we need to navigate this murky world and make the best choices for our health.
It is easy to think that just by going keto and reducing our sugar intake that we are on a true path to health. Yet, if you are consuming unhealthy fats, you may be doing the opposite.
What Fats are Unhealthy?
We are talking about vegetable and seed oils.
So, what are vegetable oils?
Firstly, they are not from vegetables, they are from seeds.
These unhealthy fats can be found everywhere in supermarkets, restaurants and processed foods. These seed oils come in the form of: Vegetable Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Sunflower Oil, Cottonseed Oil, Soy Bean Oil, Corn Oil. These are the ones that you want to stay clear from.
They hide in spreadable butter, margarine, houmous and dips, mayonnaise, salad dressings, long life cream, supposedly healthy nut milks—be careful of those! What you want to be looking for is ingredients such as rapeseed oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil. Even if it says organic, this doesn’t really make any difference health implications.
Be wary with labels as many ‘Olive Oil’ Mayonnaises are actually mostly made with rapeseed oil (because it is cheaper). You always have to read the label.
But what makes these fats so unhealthy?
What could possibly be wrong with a seed? In its raw state, surely it is a naturally occurring food, a plant after all.
Yet, to understand the real dangers of seed oils, we will have to dive into its origins and look at some science.
Not for Human Consumption
Did you know that seed oils were originally invented as machine lubricants, not for human consumption? They were then used to make soap and finally, manufacturers found a way to sell them for human consumption because seed oils were so cheap to produce and had a long shelf life and, importantly, were low in saturated fats—which at the time were seen as being unhealthy. A myth we will be debunking.
The process of extracting oils from the sunflower, soybean and rapeseeds involves the use of heat, chemicals and often hydrogenation that completely restructure the fatty acid structure; this is when you get trans fats.
Let’s explore the different types of fats so that we can really understand the process and what the consequences of consuming PUFAs are.
Types of Fats
There are three fatty acid structures: Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated
Saturated fatty acids are known for being stable. They are straight stacks of hydrogen and carbon with no kinks. They are solid at room temperature, such as butter, ghee, lard and coconut oil. These are safe, non-reactive fats. These are ones that we need to focus on whilst on a ketogenic diet, particularly if you are using heat.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acid structures have one bind which makes them susceptible to reacting, they are moderately stable. For example, Olive Oil is a combination of monounsaturated (Oleic Acid) and saturated fatty acids which is why it is one of the healthier fats to consume but not be heated to too high a temperature.
Now, for the culprit, PUFAs have two double bonds which makes them volatile and reactive. Under heat and the hydrogenation process, these PUFAs are the most susceptible to structural degradation and oxidation—which can create trans and hydrogenated fats which are the most oxidative and toxic of all.
When a PUFA oxidises and chemically restructures it can release free radicals directly into your arteries.
Seed Oils are high in Linoleic Acid (LA) which represents up to 40% of a seed oil’s fatty acid composition. LA is the most volatile of the PUFAs and this is the one we want to steer clear from.
I would like to quote Dr Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition
‘Free radicals are high energy-electrons that are involved in every known disease. They cause disease by restructuring nearly every molecule they come into contact with, converting biologically functioning molecules into dysfunctional or even toxic molecules.’ —Deep Nutrition P. 140
This is what happens when you eat unhealthy fats
We eat the seed oil in houmous, totally keto friendly mayonnaise or some deep fried courgetti fries. As this PUFA has oxidised, it forms unhealthy molecules, called advanced lipid oxidation end products (ALEs).
These ALEs degraded fatty acids are absorbed into our blood stream, these lipids (fatty molecules) cause oxidative stress. They cause an inflammatory reaction in the circulatory system—which is how they are linked to heart disease, damaging your arteries—as well as harming the liver, kidney, lungs, and gut.
These lipids contain free radicals, atoms which then commence the process of attempting to rebalance their unpaired electrons by stealing electrons from other atoms, which literally degrades cells—the process of oxidation, creating a domino effect of cellular degeneration, macular degeneration, chronic illness and disease. If you eat seed oils on a daily basis, this cellular oxidation is likely happening inside of you.
Cellular degeneration is a natural part of the ageing process, but it is not something that we want to catalyse. In essence, eating seed oils helps us to rust from the inside out more quickly. Not a good idea if health and longevity is on our agenda.
Finally, if that has not scared you enough, here is a graph from Dr Knobbe demonstrating the correlation between the increased consumption of Linoleic Acid (from PUFAs) and increased incidence of heart disease.You can see that from the 1860s to the 2020s our consumption of LA from seed oils increased from 2g per day per person, (which is 18 calories) to 80 grams per day –that is 720 calories coming from Linoleic Acid. An exponential increase.
Here we have a correlation between heart disease the consumption of these unhealthy seed oils. However, notice that there is no correlation with heart disease and saturated fats. Which brings into question previous studies (i.e. Ancel Keys) who argued the saturated fats caused coronary heart disease.
This demonstrates how dangerous seed oils are and applies to every single person in this room.
Watch the You Tube Video Mini Clip Here:
Now, I hope that we have a clear understanding of unhealthy fats, the impact on our health and how to avoid them. Let’s have a closer look at saturated fats
Saturated fats have a stable fatty acid structure; therefore, they are less likely to oxidise, release ALEs and free radicals into your system. Due to their stable, stacked structure of hydrogen and carbon, they are solid at room temperature. As long as they are not heated beyond their smoking point, their chemical structure will remain.
Let’s look at the healthy fats to incorporate more of them into our diet.
Thus, healthy saturated fats can be found in these sources of fat:
Butter, Tallow, Lard, Ghee, Suet, Coconut Oil, Animal Fats, Fatty Fish
And these are the fats you can cook with.
You will notice that these saturated fats are more traditional fats that have been in the human diet for millennia. We can consider them evolutionary consistent foods, unlike the seed oils that are a relatively new addition into our diet.
I have included olive and avocado oil as these are blends of saturated and monounsaturated fats, hence their liquid form at room temperature. They can be used for low heat cooking but are ideal for salads, dips and cold foods. Note that the oils are pressed from the olive and avocado fruit, not the seed. I advise seeking out cold pressed olive and avocado oils to avoid the degradation of the monounsaturated fatty acids.
Healthy Fats that are ideal for dressing and dips which have a low smoking point are:
As mentioned, olive and avocado oil, Macadamia, Hemp seed oil, MCT Oil
These are high oleic, anti-inflammatory fats. The medium chain triglycerides are very efficiently converted into ketones by the liver, increasing your level of ketosis, giving you more, clean energy—which is why it is such a popular addition in the ketogenic diet.
Nuts, as long as they are not heat processed or mouldy are heathy sources of fat. These are high fat, low carb nuts to be consumer raw or activated.
What are the actual Benefits of Saturated Fats?
‘Good brain function depends on saturated fats’ – Dr Mark Hyman
We know that they are stable but let’s look at some clips from studies that show the important role that saturated fats play stabilising blood sugar levels, improving neurological function, protecting brain membranes, decreasing hunger and supporting fat burning.
- Saturated fat – lauric acid (coconuts) and conjugated lauric acid (from butter) strengthen your immune system and improve cell communication (this can decrease cancer).
- Surfactant, found in saturated fat helps air cross over the lung membranes – so your lungs work better and you’re less likely to have asthma*
- You need saturated fats for healthy hormone production, esp. testosterone & oestrogen**
- It’s critical for nerves and a healthy nervous system function
- Suppress inflammation: in particular, the omega 3s found in fatty fish and eggs. You can heal inflammation with a high-fat diet.
- Saturated fat includes the fat soluble vitamins A, D, K
Research shows that saturated fats decreased dementia by 36%**** and that’s not the only brain benefit:
- Fat can reverse type 2 diabetes and stabilise blood sugar levels – since it’s carbs and sugar that cause insulin insensitivity and thus cause type 2 diabetes
- Eating fat improves neurological function and prevents brain aging and the associated diseases – the ketogenic diet has been used to reverse Alzheimer’s ****
- Did you know that your brain is 60% fat? Without fat, you’re starving your brain. That’s why you can concentrate so well on a high fat diet—it’s why fat or bulletproof coffees are so great!
- Cholesterol protects the neuro membrane–our brains need cholesterol!
- Omega 3s stimulate beneficial gene expression, reduce brain inflammation and increase cognitive focus
- Reduce autoimmune disease – because fats reduce inflammation and inflammation is often linked to autoimmune diseases
There is a tremendous list of benefits from saturated and unprocessed monounsaturated fats, all backed by scientific research. We need saturated fats to form a large part of our ketogenic diet for optimum health.
Are there nuances between the saturated fats? Can you upgrade them further?
Yes, if you want to go the extra mile for your health. With regard to saturated animal fats, be aware that one of the purposes of fat is to store toxins—it is actually a self-defence mechanism, protecting the body. When you consume fat from an animal, you will be consuming the toxins, antibiotics, and pesticides that they were exposed to.
The quality of the fatty acid composition of animal fat does depend on the diet the animals ate. For example, corn and grain fed chickens have a higher Omega 6- Omega 3 ratio and hence will have more Linoleic Acid (the reactive PUFAs in their skin.
Therefore, if you can buy organic, anti-biotic free and grass-fed meats and butters.Yet buying everything organic is unrealistic as it can be too expensive. If you can, prioritise organic, butter from pastured cows and organic, free-range eggs and organ meats. As these are less expensive and very nutrient dense.
Another option is to only buy lean cuts of non-organic meat as then you will be avoiding the toxins in the fat.
Here is something to think about: You are not just what you eat. You are what you eat, ate.
I hope I have not worried you too much. But what to do if you are concerned about your intake of PUFAs, antioxidants?
Luckily, there are plenty of anti-oxidant foods that can protect and reverse some of the cellular damage from PUFAS.
Darkly pigmented berries such as blueberries, blackberries, acai berries and cherries are rich in polyphenols—replete with anti-oxidants ( they are also very low sugar);
Crucipherous greens are high in sulfuraphane and anti-oxidants and leafy greens;
Root vegetables in the form of pumpkin, squash and even medicinal roots that have highly anti-inflammatory properties such as turmeric.
Organ meats are an incredible source of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as stearic acid which are a fantastic way of repairing and rebuilding healthy cells. Be careful with liver—this definitely needs to be organic as it’s role is to detox the body.
There is plenty we can do to heal our bodies from the oxidative damage of seed oils, sugar and environmental toxins.
Luckily, we are surrounded by some brilliant brands here who absolutely shun seed oils – Hunter & Gather who create delicious condiments and mayonnaise that are seed oil free. Our friends at Happy Butter Ghee create an organic ghee, ideal for cooking. If you miss Nutella on a keto diet (which is mostly vegetable oil and sugar), please check out the Bunch Low Carb who do a delicious chocolate, keto hazelnut spread as well as Yumtella.
WellEasy and Planet Organic are great options for sourcing a whole range of healthy fat foods.
Finally, What I want us to take away from this talk is to:
- Stay away from processed seed oils, remember these are high in volatile Linoleic Acid: seeds oils from Rapeseed, sunflower and soybean oils. Throw them out of your cupboards.
- When you do consume seed oils, load up on anti-oxidants
- Always read the labels carefully—it is so easy to for seed oils to sneak into our shopping baskets no matter how vigilant we are. Just the other day I accidently bought a pack of nuts that had sunflower oil in them.
- Eat unprocessed foods and ensure that most of your diet is made up of evolutionary consistent foods—what our ancestors would recognise as real foods, the foods we have evolved to eat as this is the way to optimise our health.
I really hope this helps you make healthier choices within the remit of a human diet.
Thank you for reading and I would love to know if you have any questions–post them in the comments section below..