The Paleo lifestyle is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It’s designed to make your body function optimally and feel great, but it requires work and experimentation on the part of each person. Not all bodies are created equal.
That being said, there is a basic macro-nutrient blueprint that usually surfaces in Paleo communities. A Paleo diet generally consists of a lot of fats, a moderate amount of proteins and a limited intake of carbohydrates.
The blueprint is the easiest way to think about the Paleo diet, but within each macro-nutrient group there are some steps you must take to remain healthy. The majority of the fats you eat will probably be provided by meat, some nuts and other high-fat foods like avocados and eggs. However, oil is a necessity for most cooks–frying, baking and salad dressing all typically require oil. Many Paleoers add fats to their diets in other ways, too, like putting coconut oil in coffee or ghee on vegetables.
Fats are a vital component to any diet, not just Paleo. The reasons are numerous–they keep you feeling full, they are a great source of energy, they are vital to deliver some vitamins and nutrients to where they are needed in your body and all of your cells contain some fat. Without fats, the human body would not function properly.
All fats are not created equal, though. There are a few buzzwords that you’ve probably heard in conversations about fat: there’s saturated and unsaturated fat. Some unsaturated fats are mono and some are poly. Within polyunsaturated fats, there are omega-3s and omega-6s. Finally, trans fat is another concern. It’s a lot to consider, so let’s break it down. We’ll keep this light on the science.
Saturated fat (SFA): Wrongfully accused villain
Saturated fat is often touted as unhealthy, artery-clogging and dangerous. However, it’s a vital part of our bodies. Remember the previous mention of human cells containing fat? In fact, half of our cell membrane is made of saturated fat. The liver produces saturated fats for the body to use.
Saturated fat also has higher levels of cholesterol than other types of fat, which is supposedly linked to heart problems. However, most pieces of evidence that link bad heart health with saturated fat are shaky and outdated. More recent and large-scale studies suggest no link between cardiovascular health and saturated fat.
So, saturated fat naturally occurs in our bodies and isn’t as bad as we’ve heard it is. Beyond that, saturated fat gets even better. It contains tons of essential vitamins, coats our lungs to keep them moist and healthy and even has antimicrobial properties.
Monounsaturated fat (MUFA): Everybody’s hero
Monounsaturated fats are the agreed-upon good guy in fat consumption. Both Paleo diet practitioners and the larger medical community agree that MUFAs are beneficial. They help improve blood cholesterol levels and control blood sugar.
Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA): Can’t be trusted
Polyunsaturated fats are somewhat necessary, but not as vital as MUFAs and SFAs. However, they’re a lot harder to categorize. Without going too deep into the science, PUFAs are very unstable and can easily be altered. Therefore, they can easily combine with proteins and sugars in our bodies to create toxins and other yucky side effects. They also cause inflammation, which makes you feel crappy and, in the long term, can lead to heart problems.
PUFAs consist of Omega-6s and Omega-3s. Most PUFAs contain both micronutrients in varying ratios. Neither of these are produced by the body, so we need to get them through external sources. Omega-3s reduce inflammation, while Omega-6s increase it. They usually come as a package deal and the ideal ratio of consumption is 1:1.
Trans fat: Unequivocal bad guy
Just like MUFAs, this is one thing conventional nutrition and Paleoers agree on. Trans fats are bad news. They occur in tiny amounts in nature, but are largely the product of hydrogenating (adding hydrogen to) food to make it more shelf stable. They increase the risk of heart disease and are not necessary for the body to function.
These fats aren’t exclusive to oils–they are present in all sorts of foods. However, we’re going to focus on oils and other pure fats.
Oils are all processed–they are not naturally occurring. However, the means for processing varies wildly from oil to oil. Olive oil is traditionally pressed–olives are basically smashed and ground and drained until they release all of their oils. Canola oil, for comparison, is first pressed, then chemically processed. Finally, it’s chemically cleaned, bleached and heated.
It’s not rocket science–the less processing, the better. It’s a main tenet in the Paleo diet. The same goes for oil. Look for the least amount of processing–if an oil is organic, that’s a hint that it hasn’t been processed with chemicals. Make sure it’s not hydrogenated, either, which many oils are to prolong shelf life. In addition, pay attention to the amounts of SFAs, MUFAs and PUFAs. Luckily, we’ve done the work for you.
Here’s which oils are best to consume on a Paleo diet–and which you should steer clear of.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and tastes a bit like coconut. It’s high in saturated fat, can help protect against infections and is easy to digest.
Check the label: Buy unrefined, organic and virgin
Uses: Great for high-heat frying or cooking, baking, adding to coffee, eating by the spoonful or slathering on your skin as lotion. It is truly an all-purpose oil.
Olive oil is liquid at room temperature and has a distinct flavor. It’s mostly monounsaturated fat.
Check the label: Buy cold-pressed, non-hydrogenated/unrefined and organic.
Uses: Olive oil does not heat well so don’t cook with it, rather use it as a dressing or in other cool dishes. It also works as an external moisturizer. Keep it in a cool, dark place so it doesn’t turn rancid.
While not technically an oil, ghee is clarified butter that doesn’t contain dairy. It’s high in saturated fat and has the satisfying, nutty taste of butter. You can make it yourself or buy it.
Check the label: Buy unsalted, grass-fed and organic.
Uses: It can be heated to a high temperature, so it’s perfect for frying. It has the traditional butter taste, so it’s great anywhere you use butter (try it drizzled on roasted veggies).
Next time you fry up some bacon, save the drippings and use them for sautéing or frying. Animal fats are delicious, packed with saturated fats and is all-natural.
Check the label: Only use fat from organic, grass-fed meats.
Uses: Just like butter, it’s ideal for frying because they can stand up to high heat and have great flavor.
Fish oil is a huge supplier of omega-3s and is often touted as a miracle food for all of its great effects, like improving your immune system and reducing inflammation (thanks, omega-3s).
Check the label: Buy fatty fish like salmon and make sure it’s wild caught. If you’re taking supplements, check for omega-3 content, especially in comparison to omega-6s.
Uses: You can take fish oil supplements or get it the natural way—by eating fish.
Avocado oil is similar to olive oil but much more expensive. It has a very mild taste and tons of monounsaturated fats and Vitamin E.
Check the label: Buy organic, pressed and unrefined.
Uses: Avocado oil doesn’t react well to heat and isn’t very shelf stable, but is great for dressings and perfect for homemade Paleo mayonnaise.
Another oil that’s similar to olive, it’s really high in monounsaturated fat and contains tons of antioxidants. On the downside, it’s quite expensive.
Check the label: Buy organic.
Uses: Use it the same way you would use olive or avocado oils—it’s got a distinct flavor that’s yummy in dressings and can be used for very light sautéing.
While very controversial, palm oil gets a thumbs up for its health factor—lots of saturated fat, low levels of polyunsaturated fat and loads of Vitamin E. It’s solid at room temperature and has a very unique—and to many, unpleasant—taste, so sample before you buy. There’s palm kernel oil, red palm oil and refined palm oil. All are healthy.
Check the label: Buy organic and make sure it wasn’t produced on a plantation—the widespread cultivation of African palms for palm oil has destroyed diverse animal habitats and put orangutans on the endangered list in Indonesia.
Uses: Wonderful for high-heat cooking, but be careful with the flavor—it’s far from mild and will definitely change whatever dish you put it in.
Sesame oil is used mostly for its flavor—it’s almost required in Asian dishes. It’s got a lot of antioxidants but also a lot of polyunsaturated fats. It’s fine to use for a recipe here and there, but not as a go-to oil. It doesn’t react to heat well, either, so it’s best to flavor a dish towards the end of cooking.
While high in omega-3s, flaxseed oil is very unstable, goes bad quickly and can’t really be heated. Keep it in the refrigerator and use it quickly if you choose to consume.
Much like flaxseed oil, walnut oil is high in omega-3s and antioxidants but not very stable. It’s also hard to find and expensive. On the other hand, it’s delicious and can really add unique flavor to a dish. Don’t use it over heat.
To be made into a pleasing, mild oil, rapeseeds are processed to the moon and back. They are pressed to release oil and then heated with a chemical solvent. Then it’s bleached, “de-gummed,” deodorized and dyed yellow. Yuck. It’s mostly monounsaturated fat, which is why it’s the darling of conventional nutrition. This highly processed product easily becomes oxidized and causes inflammation.
First of all, margarine is typically full of trans fat and omega-6, which we already know is nasty. Secondly, it starts much the same as canola oil and undergoes even more processing. Hydrogen is bubbled through a vegetable oil in the presence of a catalyst (usually nickel), which makes the oil solid.
Soybean oil is produced much like canola oil. It’s mostly polyunsaturated fat and further, almost exclusively omega-6 with hardly any omega-3.
Typically chemically extracted, sunflower oil can be thrown out with canola and soybean. It also has tons of omega-6 and is quite unstable and easily affected by light and heat.
I think you’ll recognize these words—highly processed and full of omega-6.
Once you’ve stocked your pantry with healthy oils and fats, it will be easy to make the right choices. Make sure you observe the shelf life of your oils and be careful with high heat—heating unstable oils can make them dangerous to the body. Other than that, taste some different oils and find those that suit your taste buds and your health.
Even though peanut oil is nearly half monounsaturated fatty acids (45% MUFA) it’s still about 1/3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) which leads it to rancidity. Also, peanut is a legume so we shouldn’t be eating it anyways due it’s high phytic acid content.