Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Health Guidelines: Healthy Oils

To avoid any potential conflicts with Weight Watchers, specific program details will not be discussed in this post. If you are interested in more detail about the Weight Watchers plan, you can actually attend a meeting or try it online for free. What I will be doing is discussing some of the health guidelines in terms of my own research and experiences with them in my life.

I thought I would start with the one that most Weight Watchers are skeptical about, especially those who are longtime veterans of the program. There is so much emphasis on a lowfat diet in Weight Watchers that it's built right into the Points formula -- for foods with the same calorie content, higher-fat foods have more points than lower-fat ones, just like high-fiber foods have less points than lower-fiber ones. Because fatty foods are higher in calories, this makes sense, but it might send the message that Fat is Evil. I tried the hyper-lowfat thing in the 90s with Susan Powter, and it just made me fat and cranky, because I overloaded on carbs instead. Don't fall for this insanity. Fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet, you just have to be careful to keep things in balance.

The thing about the Weight Watchers program is that it is always being revised to reflect new research on health, and it's also tweaked to correct problems introduced by clever Weight Watchers who figured out how to game the system for more points. A cap on the amount of fiber allowed per serving was introduced after people started adding Metamucil to hot fudge sundaes (or so the legends go). The healthy fat guideline may have been introduced because some Weight Watchers were going so low on their fats that they were getting sick. We need some fat in our diets for normal hair, skin, and hormone function. There is some evidence that certain fats help reduce inflammation in the body, which is tied to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. When I attended a lecture last month about brain health, I found out that our brain is made mostly of fat, and the right kinds of fats are necessary for normal brain function. If people were obsessively cutting all possible fats from their diet, they could have ended up pretty sick. I also imagine they were hungry a lot, because having a little fat in your food helps fill you up.

Most normal people probably get plenty of fat in their diets, but may not be getting the right kinds of fats. If the food you are eating is deep fried, prepackaged, and/or was purchased at a restaurant (especially one with a drive-thru), it probably has the wrong kinds of fat: Trans fats or saturated fats. Those are the ones that have the longest shelf life and are the cheapest. That's the hard part about healthy oils: It's easiest to get them if you make your meals yourself. If you microwave, order in, or drive through, it's a lot more difficult.

How to get your healthy oils

There seems to be some disagreement about which fats are the best choices, because the University of Michigan site and Weight Watchers differ on the healthiness of certain oils. It seems, though, that as long as you control the portions, you can't go wrong with olive oil, canola oil, and flaxseed oil (as long as you don't cook the flaxseed oil).

Olive oil

This is my absolute favorite. I can't credit this love to my Mediterranean heritage, because my grandmother cooked with Mazola corn oil, which is not on any list I've seen lately of healthy fats.

Olive oil is great for sauteeing vegetables. You don't need much, only a teaspoon or two. You may have heard it has too low of a smoke point for cooking, but as long as you are careful and don't leave oil in an empty pan over high heat, you will be fine. I generally cook my veggies over medium-high heat: Warm the pan first, then put in the oil (be sure to measure if you're counting points or calories). When it starts to shimmer a little, add the veggies or other food. Adding a little salt at this point helps bring the water out of the veggies and helps them cook faster.

Olive oil is also great with a little cracked pepper and salt as a dip for bread. Obviously, measuring your portion and counting the calories or points is key. If you're using it in this way, make sure the oil you buy is good and that you enjoy the taste of it. I always buy extra-virgin olive oil that is marked fruttato (fruity) because that means it will add a lot of flavor. I like Mediterranean Artisans or Colavita, which cost about $8-12 a bottle. I use the same olive oil for cooking, and have always had good results. Some stores will offer samples of their olive oils (usually with small bits of bread), which is a good way to find one you enjoy.

For a quick dressing, mix 2 teaspoons of olive oil with a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt and some cracked black pepper with a fork until combined, then drizzle it over your salad or use it as a dip for raw veggies. This is especially great with tomatoes and basil. You can also use this as a base for a sauce for pasta or grains by adding some diced tomatoes, fresh basil, a little grated Romano and some garlic. I sometimes will cook this slightly, but other times I just add it to the hot drained pasta or grains.

If you are a frozen-dinner fan, you might try drizzling a teaspoon of olive oil on your pasta or other Mediterranean-style entrees. It might make them taste better. I don't eat frozen dinners so I haven't tried this.

Canola Oil

This is the oil I use when I don't want olive oil's flavor, but need an oil for cooking or baking. I buy Spectrum Organic most of the time. Use it like you'd use any other oil for cooking or baking. Just remember to measure and count your points or calories. If you've been used to steaming or baking all of your food, consider using your healthy oil to stir-fry or pan-fry your veggies, chicken, fish... It will almost be like you aren't on a diet, like you are living a healthy lifestyle.

Flaxseed Oil

Some people don't cook and don't like oil-and-vinegar dressings. I hear people in meetings say that they do their healthy oils as a shot or mix it into smoothies to hide the taste. I think this is sort of a sad waste when you consider all of the more interesting uses for oil. But if you are going to do this, I think you should choose the healthiest oil you can find. Flaxseed oil is a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are the ones that we Westerners have a hard time working into our diets. It's also great for your skin. I take a capsule of it every day to help with my eczema.

Flaxseed oil can turn rancid very fast, so buy it from a place with good turnover and keep it refrigerated. Don't ever cook it. I tried making waffles with it once and it made them smell like fish. I don't buy flaxseed oil (other than in capsule form) anymore because I don't use it fast enough to keep it from going bad.

Other fats and oils

There are plenty of other fats and oils that don't count toward this requirement but are worth including in your diet if you enjoy them, as long as you measure your portions and count the calories or points. (Yes, I know I sound like a broken record). I love a tablespoon or two of peanut or cashew butter on my toast in the morning. Or a teaspoon of butter in my grits. These fats add a lot of flavor and satiety for just a few points. I love avocado too, and with the new Set Points values, I'm including it in my meals more often. A small handful of nuts (I actually count them out to control my portion) helps make a piece of fruit into a filling snack. If I have the bread, grits, or fruit alone, they don't keep me as satisfied for as long. Unfortunately, none of these options counts toward the healthy oils requirements, but they do make me feel happier about my life because I'm not eating pure Rabbit Chow.

What do you think about the healthy fat thing?

Are you one of the Old School Weight Watchers who ignores this requirement? Or are you, like me, happy that it has been added to help give people permission to enjoy real food? Do you have any tips I missed?


  1. This is the one guideline I have the most trouble with -- not because I'm an old-school fat-avoider, but just because I prefer to get actual FOOD for my points. I figure I get enough 'healthy fats' from the fact that I eat olives, avocados, nuts and seeds quite regularly. My leader says those technically don't count but I say MEH to that!

  2. The primary fish oil benefits are to the brain and heart, although there is some benefit to every cell of the body, because it may reduce the risk of cancer. Unlike other types of fat, fish oil has antioxidant activity. Antioxidants fight free radicals and free radicals play a role in cancer. So does inflammation. That's another issue addressed by omega3 fatty acids.
    Mike Jsimon, M.D.
    University of Maryland
    Health,fitness,Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information
    Height Weight Chart


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07