Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the Paleo approach to nutrition. I’m no expert, so I try to point people towards helpful resources, and encourage them to do their own research and make their own judgments about what is healthy for them. For those of you that are interested, here’s my response to the question of which oils and fats to use for Paleo cooking:
For me, one of the challenges of transitioning to the Paleo style of cooking was getting a handle on which oils and fats to use. Before “going Paleo,” so to speak, we cooked mainly with olive oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil, and occasionally with butter and vegetable oil (a.k.a. soybean oil). With the exception of butter, these are the oils generally promoted in our culture as being the healthiest to cook with, as they are the lowest in saturated fats and high in unsaturated (mostly polyunsaturated) fats. However, for over 100 years scientists have questioned the soundness of the assumption that people should minimize their consumption of saturated fats, with a recent study showing no link between saturated fats and heart disease. In addition, saturated animal fats are uniquely beneficial in that they contain a range of easily absorbed vitamins and other nutrients that are an important part of a nutrient dense diet. This book goes into more detail about that. Finally, many unrefined plant-based oils that are often recommended for cooking, such as Extra Virgin Olive Oil, have relatively low smoke points that make it difficult to effectively cook with them without exceeding the recommended temperature. Although there’s no one person who is the “authority” on Paleo cooking, I’ve noticed that proponents generally use a three-factor analysis to determine whether a fat or oil is appropriate for cooking:
- How processed the fat or oil is
- Any health benefits or harms from eating the fat/oil.
- Any harm from heating the oil or fat (versus using it unheated).
So, under that approach which fats and oils are typically recommended for cooking? The 30 second answer is:
- Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Olive Oil is a great choice for unheated applications, such as salads, or for drizzling onto cooked foods after they have cooled slightly.
- Grass-fed/pastured animal fats, such as pork lard, bacon fat, beef tallow, duck fat and ghee are preferred for cooking hot foods because of their stability when heated and the various healthy nutrients they provide.
- Coconut oil and palm fruit oil are also preferred for cooking, and especially baking, because of their flavor, stability when heated, and healthy nutrients.
- Some versions of the Paleo diet, like the Primal diet, include full-fat, grass-fed dairy because of the unique (healthy) nutrients it contains. In that case, grass-fed butter is used for low-heat cooking, as well as baking.
We use all of the Paleo/Primal fats listed above for cooking, although we’ll temporarily eliminate butter and ghee when we do an “elimination diet” down the road to check for food intolerances. There are books and blog articles that go into the details of applying a Paleo analysis to cooking oils and fats- check them out if you’re in the mood to get sciency, or if you’re feeling skeptical and want to know what those crazy caveman dieters are up to. Or, if you don’t want to do any reading and just want to take their word for it, check out this handy dandy chart of safe cooking oils. I refer to it often and it’s been really helpful.
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