Fats and Oils 101

Fats and oils 101

Fats provide fuel to our bodies, and in moderation, they are essential for pregnant women and lactating mothers too. Both cooking oils (liquids) and solid fats are referred to as fats. Fats contribute to different flavours, textures, tastes, and increase the palatability of dishes. They are essential just like any other nutrient and the right kind of fats are important for the development of the nervous system and eyes in the unborn child. Fats also have some essential fatty acids that are not produced in our body and hence these become a good source of these essential nutrients. These are also carriers for fat-soluble vitamins and are required for their absorption. One gram of fat provides 9 Kcal and therefore is a concentrated source of energy. A meal that is high in fat takes longer to digest and hence imparts a feeling of fullness and satisfaction.

Sources of fats

Dietary fats are derived from both plant and animal sources, and are generally classified under “invisible” and “visible” fats. Visible fats are the ones that are used for cooking, like vegetable oils, vanaspati, butter, and ghee. Invisible fats are those that are present in food groups like walnuts, cereals, and animal and dairy products.

Different types of fats

It is important to remember that all fats are not equal and their properties, function and health benefits vary according to their type. So let’s look at what are the different types of fats that are available and beneficial for the pregnant and lactating mother.

All fats in foods are a mixture of these three types of fatty acids, which are the “building blocks” of fats. Depending on the fatty acid structure, fats can be grouped as saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Some of the polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential as they cannot be synthesized by our body, and can only be obtained through diet or supplements. These include the omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid) and the omega-6 fatty acid (linoleic acid).

Pregnant women and the type of fats they should consume

Types of fatty acids in fats and oils

All cooking oils are a mixture of fatty acids. However, depending on the predominant type of fatty acids present they are classified accordingly and are said to be rich in that particular fatty acid.

Listed below are some of the most common types of oil and their predominant fatty acid composition

Saturated fatty acids Monounsaturated fatty acids Polyunsaturated fatty acids  
Coconut oil Red palm oil Linolic (n-6 α-linolenic (ALA) (n-3)
Ghee and butter Palmolein Safflower oil Safflower oil Mustard oil
Palm kernel Rice bran oil Sunflower oil Soya bean oil
Vanaspati Sesame oil   Fish oil, Flax oil
      Rapeseed oil, Olive oil

Here is a review of the oils we generally use for cooking

All the oils mentioned below are used for cooking, but should be chosen wisely, to reduce harmful effects on your health.

  • Coconut oil: It contains saturated fats and medium-chain triglycerides that the body can digest quickly.
  • Ghee and butter: Ghee and butter contain saturated fats, and are used widely for baking various items. Real butter contains vitamins A, E and K2, and has health benefits as it improves gut health and fights inflammation.
  • Palm oil: It is derived from the fruit of a palm tree. The red palm oil (unrefined variety) is especially useful as it contains vitamins E, coenzyme Q10, and other nutrients.
  • Canola oil: It contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and research shows that it reduces bad cholesterol levels. It can only be used for sautéing, as too much heat can ruin its nutritive value.
  • Sunflower oil: Rich in omega-6 fatty acids, it helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Sunflower seeds can make for a healthy snack if you are expecting or lactating.
  • Mustard oil: Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, this oil contains compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and is good for cardiovascular health.
  • Rapeseed oil: It is low in saturated fatty acids, and high in monounsaturated acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and alpha-linolenic acid. It is considered to be good for heart health.
  • Olive oil and avocado oil: These oils are high in omega-3 fatty acids and can be used for cooking or making salad dressings. They help to reduce bad cholesterol levels and are good for heart health.
  • Fish oil: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, it has EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) too. Oil obtained from cod fish liver also contains vitamin D3, and is good for heart and bone health.
  • Nut oils: Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, these oils should be used only for low-heat and medium-heat cooking.
  • Animal fats (lard, tallow, and bacon drippings): Fatty acid content in these depends on what the animal consumed. If they consumed grains, their fat is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, and if they are grass-fed, they have more saturated fatty acids.