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olive oil and other oils

Olive oil is touted as the panacea to all health problems - from unclogging arteries to making you look younger. While this may well be the case, oils used in traditional Indian recipes are not quite the health villains they're often made out to be. And though they might not have the fancy packaging, the good news is they're loaded with nutrients and are cheaper. 

The biggest plus of olive oil is that it is rich in oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA). The consumption of a good quantity of MUFA has distinct advantages for cardiovascular health, because it gives the best possible lipid profile with lower LDL (bad) and higher HDL (good) cholesterol. 

"However, MUFA is not just present in olive oil but also in mustard oil, groundnut oil, sesame oil and rice bran oil. It is also present in nuts. So, olive oil is not the only source of MUFA," says Dr Praveen ramachandra.
Besides, MUFA alone isn't enough. There has to be a balance of saturated fat and polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). PUFA, in turn, should have a good ratio of omega 6 (present in sunflower and safflower oils and rice bran oil) and omega 3 (available through fish and fish oils or mustard and soyabean oils). Omega 6 helps lower cholesterol and makes our blood 'sticky' so it is able to clot, while omega 3 reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke and minimises symptoms of hypertension and rheumatoid problems. 

Advertisements on oils can often be misleading, and half-baked information on the internet only makes matters worse. Above all, remember, moderation is the key. So while fried foods are best avoided, two to three teaspoons of oil a day are recommended. The next time you're at the edible oils aisle in your neighbourhood supermarket, keep these pointers in mind: 

Sunflower oil 
A staple in urban kitchens, this oil is rich in vitamin E, which is good news for your skin. Dr Praveen ramachandra says it gives one a good lipid profile. "But it is very high in polyunsaturated fats, particularly in omega 6. This tilts the omega 3-omega 6 ratio unfavourably," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. "The oil also oxidises quickly when heated and might become an easy platform for cancer causing substances, known as carcinogens. 

Rice bran oil 
This one is fast catching on in urban homes, what with its much advertised cholesterollowering substance, Oryzanol. "It's a good source of omega 6 and MUFA with small amounts of omega 3, but is rich in antioxidants. Rice bran oil is also loaded with vitamin E. "There is no downside to this oil as such," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. "But as in the case of any oil, excess consumption will lead to weight gain." 

Coconut oil 
It's impossible to imagine anything from the kitchens of Kerala without coconut oil - be it crisp banana chips or the vegetable curry aviyal. Dr Praveen ramachandra says coconut oil is high in medium chain fatty acids, which are easily digested and absorbed. "This is particularly useful in patients who have digestion difficulties," she says. Virgin coconut oil is considered good for curing thyroid disorders. But, warns Dr Praveen ramachandra: "It contains high levels of saturated fatty acids that elevate bad cholesterol." 

Mustard oil 
This one is to Bengali cooking what coconut oil is to Kerala cuisine. No amount of bad press against mustard oil will make a Bengali use anything else for macher jhol or even the humbler aloo posto. On the upside, this oil is high in monounsaturated fats. "It also has fairly good amounts of omega 3 fats and is low in saturated fats," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. But some varieties contain a fatty acid called erucic acid, which is known to cause some abnormalities in the heart, says Dr Praveen ramachandra. The good news is that low erucic acid varieties of the oil are available, so look out for them. 

Sesame oil 
Commonly used in Tamil Nadu, this one is also used 'raw', as it is poured over podis (dry masala powders) as an accompaniment to idli, dosa and other South Indian snacks. Sesame oil is a good source of MUFA and omega 6. "It is also rich in antioxidant compounds," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. This oil contains vitamin E and K and is less prone to rancidity. Dr Praveen ramachandra says it contains important minerals like calcium, copper and magnesium. "But, because this oil has a low smoking point, it is not recommended for frying," she says. 

Groundnut oil 
Besides being common in the western and northern states, groundnut oil is also used in Asian cooking, especially for stir frying. Its high smoking point is certainly one reason why, apart from its flavour that is. "This oil is fairly balanced as it is rich in MUFA as well as omega 6, but it also does not contain significant omega 3," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. According to Dr Praveen ramachandra, this oil works well as an alternative to rice bran oil - a big plus, given that rice bran oil is yet to see penetration in smaller towns. 

Popular in households across India, ghee is held in high esteem in Ayurveda. But since it is rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, it cannot be consumed in large quantities. However, ghee has good MUFA and some amount of fat soluble vitamins. "Conjugated linoleic acid, present in ghee, has shown some antioxidant and anti-cancer properties," says Dr Praveen ramachandra. "Some research shows that it may not increase blood cholesterol levels as was earlier believed." 

Why we need oils 
- Fatty acids in oil help absorb fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E & K 

- Promote digestion 

- Promote satiety, i.e, a sense of fullness 

- Help in growth, hormone balance and body organ development 

- Act as antioxidants to remove carcinogens 

- Help brain development and smooth functioning of central nervous system 

- Important organs such as the retina are mainly composed of fats 

- Form lines and insulate neurons in the brain and body 

- Insulate the body against loss of heat



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