The Skinny on Fats
Last month I talked about some of the history of how we've come to believe that fat is bad and that fat makes us fat. If you haven’t read the blog – spoiler alert – those claims are false!
I will readily admit there's a lot of debate that goes on about nutrition. It’s important to consider the source and who has paid for the studies. Prior to the 1950s (before the science on fat was perverted), it was common knowledge that carbohydrates were not very healthy for you especially when they came in the forms of sugars and breads. People ate fat and were slimmer that they are today.
Why do we care so much about fat?
Fat has been vilified for a while now, but it is essential for our bodies to perform some of the following functions:
And as someone who coaches many Alzheimer's patients, fat is extremely important for cognition!
But is all fat good for us? Simply put, no. Like most things that deal with food it's not black and white. So let's explore this a little.
First let us define what "fat" is. To do that I need to get a little “sciency” first, but I will try to keep it simple. In chemistry terms fat is really "fatty acids".
Fatty acids are a chain of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms with a carboxyl group on one end. A carboxyl group consists of more carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. When we talk about different fatty acids such as saturated versus polyunsaturated, we are really talking about how long the chain of fats are as well as how many double bonds exist within the molecule. This "tail length" in fats is important because it changes how your body processes them. As a general rule, the shorter the tail, the more anti-inflammatory the fat is itself. "When you hear terms like short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids, this is what is where those terms come from.”
The reason that we care about this is that these varioust chemical structures give fat different properties. These different properties have an impact on how your body processes these. The more stable the fat is the better it is for your body
What this results in are basically four types of fatty acids and they are:
Saturated: a saturated fat has zero double bonds and the term saturated comes from the fact that it is saturated with hydrogen. Within the saturated fats category there are additional types which are laurate, myristate, palmitate and stearate. Saturated fats are the most stable fats and this stability also makes it an ideal fat for cooking.
Sources for Saturated fats can be found in coconut oil, grass-fed, organic meat/animal protein, butter, ghee, cheese, and pasture-raised eggs.
The benefits that come from eating saturated fats are that they help provide stiffness and structure to your cell membranes and tissues, they help you make hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, they suppress inflammation and help strengthen your immune system (among other benefits).
The idea that "the saturated fats you eat become the saturated fats in your blood" is not true and "the shocking counterintuitive fact is that dietary saturated fats don't raise blood saturated fats. It is the carbs and sugar that cause your liver to produce the saturated fat found in your blood."[i]
Make sure you get good sources for the saturated fat that you use, like grass-fed organic meat. The takeaway here is that these fats can be extremely beneficial to you.
Monounsaturated fats: a monounsaturated fatty acid has one double bond. This type of fat is relatively stable, but not as stable as a saturated fat. "Mono" meaning one, indicates that there is one place for a free radical to enter and this is what makes it a little bit more unstable.[ii]
However, most of the dietary experts out there agree that monounsaturated fats are good for you.
Sources for monounsaturated fats are avocados, olives, olive oil, lard, nuts, and certain types of fish.
The benefits to your body can range from cardiovascular health and improved insulin sensitivity to less risk of blood clots and stroke.
Just like with saturated fats though you have to be careful of what the source is. For example, canola oil is a monounsaturated fat, but it is not healthy for you. The reason for that is that the process of creating the canola oil applies high heat and uses harsh chemicals. "The resulting canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen in high temperatures." So it is not as healthy as it is touted to be.[iii]
As a general rule you want to be eating foods that are not processed in any way or processed in the least way possible.
Polyunsaturated fats: a polyunsaturated fat has more than one double bond and that means it is the least stable fat. "Poly is Greek for "many" and as the name suggests, polyunsaturated fats have multiple binding sites exposed, making them particularly open to oxidation."[iv] Because of this you need to be careful with these types of fats as they can damage your tissues and raise your risk of age-related diseases, such as dementia and heart disease
You may also know polyunsaturated fats by the other names that we use to describe it, which are omega-6 and omega-3 fats. These are considered to be key to our survival.
So if they are critical for us should we be concerned that they are also an unstable fat?
The answer is that polyunsaturated fats can be very healthy for you with one caveat. "You should just handle less stable fats more carefully to make sure they don’t oxidize or spoil. That means avoiding ones that are heavily processed or exposed to high heat."[v] In general, it's not a good idea to cook with them especially at a high heat. Oils break down at a certain temperature, which is known as their "smoke point”.
Sources for polyunsaturated fats are soybean oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, flax oil and fish oil. Additionally, walnuts, fish and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, etc) are good polyunsaturated fat foods.
Again, I want to stress that not all of these sources are considered to be good sources. Canola oil, which was mentioned above as a monounsaturated fat also contains polyunsaturated fats. Canola oil is not considered a healthy fat because of the processing that I spoke of earlier and due to its high omega-6 content.
As I said earlier omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats are essential to our survival. We can't completely cut these fats out and instead just need to be more educated about how to handle them and what the best sources are. Omega-3 fats make up much of your cell membranes and regulate insulin function, inflammation and even your neurotransmitters. This is why they are critical for preventing and treating diabetes, depression and arthritis. And while most Americans are deficient in omega-3 fats, you do have to watch how much omega-6 fats you do eat because they can be inflammatory.
As a result, you want to eat just enough omega-6 fats to function well. "For most people, an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4:1 is ideal– that’s 4 omega-6's for every 1 omega-3." and many anti-aging experts believe it should be a 1 to 1 ratio.[vi]
Trans fats: trans fats are not normally found as a part of our human biology. They have double bonds on the opposite side of the fat chain, which is where it gets the term "trans". In naturally occurring fats the bonds are on the other side, so trans fats are abnormally shaped. Procter & Gamble were one of the first ones who used trans fats. Trans fats were created by adding a hydrogen molecule to vegetable oil and they did this because it made the oils last longer in storage and was better for transportation.[vii]
Unfortunately this is a foreign material and your body really doesn't know what to do with them and the chemical structure of the double bonds makes them highly unstable. In this particular case, most experts agree that this is a bad fat that should not be consumed. In fact, The FDA deemed trans fats unsafe in 2015, and gave companies until June 18, 2018 to eliminate the ingredient.[viii]
Sources for trans fats are hydrogenated fats, which are found in margarine, shortening and processed foods as well as fried foods and highly processed cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pie crust, frozen pizza, etc.
Trans fats are linked to cancer, obesity, insulin resistance, and increased heart attack risk.
The Bottom Line:
The subject of fat can be complicated in places, but a couple of really good takeaways are that:
Trans fats are not healthy and should not be consumed
Monounsaturated fats are good guys as long as they're not overheated
Some of the polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils are not as healthy as they are advertised to be
Saturated fats can be quite healthy for you
For those of you who have been on a low fat diet, I encourage you to look a little further and try adding healthy fats to your daily consumption.
Many of my clients have felt so much better when they added some healthy fat to their meals.
Have you noticed improvements in your health when you have balanced your fat intake? Do you think that some of your fatigue, tiredness, and ill help could be due to a lack of healthy fats? I encourage you to talk to your doctor and see if it would be helpful in your situation.
In the meantime, I can suggest some reading materials on the subject. What is Dr. Hyman's Eat Fat, Get Thin, another is Smart Fat by Masley and Bowden and a third option would be to look at the Bulletproof Diet by Dave Asprey.
In the New Year let's make sure you start off with an optimal intake of fat!
[i] Eat Fat, Get Thing, Dr. Mark Hyman
[iii] Eat Fat, Get Thing, Dr. Mark Hyman
[v] Eat Fat, Get Thing, Dr. Mark Hyman
[viii] Eat Fat, Get Thing, Dr. Mark Hyman