FAT: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
With all the misinformation and conflicting opinions, the whole subject of fat can be terribly confusing! And since most people are not chemists, what in the world are Trans-Fats, Saturated Fats, Monounsaturated Fats (MUFA), Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFA), Cholesterol, Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA), Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFA), Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA), and Omega Fatty Acids?
Do We Need to Eat Fat?
First of all, contrary to all the low-fat hype that began in the 1950's and still persists today, healthy fat is critical to our health! If I can convince you of one thing today, it is to eat MORE healthy fat.
You might be thinking, "but that will make me FAT!" Actually, healthy fats are an important component in maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, many of our health problems today stem from a lack of healthy fats in a standard American and Western diet, and an abundance of unhealthy fats. Interestingly, because fat is essential to our body, if we do not eat enough healthy fat, our body will try to make up the difference, by making fat from refined carbohydrates and sugar- could this have anything to do with your carb and sugar cravings? It's not the healthiest option for our body to make fat from sugar and refined carbs. Let's explore a better approach. Take a look at just a few of the benefits of healthy fat:
Cell Membrane Integrity: Our cells are made up of about 50% fat. We need to make sure we are eating healthy fats in order for our cells and essentially everything in our body to function properly.
Neurological Support: Our brain is made up of about 60% fat- mostly saturated fat. Doesn't that just make you wonder what happens when you don't give it a good supply of healthy fat? Healthy fats are necessary for proper function of serotonin receptors in our brain. With all the mental health issues in our society, doesn't it just make you go hum...
Hormones: Healthy fats help to make adrenal hormones needed to deal with stress, as well as sex hormones testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and androgen.
Important co-factor: Healthy fat is a necessary co-factor, meaning it is essential to aid our body in using calcium and other minerals and vitamins effectively and efficiently, not to mention the fat soluble vitamins that good fats contain. The same ones that most people seem to be deficient in A,D,E and K.
Energy: Heatlhy fats give your body the energy that it needs to work properly. Your body depends on calories from fat to keep going strong.
Immunity: Healthy cholesterol is important for maintaining the integrity of the intestinal wall. A compromised intestinal wall can lead to leaky gut syndrome and other intestinal disorders.
Regulate blood sugar: Healthy fats help to regulate blood sugar.
Thyroid support: The thyroid gland needs healthy fats to function properly.
Healthy Skin: Healthy fats are essential for healthy skin.
Acts as an antioxidant: Healthy fats act as an antioxidant to protect us from free radical damage.
Digestion: Bile salts are made from cholesterol making it vital for good digestion.
Vitamin D: The body uses healthy fats to make vitamin D. If we don't eat enough healthy fats, it doesn't matter how much time we spend in the sun.
The Problem is not Fat.
It’s the Type of Fat!
Again, the whole discussion about fats can get overwhelming; however, we don’t have to worry about the chemistry, or what the current fad or study is saying if we just focus on the most natural and readily available forms of fat. Because not surprisingly, we find that our most naturally available forms of fat are also the most healthy. And what exactly would these naturally and readily available fats be? Animal fats, and tropical oils. The problem is, these are also saturated fats and saturated fats are bad, right? Not so fast, silly. Are we to believe that highly processed fats are more healthy than un-processed, or minimally processed naturally saturated fats?
Some health professionals and scientists are beginning to recognize that naturally saturated fats are actually a "good fat," and even critical for our good health, but it is a slow movement. The whole low fat craze has been 75 years in the making. It's hard to change the status quo.
While no fat or oil is 100% saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated, we can generally put them in one of these categories depending on their structure. Additionally, it is important to include a variety of healthy fats in our diet instead of focusing heavily on one, such as coconut oil. While coconut oil is healthy, each different type of fat offers a different nutrient profile and qualities, so a variety is best.
Naturally saturated fats, naturally separate themselves and are readily available to us. These are animal fats and tropical oils. They are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. They are less likely to become rancid and form free radicals that contribute to health issues. They are very stable and because of this, they can be used for high heat.
Basically we think saturated fats are bad because hydrogenated fats that behave like saturated fats truly ARE bad. It is these highly processed fats that are guilty of giving fat a bad name. Highly processed fats are fake fats. They are not the real deal.
Trans fats are created through hydrogenation, a process that bombards polyunsaturated oils with hydrogen making them appear and behave like naturally saturated fats. These have a longer shelf life and can be made cheaply, but also have serious health implications.
People have been told for years to eat these altered fats to reduce cholesterol, but unfortunately as we almost always see in artificial foods, it comes at a cost. These altered fats actually increase bad cholesterol and risk for heart disease, and they certainly don't help with maintaining a healthy weight.
Trans fats hinder the production of adrenal hormones needed to deal with stress. They also Interfere with insulin receptors in cells. Highly processed fats can adversely affect the chemistry of the cell membranes. Since every cell membrane is made up of about 50% saturated fat, saturated fat is critical for a healthy cell membrane and essential for nourishing our brain, heart, nerves, hormones and every single cell in our body. When we don’t eat enough naturally saturated fat, our cells are seriously compromised.
Let’s help our body out and give it the good saturated fat that it needs. So, what exactly are the good saturated fats? Butter, whole milk, cream, eggs, lard, tallow, suet, chicken/duck/goose fat, coconut oil, and red palm oil. Please see this post for help identifying good quality saturated fats.
Monounsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature, solid when chilled. It can be used in cooking, but not as high of heat as saturated fats. Our body can make monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids when it needs them. Examples of healthy monounsaturated fats are Olive Oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. Please see this post for help identifying good quality monounsaturated fats.
We can thank the industrial age for many great advances in our lives, but fat is not one of them. With new fangeled machinery and technology it seems we are able to squeeze fat out of just about anything. Cotton Seed oil anyone? Nope, not for me. Cotton is not a food, folks.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid even when chilled. They are also highly reactive when subject to heat such as cooking, processing, or extraction and free radicals are formed whichi in turn contribute to heart disease, cancer and other health issues. Even when cold pressed, poly-unsaturated oils should only be consumed in small amounts, or avoided altogether. While it is true that these polyunsaturated oils do contain omega 6 fatty acids, we already get plenty of omega 6 from legumes, grains, nuts, green vegetables, olive oil, and animal fats. Excessive omega 6 can actually be harmful.
Our focus should be on fats that have not been processed or have been lightly processed. Polyunsaturated Fats tend to be highly processed. This is clearly a problem due to their potential to become highly reactive when processed. A simple rule of thumb, if we did not have a particular oil or fat product 200 years ago, you can assume it is highly processed. We do get some polyunsaturated fats in our naturally saturated and monounsaturated fats, remember no fat is 100% saturated or monounsaturated. These polyunsaturated fats that occur with naturally saturated and monounsaturated fats are the only ones I would recommend.
We hear an awful lot about getting more Omega fatty acids.
If you are eating healthy saturated fats, your body actually needs very little omega-3 because saturated fats make certain that the omega-3s are used very effectively and conserved in the tissues. So you don’t need to add extra omega-3s to your diet, in fact an abundance of omega 3s can be harmful. And you definitely don’t need to worry about getting enough omega-6, as they are in many foods. The thing we should worry about is getting a more equal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. The problem is, the standard American and Western diets contains much more Omega 6 than Omega 3, so we feel like we have to supplement with Omega 3 to get a more equal ratio. A better solution is to avoid processed foods and polyunsaturated oils that tend to be high in Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as focusing on animal fats from organic and pastured animals which also has an effect on the omega 3 to omega 6 ratios.
Fats to Avoid
Hydrogenated fats that create trans-fats
Highly processed fats
Fats that contain GMO’s
See my next post for "the list": Which Fats are Good, What to Look For and Which Fats to Avoid.
Enig, Eat Fat Lose Fat, New York, Penguin Group, 2006, Book.
Enig, Know Your Fats: Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, Maryland, Bethesda Press, 2000, Book.