Low fat, no fat, lite fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, essential fat, bad fat, good fat… This has been a hot topic for decades now but how can one know what is good for us if all these words are being thrown around like there is no tomorrow. To start making sense of this “fat jargon” let`s start from the beginning. Firstly, let’s make sure we understand what fats are.
Without going into too much chemistry I just want to show you a fat molecule so you better understand the structure of different fats which determines how they behave in different environments. And because we will be talking about them a lot! 😊
Saturated, Mono-unsaturated and Poly-unsaturated fats
Fats are also known as lipids or fatty acids. Fats are chains of carbon atoms (C) with hydrogen atoms (H) filling the available bonds.
Below are three types of fats you will find in nature i.e. in animals, humans or plants.
- all carbon bonds are occupied (filled/saturated) by hydrogen atom which makes them
- very stable which means they don`t go rancid easily even when heated
- they are solid at room temperature
- g. butter, lard, tallow, tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm oil
- have one double bond (see picture) i.e. they lack two hydrogen atoms therefore
- they are liquid at room temperature
- they are still relatively stable which means they don`t go rancid that easily
- g. olive oil, avocado
- have two or more double bonds, lacking 4 or more H atoms which makes them very reactive particularly with oxygen and therefore
- they are very unstable i.e. they go rancid easily
- they are liquid even in the fridge
- g. flax seed oil, peanut oil, sesame oil
Fats are not black and white
Another thing I want you to understand is that there is no such a thing as only saturated, mono-saturated or poly-unsaturated fat. All fats, animal and plant, are a mixture of these three types.
So, this means that even olive oil known as mono-unsaturated fat has a saturated fat content (14%) and polyunsaturated fat content (11%) and the same applies for e.g. tallow, known as saturated fat but it contains some percentage of mono- and poly-unsaturated fat content as well. See it` s not all black and white as it seems from the outside.
What fats are good for us?
Generally saturated and monosaturated fats are the two main fats in animal fats. Plants, on the other hand, especially legume and seed oils, are high in polyunsaturated fats.
Our body needs a lot of saturated and monounsaturated fat, 92% in our body is one or the other. If there is not enough in our diet our body will even make them (out of carbohydrates).
The remaining 8% are the polyunsaturated fats our body needs. However, unlike plants our body can`t make poly-unsaturated fats and therefore we must obtain them from our diet every day. For this reason, they are called Essential fatty acids (EFAs). These are the famous Omega 6 and Omega 3. However, there is a caveat*(I explain further down the article)
For thousands of years we ate foods containing natural fats, both saturated from animals and unsaturated (mono- and poly- ) from plants. They were needed for evolution and sophistication of our brain. Both are needed for healthy nervous system, immune system, transport of essential fatty acids, hormone production system, cell, skin, hair, nails and eyes health as well as fight the inflammation and more.
It`s only now, last few decades, that something has changed in our diet and we have become sicker and fatter. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, behavioral problems and other modern diseases are on the rise. In fact, it was only last century when westerners ate mainly saturated fats like tallow, lard, butter and diseases such as hard disease and cancer were minimal. Cancer effected only 3% of population and heart attack was a minor problem.
And yet even today saturated fats are to blame. We all have heard this one – saturated fats are bad and cause heart disease. Saturated fats become a demon in our modern world. To find out why are saturated fats demonized read Is Saturated Fat Evil or Is It a Myth?
What are the bad fats?
We have been made believed that fats are the culprit of today’s health crises. But are they?
Yes, they are but not the natural fats found in natural real foods our ancestors ate for centuries and thrived. Such as fats found in butter, lard, tallow, coconut, avocado, olive oil, fish, eggs, meat, etc.
We have been pointing finger the wrong direction, we have been pointing finger at nature and fighting over whether we should eat butter and eggs while food industry and food manufacturers have been and are filling their pockets with dollars from the sales of their fake in laboratory man-made and highly processed polyunsaturated fats from hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Also known as margarine or spreads and cheap vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, soybean oil and a like, that are marketed to us as a healthy alternative and are hidden in almost every product on the supermarket shelf.
So what is the issue?
Issue number one. To sum up in one sentence, margarine/spread is totally fake “food” made from cheap rancid seed oils which has been through steps of chemical processing and partial hydrogenation as a result of which trans fats are created. All nicely packed in a box with pretty picture of olives. Yum! Apparently good for our health. You can read this article to find out how margarine is made.
Issue number two – remember the caveat from above? Polyunsaturated EFA – even though they are very important for brain function and normal development the amount we need is very small (half a teaspoon of each per day) and the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 in our diet is crucial. Ideal ratio is 1:1 or 1:2 without any ill health effects. Some researchers estimate that the ratio in our western diet is 1:20 (omega 3:omega 6). Which means we get way more omega-6 than omega-3 and way more Omega 6 in general. This imbalance interferes with absorption of omega-3 and is believed to be a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, autoimmune and inflammatory disease and even cancer. The answer to getting the amount and balance right is to reduce amount of Omega 6 in our diet. To find out more about the issues with polyunsaturated vegetable oils click here.
I hope by this point you better understand all three types of fats which are found in nature and good for our health. And I also hope you understand that the evil fat is nor the saturated fat, nor the polyunsaturated fat found in nature in their natural state. When you eat natural foods in their natural state you don`t have to worry about fat type and content, it will be the right amount. The evil are the fake lab fats, the highly processed polyunsaturated fats and the amount we eat (probably unknowingly as they are hidden in almost every supermarket product).
Take away and action steps:
Stay away from highly processed man-made hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils i.e. margarine and spreads, they are full of chemicals, trans fats or i-fats.
Reduce intake of omega-6 in your diet by avoiding cheap highly processed and most likely already rancid vegetable oils. These are the polyunsaturated oils high in omega-6 – sunflower oil, grape seed oil, safflower oil, rice bran oil, canola oil. Also remember they can be found in almost everything in supermarket including wraps, breads, crackers, cereals, marinade sauces, dips, etc – they will be listed as a vegetable oil on the label.
Remember that foods containing natural fat will not cause ill health as long as they are eaten in their natural state.
If consuming oils such as olive oil, avocado, nut and good quality seeds oils (e.g. flaxseed oil) make sure they are cold-pressed, not heated through extreme processing which makes them go rancid even before they make it to your house.
Enjoy saturated and monosaturated fats such butter, lard, ghee, coconut oil, avocado, olive oil also fats found in eggs, meats and dairy.
Introduce sources of omega-3 i.e. oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, some nuts and seeds such as linseeds (flaxseeds), chia seeds, walnuts – in small amounts, pasture raised or grass-fed meats and eggs.
When you eat natural foods in their natural state you don`t have to worry about fat type and content, it will be the right amount.
I hope this article will help you to make healthier shopping choices. But most importantly motivate you to ask the right questions about the food we eat.
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