[Note: If you found this post through my email link, I will add you to the list of folks to receive the follow up email series on Dietary Fats…]
Fats cause a lot of confusion.
Are they good? Are they bad? Should you eat them? Avoid them?
Do they cause health problems? Do they protect your health?
Well, as with most nutrition topics, the answer is “all of the above.”
There are different kinds of dietary fat. And the medicine is in the dose.
The right amount of the right balance of different fats is not only healthy, it’s essential to good health.
However eating the wrong kind of fat, or even too much of the right kind, can cause serious problems.
And you may be surprised by some of the fats that are not only good for you but necessary.
There are 3 main types of dietary fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated which is split into Omega-3s and Omega-6s.
Here are some quick examples…
Animal fats like butter
Tropical oils like coconut, palm, or cacao
Avocados and avocado oil
Peanuts & groundnuts
Most seed oils like canola, safflower, or sunflower
The way fats are classified has to do with their “bond structure.”
Without getting too geeky, fats are made up of carbon and hydrogen that are bonded together in chains called hydrocarbons. The way they are put together determines what type of fat is created.
Saturated fats contain no double bonds. The chain is “saturated” with hydrogens because every carbon has two hydrogens. That’s why saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats have one or more double bonds between carbons. So instead of both bonds going to a hydrogen, a carbon is bonded twice to another carbon — double bond.
Monounsaturated fats have one double bond and polyunsaturated fats have more than one.
These molecular shapes determine how the fats act in the body.
It’s important to note at this point that up until now we’ve been talking about natural fat structures.
However you probably know that there are BAD fats that are essentially man made through processing. These are trans fats and hydrogenated fats. And by far these are the worst fats for your health since they are not naturally occurring and thus do not act the way they should in your body.
The reason they are processed is to make cheap vegetable oils both nonperishable and solid at room temperature.
Now, let’s look at the different kinds of fats, why you should eat them, and in what ratios.
Chances are you’ve heard you should avoid saturated fat. That started with some dubious assumptions about cholesterol.
Truth is most of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver. Your body knows how much cholesterol is in your blood. When you eat more cholesterol your body produces less, and vice versa.
So you don’t have to worry about raising your blood cholesterol by eating saturated fat. In fact saturated fat seems to support the enhancement of your good HDL cholesterol.
Be careful though, since a lot of our modern diet comes from animal foods and tropical oils (from processed foods), it’s easy to throw off your balance of dietary fats and end up eating too much on the saturated end.
The healthiest forms of saturated fats are from pasture-raised meat and dairy as well as unprocessed tropical oils like extra-virgin cold-pressed coconut oil.
[A side note on cholesterol: It is the combination of too many carbs, processed vegetable oils, and possibly in conjunction with saturated fat that CAN overload the blood. If your carb intake is high, consider restricting fats; if your fat intake is high, maybe restrict carbs. The body cannot handle an EXCESS of both. The key word is excess; do not overload your system with more than it needs.]
Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. They became “famous” due to their prevalence in the Mediterranean Diet whichs appear to lower LDL cholesterol (aka the “bad” cholesterol) and potentially increase HDL cholesterol (aka the “good” cholesterol).
And then there’s the polyunsaturated fats which include the ever popular Omega-3s and the lesser known Omega-6s.
Omega-3s have been the subject of hundreds of studies linking them with a number of health benefits.
Recent research cast some doubt of Omega-3 supplements, but the study was done on rats so the findings require a lot more research. And it seems like the well documented benefits in human studies far outweigh the doubts.
Benefits of sufficient consumption of Omega-3 include better brain function, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced inflammation.
However many experts believe that the ratio of your polyunsaturated fats is nearly as important as the amounts you consume.
Scientists estimate that the omega-6:omega-3 ratio in a hunter-gatherer diets was around 1:1. Unfortunately nowadays we probably eat these fats in a ratio of about 16:1.
That’s because we get a ton of Omega-6 from stuff like corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil, and factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy.
Omega-3 oils come from many types of seafood and from flax seeds or oil. Unfortunately neither are featured prominently in our modern diet.
So to balance out your polyunsaturated fats you’ll likely need to reduce your consumption of “industrial” oils from processed foods while supplementing with a high quality fish oil. A great alternative is to use avocado oil as a replacement. It’s monounsaturated and the flavour is amazing.
Other than that, you don’t need to worry about exact ratios between the different types of fats. Just keep a generally well balanced intake of each from naturally occurring sources.
A final word on dietary fats. They are extremely calorie dense. A single tablespoon of otherwise heathy olive oil packs a whopping 119 calories. That’s almost 2 and a half apples worth of calories in a single spoon.
If you’re trying to lose or maintain your weight, it’s worth keeping an eye on how many calories you are getting from your dietary fats.
Like anything else, moderation is key. You need a well balanced variety of fats in your diet. But too much of anything is going to cause trouble.