The truth about fat
by Viviane Höger
The food industry has done a good job in turning us against fat. Blamed for the obesity epidemic that today affects most developed nations, we are now beginning to wake up to the fact that sugar is the real demon in our diet. In fact, we can unequivocally say (backed by sound research), that sugar poses a far greater danger to your heart than fat ever did.
But what is fat?
Fat is the collective shorthand name given to any big collection of smaller units called fatty acids. There are three main families of fatty acids: saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, in addition a fourth class of fatty acids known as trans fats, a kind of “Franken-fat”, which I’ll address later.
The different types of fat
Saturated fats are primarily found in animal foods (meet, cheese, eggs, butter) and less often in certain plant foods, such as coconut, coconut oil, and palm oil. They tend to be solid at room temperature and soften when warm.
Saturated fats have recently experienced a ‘rebirth’, with the latest academic research revealing that they not nearly as bad for us as we once thought. What research has uncovered so far:
- Saturated fat has been wrongfully demonized. We now know that it also raises our “good” (HDL) cholesterol, and that replacing saturated fat in our diets with refined carbohydrates actually increases our risk for heart disease.
- Several recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
- Refined carbohydrates (sugar) on the other hand have shown to be associated with an increased risk for coronary disease.
- Omega-6 fats (vegetable oils) are pro-inflammatory – the primary cause of heart disease is inflammation.
- The balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3 is far more important for our health than the total saturated fat intake is.
Saturated fats are very stable. They’re tough, and when exposed to high heat they don’t get “damaged” as easily as their more delicate cousins, the unsaturated fats, do.
Furthermore, foods that are naturally high in saturated fat also tend to be healthy and nutritious, as long as you're eating quality, unprocessed foods. These include naturally fed/raised meats, dairy products from grass-fed cows, dark chocolate and coconuts.
Monounsaturated fat is the fat that’s predominant in olive oil, nuts and nut oils, and avocado. Its health benefits are well documented and are noncontroversial. Monounsaturated fat is the primary fat consumed in the highly touted Mediterranean diet, and it’s generally accepted that this kind of fat is perfectly healthy.
Polyunsaturated fats as a whole are divided into two subcategories: Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s are found primarily in vegetable oils and some plant foods. Omega-3s are found in fish, such as salmon, and certain animal foods, such as grass-fed beef, as well as in some plant foods, such as flax and flaxseed oil.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are labeled “essential fatty acids” because our bodies cannot produce them. They are responsible for producing inflammatory and anti-inflammatory hormones, known as eicosanoids – and yes, when need them both, and here’s why: if you've ever taken aspirin or ibuprofen and noticed relief from headache or some kind of pain, then that's because these drugs inhibit the eicosanoid pathways and reduce inflammation. Whereas acute inflammation is good and helps your body heal from damage (such as when you step on a Lego!), having chronic, systemic inflammation all over your body poses a high threat to your wellbeing.
Generally speaking, eicosanoids made from Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while those made from Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. These different fatty acids compete with each other. The more Omega-6 you have, the more Omega-3 you need. The less Omega-6 you have, the less Omega-3 you need.
So in short, while both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are required for the body to function optimally, they have opposite effects when it comes to inflammatory response and cardiovascular health.
Getting the Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio right
So, we know that Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio that is too high can contribute to excess inflammation in the body, potentially raising the risk of all sorts of diseases. And while we need both, the problem today is that people who eat a typical Western diet are eating way too many Omega-6s relative to Omega-3s.
For comparison, people who eat a non-industrial diet have an Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio of about 4:1 to 1:4, most being somewhere in between. The ratio today in industrialized nations is 16:1, much higher than what we are genetically adapted to.
So, how can you improve this ratio? Basically, by reducing your consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids and increasing your consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids.
The single most important thing you can do to reduce your Omega-6 intake is to avoid processed seed- and vegetable oils high in Omega-6, as well as the processed foods that contain them.
These "foods" were only introduced to humans in the past 100 years and they have completely distorted the natural balance of these essential fatty acids.
Here is a chart with some common fats and oils. Try to avoid all that have a high proportion of Omega-6 (blue bars).
You can see that butter, coconut oil, lard, palm oil, and olive oil are all relatively low in Omega-6. While sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils are by far the worst.
Be aware that even so-called health foods can contain vegetable oils. It is crucial to read labels!
Nuts and seeds are pretty high in Omega-6, but they are whole foods that have plenty of health benefits and are absolutely fine to eat. Many grain-based foods also contain significant amounts of Omega-6.
Boosting your Omega-3 consumption
Animal foods are the best sources of the preformed Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
One problem today is that animals are usually fed grain-based feeds with soy and corn. This reduces the Omega-3 content, so the polyunsaturated fats in the meat are mostly Omega-6.
Therefore, if you can afford it, grass-fed meat is definitely optimal. However, even conventionally raised meat is healthy, as long as it is not processed.
Some conventionally raised meats like chicken and pork are particularly high in Omega-6. If you want to bring your intake of Omega-6 down as much as possible, then it makes sense to choose the leaner portions of those meats.
It is also best to buy pastured or Omega-3 enriched eggs, which are much higher in Omega-3 compared to eggs from hens that were fed grain-based feeds.
By far the best and healthiest way to increase your Omega-3 intake is to eat seafood once or twice per week. Fatty fish like salmon is a particularly good source. Wild caught fish is best, but even farmed is better than no fish at all. However, if possible, do some research on the product you are buying and the contamination levels present in the area where it is farmed.
If you eat a lot of conventionally raised meats and/or don't eat much seafood, then consider taking a fish oil supplement. Cod liver oil is best, because it is also loaded with Vitamin D and Vitamin A.
There are some plant sources of Omega-3, like flax and chia seeds. However, these contain a type of Omega-3 called ALA. Humans are inefficient converters of ALA into the active forms, EPA and DHA. For this reason, animal sources of Omega-3 like fish and grass-fed animals are best.
Great sources of Omega-3:
· Atlantic Mackerel
· Salmon Fish Oil
· Cod Liver Oil
· Chia Seeds
· Alaskan Salmon (wild-caught)
· Flaxseeds (ground)
· Albacore Tuna
· White Fish
· Hemp Seeds
· Egg Yolks
Fat – the good, the bad and the ugly
Olive oil is widely considered to be extremely healthy. It is everyone’s "default" healthy fat, loaded with beneficial fatty acids and powerful antioxidants. Olive oil has also been a dietary staple for some of the world's healthiest populations.
You've probably heard that olive oil is great for drizzling and dressing, but bad for high-heat cooking like sautéing and roasting. Maybe you've also heard that olive oil develops dangerous toxic compounds when you use it with high heat. It is time we debunk this myth! Olive oil is in fact an excellent choice for cooking, even for high heat methods like frying, and here’s why:
- Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids, which are actually pretty resistant to heating. Damage-prone polyunsaturated fats make up only about 11% of olive oil
- Olive oil contains Vitamin E and many powerful antioxidants. These substances protect the oil from damage during high heat cooking.
- Many studies have exposed olive oil to high heat for long periods of time. Even under such extreme conditions, the olive oil does not form significant amounts of harmful compounds.
- Extra virgin olive oil's smoke point is somewhere around 375-420°F (190-215°C). This makes it a good choice for most cooking methods.
In short, quality extra virgin olive oil is a very healthy fat that retains its beneficial qualities during cooking. Heating it too much can of course have adverse effects on its flavour, but the belief that olive oil oxidizes or that it goes rancid during cooking has no merit or scientific backing, and unfortunately it keeps people from using this incredibly healthy fat.
What to buy
The only olive oil I recommend is extra virgin olive oil. It is derived from the first pressing of the olives and contains numerous bioactive substances, including powerful antioxidants and Vitamin E. Vitamin E's main purpose is functioning as an antioxidant within the body. There, it helps fight free radicals that can cause damaging chain reactions in our cell membranes.
Nuts, nut oils
Although an apple a day may indeed keep the doctor away, the same can also be said of a handful of nuts. People who eat nuts regularly are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who don’t.
One of the many reasons for the protective effect of nuts may be the amino acid named arginine, which has a role in protecting the inner lining of arterial walls. In addition, nuts are a great source of numerous phytonutrients – bioactive nutrients found in plants.
These compounds have powerful health benefits, not the least of which their antioxidant activity, which is linked to the prevention of coronary heart disease. Worried about calories? Several studies have demonstrated that nut consumption was inversely related to weight gain. Just keep portions reasonable, a hand-full or so a day is great.
Avocado, avocado oil
The avocado is an unusual fruit. While most fruit consists primarily of carbohydrate, avocado is high in healthy fats. Some health benefits of consuming avocado that are supported by scientific research include:
- Avocado is incredibly nutritious - they contain a wide variety of nutrients, including 20 different vitamins and minerals.
- Potassium is an important mineral that most people don't get enough of. Avocados are very high in potassium, which should support healthy blood pressure levels.
- Avocados and avocado oil are high in monounsaturated oleic acid, a "heart healthy" fatty acid that is believed to be one of the main reasons for the health benefits of olive oil.
- Avocados tend to be high in fibre, about 7% by weight, which is very high compared to most other foods. Fibre plays an important role in weight management and metabolic health.
- Numerous studies have shown that eating avocado can improve heart disease risk factors like total, LDL and HDL cholesterol, as well as blood triglycerides.
- Studies have shown that eating avocado or avocado oil with veggies can dramatically increase the amount of antioxidants you take in.
- Avocados are high in antioxidants, including Lutein and Zeaxanthin. These nutrients are very important for eye health and are thought to lower the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
Bottom-line is, eating avocados will keep you feeling satisfied longer due to its healthy fat content. They are high in fibre, low in carbohydrates and very easy to incorporate to your diet. Not to mention, they’re delicious, at least I think so!
Many people perceive vegetable oils as healthy. Even some mainstream nutrition organizations recommend that we eat them, because according to them, unsaturated fats are much healthier than saturated fats.
Although processed seed oils like from soybean, sunflower, corn, canola/rape, cottonseed, and a few others are commonly referred to as "vegetable” oils, they aren't really vegetable oils. And the processing method of most “vegetable” oils involves pressing, heating, various industrial chemicals and highly toxic solvents.
If you choose healthier brands that have been cold pressed (lower yield and therefore more expensive) then the processing method will be much less damaging, but there is still the problem of excess Omega-6 fats.
Palm oil is a highly controversial food. It in half of the products we buy nowadays, but there are serious environmental concerns related to the steady increase in its production.
Palm oil comes from palm trees native to Africa, where it has been consumed for thousands of years. It is semi-solid at room temperature and differs from palm kernel oil in nutritional composition.
In the 1980s, palm oil was replaced with trans fats in many products due to concerns that consuming tropical oils might jeopardize heart health. However, after studies revealed the health risks of trans fats, food manufacturers resumed using palm oil. Nowadays it can be found in cereals, baked goods, biscuits, cereal and protein bars, chocolate, margarine, to name a few. Palm oil is also found in many non-food products, such as toothpaste, soap and cosmetics.
Palm oil is 100% fat, half of which is saturated. It also contains vitamin E and red palm oil contains antioxidants called carotenoids, which your body can convert into vitamin A.
The health benefits of palm oil are disputed. While some studies show that palm oil may help protect brain function, reduce heart disease risk factors and increase vitamin A levels in certain people, others show that palm oil may increase certain heart disease risk factors in some people. Also, repeatedly reheating the oil may decrease its antioxidant capacity and contribute to the development of heart disease.
The bottom-line is, palm oil is one of the most widely used oils in the world. However, the effects of its production on the environment, health of wild animals and lives of indigenous people are deeply concerning.
If you want to use palm oil, purchase ethical, RSPO-certified brands.
Additionally, since you can get similar health benefits from other oils and foods, it's probably best to use other fat sources for most of your daily needs.
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, occur naturally in small amounts in food products from ruminants such as cows. The human body can support theses TFAs in its metabolism.
Industrial TFAs are formed by a process called partial hydrogenation, which is used to extend the shelf life of processed food. Trans fats can be found in certain margarines, biscuits, cakes, cake mixes, ramen noodles, crackers, many breakfast cereals, cereal and energy bars, frozen chips and definitely fast food. These are not well tolerated by the body.
They are so bad that even the governments around the world have started taking action, setting laws that command food manufacturers to reduce the trans fat content of their foods. Many manufacturers are now stopping using trans fats in their products.
However, a little known fact is that vegetable oils often contain massive amounts of trans fats.
If you want to reduce your exposure to trans fats, then it's not enough to avoid common trans fat sources like cookies and processed baked goods, you may also need to avoid vegetable oils. Also, always check the ingredients list from processed items in the supermarket for “partially-hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oils – these are your trans-fats.
In 2008 Switzerland became the second country in Europe to set a limit on trans fats found in some processed foods. The limit fixed by current regulation is a maximum two grams of trans fatty acids in 100g of vegetable oil or fat.
Why should you give fat a chance?
Like carbohydrates and protein, fat is an essential nutrient. This means that your body requires it for key functions, such as absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat is an important energy source and is vital for keeping your skin and hair healthy and smooth.
Your brain is about 60% fat, and of this percentage, the biggest portion comes from the omega-3 fat called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Your brain needs DHA to facilitate communication between cells. Easy access to high-quality fat is thought to boost cognition, happiness, learning and memory. In contrast, studies link a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Good fats reduce sugar cravings and keep you feeling full for longer. Steer clear from foods labeled ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ - products such as low-fat yoghurt and desserts are loaded with sugar (fructose) to make up for taste, and are far worse for your health than a little fat could be.
Finally, aim for a balance between Omega-6 (as found in vegetable oils) and Omega-3 fats (as found in walnuts, flaxseed, fish and grass-fed meat) for optimum health. Go on, give fat a chance!