Fats have been drug through the mud, their reputation tattered and tarnished by the food industries support of studies and support from supposedly helpful organizations, like doctors and the American Heart Associations. Fats, with their saturate and cholesterol levels are responsible for heart disease, right? Well that’s what we’ve been fed for decades now, even though obesity and the incidence of heart disease have only increased since then. There is actually very little evidence out there that saturated fat and cholesterol correlate to increased heart disease or that their elimination leads to any kind of life expansion. So why the bad rap? Well the food industry is the largest and most powerful industry in the country, and pays for all the ‘research’. They can’t just come out and say ‘sorry but we’ve been wrong now for over 40 years. We told you to eat low fat and to consume more grains, starches, and sugars, so now you are all fatter and sicker. You should eat more saturated fat, sorry for any inconveniences.” Personally I don’t think that this would go over very well, so they have to keep up the act that fat is bad. Fats are actually essential for your health. A large percentage of your brain is fat, they help to provide cell structure, and they help in vitamin absorption (just some of the benefits). So what are fats? Most of the fats that we take in through our diet are triglycerides. These too have gotten a bad reputation, but they are only dangerous when they come from excess sugars in the liver created by eating foods laden with carbohydrates, specifically refined sugar and white flour. Fats are classified according to different fatty acids:
- Saturated: Based on their structure and bonds, saturated fats are highly stable. This makes them especially great for cooking with because they’re able to hold up to a higher smoke point and because they don’t go rancid as easily. Often they’re solid or semi-solid at room-temperature. Sources of saturated fat include tropical oils and animals’ fat. Saturated fats provide structure to cells, help with bone help by assisting with calcium absorption, lower Lp (indicates heart disease), protects the liver from toxins, enhances the immune system, helps omega-3’s to be utilized, and they provide antimicrobial properties.
- Monounsaturated: These can be made from saturated fat in your body. The most common form in oleic acid, commonly found in olive oil, but also prevalent in almond, pecan, cashews, hazelnuts, and avocados oils. Palmitoleic acid is another form commonly found in animal and fish fats, and macadamia nut oil. It provides the body with antimicrobial uses. These oils are liquid at room temperature, and also are good for cooking because of they’re less likely to turn rancid.
- Polyunsaturated: The best known are omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic and arachidonic acids (AA)) and omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)). These are essential, meaning that your body cannot produce them, so they must be taken in through diet. They are highly reactive and prone to rancidity. They should not be used in cooking.
Most oils and fats are comprised of a combination of these classifications. Saturated fats can further be broken down according to chain length:
- Short- chain: Great because they can be converted instantly to energy and used as ketones in the body (this makes them beneficial for weight loss as well). They have antimicrobial properties, as well as promoting a healthy immune system. Sources include butter from cows and goats.
- Medium- chain: found in breast milk, they provide antimicrobial benefits and are essential the first few years of life. One medium-chain fatty acid, lauric acid, is especially known for its antimicrobial prowess. Furthermore, oils rich in lauric acid (coconut oil) do not become oxidized like polyunsaturated fatty acids, therefore causing less free radical damage and inflammation that create diseases. Just like short-chain, they are more easily digested, so that they can instantly be used for energy and promote weight loss. Medium-chain can be found in tropical oils (coconut specifically) and butterfat.
- Long-chain: can be any of them: saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. Important ones include: oleic (olive oil), stearic acid (beef and mutton tallow), palmitoleic acid (animal fats), and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which produces prostaglandins that are responsible for cellular processes.
- Very-long-chain: important version of this include: DGLA, AA, EPA, and DHA. They too, help produce prostaglandins. The AA and DHA, also play an important role in the function of the nervous system.
The problem today is balance. Clearly we need all of these types, but in the land of excess we overdo it on the polyunsaturated fats (of course it doesn’t help that these are the oils being promoted by the food industry and health organizations). As much as 30% of our calories may come from polyunsaturated fats, whereas studies on healthier more primal societies have demonstrated that a diet closer to 4% would be ideal. Like most things too much of something can have an adverse affect. In this instance, too many polyunsaturated fats, can actually contribute to: increased cancer and heart disease, immune system dysfunction, damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs, digestive disorders, depressed learning ability, impaired growth, and weight gain. Worse is the imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3, which has a negative affect on the production of prostaglandins, which in turn can lead to: blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, depressed immune function, sterility, cancer, weight gain, and cell proliferation. The important thing with fat is balance. Diets low in fat can actually become vitamin-deficient, therefore low fat is actually counterproductive to health. On the other hand too much fat is not beneficial either, because if not used for energy it can be stored as excess fat. Somewhere in the middle, with enough fat to provide vitamin absorption and a steady energy source, but not excess of what your activity and metabolism levels require is ideal. Look at the sources of fat, trying to stay away from hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats that are prone to rancidity and which are high in omega-6. These are especially found in hydrogenated vegetable oils and in heavily processed foods, that are also high in sugars. Try to incorporate more saturated fats, look for omega-3’s, and for monounsaturated fats like oleic acid found in olive oil.