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Trying to figure out which fats you should be consuming is complicated, to say the least.
Years of the infamous low-fat diet craze, which prompted Americans to swap out eggs and butter for processed cereals and chemical cooking sprays has created a nation of fat-phobic individuals who are eating less food, and more processed edible products then ever before.
People are still scared fat will make them fat despite scientific literature showing otherwise – mostly due to the fact that some of our nations’ most powerful industries are deeply invested in the former nutrition policy.
That’s right – for well over a decade, science has shown that total fat intake has absolutely no correlation to long-term body fatness, or cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, diets higher in fat have been shown to reduce body weight and increase lean mass.
This is because when you eat fat, your body processes it slower than carbohydrates. This means fat makes us feel more satiated by staying in the stomach longer and effectively suppressing ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger.6
For example, a multitude of studies have found that eating eggs for breakfast not only increases satiation, it also results in eating up to 400 calories less throughout the day when compared to an equal-calorie breakfast of a bagel.
In contrast, refined carbohydrates and sugar are very easy to overconsume because they are sweet and do not trigger the same satiety responses. These foods act as quick burning fuel for the body, and often do a really bad job at sustaining our energy levels. As you may expect, this can lead to cravings and the consumption of more of these foods to revive our energy levels.
To better understand which fats are good for you, let’s explore this unnecessarily “shunned” nutrient, and how the right fats can help us lose fat, gain health, and live a long and energized life.
Fats, technically referred to as lipids, are a collection of molecules made of the elements carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. (I know, science, blah. Stick it out with me, this will be short.) So, just think of fats as cute “H”, “O” and “C” letters holding hands in a chain. Generally speaking, we refer to fats in two forms: oils which are liquid at room temperature, and fats which are solid at room temperature.
Fatty acids, the name for these individual chains, are absolutely necessary for your body to function. The adult human body is made up of 60-90 trillion cells (yeah, write that one down for “fun fact” time), and fatty acids make up the structural component of every cell in the body. That’s kind of a big deal. They’re also responsible for:
- Transporting nutrients throughout the body
- The absorption of vitamins like A, D, E and K in our body
- Being the structural building blocks for hormones (fertility, sex drive, etc.) and immune function
- Insulating nerve fibers and transmitting nerve impulses (brain function, anyone?)
- Regulating metabolic issues within the body (insulin resistance and diabetes)
- Providing a big “bang” of nutrients, turning off hunger signals and eliminating cravings
The Complete Guide to Fats
Most of you may be familiar with the three major categories of fat found in foods. These include monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, which are both unsaturated fats, and saturated fat. What you may not know is that food is made up of all three of these fats in different ratios. (Yes, even broccoli has saturated fatty acids.)
Monounsaturated fat is a fatty acid that has one double bond in its chain (see photo!) It is known as an unsaturated fatty acid because it is not completely saturated with hydrogen.
This connection causes a “kink” in the link, which means the chains that make up this fat can’t pack together as tightly. This is why foods with a higher ratio of monounsaturated fat are liquid at room temperature. That “kink” also means the fat is somewhat unstable, and prone to oxidation when exposed to light, air or heat.
Human foods that contain the highest ratio of monounsaturated fat include macadamia nuts (80%), avocados (71%), and almonds (70%). Contrary to popular belief, beef, pork and chicken are also technically monounsaturated fats due to the fact that they contain more monounsaturated fat.
Recommendation: Eat up lots of monounsaturated fats in their whole food sources. Use monounsaturated oils including avocado, olive, almond, hazelnut and macadamia nut oil for cold uses or low-heat cooking. Always choose cold-pressed and/or extra virgin sources monounsaturated oils. Protect these oils by keeping them in an opaque glass container and/or in the fridge.
Polyunsaturated fat is a fatty acid chain that has more than one double bond in its chain. (Uh oh, those “H” guys be droppin’ like flies!) Because these fats have more “kinks” in their chain, they are always liquid at room temperature, and most unfortunately – are very unstable and prone to oxidation when exposed to any heat, air or light.
The two most widely known polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), meaning our bodies can’t make them on their own.
Omega-3 fats are known for their incredible ability to fight systemic inflammation, support for brain function, and even reduce symptoms associated with ADHD, depression, and autoimmune conditions. You can find them in high concentrations in wild fish (salmon, sardines, cod), grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, eggs (the whole egg, of course), algae, and some nuts and seeds.
Omega-6 fats help brain function, support the immune system, and help with overall growth and development. They can be found in a wide variety of food sources, including grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables and meats.
In the last 150 years, the Omega-6 content in our diet has skyrocketed thanks to the introduction of refined grains, vegetable oils and factory-farmed meat, which are all very high in Omega-6 fats. Since Omega-6 fats help stimulate inflammation, and without the appropriate a balance of Omega-3 fats, the inflammatory response can take over.
Inflammation in our body means a potential increase in all inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune conditions, and diabetes – to name a few.
To top it off, conventional polyunsaturated oils now widely used in cooking go through a high heat processing (usually with a chemical solvent known as a hexane) and have to be degummed, bleached, and chemically deodorized before being packaged for sale. This means that the clear bottle of canola oil sitting in the grocery store, or the soybean oil used to cook your french fries has been exposed to a lot of heat, air, and light – and is likely a damaged fat.
Damaged or oxidized fats are incredibly destructive due to the free radical damage and inflammation they cause inside the body, which is linked to everything from cancer and major degenerative diseases, to heart disease and even wrinkles. (That last one got ya, didn’t it?)
Recommendation: Eat whole food sources of Omega-3 fats like wild-caught fish, pasture-raised meats and eggs. Be proactive about reducing your Omega-6 consumption by removing processed grains from your diet. Avoid all industrialized polyunsaturated oils including canola, soybean, cottonseed, corn, vegetable, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower, sesame, peanut, and rice bran oil. Do not cook or bake with polyunsaturated oils, or purchased processed foods with polyunsaturated oils in the ingredients. Cold-pressed polyunsaturated oils that haven’t been exposed to heat like sesame oil (not toasted) or rice bran oil are ok for cold uses – but should always be kept in the refrigerator in an opaque glass bottle and should never be used for cooking.
Saturated fats are a fatty acid chains that contains NO double bonds – therefore, there are no “kinks” in the chain. This means they can pack closely together and are solid at room temperature because they are saturated with hydrogen atoms. These fats are more stable and aren’t prone to oxidation or damage – even when heated. Examples of natural saturated fats include coconut oil and butter.
Saturated fatty acids are the basis for most cellular membranes – which is why human breast milk is predominately saturated fat. Natural saturated fats contain rockin’ amounts of vitamins like A, D, K2 and b12, which are hugely deficient in our society. They also help raise HDL cholesterol which we need to fight inflammation.
Lastly, saturated fatty acids work beautifully in a metabolically healthy body. The process of converting saturated fat into energy provides no toxic by-product, and saturated fats like coconut oil are easy for the body to digest – making them perfect for those suffering with gallbladder issues or intestinal troubles.
Recommendations: Consume saturated fats in their whole food sources, which can be found in some meats, coconut and full fat dairy products. Use saturated fats for medium to high-heat cooking, including pan searing or grilling. Good options for cooking fats including grass-fed butter or ghee, coconut oil, red palm oil, and animal fats like duck fat, lard or tallow. Make sure all sources you consume are cold-pressed, organic, and/or grass-fed if possible.
Man-made fats: Trans fat and Interesterified Fat
Trans fats are unsaturated oils that have been taken through a process called “hydrogenation” where those double bonds are “broken” and hydrogen atoms are artificially added back into the chains. This process turns oils like corn and soybean oil into an unnatural saturated fat that’s solid at room temperature. Couldn’t be a thing wrong with that, huh?
By now, there have been numerous studies that have shown that trans fats wreak havoc on our cells. Our bodies don’t recognize it as food (because it’s not), and therefore doesn’t know how to eliminate it. As a result, it gets stored in places like the cells in our brain. Trans fats create disorder on cellular metabolism, and have been associated with inflammation, diabetes, immune dysfunction and cancer.
They’ve also been shown to cause weight gain, especially around the abdomen, even when total calories are controlled.14 ALSO, and that’s a big also, the FDA has decided that if a food has less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving, they can say “trans fat-free.”
With all the bad marketing associated with trans fats, the food industry – instead of going back to utilizing healthy natural saturated fats, has created an even more horrific product, interesterified fats. Ohh, yay.
Interesterified fats are a new form of hydrogenated oils that are cheap and easy to make, and as expected, they’ve been linked to raising cholesterol (likely due to an increase in inflammation), inhibiting insulin receptors, and may contribute to many other inflammatory diseases.15
The scary part? Interesterified fats most likely will not be labeled on foods. The FDA has ruled that food manufacturers can use terms like high stearate or stearic rich fats in place of “interesterified.”
Recommendation: Run far far away from trans fat and interesterified fat. Check labels for hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated, or fully hydrogenated vegetable oil. Also, look out for high stearate or stearic rich fats. Both trans and interesterified fats can be found in coffee creamers, baking mixes and frosting, peanut butter, crackers, baked goods, margarines, cookies, candy, salad dressings, whipped topping and more.
Want all of this information summarized into one, easy-to-read guide? You’re in luck. Download my FREE printable .pdf Fats and Oils Guide by clicking the image below (or by clicking here.)
Have questions about which fats are good for you? Post them below!