Cholesterol usually gets the gold for most demonized nutrient, and fats undoubtedly take the silver. It’s time to confront the misunderstandings around fats.
When I switched from a high-carb, low-fat diet and started to eat healthy fat as a nutrient, my health rapidly transformed. As important as fat is to your body, the fact remains that not all fats are created equal.
A few fats, including but not limited to trans fats, deserve every bit of disparagement they get and then some. But many types of fats are beneficial, and we’d like to put in a good word for them. Here, we’ll go through good fats, harmful fats, and how to eat more of the best kinds of fats. At the end of this article, I’ve included a video explaining how to get more healthy fats and why you would want to in the first place.
What are fats?
You may count your fat grams as part of your macro tracking, or you see them high up on your nutrition label. But what are fats, really?
Fats are compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms that exist in chains of varying lengths, shapes and orders. They’re one of the vital nutrients required by the body for both energy and the construction/maintenance of “structural” elements, such as cell membranes.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fats
It’s a common misconception that fats are categorized as either saturated or unsaturated. That’s not exactly how it works. All fats to some extent contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, they are generally categorized by levels of saturation.
Biochemically speaking, these fatty acids sport a single double bond in their fatty acid chain. The more double bonds a fatty acid has, the more “fluid” it is. They are generally liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats are found in numerous oils, including avocado oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, sesame seed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil and peanut oil. Notice that we use the word “found” and not comprise. The fact is, these oils contain varying levels of monounsaturated fat. The rest is a mix of polyunsaturated and saturated. Olive oil, for example, contains about 75% monounsaturated fat, and canola 60%. By the way, these fats are also found in avocados and nuts. They’re granted approval (as much as any fat is in conventional wisdom) as a “healthy fat.”
Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond in their fatty acid chain. They tend to be liquid even when refrigerated. Their problem is they also tend to go rancid easily, particularly when heated. When we heat them (and we often do), they often become oxidized. We’ve let in the Trojan Horse at that point and opened ourselves up to all kinds of free radical damage – everywhere from cell membrane damage to wrinkles to arterial plaque build up.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in grain products, soybeans, peanuts and fish oil.
Essential Fatty Acids
First off, we call them essential because the body can’t produce them itself and must obtain them from food. We’re talking about omega-3 and omega-6.
Omega-6. I fully acknowledge it’s important, but most of us get enough of it that we don’t have to think about it. Omega-6 fatty acids, found in corn and other grains as well grain-fed livestock, play a crucial role in dermal integrity and renal function among other things. But if left unchecked, they trigger inflammation. Ratio matters, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
What keeps omege-6 in check? Omega-3s, of course. While omega-3s were ignored for decades, they’re finally garnering respect, but it’s still not enough in my opinion.
Omega-3s are found primarily in fish, algae, flax and nuts. You also find good portions of them in eggs from chickens that are fed fish or flax meal. And you’ve heard us go on and on about the three forms: ALA (think flax) as well as EPA and DHA (think fish oil). Omega-3s have several key functions, including:
Aiding circulation by naturally thinning the blood
Fighting systemic inflammation
Supporting brain function
Easing symptoms of depression, anxiety and even ADHD
Now back to the ratio matter. Estimates vary, but experts generally characterize Western diets as anywhere between 10-30 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3 (10-30:1). What ratio should we be getting? What did our primal ancestors likely eat? Close to 1:1, although many will try to tell you that 4:1 is good enough. Supplements can bridge the gap if you want to rein in your ratios.
The sky high ratio of typical Western diets sets us up for inflammation, high blood pressure, blood clots, depressed immune function and sub-optimal brain development and neurological function.
So, what about the other oils, like olive oil? The ratio for olive oil is 3:1, which isn’t great in and of itself. But there’s yet another wrinkle. Olive oil is 75% monounsaturated and 14% saturated, which means that only 11% of it has the polyunsaturated ratio to begin with. In these relatively small amounts, ratio isn’t as much of a concern, particularly when the oil contains so many other good compounds like polyphenols that fight inflammation damage caused, in part, by the problematic ratio. Corn oil, on the other hand, contains only about 25% monounsaturated fat (and 13% saturated). The ratio matters big time here.
Saturated fats have been demonized for decades, largely due to the widely accepted lipid hypothesis that made a connection between lipid consumption and heart disease – and the advice that went along with it.
Saturated fats have all available carbon bonds paired with hydrogen atoms, which makes them highly stable. They don’t have the same tendency toward rancidity as polyunsaturated fats, even if heated. This is a good thing.
Saturated fats are an integral part of Primal living and are found in animal products and some oils, as part of a healthy diet, and I’ll say it again. Saturated fats serve critical roles in the human body. They make up 1/2 of cell membrane structure. They enhance calcium absorption and immune function. They aid in body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids and provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins.
Last but not least, they provide cholesterol. The human body makes its own, but it all balances out. Can I help that I’ve been won over by its many charms? Naturally occurring substances, natural body processes appeal to me – unlike our next categories.
We’ve all heard the story by now. The unnatural chemical modification process that created trans fats made products more shelf stable but wreak havoc for those who ingest them. (Quick fact: the hydrogenation process changes the position of hydrogen atoms in the fatty acid chain.)
The body doesn’t recognize the transformed fats. The trans fats are absorbed through cell membranes, where they initiate general disorder in cell metabolism. Trans fats have been associated with inflammation, associated atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity and immune system dysfunction.
“What are these?” you ask. Good question. Insteresterified fats are a new-ish breed of chemically modified fats created to avoid the trans fat label. Like trans fats, these fats go through a kind of hydrogenation process along with the associated rearrangement of fat molecules and an enrichment with stearic acid. The point is the same as it was with the trans fat poison, er process: it makes the product more shelf stable.
So, this sounds all too familiar, no? Sound like splitting hairs? You got it. (Insert your own expletive.)
My suggestion: if hydrogenated is mentioned anywhere on the label, put it down and walk away.
How to Get More Healthy Fats
There are lots of ways to be smart about eating fat. The key is knowing what to look for. A few of my favorite fat sources include:
Salad dressing made with avocado oil
High-quality lard and tallow from pastured animals
Here’s a video explaining how to add more healthy fats to your day, plus why you would want to.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.