Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Feb

The Definitive Guide to Fats

Whereas cholesterol usually gets the gold for most demonized nutritional substance, fats undoubtedly take the silver. We recently covered the cholesterol conundrum, and this week it’s time to confront the fervor over fat. Thanks for joining us today. Please make yourselves comfortable.

As you know, I’ve always been a friend to many fats. But the fact remains, ladies and gentlemen, 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. However, we feel for those other little guys in the group. Many of them are, assuredly, a good lot, and we’d like to put in a good word for them.

Everyone ready? Servers are coming around with crudite platters as we speak. Let’s begin, shall we?

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.

Although all fats to some extent contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, they are generally categorized by levels of saturation. Moving on…

The Monounsaturated Fats

oleicacid

Biochemically speaking, these fatty acids sport a single double bond in their fatty acid chain. The more double bonds a fatty acid boasts, the more “fluid” it is. They are generally liquid at room temperature.

avocado

Monounsaturated fats are found in numerous oils, including 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.”

(Excuse me. May I cut in here please? Yes, I’d like to announce that we will be deconstructing some of this “healthy fat” assertion shortly. Thank you. Carry on.)

Poly in the Cracker? The Polyunsaturated Fats

linoleicacid

Can you guess? Polyunsaturated fats have, yes, 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. Yup, it sounds nasty, and you should see it! Free radical damage galore. 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 pillaging – everywhere from cell membrane damage to wrinkles to arterial plaque build up.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in grain products, soybeans, peanuts and fish oil. Fish oil and grain products in the same category! Say it isn’t so! (Heightened whispers and shuffling.)

Let’s all take a breath. There’s more to the story.

Enter Essential Fatty Acids!

fish

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. It’s important, I fully acknowledge. 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 run amok, and spur inflammation. Egad! Ratio matters, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

What keeps these guys in check? Why, omega-3s, of course. Ignored for decades by the medical establishment, they’re finally garnering respect, but it’s still not enough in my opinion.

ALA

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 aid circulation by naturally thinning the blood, fight systemic inflammation, support brain function and ease symptoms of depression, anxiety and even ADHD. (Nods of approval)

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? Try 1:1. Although many in the establishment will try to tell you that 4:1 is good enough.

This takes us back to the question of lean meat. If you recall, my reasoning in offering some support for lean meats (in lieu of fattier meats that our ancestors ate, as a number of you reminded me) was the fatty acid ratio of the fat in modern meat. Grain-fed meats are much higher in omega-6 fatty acids and lower in omega-3 than grass-fed meats, but not everyone has access to grass-fed meats. The best way to combat the plethora of omega-6 is to watch your ratios and to consume more omega-3s.

Yes, folks, we’re a long way from healthy here. 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. Egad, is right.

And so we return to the question of all those “healthy” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. There’s more to the question than the big CW tells you. The omega ratio of “monounsaturated” soybean oil? Anyone, anyone? It’s 7:1. Corn oil? It’s 46:1. (Audible gasps, clutching of pearls, adjustment of jackets)

oliveoil 1

So, what about the other oils? What about 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.

The Saturated Fats

steak

Ah, good old saturated fats. You seem so easy in comparison. CW makes you into a monster, but we see you more in the light of King Kong-powerful but sympathetic, misunderstood. You’re among friends here.

saturatedfat

Before we move on, we can’t forget the chemistry note. Saturated fats have all available carbon bonds paired with hydrogen atoms. I know, not the most interesting, but the important part here is that they’re highly stable. They don’t have the same tendency toward rancidness as polyunsaturated fats, even if heated. This is a good thing.

I’ve been brazen enough to recommend saturated fats, found in animal products and some tropical 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. Yes, the human body makes its own anyway, 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.

Trans Fats

transfats

We’ve all heard the story by now. The unnatural chemical modification process that created trans fats made products more shelf stable but has wreaked havoc in the bodies of those who ingest them. (Quick fact: the hydrogenation process changes the position of hydrogen atoms in the fatty acid chain.)

Hydrogenation

The body doesn’t recognize the transformed fats and, innocent as it is to snack food chemists’ intent, doesn’t know to eliminate it. The trans fats are absorbed through cell membranes, where they initiate general disorder in cell metabolism. Downright unsavory, if you ask me.

Trans fats, banes of our existence that they are, have been associated with inflammation, associated atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity and immune system dysfunction. And it turns out they’re bad for your profile.

A study out some months ago showed that trans fats caused a “redistribution of fat tissues into the abdomen… even when total dietary calories are controlled.” Kidding about profiles aside, abdominal fat (i.e. apple shaped body) has been associated with the build up of fat around internal organs, which has in turn been associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

Interesterified Fats
“What are these?” you ask. Good question. Insteresterified fats are a new breed of chemically modified fats created to avoid the trans fat label now reviled and even outlawed in some cities. 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. (Anyone licking their chops yet?) 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, run like mad.

Now get this. Research is showing that the effects are not just similar to trans fats but worse. Turns out these fats “may raise blood sugar levels even more than trans fats.” Just what we need in this country! The researchers suggest that this new fat actually “alters metabolism in humans.” (General commotion, a few calls to action.)

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your generous attention. I say we open the floor for questions and discussion.

ms.Tea, Hulagway, C’est moi!, Slice, Mykl Roventine Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Cholesterol

The Definitive Guide to Insulin, Blood Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes

60 in 3: Fat is Bad! Fact of Myth?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Please explain to me why the stability of saturated fats is a good thing? Stable outside of the body equals stability inside the body — we want fluidity in our cells, yes? Also, saturated fat increases our LDL cholesterol…please tell me why that is positive? ADA, USDA, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics…all of these organizations suggest we consume less than 7-10% of our diet through saturated fats. While some of your information appears accurate, it is incredible deceiving for those that know little about fats to encourage them to consume saturated fats. If you are dedicated to providing accurate information for your readers, I would suggest making a change to your article.

    Jenny wrote on February 1st, 2012
    • We want them to be STABLE against oxidation and damage. Oxidized or damaged fats are at the root of a lot of inflammatory response in our bodies. Eating fats that are harder to damage means less oxidative stress in our bodies = greater health.

      My article stands!

      Diane @ Balanced Bites wrote on February 22nd, 2012
      • As I’m sure Mark’s does as well!

        Diane @ Balanced Bites wrote on February 22nd, 2012
      • Yeah, and not all saturated fat is equal, lauric acid in coconuts for example, is digested in the body more like a carbohydrate. And it doesn’t cause the same heart problems as animal fats.

        Stearic acid in dark chocolate is turned by the body into a MUFA

        trajayjay wrote on January 20th, 2013
  2. Jenny,

    The USDA and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest the WRONG foods. We all need Macronutrients, Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Lipids (Fats) for body, ie cellular function. The debate is in what forms that should come. I think the more we ate a predominant grains diet we introduced items that though they were more calorically dense, were not as nutritious for out body. The primative diet of meat, veggies, and nuts makes sense. Meat is a huge area that also encompasses fats, a good portion of your fats can come from here while eating some nuts to fill in the rest. Oils and butter are just extras for flavor but shouldn’t be a huge component of your overall fat intake. The Okanawian diet has rice, but they eat a much smaller amount, less than a cup at each meal, and combine it with a great deal of fish and veggies. This later part is where a majority of their fats come from, the fish and other meat they eat, but they eat a HUGE variety of sea life as an island people. I mean think about it, we survived as a species tens of thousands of years on this type of diet, surviving between 20-80 years old, many of those years in Ice Age conditions (so not carbs, just proteins) BEFORE we domesticated food animals or horticulture. Compared to man made, natural is ALWAYS better, just need to watch the ratios!!

    K wrote on February 19th, 2012
  3. Gawd, I want to learn about the fats so badly, but this article is way way over my head. I truely appreciate all the information written here and the work that was put into orgainzing the article, but the detailed science behind the article made my head swim. Embarrassed to say this actually. And how in the world do I measure my fat intake ratio?

    Here’s what I need: Just tell me what to buy and how to use it.

    I went to the store today to buy coconut oil and found shelf after shelf of all different kinds of oils. Olive oil, safflower oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, on and on and on. Ugh!!!!!

    Dlenore wrote on February 23rd, 2012
    • My posts on Fats & Oils should be helpful- if you want to check them out on my site they’re all linked on my Start Here page. Enjoy!

      Diane @ Balanced Bites wrote on March 5th, 2012
    • I know, fat has unjustly undergone uncountable scrutiny. But nowadays it’s being revived as a health food. Especially since there are so many different forms of fat, even beyond SAFAS, MUFAS, PUFAS,and TFA’s

      trajayjay wrote on January 20th, 2013
  4. I completely agree with these viewpoints. I have personally lived on the low-fat high carb diet for almost 30 years and yet kept gaining weight and had a completely screwed up lipid profile. The Dr. almost put me on statins and thats when I decided to take matters in my own hands and started investigating exercise and good fats for heart health. I was of course shocked to not find a single piece of evidence that correlated dietary cholesterol to lipid cholesterol. I then started investigating saturated fats and still couldn’t find any evidence that saturated fat will cause heart attacks. I think when it comes to heart disease most of the medical community works off of hearsay where a doctor goes up on stage and announces, as-a-matter-of-factly, that cholesterol and saturated fats cause heart attacks and then the other doctors cite the previous doctor in their publications and so on and so forth. Its a vicious circle that’s been perpetuated for the last half a century and its time the medical community come clean. I highly doubt that’s ever going to happen given the fact that demonizing cholesterol has created a $26 billion industry of statin drugs that sponsors more research in this area. If you are a medical researcher serious about your career you better not say anything that will go against conventional wisdom of “cholesterol is evil” otherwise your grants will be cut and you will never publish any thing ever again. So from that standpoint I think the situation is abysmally bleak, but thanks to people like you there is some hope for people that are willing to take health matters in their own hands. Thanks for taking the initiative to educate the ordinary people about whats healthy and whats not!

    Regards,

    Yogesh Verma
    inutrifit.com

    Yogesh wrote on March 2nd, 2012
  5. What is your stance on lard? I use very little to nearly no olive oil, except for salad dressing. I make my own lard from organic pig back fat that I purchase from a farm.

    Mickee wrote on June 6th, 2012
    • As long as it is from pigs fed a natural diet eat as much as you want within reason. All animal fats from animals fed a natural diet are great for you.

      Jason wrote on June 8th, 2012
    • If your lard is from pastured pigs I wouldn’t worry too much. Even pastured pigs are a little bit skewed in their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, but you can balance this by using coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and tallow for cooking (diversity of fat sources beng a good thing), and eating some wild-caught fish (or shrimp) a few times a week.

      Drumroll wrote on December 30th, 2012
    • Apparently, it’s high in oleic acid, even though it’s an animal fat.

      trajayjay wrote on January 20th, 2013
  6. You know thus significantly in terms of this subject, made me in my view consider it from a lot of varied angles. Its like women and men aren’t interested unless it’s one thing to do with Girl gaga! Your own stuffs outstanding. All the time maintain it up!

    FIsh Oil benefits wrote on August 3rd, 2012
  7. What about Benecol Spread (55% vegetable oil) ? The label says it contains liquid canola oil, , partially hydrogenated soybean oil, plant stanol estersand several other ingredients, but that it is “proven to reduce cholesterol.”

    Esther Gordon wrote on September 5th, 2012
    • Horrible. As Mark said, if there’s anything hydrogenated about your fats, RUN, do NOT walk to a different fat source. Also seems like the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio would be WAY out of balance.

      Just use coconut oil, butter, lard, or tallow. ;)

      Drumroll wrote on December 30th, 2012
    • partially hydrogenated are two words that you should never find on a real food label. Turn around and don’t ever look back. Eat something that you’d find in nature

      trajayjay wrote on January 20th, 2013
  8. All info enlightening and tongue in cheek humor with it even better. Well explained and will be passing it along!!! Thank you!!! TY!!! TY!!!!

    Kathy wrote on February 26th, 2013
  9. So theres one thing i dont get. Once a fat has been hydrogenated what separates it from a saturated fat? they look the same to me, both double bonds have split and now each have a hydrogen attached to them. Is this bond somehow different from the other C-O bonds? eg is one ionic and the other covalent? or something like that. Or is it the case that the hydrogenation process isnt perfect and in fact fats only get partially hydrogenated? leaving an empty bond?

    Any explanation would be great. i just want to understand why!

    Simon wrote on May 22nd, 2013
  10. Judging by the last comment here I’m a little late to the party, but I have a question. . . if anyone is still here.
    I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of links related to this post, so the question may seem irrelivant here, bare with me, as it seems a lot of folks here have studied this for a while and have a lot of wisdomI would like to tap into.
    Am I correct in stating salmon oil has the best EPA/DHA ratio?
    Does anyone have advice on the best pharmacutical brand for human consumption?

    Angela wrote on July 21st, 2013
  11. I read the ratio of monounsaturated to saturated subcutaneous fat is about 2:1. Is that the ratio we should be eating? Does it matter?

    tam wrote on January 11th, 2014

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