Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Omega
Fats have been demonized, shunned and feared in the past, but they are actually a really important nutrient that our body needs. They are a major source of energy for the body, they help us absorb some vitamins and minerals, help build cell membranes, are essential for blood clotting, for muscle movement and help with inflammation. They are also one of the most sensitive nutrients. They are easily damaged by light, oxygen and heat. They need the most care, but given the least. They are heated and exposed to light and oxygen in the process of extracting the oil from the source. So today I want to arm you with some helpful information you can use to ensure you are getting the best quality fats and oils.
Let’s dive into the basics first and start with what kind of fats there are. Fats have many different names, like fatty acids, triglycerides, saturates etc. What makes a fat different from one to the next is its chemical structure, but essentially a fat is 3 fatty acid chains connected to an essential group. And there are 4 types of fats to be aware of; saturated fats, unsaturated fats which are then broken down into monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and lastly trans fats. Typically speaking unsaturated fats are the good, trans fats are the bad and saturated fats land somewhere in the middle. (As I began writing this I realized there is SO much more about fats that I can say so this will be Part one and we will focus mainly on finding quality sources of fats then in Part B I will dive a bit deeper into some of the potential benefits and drawbacks for each type of fat so stay tuned).
Saturated fats come from things like cheese, butter, coconut oil, and milk, and are usually found in animal products. Their fatty acid chains have zero double bonds which affects its chemical structure and how it interacts with our body. It also makes these the more stable of all the fats. These saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think cooled bacon fat). Saturated fats are called saturated because the largest proportion of fats is saturated, but they are made up of other fats as well. Take coconut oil for example, it is 90% saturated fat, but 10% unsaturated and butter is 60% saturated and 40% unsaturated.
Something else to consider is the lengths of the fatty acid chains, which are short, medium and long. Medium chain fatty acids are beneficial because they cross the blood brain barrier and they are more readily available to be used as a fuel source. They are also very important for people with malabsorption issues as they are more easily assimilated. Coconut oil is a saturated fat made up of primarily medium chain fatty acids. You may have heard the term MCT oil (Medium Chain Triglycerides) which people often add to smoothies or their morning coffee. Since it crosses the blood brain barrier MCT oil is great to give you a little boost of brain function if you are feeling a bit foggy.
It’s often tricky and confusing to figure out what fats are good and what fats are bad when articles come out stating that saturated fats cause heart disease or some other health issues. With the information above in mind it’s important to remember that these broad claims are negating the different types of saturated fats and where they are sourced.
Saturated fats are actually very important for many functions in the body including hormone production, assimilating vitamins and assisting in the proper function of the immune system. There is even new evidence showing that saturated fats are cardio neutral (as in not causing any heart issues) and may even be cardio protective. Which sounds pretty good to me! When we are looking at fats it really comes down to the quality of the source of fat. When getting your saturated from animal products look for locally raised, grass fed meats and use virgin coconut oil as it has been less processed.
Next up are unsaturated fats which are broken down into monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). They both have a double bond which is what classifies them as unsaturated. The difference is that monounsaturated fats have only one double bond and polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds. These fats are a liquid at room temperature.
MUFAs are known as the “healthy” fats, they are said to be better for your body, better for your heart and they have some antioxidant properties because of the vitamin E found in them. But again it’s the quality of these fats that make the difference. MUFAs are found in extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and nuts. Getting your MUFAs from whole foods is a wonderful option.
The process by which the oils are extracted from their source is what impacts whether or not the fats will be beneficial or actually harmful to you. When looking for an extra virgin olive oil for example you want to make sure it is organic and cold pressed (as in, no heat has been involved in the extraction process that would cause the oil to become damaged/rancid). You also want it to be stored in a dark UV protected bottle because light will also diminish the quality of the oil. Once you open a bottle it is best to use it up in a few weeks because exposure to oxygen will make the oil rancid. It may not be as budget friendly but buying smaller bottles more frequently will ensure you are getting the freshest oil possible. If you can source a local producer that allows you to refill your bottles that would be a great option!
Polyunsaturated fats have multiple bonds and you might best know them as Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s and Omega 9’s (more on these in part 2). These are essential fatty acids (EFAs). What that means is that they are required for normal body functions but we cannot make them ourselves and therefore need to get them from our food sources to be assimilated in the body and create other fatty acids like EPA and DHA. Every single cell in our body needs these kinds of fats and if you aren’t getting enough you can start to see signs of deficiency and these symptoms are degenerative. The good news is by increasing your EFAs you can reverse these symptoms and regain your health. EFAs are important for a number of functions and areas in the body, including helping boost your mood and aid depression, they help moisturize your skin from the inside out, they are heart healthy and anti-inflammatory. Because of their multiple bonds these fats are more easily damaged and therefore require the most care.
What is really important with these two types of fat is the ratio in which you are getting them. Ideally you want a 1:1 up to a 1:4 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6, anything above 1:4 has been shown to be pro-inflammatory. This doesn’t mean that Omega 6 is bad, but you need to be conscious of this ratio and make sure you aren’t eating too many foods that are high in Omega 6. In our western diet the ratio is closer to 1:25 and this is because many of the foods like safflower oil, canola oil, processed foods (junk food), processed oils like margarine and anything deep fried are significantly higher in Omega 6 fats.
Foods that are good sources of omega 3 and have lower Omega 6’s are oily fish like wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies or sardines, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and flax oil. You can get some EFA’s from meat sources as well if they are grass fed (grass if full of Omega 3's) as they tend to have a more favourable ratio. You can also supplement your Omega 3’s to help that ratio, but as with whole food sources you need to be sure of the quality of the supplement.
A note on vegetable oils. Vegetable oils have been touted as heart healthy polyunsaturated fats, but in order to extract the oil out of things like corn, canola, soy, safflower etc they need to be highly processed, bleached and refined which is essentially removing any of the benefits from the oil. It also damages the fat which can lead to damaging the cells in the body. Personally I would just steer clear of these oils. Anything that is colourless, odorless and packaged in a clear plastic bottle can just stay on the shelf in the store. (Trust me it won’t go “bad” sitting there and has likely already been there a while)
The last fat on our list of 4 are trans fats. These fats are junk and we should be eliminating them from our diet completely. They are a byproduct of hydrogenation which is the process to turn healthy oils to a solid and to give them a longer shelf life. There really is no safe level of consumption of these types of fats. They are pro-inflammatory, which has been linked to cardio vascular disease, obesity, arthritis and a ton of other issues. While these trans fats have apparently been “banned” unfortunately there is a bit of a loop hole in the food industry that allows trans fats to be labeled as zero, but still include up to 1/2 gram per serving (and serving size obviously varies depending on the product). The best advice I can give is to stick to getting your fats from fatty fish, grass fed meats, nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil for dressings, and avoid the processed and packaged foods, because you never know!
The last thing you need to be aware of when it comes to the quality of fats and oils is something called the smoke point. Smoke point or burning point is the temperature at which the oil or fat will begin to produce a visible smoke and the oil begins to break down. As the oil breaks down it becomes more oxidized and these oxidized parts of the oil can cause damage to the cells in our body. It’s called oxidative damage. We eat colourful fruits and vegetables because they are full of antioxidants which help protect us from this oxidative damage. Since we are already exposed through our stressful lifestyles, pollution and pesticides to oxidative damage we don’t need to be adding any more by eating damaged fats and oils.
Olive oil has a low smoke point so I suggest using it for dressings and low heat sautéed veggies. Avocado oil has a much higher smoke point and is therefore safer to cook with at higher heats. (If you are like me and are easily distracted in the kitchen and you come back to your pan with avocado oil in it and its smoking, just pour off the burned oil and start fresh!).
To wrap up, no fats are created equal and all of them have their benefits (except trans fats, let’s just seriously kick these to the curb) what you really need to be aware of is the quality of them. Those oils in clear plastic containers sitting on the grocery store shelves for months and never going bad? Yeah, lets just leave them there and find fresh organic oils stored in dark bottles in cool places. Stay tuned for part 2 and we will take a closer look at the benefits and possible drawbacks of different fats.