Fats: The Good, The Bad, The Omega Part 2
Continuing our discussion on fats, in part one we looked at how to find the best quality fats and oils. This time we are taking a look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of the different types of fat in our diets.
As a quick recap there are four different types of fats. The difference between all of these is their chemical make up. Saturated fat is a fatty acid with no double bonds, so essentially all the carbon molecules have been saturated with hydrogen, which makes this fat very stable and a solid at room temperature. Then we have unsaturated fats which can be broken into two categories monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). The difference in chemical make up here is both have a double bond, but MUFAs only have one while PUFAs have two or more. And lastly we have trans fats which occur when oils are processed with hydrogen to make them more shelf stable, but this also makes them much more damaging to our bodies.
So let’s dive into why we are here, to learn about the benefits of each, and the potential drawbacks.
Saturated fats in years past have been given a bad rap and were said to be dangerous for your heart health, however more studies keep popping up showing those previous claims are not supported by science. These fats may not be directly linked to heart disease and are actually showing some potential benefits.
In the 1960’s and 70’s it was said that saturated fats raised cholesterol and if cholesterol is linked to heart disease then it stood to reason that fats must cause heart disease. Newer research is now showing those assumptions to be incorrect. Saturated fats can indeed raise LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) but it also increases HDL (the “good” one). We are learning that it’s not so much the LDL itself but the type of LDL and the smaller more dense lipoprotein have been linked to a higher risk of cardiac issues.
After many years and many many dollars spent scientists have not been able to show a clear link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. However; some studies have found that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (like olive oil) reduce the risk of cardiac events by 14%. This doesn’t mean saturated fats are “bad” but that certain types of unsaturated fats, mostly omega 3’s are protective while saturated fats are simply neutral.
There are a number of benefits to saturated fats. The first, because this fat is so stable and has no double bonds it is a great fat to cook with. It is very resistant to heat damage compared to polyunsaturated fats which are easily oxidized and damaged by heat and light. Use coconut oil, bacon fat, ghee or butter for roasting, sautéing, grilling and frying.
Foods that are naturally higher in saturated fats can also be nutritious. As long as the quality is good such as butter and other dairy from grass fed cows, and organic dark chocolate (Yum!).
They are essential for sustaining life. They help form the foundation of the cell membrane which is responsible for enclosing and protecting the cell as well as controlling what is allowed to enter and exit the cell itself.
Saturated fats like coconut oil are getting a lot of attention these days for their potential brain boosting abilities. The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil are believed to have a protective effect on brain health. Many people have been adding MCT oil to their morning coffee or smoothie suggesting that it gives them improved cognitive performance. MCT’s cross the blood brain barrier immediately and there are studies now showing these brain boosting benefits to be true.
There are however a couple drawbacks to saturated fats and they don’t agree with everyone. There are a some people who may want to minimize saturated fats. These are people with a genetic disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia as well as people who have a genetic variant called ApoE4.
Not all saturated fats are good for you, especially the ones found in processed meats, deep fried foods, and pre-packaged fatty snacks. These tend to have a good amount of saturated fats but also may come with trans fats, additional sodium and potential carcinogenic compounds, so it’s best to just avoid these all together.
This group of fats is broken down into two different categories. Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). The difference being in their chemical make up. MUFAs have a single double bond, while PUFAs have two or more. Foods that are high in unsaturated fats such as olive oil are liquid at room temperature and they are less stable than saturated fats which means they are more susceptible to damage and loss of nutrients, so they require a bit more care to ensure they keep all their beneficial goodness. Unsaturated fats have been deemed the “healthy fat”, so lets see why.
MUFAs are found in several whole food sources such as olives, olive oil, nuts, avocado and certain types of vegetable oils. They may help with weight loss as long as you aren’t consuming more calories than you are burning. Some studies have shown however that even when calories remain the same, diets higher in MUFAs led to similar weight loss to those of a low fat diet. A diet higher in MUFAs will help keep you fuller and satiated longer.
They have also been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, especially if you are replacing saturated fats. Various studies have shown that high intake of MUFAs can help lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Studies have also shown that diets higher in MUFAs are able to help lower blood pressure. It should be noted that these results are only when MUFAs replace saturated fats.
Inflammation has been linked to as the root cause of many degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes. MUFAs may help to reduce inflammation. Diets higher in MUFAs compared to a Western style diet have been shown to decrease inflammation in the body.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are fats with more than one double bond. Whole food sources of PUFAs are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines as well as nuts like walnuts and pecans, and flaxseed oil. The two most important and well known PUFAs are Linoleic Acid an Omega 6 fatty acid and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) an Omega 3 fatty acid. ALA is the starting material for Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) these 3, EPA, DHA and ALA are the main members of the omega 3 family of fatty acids.
Omega 3 and omega 6 are essential fatty acids, meaning we can’t make them in our body on our own and need to take them in from our food sources. Like I mentioned in part 1 omega 3 fatty acids are incredibly important for optimal heath. All the omega fatty acids in fact are important. We just need to be mindful of how much of each we are getting. Ideally a 1:1 to 1:4 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is what we want.
Omega 3’s have been shown to have a number of health benefits. One of the important benefits is how omega 3s can help reduce inflammation. Now just so we are clear, acute inflammation is a natural response to infections and injury and is a vital part of our health. But it is not ideal when the inflammation becomes chronic (persistent over a long period of time) even without injury. Long term inflammation can contribute to basically every Western illness. Happily there are studies consistently showing a link between increased omega 3 intake and decreased inflammation. This can help with conditions like arthritis as well as other joint related discomfort. EFAs are also shown to increase calcium absorption which helps to increase bone mass and density and protects against disease like osteoporosis.
Omega 3’s have been linked to supporting cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association study in 2016 measured the blood pressure and blood levels of omega 3’s in young healthy adults. They were then divided into four groups separated from highest to lowest levels of omega 3’s in the blood. Those with higher levels of omega 3 were found to have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure compared to young healthy adults with low levels of omega 3. They’ve also shown to prevent blood clot formation and lower high triglycerides.
EPA and DHA play a role in everything from cell membrane fluidity to gene expression and cell growth. Recent studies are linking polyunsaturated (omegas) fats to having a positive effect on mental health and brain function. And if this isn’t enough to make you consider increasing your EFAs they can also aid in sleep, decrease menstrual pain and improve vision.
Not all PUFAs are created equally however. There are 2 kinds; omega 3’s and omega 6’s, both of which are essential but in the world of processed and deep fried foods we are taking in far too many omega 6’s. Some researchers are linking this over intake of omega 6’s with the increased prevalence of inflammatory conditions like obesity, heart disease, IBS, and rheumatoid arthritis. Omega 6's are not bad, but when we exceed the ideal ratio then the trouble starts to show up. In the Standard American diet the ratio is around 1:25! Far too high!
As we learned last time, sources of these fats are not always healthy. Vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, safflower, corn etc) are highly processed and typically come from GMO crops. To remove colour and odour they are heavily refined and bleached to increase their smoke point and lengthen shelf life. This is very damaging to the fats which in turn is damaging to our cells when we consume them. For this reason it is best to avoid these oils at all costs and stick to whole food sources like nuts, seeds and fatty fish. The ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is far more balanced in natural food sources.
The last kind of fat is trans fats which have no place in our diet. Trans fats are created when vegetable oils have hydrogen bubbled into them to make them more solid at room temperature. Trans fats are hidden in a number of prepared foods like cookies, cakes, pies, as well as margarine, microwave popcorn and crackers to name a few. My personal solution to this is to simply avoid prepared and packaged foods and I also avoid any foods with vegetable oils in them. I can’t stress enough how important it is for your health to keep trans fats out of your diet.
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