Fat 101: Part 1, February 9th, 2017

I love fats. LOVE. I think my clients are usually pretty taken aback from my enthusiasm and affinity for them. Especially when they come to me only knowing what the western, conventional view on nutrition is- low fat, high carb, “lean” proteins. I often get questions from people (who don’t know me yet …) like, “do you ever eat any fat?” or remarks like, “oh this is fattening I bet you don’t eat this.” WRONG. I love fats and I eat a lot of what I assume would be considered “fattening” foods. Yet, weight maintenance and overall wellness has never been easier for me.

This is going to be a two part series, as this topic- like most things in nutrition, can be very extensive. Today, I am going to cover the basics of fats: what they are from a chemical point of view and why we need them from a biological point of view. I am also going to cover the good, the bad, and the straight up ugly. I’ll try not to geek out too much!!

What are fats? 

First and foremost, fats/lipids are one of the three macronutrients. (The other two being carbohydrates and protein). These macronutrients make up the majority of our nutrient intake. (Hence the word, MACRO. There are also MICROnutrients…) Fats are naturally prevalent in many of the foods we eat. These natural fats are what I am all about. Unfortunately, there are also man-made fats that are not so hot on my list…

You may have heard the word lipid and fat used interchangeably. However, lipid is the technical name used for a group of compounds that includes fats, as well as oils and cholesterol.
Lipids are compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that exist in chains of varying length, shape, and orders. The following diagram will help you distinguish between the three categories of lipids:

LIPID

CHARACTERISTICS

SOURCES

Fats

Solid at room temperature.

Whole milk, meat, cheese, lard, butter, ice cream, ghee/clarified butter

Oils

Liquid at room temperature. (coconut oil and palm oil being the exception)

Olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil

Cholesterol

Lipid molecule found in animal products.

Eggs, shellfish, bacon, whole milk, red meat, cheese

FUNCTION

Lipids are absolutely vital for the body. The following are a few of their main functions:

1. Construction/maintenance of cell membranes: Lipids are crucial for the construction/maintenance of various elements in the body. Did you know that the type of fats you eat actually determines the structure of your cell membranes? It’s true. The fatty acids you eat are used to make phospholipids and glycolipids that are a part of the cellular membrane.

2. A second energy source: Our bodies first source of energy is carbohydrates. Once we run out of this immediate source of glucose, our body turns to burning fat. Fat is a concentrated form of energy. The burning of fat produces ketones (not to be confused with ketoacidosis) and can be beneficial to the body.

3. A messenger molecule: Fatty acids are precursors to various hormones and also function as intracellular messenger molecules.

4. Transportation of vitamins: Without fat, you will have a hard time absorbing and carrying the fat soluble (ADEK) vitamins. This is why it is good to consume fat with your meals.

5. Cholesterol is needed to make the following: Bile acids, many hormones such as estrogen and cortisone, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is also a part of every single cell membrane!

TRIGLYCERIDES

Most of the lipids in our body and in our food are in the form of: Triglycerides. Triglycerides are made up of three fatty acids and a glycerol backbone. Depending on what type of fatty acids are attached to this glycerol backbone– that determines what KIND of fat you have. ***emogi nerd face*** When lipids are digested, the fatty acids are broken away from the glycerol backbone and then absorbed through the intestinal cell wall so that it can be utilized by the body. 

There are three types of fatty acids that can be attached to the glycerol backbone that will determine whether the lipid is an oil or a fat:

1.     Saturated fatty acids: A fatty acid that contains the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. In other words: There are no carbon double bonds.  This sounds more confusing than it is and is much better understood by this picture:

Note: there are no double bonds. This means the fatty acid is SATURATED. A glycerol backbone that has 3 saturated fatty acids attached is a SATURATED FAT. Since there are no carbon double bonds, the fat is not very viscous. Hence, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.

Note: there are no double bonds. This means the fatty acid is SATURATED. A glycerol backbone that has 3 saturated fatty acids attached is a SATURATED FAT. Since there are no carbon double bonds, the fat is not very viscous. Hence, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.

1.     Monounsaturated fatty acids: A fatty acid that has only one carbon double bond. Hence, the pre-fix MONO. A triglyceride composed of majority monounsaturated fatty acids are oils and are liquid at room temperature. With a double bond, they are less stable and are prone to oxidation when exposed to oxygen, air, and light and become rancid. This creates the dreaded: Free Radicals. Free radicals are atoms with an unpaired electron floating around, which causes them to basically wreak havoc on our cell membranes, red blood cells, and DNA and RNA strands. NOT GOOD.        

2.     Polyunsaturated fat: A triglyceride in which most of the fatty acids have 2+ carbon double bonds. This makes these oils the most unstable and the most prone to oxidation when expose to oxygen, heat, or light. They are also oils and liquid at room temperature. The essential fatty acids- omega 3s and omega 6s, are two types of polyunsaturated fats.

Triglyceride Type

Sources

Functions

Saturated fat

Beef, pork, whole milk, cheese, ice cream, eggs, poultry, and tropical oils: coconut, palm oils.

Help to compose the cell membrane, enhance calcium absorption and immune function, aid in synthesis of essential fatty acids.

Polyunsaturated fat: includes omega 3s and omega 6s

Nuts and seeds, flax seed, walnuts, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc), corn oil, sardines, soybean oil, sunflower oil, other processed oils.

Part of the cell membrane, assist in the development and function of the brain and nervous system. Assist in immune system function, vital to normal growth and cognitive development. Thyroid and adrenal support.

Monounsaturated fat

Olive oil, avocado/avocado oil, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, flax seed oil, sesame seed oil, macadamia nuts

Decreased risk for breast cancer, promote healthful cholesterol levels, heart heath, weight maintenance, pain relieve from stiffness

All of these fatty acids play a different and unique role in our body.

The problem with fats has more to do with the TYPE of fat you eat rather than the QUANTITY.  (Guess what… FAT DOESN’T MAKE YOU FAT. But more on this next week…) EAT UP!

Saturated fat is still demonized to this day, while the consumption of ALL TYPES of unsaturated fats are encouraged by practitioners, health advocates, dietitians, institutions, associations, you name it. And yet, heart disease is just as prevalent and diabetes and obesity are still on the rise.

WHAT GIVES?!

THE SKINNY ON FAT

With the current dietary recommendations (from organizations such as the USDA, the FDA and the American Heart Association), along with the widespread availability of processed foods, most of us consume the majority of our fats in the form of industrialized oils. This includes canola oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, etc. They are prevalent in most processed foods, fried foods and restaurant foods. Unless you are following a whole foods diet, it is nearly impossibly to avoid them. These oils are heavily processed and destructive to our health. It is very unfortunate that our dietary recommendations over the past few decades have encouraged these man-made oils while shunning natural, healthful, and traditional fats- such as butter and lard.

When butter (along with all sources of saturated fat and cholesterol) was demonized in the 60s, margarine and man-made processed oils emerged. These fats were saturated fat free (which everyone assumed was good at the time) and “shelf stable”. Unfortunately, we are know living the repercussions of these oils. Have they been promoting health? Absolutely not. 

Why too avoid processed oils like the plague:

There are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids: omega 3s, and omega 6s. Omega 3s are inherently anti-inflammatory. Omega 6s are inherently inflammatory. We need these oils and we cannot manufacture them in our own bodies- hence, it is essential that we consume them. We need them in about a 1:1 ration to keep balance in our bodies. Unfortunately, most processed oils are extraordinarily high in omega 6s. With our SAD (standard American diet) diet being so high in vegetable oils … our intake of omega 6s has sky-rocketed.

Take corn oil for example. Corn oil is very high in PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats). Convention nutritional wisdom would say this is a good thing: IT’S NOT. This is not a good thing because most of these fatty acids are of the omega 6 kind. Its ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 46:1- making it a very inflammatory food. With our sad diet, it is very easy to get enough omega 6s, but we are severely lacking in the omega 3 category. Our ratios are WAY off.

Furthermore, these oils are HEAVILY processed. Polyunsaturated fats are easily oxidized due to their unstable nature. Since the manufacturing process requires heat, pressure and sometimes a deodorizing, and bleaching process… these oils don’t stand a chance! The end product is already rancid and full of trans fat and free radicals. (EEEEKK!) Again, this contributes to the oil’s inflammatory properties.

You can see why consuming these processed oils on the reg would encourage a low grade systemic level on inflammation in the body. If light, oxygen, and heat breaks down unsaturated fatty acids and cause them to oxidize, you can see why this would be a problem since all of these things are a part of the manufacturing process. Then, they sit in clear containers on grocery store shelving for who knows how long…. Again- EEK! A good quality, health-promoting oil should be in an opaque glass container and have a short shelf life. Olive oil and avocado oil can be found in these. 

FATS TO USE ON THE REG

 What are the best fats to use?

First, make sure you are using whole food sources of fats. The following is a list of oils/fats I always have on hand:

  • Avocado oil
  • Lard
  • Organic ghee (clarified butter)
  • Coconut oil
  • Organic butter
  • Olive oil

From here, ask yourself: are you going to be cooking with the oil/fat? If so, you should decide on the appropriate product according it’s fatty acid composition and smoke point. Remember, the more saturated a fat, the more stable and less likely it is to be oxidized it is. From there, you can look at the smoke points and decide which one is most appropriate.

As a rule of thumb, I use saturated fats to cook with (since they are more chemically more stable in the face of heat) and unsaturated fats for everything else. Note the following smoke points and decide upon the best oil for your particular situation. 

FAT/OIL

MAJORITY TYPE OF FATTY ACID*

SMOKE POINT

Ghee

Saturated

480

Coconut oil (refined)

Saturated

450

Coconut oil (unrefined)

Unsaturated

300

Lard

Saturated

455

Butter

Saturated

300

Avocado oil

Monounsaturated

520**

Olive oil

Monounsaturated

410***

*Most fats are a mixture of triglycerides. For example, butter is 68% saturated fat, 28% monounsaturated fat, 4% polyunsaturated fat (1% omega 3 and 2% omega 6). Olive oil is 15% saturated fat, 75% monounsaturated fat, 10% polyunsaturated fat.

** While this oil has a high smoke point, I try to avoid cooking with it since it is a more delicate monounsaturated fat- same for olive oil.

*** There is conflicting research and varying opinions on olive oil as a cooking fat. Nevertheless, I try to avoid cooking with it since there are other better options.

The following is a list of oils to avoid- either due to their fatty acid composition or the processing method: 

vegetable shortenings/butters (such as, “I can’t believe it’s not butter” smart balance, country crock etc.)

  • corn oil
  • soybean oil
  • sunflower oil
  • canola oil
  • sesame seed oil
  • safflower oil

Of course, there are other oils out there- such as, cold pressed nut oils like walnut oil. These are idea to use on finished recipes as a “finishing” oil.

Where did we go wrong?

If lipids are so important, then what is up with the fat-phobic mindset that many still posses? Why is there so much mi-information on fats?!

STAY TUNED FOR NEXT WEEKS POST!!!!