Pardon the language, but this point can’t be stressed enough in this fat-phobic world we live in. We (hopefully) all know by now that we shouldn’t be afraid of fat. In fact, not only should we not be afraid of it, but we should embrace it as absolutely VITAL to our health and even more so, to the health of young children and their developing brains. And, just to reiterate (in case you still have any niggling doubts about this), FAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAT. And yes that does require caps to try and somewhat counteract the media hype out there that tells you the opposite. The so-called “fatty foods” that make us fat, do so because of what so often goes with the fat – bread, buns, breading, sugar etc. High-carb, highly-processed garbage that causes inflammation, blood sugar spikes, and ultimately weight gain.
There are so many aspects of fat to talk about (and we’ll get into those at some point), but right now I’d like to go into the various types of dietary fat out there and cover which ones should form a healthy part of our diets and which ones to run away from like the plague.
We’re faced with so many choices nowadays, that it can be extremely confusing to pick which fats are actually good for us and which ones just SAY they’re good for us (HINT: if something has to write that it’s good for you, chances are that it isn’t).
I’ll try to make this as simple as possible, so to start with here are a couple questions to ask yourself when faced with a choice of what fats to choose:
1. Would your great great grandmother have eaten it?
2. How much processing went into producing it from the plant/animal to the product you’re about to buy?
In general the more a fat has had to be processed during the extraction process, the more damaged it is, and thus, the worse it will be for your body.
So, in a nutshell, fats that can be obtained easily, like butter, tallow, lard, or cold-pressed oils like coconut oil, olive oil, etc are going to be far better for you than those which are extracted using high temperatures and chemicals (fake butters and all industrial seed oils like sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil etc).
Picture courtesy of balancedbites.com
So let us break those down into their various types and go into a little more detail.
LONG-CHAIN SATURATED FAT (LCSFA) – found in butter, meat, egg yolks
These are found mostly in the milk and meat of large ruminants like sheep or cattle. They also form 75-80% of the fatty acids in most cells in our bodies, so they are super important. In addition they are the primary storage form of energy for humans. They are far more easily burned than polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and, unlike carbohydrates (like glucose or fructose) and PUFAs, these fats have no toxicity, even at high doses.
This means that as long as you are metabolically healthy, you can eat as much saturated fat as you like without adverse consequences. If you still believe the myth that saturated fat makes us fat and causes heart disease, read this, and watch video 1 and video 2.
MEDIUM-CHAIN TRIGLYCERIDES (MCT) – found in coconut oil and mother’s milk
These are another type of saturated fat – found in coconut and mother’s milk. They are metabolized slightly differently to the LCSFAs in that they do not require bile to digest them, so they are a great source of easily digestible energy. In addition to being a great energy source, these fats are high in lauric acid, which has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and antioxidant properties.
Coconut oil is also a great cooking oil because it remains stable at high heat.
Again, you can eat as much of this fat as you like without adverse consequences.
MONOUNSATURATED FAT (MUFA) – found in olive oil, avocado, lard
Also known as oleic acid, this fat is found primarily in beef, olive oil, lard, avocados and macadamia nuts. Like saturated fat, these form the core structural fat in the body and are non-toxic even at high levels.
Eat as much of these as you like, but be aware that some foods high in MFA are also high in Omega 6 PUFAs (eg avocados) so exercise caution.
That said, the 3 fats above should form the bulk of your daily fat intake.
POLYUNSATURATED FAT: OMEGA-6 & OMEGA-3
These polyunsaturated fats (or PUFAs) are fragile and vulnerable to oxidative damage (e.g. when subjected to heat), which then creates free radicals in the body, consequently raising our risk of everything from heart disease to cancer. Although Omega 6 fats are necessary to the body, they should only comprise a maximum of 4% of calories and need to be kept in a healthy balance with Omega 3 fatty acids (ideally 1:1). Unfortunately in the western diet this ratio is drastically out of whack – more like ratios of between 10:1 and 20:1. This means most people are eating about 25 times the recommended amount of Omega 6 fat.
It is this excess consumption of Omega 6 PUFA (and NOT cholesterol or saturated fat) that is responsible for the modern epidemics of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, autoimmune disease and more.
Omega-6 PUFA – found in nuts, chicken skin and seed oils
These PUFAs are also known as linoleic acid (LA) and are found in a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, cereal grains and meat. But by far the largest concentrations of these fats are found in industrial seed oils (such as sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, corn, soybean oils). Since these have largely replaced natural fats in the diet and are in everything (from salad dressings to potato chips) these are present in very large quantities in most peoples’ diets. It is for this reason that the Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio is so out of balance.
LA is an essential fatty acid, but needed in relatively small quantities. When consumed in large amounts (as in most western diets) this leads to the diseases mentioned above.
Omega-3 PUFA – found in fish
Omega 3 PUFA can be divided into short-chain (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) and long-chain (EPA & DHA). ALA is found in plant foods like walnut and flax, whereas EPA & DHA is found in seafood and to a lesser extent the meat and fat of ruminant animals.
ALA is essential, but the EPA & DHA are responsible for most of the benefits we think about when we talk about Omega 3 oils. These can only really be obtained from fish and grassfed meat. “A common misconception is that we can meet our omega-3 needs by taking flax oil or eating plant foods containing ALA. It’s true that the body can convert some ALA to EPA & DHA. But that conversion is extremely inefficient in most people. On average, less than 0.5% of ALA gets converted (http://chriskresser.com/why-fish-stomps-flax-as-a-source-of-omega-3) into the long-chain EPA & DHA, and that number is even worse in people that are chronically ill or have nutrient deficiencies (common in vegans and vegetarians).
This means that it is probably EPA & DHA that are essential, in the sense that they are crucial for proper function but cannot be produced in adequate amounts in the body, and thus must be obtained from the diet.” Chris Kresser
Ideally about 4% of calories should come from Omega 3 PUFAs.
Although there are naturally occurring trans-fats, it is the artificial trans-fats (ATF) that are the ones to worry about. I won’t go into more detail, since most people are aware of these already, but just to reiterate – these should be avoided like the plague.
So in summary, here is a visual representation of how much of these fats should be included in our diets relative to each other:
Picture courtesy of chriskresser.com
Here’s a great resources for how to use these fats:
Again this is courtesy of balancedbites.com