Fats are no longer the dietary villain, nor should they have ever been. We have been almost conditioned to associate the word fat with weight gain, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Corporations do an amazing job marketing the ‘low-fat’ and ‘low-calorie’ diets when it comes to weight loss and avoiding heart attacks or strokes. Except none of it is scientifically true. In fact, the research behind this information is seriously flawed and based on outdated evidence. Fat is a crucial component of a healthy diet and is necessary for numerous physiological processes. Several forms of fats are necessary for human health, including saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3, 6, and 9 fatty acids.

Why Fats Are So Important

Fat is required for the production of several hormones, including sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone and stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones are necessary for several processes, including growth, reproduction, and metabolism.

Brain Health

The brain is made up of about 60% fat, and fats are necessary for its proper functioning. In particular, Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain health and have been linked to improved cognitive function and a reduced risk of depression. (1)

Fat is also important for the absorption of vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, which means that they are absorbed by the body with the help of fats. Without sufficient fat intake, the body is not able to absorb these vitamins properly.

Fats are a major component of cell membranes, which are essential for the proper functioning of cells. Cell membranes help regulate the flow of substances in and out of cells and maintain their structural integrity.

In the majority of our diets, five to fifteen percent of our daily calories come from fat. However, it is the type of fat we consume that determines its benefits.

4 Types of Fatty Acids

1. Saturated (SFA)

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and have a high melting point. They include fat in pork, beef, cheese, whole milk, eggs, coconut oil, and butter. Saturated fats have been demonized in the past because they were believed to cause high (LDL) cholesterol and atherosclerosis (lipid buildup in the arteries) that eventually lead to a heart attack. For this reason, people were advised against consuming large amounts of saturated fats. However, recent research has shown that this is not necessarily true. The saturated fats that are most likely to cause heart attacks and strokes are actually from overconsumption of refined sugars and carbs, and more recently discovered, from the over-consumption of trans fats. Eating foods with saturated fats – like grass-fed meats and coconut oil – has been shown to have very little effect on your blood level of saturated fat and, as it turns out, is not related to cardiovascular disease. (2)

Healthy Fat

So why is it that we have been told to replace our butter with margarine and our cream with skim milk to be healthier? Decades ago, fats such as vegetable oils were considered a ‘healthier’ alternative to traditional full-fat foods. Delving deeper into trans fats, these bad guys are now the culprit for raised blood triglycerides, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Saturated fats play a vital role in our health: they provide essential structure to cell membranes and tissues, bolster the immune system, assist in hormone production, are crucial for nervous system function, aid in reducing inflammation, and enhance the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Convinced yet?

2. Monounsaturated (MUFA)

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and have a low melting point. They include olive oil, peanut oil, avocados, fatty fish, and most nuts and seeds. These are generally considered healthy fats.

3. Polyunsaturated (PUFA)

Polyunsaturated fats are liquids at room temperature and start to turn solid when chilled. There are four types, known as Omega-3,-6, -7, or -9. The bottom line is these fats are essential and beneficial to you, however when it comes to Omega-3s and Omega-6s, balance is key, as both are needed but at the right ratios. Typically, a low Omega 6 to Omega-3 ratio is recommended, as an imbalance between the two has been shown to suppress immune system function, contribute to weight gain, and cause inflammation.

Omega-6 oils come mostly from things like salad dressings, fried foods, and grain-fed beef, and they are mostly pro-inflammatory. Omega-3 oils come from flax seeds, walnuts, grass-fed beef, and fatty fish such as tuna and salmon. Omega-3 oils possess anti-inflammatory properties, which means they can help reduce inflammation in the body. Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 oils are necessary for the optimal functioning of the human body, but they need to be consumed in a balanced ratio. The recommended ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is 3-4:1, indicating that we should consume three to four times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 oils. Varying sources put that ratio at 10:1 and as high as 30:1 in a standard American diet. This results in an imbalance of the two types of oils and ultimately leads to increased inflammation. (3) 

4. Trans fats (TFA) 

Trans fats can be in the form of natural or ruminant fats or artificial trans fats. Natural or ruminant (as in ruminant animals) fats make up 2-5% of the fat in dairy products and 3-9% of the fat in beef and lamb. These are healthier sources of trans fats.

Artificial trans fats are manufactured by taking vegetable oils and adding hydrogen to them in a process known as hydrogenation. This increases the shelf life and flavour stability. These are found in fast foods, some baked foods, fried foods, artificial coffee creamers, margarine, frozen pizza, etc. These types of fats should be avoided at all costs. In 2013, the United States Food and Drug Administration made a provisional recommendation that partially hydrogenated oil was not safe in food. (4) Enough said.

A few key points to take away:

  • Saturated fats (palmitic acid and stearic acid) in your blood that cause heart attacks come from eating sugar and carbs, not fat.
  • Saturated fats (margaric acid) that come from dairy and butter show a reduced risk of heart attack.
  • Omega-6 fats from vegetable oils show no benefit and may increase the risk of heart attack.
  • Omega-6 fats from poultry, eggs, and beef seem to be protective – contrary to popular belief.
  • Omega-3 fats from fish are shown to be the most protective.
  • Saturated fats are best consumed with a low-carb, high-fibre, and omega-3-rich diet. Do a personal inventory and see what works for you; no two diets and dietary requirements are the same. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Choose Your Fats Wisely

Clean and natural sources of saturated, natural trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. Artificial trans fats (which show up on labels as trans, hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated fat/oil) should be avoided at all costs.

Healthy Fats To Include In Your Diet:

Healthy Fat
  • Avocados
  • Nuts – walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts
  • Seeds – pumpkin, sesame, chia, hemp, flax
  • Fatty fish – sardines, mackerel, herring, wild salmon
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Grass-fed animal products
  • Coconut oil

Best Fats For Cooking:

  • Coconut oil
  • Ghee
  • Butter
  • Avocado oil
  • Palm oil from a sustainable source

Try to avoid olive oil, flax oil and hemp oil for cooking as they react with the heat. These oils are best used in salads.
Avoid ALL processed seed and vegetable oils (canola, corn, grapeseed, soybean, vegetable)

Many processed oils contain unsaturated fatty acids that are highly susceptible to oxidation. When oils are heated, the increased energy causes chemical bonds to break, leading to the formation of free radicals. Free radicals can cause cellular damage, contributing to aging and various health conditions. To prevent oil from becoming rancid, it’s important to store it in a cool, dark place and avoid excessive heating during cooking.

Cholesterol

The idea behind reducing cholesterol was the main reason why butter and eggs had become the enemy. However, research shows that there is no correlation between consuming cholesterol and your body’s cholesterol production. Instead, the liver gets triggered to produce fat and cholesterol in response to excess sugar and carbs. High-carb diets increase the production of triglycerides, lower the good (HDL) cholesterol, and increase the bad (LDL) cholesterol. This process is called lipogenesis and may be the cause of atherosclerosis and cognitive decline. A diet low in fats may decline LDL, but not the bad kind! The bad LDL is the small particles that can build up in arteries. However, there also exists bigger, fluffier LDL that is essential in many areas, such as hormone production, cognition, and mood. Healthy fats actually promote the production of these large LDL particles, whereas sugar and carbs trigger the production of the small, more dangerous ones.

Therefore, the real concern is not the amount of cholesterol in your blood but the types of fats and refined sugars and carbohydrates in your diet. It is not the cholesterol itself that is the issue, but rather the oxidation of the cholesterol.

To have a healthy cholesterol, it is critical to keep track of the following numbers:

1. HDL vs LDL – HDL should ideally be greater than 60 mg/dl
2. Your triglycerides levels should ideally be less than 100 mg/dl
3. Your ratio of triglycerides to HDL should ideally be less than 1:1 or 2:1
4. Your ratio of total cholesterol to HDL should ideally be less than 3:1

The use of statins has also shown to be indeed efficient at lowering bad (LDL) cholesterol, but they don’t have any effect on lowering overall inflammation, and very poor results in actually lowering the risk for heart attack, and they come with an array of side effects.

As you can see, healthy fats are essential to our health and functioning and nothing to be afraid of. In light of this information, what habit would you change to incorporate more of the good fats, less refined sugars, more fibres, and more Omega-3 in your diet?

References

  1. Dighriri IM, Alsubaie AM, Hakami FM, Hamithi DM, Alshekh MM, Khobrani FA, Dalak FE, Hakami AA, Alsueaadi EH, Alsaawi LS, Alshammari SF, Alqahtani AS, Alawi IA, Aljuaid AA, Tawhari MQ. Effects of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Brain Functions: A Systematic Review. Cureus. 2022 Oct 9;14(10):e30091. doi: 10.7759/cureus.30091. PMID: 36381743; PMCID: PMC9641984.
  2. Malhotra A. Saturated fat is not the major issue BMJ 2013; 347 :f6340 doi:10.1136/bmj.f6340
  3. Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 21(6), 495–505. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2002.10719248 
  4. News, I. (2015, June 17). FDA takes step to remove artificial trans fats in Processed Foods. The National Provisioner RSS. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from https://www.provisioneronline.com/articles/102050-fda-takes-step-to-remove-artificial-trans-fats-in-processed-foods 
  5. Hyman, M. (2016). Eat fat, get thin: Why the fat we eat is the key to sustained weight loss and vibrant health. Little, Brown and Company.
NutritionThe Truth About Fats: The Misunderstood Nutrient And Its Vital Role In Our Health