Understanding Food: What Are Fats Besides a Bad Word?

by Jeff V. on January 25, 2013

For the past three (four?) decades, the macronutrient we were most often told to avoid is fat. Fat is joined by protein and carbohydrates to form the triumvirate of macronutrients you hear bandied about the media so often. Fat, a short form of ‘fatty acids’, is thought to make you fat, predicated on the fact that fat has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrate only have 4. Fat is fattening, so says the mainstream, because it’s caloric energy is over twice that of neighboring macronutrients.

While fat is more calorie-dense than protein or carbohydrate, that’s where the ‘danger’ ends. (The Inuit, whose diet is comprised of 90% fat, would probably agree). Without writing a biochemistry text, here is what you need to know about fat.

Saturated Fat

There have been no two more demonized words over the past 30 years than ‘saturated fat’. Which is too bad, because these form some of the most basic structural fats found in a healthy human body, and they’re a primary energy source for the human metabolism.

We have been relentlessly bombarded over the past 30+ years to think this type of fat gives us heart disease and makes us fat, and that’s simply not true. The fact is that you can eat as much of these as you want if you’re metabolically healthy, and be better off for it.

Monounsaturated Fat

Found in olives (and olive oil), beef, macadamia nuts and avocados. Generally considered a healthy fat, these fats are the core type found in the body (along with saturated fats). Ingestion of these at any level does not lead to toxicity.

Verdict: eat freely. The only downside to these fats is that they typically contain high amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids, which we get in far too copious amounts in modern society (as opposed to Omega 3). Keep that in mind, especially if you’re chasing a better Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio through fish oil supplements.

Polyunsaturated fats — Omega 6 and Omega 3

Polyunsaturated fats are often called PUFAs. Ideally, we want a 1:1 ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3. Back when we ate more traditional diets, that’s on par with what we got. Today, we’re more in the range of 10:1 to 20:1, which is way out of range for optimal health. Nearly every proceseed food and grain is high in Omega 6, and since we as a nation are fans of processed foods, our Omega 6 levels are off the charts. Coincidentally, this is what’s responsible for epidemics like obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome (aka pre-diabetes) and autoimmune disorders.

When people say to take fish oil as a supplement, they don’t mean there’s an inherent magic in fish oil. They mean to increase your intake of Omega 3s.

Omega 6 is found in fruit, some vegetables, cereal grains, and meat. The more processed a meat is, the more Omega 6 it contains (due to what the animal was fed during its lifespan on an industrial farm). Omega 6 is found is very high amounts in processed seed oil: sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, corn. As you probably know, these are all but ubiquitous in the Standard American Diet (SAD). Omega 6s are also found in processed salad dressings, crackers and scads of restaurant dishes.

Omega 3 is what we want more of, and can be broken down into three other sub-nutrients you might hear a lot about: ALA, DHA, EPA. Omega 3s are found in foods like flax seeds, fish and fish oils, and the meat and fats of ruminant animals (meaning: animals that are meant to eat grass and DO eat grass).

If you’re going to increase your Omega 3 intake (and nearly everyone should), get most of them from fish, fish oil, and grass-fed meats (this includes butter from grass-fed cows). Flax oil is less beneficial.

Trans Fats

Here’s the bad word of the last few years, right? Trans fats. Evil stuff. Avoid.

For the most part, yes. But what people don’t know is that there are natural and unnatural trans fats (NTF and ATF, respectively).

Along the NTF line, CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) is a beneficial nutrient, often cited in fat-loss studies. It’s a good thing to have enough of, but if you’re eating enough saturated fats, you’re getting enough CLA. Additional supplementation is probably not necessary.

As for ATFs (trans fats of the artificial variety), there is no reason to eat them, ever. Avoid with extreme prejudice. Every negative thing you’ve heard about them is true.

Up next week: understanding proteins.

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