Healthy Fats 101

 

 

 

 
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Fat is an essential part of the human diet that has of late, been shedding its reputation as a dietary “evil.” Nevertheless, there are healthy and unhealthy fats that need to be distinguished from one another. Welcome to the confusing and fascinating world of fats!

 
Saturated Fats

We are quickly learning that saturated fat, formerly demonized, is actually part of a balanced diet. Andrew Weil, M.D., has written about the evolution of his thinking on saturated fats recently, stating: 
One catalyst was a scientific analysis of 21 earlier studies, which showed "no significant evidence" that saturated fat in the diet is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. The 21 studies analyzed included nearly 348,000 participants, most of whom were healthy when they were enrolled. They were followed for five to 23 years, during which 11,000 developed heart disease or had a stroke. Looking back at the dietary information collected from these thousands of participants, the investigators found no difference in the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, or coronary vascular disease between those individuals with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat. This goes completely against the conventional medical wisdom of the past 40 years. It now appears that many studies used to support the low-fat recommendation had serious flaws.
At the end of this statement, low-fat foods are mentioned. It’s no coincidence that with the recommendation for cutting out fats (almost to the point of nonexistence) from one’s diet, has led to a rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other common health issues and diseases. The thing is, healthy fats don't contribute to health issues, it’s the refined, highly-processed sugars that do.  

When sugar is consumed, insulin is quickly pumped out into the body in order to lower blood sugar levels. Insulin is the fat storage hormone. That’s not the only problem; excess sugar in the bloodstream gums up arteries, promoting cardiovascular disease and pancreatic stress, ultimately leading to type 2 diabetes.

With this said, eating saturated fats with abandon is not recommended. Saturated fats, (speaking in terms of plant-based fats) like coconut oil, are wonderful for cell integrity, giving them structure. While coconut oil shouldn’t be your main source of fat, it’s important to include small amounts of this type of fat (saturated) in order to keep your cells from being too floppy, to put it simply.

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats are mainly anti-inflammatory, “heart-smart” fats. They contain less hydrogen than saturated fats, and remain characteristically liquid at room temperature. These fats tend to be less heat-stable, so cooking with them at high temperatures should be avoided for the most part (see below for the best unsaturated fats to cook with). Once oxidized from high heat, these fats turn into rancid fats, which you absolutely do not want to ingest, as they do more harm than good in the body.

Unsaturated fats are referred to as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). They are “essential” because the body doesn’t make them on its own; they need to be accessed from foods. EFAs are needed for normal growth and development; healthy blood vessels; youthful, supple skin; heart health; hormone modulation; fat-soluble vitamin uptake (vitamins A, D, E and K); and much more.   

There are 3 varieties of unsaturated fats: 

1. Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs): oleic acid

2. Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs): linoleic acid, gamma-linolenic acid, arachidonic acid

3. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs): alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Unsaturated Fatty Acids: A Balancing Act

To promote optimal health, it’s vital to have a mixture of the three types of unsaturated fatty acids. In today’s diets, there’s an overabundance of omega-6s, which are absolutely health-promoting (that is, the whole foods varieties of omega-6s, not the ones found in processed foods). However, these should be balanced with omega-3s, which are typically lacking in today’s diet. Great sources of omega-3s include ground flaxseed, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds. Eating omega-3s raw is important in order to keep those anti-inflammatory, health-promoting features intact (i.e. don’t saute or roast your vegetables with flaxseed oil).

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in one's diet is recommended to be as follows: 2:1 to 4:1. Unfortunately, the modern diet looks more like 20:1 (omega-6s:omega-3s), with most of those omega-6s coming from processed foods. Yes, omega-6s, such as cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and almonds are wonderfully health supportive, but they should be balanced with omega-3s, such as flaxseed oil or chia seeds. One food that is particularly interesting in terms of healthy fats, is the hemp seed. This protein-packed, tender little morsel contains the “ideal” balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that is recommended for a well-tuned body (3:1). The hemp seed also contains all essential amino acids, making it one of the few complete plant-based protein sources. (To learn more about hemp, you can read my past post here.)

The Best Fats for Cooking

EFAs are delicate, making it easy for them to oxidize and turn into “bad” fats if exposed to light, heat and oxygen. Keep omega-3s, like flaxseed oil in the refrigerator, and omega-6s, like olive oil, away from light (preferably in a tightly-closed, dark-glass bottle), in the cupboard. 

To avoid rancid fats in your diet, the best fats for using with heat include: 
  • Avocado oil (up to 520°F/271°C)
  • Camelina oil (up to 475°F/246°C)
  • Olive oil (not extra-virgin; up to 468°F/242°C)
  • Coconut oil (up to 350°F/171°C)
  • Sesame oil (up to 410°F/210°C)

The Confusing World of Fats

As you can see, the world of fats is a bit of a head scratcher. It all comes back to eating a variety of whole, plant foods in order to access what your body needs. Avoiding trans fats is something all health professionals agree on, so scrap those completely. Otherwise, enjoy a variety of fats, from the saturated fats in coconut oil to the omega-3s in algae oil. A diverse food intake is both healthy and delicious! 

Ideally, try to access your fats from their whole food sources first, before their oil (i.e. eating an avocado over avocado oil; coconut meat over coconut oil; olives over olive oil; or almonds over almond oil), to receive the wide spectrum of nutrients and health-promoting fibres, from the plants. Don't be fat-phobic, fat is your friend!  

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