How We Were Dead Wrong About Fat
For three decades of my life (my whole life), I thought fat was unhealthy. Since the 1960’s, the message has been: “low fat is good and fat free is better.” Nutritional experts told me (and my parents) that skim milk, margarine, vegetable oil, light crackers, and cereals were healthier than avocados, olive oil, lard, cocoa butter, and nuts.
My family bought the leanest meat and still cut all the white strips of fat off. We ate 6-11 servings of whole grains a day because “heart healthy.” We used fat-free salad dressing, fat free mayo, and fat free nonstick spray. I grew up thinking margarine was “real butter” and butter was bad.
The myth still persists today. In fact, the US government maintains a guideline that children as young as 2 years old be given low-fat or fat-free instead of whole foods. How did we get here? How did dietary fat–something crucial for proper human cellular function–become the enemy? And what has been the cost to our health of this cultural shift to “fat free?”
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Good News, Bad News
I’m delivering the good news first. This first part of a 2-part series will expose fat for what it really is: a crucial component to human health, longevity, and smooth cellular function. Not only do we need fat, but we need all types of fat and from many different sources. You’ll learn all about what these good fats are and the many types you can consume to help fuel your body on a cellular level.
The second part is the unfortunate news of the last half century: the rise of fake fat and the onset of the “fat scare.” A.k.a. the only time in recorded history that humans were afraid to eat fat. We’ll take a look at the toll this has taken (and is still taking) on our collective health, and how we can hopefully begin the healing process.
I’ve written similar in-depth nutritional research posts on grain-free flour and alternatives to sugar. See the following articles for more information regarding these:
The Grain-Free Flour Series: Part 1 (links to part 2 and 3 within)
Only here to read about fat? Read on for nutritional enlightenment…
These are the essential fats, two of which our body does not produce on its own. These fatty acids are the building blocks of our cell membranes. There are two types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
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The word “polyunsaturated” describes a fat molecule that has more than one carbon-carbon double bond in its hydrocarbon chain (fun fact to share at your next dinner party…).
Human brain cells contain high concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). They are so important to brain function that, even when body mass is greatly reduced through weight loss, the amount of PUFA in the brain is conserved. In other words, when we lose weight, we don’t lose our brain (very convenient). (2)
There are two essential fatty acids that the body is incapable of synthesizing. Therefore, we must source these acids from foods so our body can build these specialized fats.
We need foods with something called linoleic acid in order to build most of our omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 acids help preserve our bones as we age. They also aid the body’s production of anti-inflammatory mediators. It’s typically easy for westerners to consume these fatty acids, because the standard American diet almost exclusively favors omega-6 fatty acids. Some examples:
- leafy vegetables
- seeds & nuts
- vegetable oils (more on these in part 2 of this series)
Our bodies need omega-6 fatty acids to function. The problem is, omega-6 fats are only part of the equation. A standard western diet lacks enough of another crucial acid that balances out the scale: omega-3. We need both, ideally between a 10:1 and 1:1 ratio, to achieve proper cellular structure and function. (3)
What many of us lack in our diet is foods with linolenic acid (not to be confused with the very similarly spelled linoleic acid, above). Foods rich in linolenic acid help the body build omega-3 fatty acids. These work together with omega-6 to build cell membranes that efficiently move nutrients, blood, and oxygen through the body.
The problem is that many good sources of omega-3 also contain omega-6 fatty acids, and at higher quantities. Therefore, it’s important to supplement or seek out the few sources that are rich in omega-3, to balance the scale. Foods rich in omega-3 building acids include:
Algae and fish oils are extremely important sources of omega-3, because they contain something called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This acid is unavailable from any other vegetable source on earth besides algae (and things that eat algae). It is essential for the growth, development, and normal function of the brain in both infants and adults.
The brain prefers DHA over any other fatty acid. Deficiencies in this crucial fatty acid have been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cystic fibrosis, phenylketonuria, unipolar depression, aggressive hostility, cognitive decline, and sporadic onset of Alzheimers. (14) Should you opt to take only one supplement, let it be fish oil or algae-based DHA.
Check out this chart to see the percentage of omega-3 vs. omega-6 fatty acids in the most highly recommended oils. All percentages are based on an average taken from fatty acid profile information available (see sources at the end of this article for more information). You’ll notice algae oil is not on this chart. There was too much variation among the hundreds of species of algae to come up with an accurate reflection of an average fatty acid profile.
Bodies in Balance
The typical modern human diet achieves about a 9.5% balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Imbalances of this magnitude that favor omega-6 have been associated with hypertension, inflammation, depression, abdominal obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. You may be wondering how a simple imbalance in fatty acid composition can lead to all of these ailments. (2)
As it turns out, there are two mediators responsible for healing and reducing inflammation in the body called resolvins and protectins (yes, those are the actual names–they resolve and protect…). These mediators are byproducts of fatty acid production. Their very creation depends on the presence of both omega-6 and omega-3. Without this balance, these mediators don’t exist to resolve inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation gives way to chronic disease and eventually early death. (4) Think of the loss of these inflammation mediators as yet another defense that has been breached by the standard American diet.
Get all of these oils for less
–> Read my article on how to eat healthy fats on a budget HERE.
Also called omega-9 fatty acids, they have a molecular structure of only 1 double bond per fatty acid chain. Along with PUFA, these types of fats lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). They are also responsible for increased fluidity in cell membranes. Fluid cell membranes promote absorption and movement of nutrients and oxygen through the body.
Some of the longest living people in the world eat unprecedented amounts of foods with oleic acid. You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet… Many southern Europeans consume up to a liter of olive oil per week. Olive oil is about 70% monounsaturated fat. Other sources high in MUFA include:
- avocados and avocado oil
- pastured egg yolks
- olives and extra-virgin olive oil
- nuts (especially almonds, hazelnuts, pecans)
- macadamia oil
Check the chart below for comparison among highly recommend oils. All percentages are based on an average taken from fatty acid profile information available (see sources at the end of this article for more information).
–> Click HERE for an easy snack high in omega-9 fatty acids.
These are the most controversial fats with as many articles claiming they’re bad as articles claiming they’re good. One study debunks another debunks another. Around and around we go with the villainization and subsequent redemption of saturated fat.
Saturated fat has a straight molecular shape that “packs” together, making it solid at room temperature. Animal fat is not highest in saturated fatty acids, as many believe. That distinction belongs to plants that grow in tropical climates, like coconut and palm trees. Take a look at this table with the foods highest in saturated fat: (5)
Despite the “link” between saturated fat and heart disease that refuses to die, western society is collectively shifting back to “saturated fat is healthy,” and here’s why:
Because of a series of studies conducted in the 1950’s, including the 7 country study, many people believed the standard American diet was extremely high in saturated fat. In reality, there are more than 7 diets in the world (go figure). Ours is far from the highest in saturated fat. After seeing the table above, you may not be shocked to learn that the people eating the most saturated fat on the planet are tropical island cultures. They get up to 50% of their calories from saturated fat.
The Tokelauans are probably kicking the bucket from heart disease at the age of 50, right? Nope. In fact, they are thriving. Their good health certainly disproves the notion that saturated fat alone causes heart disease (especially if it’s of plant origin). Why might they be thriving off of so much saturated fat?
Saturated fatty acids serve an important cellular role in the body. Remember, our body needs a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to construct ideal cell membranes? The same is true for the balance of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. Our cell membranes should be fluid, but not too fluid–ideally about 50% saturated fatty acids. Saturated fats are responsible for anchoring and “feeding” proteins to our cells. (5)
Turns out, butter is better after all. This is because of a beneficial fatty acid called butyrate (go ahead and laugh, I pronounce it that way too). Butyrate is made in abundance by our colonic bacteria via dietary fiber. Dietary butyrate, however, has been found to help reduce inflammation in the small intestine. Animal studies show that mice fed a high fat diet without butyrate developed obesity and metabolic dysfunction. Compare this to mice fed a high fat diet with butyrate and did not experience weight gain or metabolic issues. (5) (15)
Medium Chain Triglycerides
These beneficial saturated fats are composed of carbon atom links that are 6-10 units long. Their unique length makes them suitable for use immediately by the brain, muscles, and other organs. Because they are so rapidly absorbed and ready to burn, they’re less likely to be stored as fat reserves.
This is why hungry keto dieters take literal shots of MCT oil between meals. MCT’s promote ketone production. The brain and body use ketones for quick fuel in the absence of glucose. In addition to fuel, MCT’s have been proven in both animal and human studies to cause more rapid weight loss, suppress appetite, reverse insulin resistance, and decrease autoimmune activity. (6)
How Much Fat is Too Much?
I’ve discussed the benefits and gathered the evidence. Perhaps we may conclude that it is not the quantity of fat that is causing obesity and metabolic disorders, but rather the quality of fat and our failure to ensure we get the proper ratios of the various fatty acids. The more fat we cut from our diet, the less opportunity we have to ensure a healthy balance. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it was not, after all, a high fat diet that sent risk of coronary heart disease skyrocketing. If so, what exactly was it…
Read Part 2
Click HERE to read part 2 of this series: the rise of “fake” fat and the birth of the fat scare. An investigation into the cultural shift from a diet rich in healthy fats to a fat-free/high-carb diet and the diseases it left in its wake.
1) Harvard: The Nutrition Source: Types of Fat
2) Science Direct: Fatty acid composition of membrane bilayers: Importance of diet polyunsaturated fat balance
3) PCRM: Essential Fatty Acids
4) Science Direct: Fatty acids and inflammation: The cutting edge between food and pharma
5) The Weston A. Price Foundation: Saturated Fat Does a Body Good
6) Nutrition Review: Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
7) The Atlantic: How Vegetable Oils Replaced Animal Fats in the American Diet
8) Olive Oil Source: Chemical Characteristics
9) AOCS: What is unrefined, extra virgin cold-pressed avocado oil?
10) Livestrong: The Fatty Acid Composition of Coconut Oil
11) Springer: Health effects of omega-3,6,9 fatty acids: Perilla frutescens is a good example of plant oils
12) Esoteric Oils: Fatty acids found in walnut oil
13) McKinley Resources: Macadamia Nut Oil
14) NCBI: Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
15) Paleo Leap: The Health Benefits of Butyrate