For heightened mental clarity, dietary fat is a must. After reading this passage you may want to read more about the connection between dietary fat and mental health. Please check out our post on the topic (HERE). But, before you can focus on the incredible benefits of dietary fat you first need a proper introduction to what dietary fat is. Please read the following.
The Skinny on Fat
Fat, along with protein and carbohydrate, is one of the basic types of nutrients that your body’s organs and systems need to function properly. Fat contains significantly more energy than the equivalent amount of either carbohydrate or protein. This means that if you can get your body to minimize its reliance on burning carbohydrates/blood sugar you will have much more energy available, without having to constantly eat to keep your metabolism fired up.
Their structure is complex but there are basic facts that you need to know in order to understand the role of fats and cholesterol in health. Understanding them may be a tough read. However, it is very important that you understand what dietary fat is as well as cholesterol. More importantly, you need to know what they do. A better understanding illuminates a lot of the side effects related to cholesterol-lowering drugs listed by the FDA. You should know what cholesterol and fats really are, and what they really do.
There are two major types of fat: those that are solid at room temperature (saturated) and those that are liquid at room temperature (unsaturated). Food sources of saturated fat are generally animal products such as meat, poultry, dairy products and seafood. Other sources are tropical oils like coconut and palm. In contrast, food sources of unsaturated fat are mostly plant sources like avocados, nuts and olives.
The chemical difference between saturated and unsaturated fat is that saturated fat is fully saturated with hydrogen atoms, and does not contain double bonds between carbon atoms. (See figures 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 below for a graphic explanation) This makes saturated fats the best fats to cook with because they are very stable at high temperatures. They do not break down at high temperatures and generate free radicals that promote inflammation. Unsaturated fats, the ones we have been encouraged to cook with, like vegetable oils and margarine, have a chemical structure that is different from saturated fat. Their chemical structure contains double bonds. Some of these oils when in their natural state, olive oil, for example, are great for your heart. But, don’t heat them! When unsaturated fats are heated, they generate free radicals and promote inflammation. These “heart healthy oils” are repeatedly reused and reheated in many restaurants. They are also used in food manufacturing. All the inflammation they generate is very taxing on heart tissue. In fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence demonstrating that these so-called healthy fats actually can cause heart disease.
Unsaturated fats break down into three sub-classes: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans-fats.
Monounsaturated fats are composed of a chain of carbon molecules with one pair of carbon molecules joined by a double bond. The more double bonds present the more solid the fat will be. Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature, but turn slightly solid when cooled. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon atoms, see arrows in the above illustration.
Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds between carbon atoms in the carbon chain pillar. See arrows in the above illustration. They are more solid than monounsaturated fats but less so than saturated fats. This means that polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats include the essential fats omega-3 and omega-6, which the body cannot produce. These fats must be acquired through diet.
The Omega 3 – 6 connection
One of the important turning points in the war against fat was the understanding of the differences between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are essential to your health.
You can get omega-3 fats from plant sources, but, fish and fish oil are the most researched forms of omega-3s. When people talk about plant sources of omega-3 (such as flaxseeds) they usually neglect to mention that the plant form of this fat needs to be converted in the body before it is useful. This conversion is not the most efficient process. There are two vital omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, called EPA and docosahexaenoic or DHA. EPA and DHA are the building blocks for hormones that regulate immune function, blood clotting, and cell growth. They are also components of cell membranes. Until the advent of factory farming and packaged foods humans consumed plenty of omega 3 fats in the form of grass-fed beef and fish.
Unfortunately, omega-6 fatty acids are the most commonly consumed polyunsaturated fatty acid in the Western diet. There are two main sources of dietary omega-6 fatty acids, one found in plants, (linoleic acid), and the other found in meats (arachidonic acid). Non-farmed, naturally sourced fish contain little to no omega-6 fats. The three major sources of omega-6 fats in the Western diet are soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and corn oil. These fats can be found in most packaged/manufactured foods. These foods are often advertised as “natural and healthy”. They include: margarine, salad dressing, snack foods (hello potato chips!), mayonnaise, processed/packaged foods and fast foods in general. Consuming too many omega-6 fats has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and may increase the growth of cancer cells as well. These are the supposed “heart healthy fats” that replaced the good old naturally occurring fats in our traditional diets. But, incredibly, these fats actually promote inflammation! According to Andrew Weil MD, “Soybean oil alone is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American diet are estimated to come from this single source.”
Hormones derived from these two types of fat have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fats tend to increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation (an important factor in cancer growth). On the other hand, those derived from omega-3 fats do the opposite and promote smooth blood flow and decrease inflammation while maintaining a healthy control over cell growth. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.
Those “heart healthy” omega 6 fats have some pretty terrible side effects. Minimizing or, if you’re feeling really fired up, completely eliminating vegetable seed oils in your diet will have some very positive effects. All long term benefits aside, the decrease in inflammation that you will experience will quickly leave you thanking yourself within a couple of months. The benefits of getting rid of these pro-inflammatory oils include better joint function, better skin health, and leaner muscles.
There is still debate about the health promoting benefits of specific ratios of omega 6 to omega 3. Is it the ratio or is it simply an absolute amount of each? However, there is enough evidence from well-designed animal studies and the basic biochemistry of polyunsaturated fats to conclude that at the very least the ratio is important. The goal should be to consume foods that have a ratio of less than 4:1 omega 6 to omega 3.
Trans-fats are found naturally at low levels in some animal-based foods, however, most of the trans fats we consume are synthetically generated. See the illustration above. Liquid oils are made into semi-solid fats like shortening and hard margarine by bubbling hydrogen through polyunsaturated fats. This fills in their hydrogen gaps to make them appear saturated. The stable appearance of trans-fats is what initially fooled chemists into thinking they were safe.
Trans-fats promote systemic inflammation in the body. America’s FDA estimates that the average American consumes around 5.8 grams of trans-fat per day! This should be ZERO! In a published study from 1994 margarine was shown to contain 29% trans-fat! (Wood R, 1994)
The most significant health risk associated with trans-fat intake is an elevated risk of heart disease. Another 1994 study estimated that over 30,000 cardiac deaths per year in the United States are related to the consumption of trans fats (Willett W, 1994). By 2006, estimates of 100,000 deaths were proposed. A comprehensive evaluation of studies on trans fats published in 2006 in The New England Journal of Medicine reports a strong and consistent link between trans-fat intake and heart disease, concluding that “On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of CHD more than any other macronutrient, conferring a substantially increased risk at low levels of consumption (1 to 3% of total energy intake)” (Mozaffarian, D 2006). In 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to list trans-fat content on nutritional labels.
Yes! You read correctly! The “Heart healthy” hydrogenated vegetable oils endorsed for decades by doctors and health authorities promote heart attacks!
It’s funny how the world works. Often, what we believe to be a “fact” is based on misinterpretations, misunderstanding and sometimes deliberate misrepresentations of information. People talk about cholesterol but they have never actually “met” it. We characterize it, but don’t know anything about it other than what we have been told. We all know the story: cholesterol is a “fat” that clogs up your arteries like a backed up pipe. One of those backed up pipes has a piece break off and that is what leads to a heart attack or stroke. There is some truth in this explanation, but it is not cholesterol that is the problem. It just happens to be present when there is a problem.
Everyone, let’s meet our new friend …
Cholesterol is a waxy substance known as a sterol. Sterols are incredibly important elements in every cell in our bodies. Most of the cholesterol in the body is manufactured in the liver with a very small amount coming from diet. It is essential to the building and maintaining of cell membranes. It also helps cells to adapt to temperature variations. Cholesterol is used to make bile salts. Bile salts are vital to the digestion and absorption of fat in the body. As a result, it also plays a role in the metabolism of fat-soluble vitamins in the body, including vitamin A, D, E & K. Cholesterol is also the precursor to many vital sex hormones, including progesterone, testosterone, androstanediol and estradiol (estrogen) (see below).
Cholesterol is also used by the body as a raw material in the healing process. It helps patch up inflamed tissue and inflammation plays a major role in the development of heart disease. Cholesterol is found in very large amounts in the brain, in fact, research has shown the egg consumption benefits memory retention in older subjects. This not surprising due to its fat and choline content (NY Daily News, 2011). Choline is vital to nerve functioning. In relation to its role in supporting proper memory, it is also vital to nerve function. A large percentage of the protective layer on nerves called myelin is made from cholesterol as are our brain synapses, the vital connections between nerve cells in the brain and other nerves of the body.
So, cholesterol has a pretty good resume. It is clearly not the scourge it has been made out to be. Seriously!
This leads to another question, what fat should we eat? The answer is pretty simple: animal fats, (including butter!), and minimally processed non-animal oils like avocado, olive, and coconut. These oils, which occur in nature and are not engineered by man-made chemicals, actually reduce inflammation. Chemically generated oils on the other hand actually promote inflammation and disease!
For a list of the fats you should be consuming, please see the following:
|Good for cooking||Coconut Oil
Palm Oil (Although, please find from a sustainable source as so much palm oil today is being harvested in horrific ways. When in doubt just stick with coconut oil.)
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (Great for non-heat dishes like salad dressings, hummus, mayo, etc. Can be used for cooking at lower temperatures or when combined with another saturated fat like butter or coconut oil.)
Avocado Oil (Great for non-heat dishes)
Other fats (not necessarily for cooking, but essential to good health) include meats, eggs, dairy, and fish (nuts are also good in moderation as they have a high level of polyunsaturated fats).
|Use sparingly||Walnut Oil
Macadamia Nut Oil
|Avoid Entirely||Canola Oil
Any fake butter substitutes