Fats have been demonised for a long time. Over the last few decades there has been a massive move to steer away from them linking them to heart disease and obesity. Now like everything, too much fat can make you fat! But it is also an essential nutrient in certain forms and extremely important for optimum health. In this blog I'm going to try and highlight why we need fats, which fats are good vs which are bad and where we get the good ones from!
So why do we need fat?
Fats are an energy source
Fats act as carrier for non-water soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D E and K - these vitamins are fat-soluble but not water-soluble.
Fat cushions our organs
Fat is essential for building hormones
60% of our BRAIN is FAT!
Whats the deal with good and bad fats??
Now this is where things seem to be a bit more technical! Bare with me as I take you through some of the science - remember education is key!
So fats can be grouped into a few different categories:
Saturated Fats -
So called as they contain no double bonds within their structure. Double bonds in other fats can be broken which can change the structure of the fat, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.
These fats are generally found in animal products such as meat and dairy but can also be found in vegetable products such as coconut oil and palm oil.
They are the fats that we have been told to stay away from and that people have claimed are linked with heart disease.
Sat. fats are solid at room temperature
Monounsaturated Fats -
Also known as MUFAs!
These contain one single double bond
They are found in avocados, olive oils and nuts
The most common MUFA in our diet is Oleic acid commonly found in Olive Oil
MUFAs are liquid at room temperature
Polyunsaturated Fats -
We shall call these PUFAs!
These contain many double bonds and therefore are the leat stable fat meaning that they can change structure easily due to these bonds being broken.
They are found in the germ of all grains so we find them in sunflower oil, sesame oil and soya oil.
Two major classes of PUFAs include Omega 3 and Omega 6 which leads to an interesting debate about whether or not they are actually as good for us as we are lead to believe! More about that after our final group...
Trans Fatty Acids -
These fats are unsaturated fats that have become hydrogenated to make them have more desirable properties such as being solid at room temperature.
They were found commonly in foods such as margarines but The World Health Organisation has made steps to have these dangerous fats removed from food products.
They have been linked to coronary artery disease due to their link with raising 'bad' cholesterol levels and contributing to inflammatory levels in the body - something we will touch on later.
Trans fats are also found in animal products naturally and these used to be the only trans fats consumed not causing much of a problem. In more recent times the amount of transfers in processed foods has caused health issues, but steps are being made to irradiate them from our foods as discussed above. Many countries now have limits on the amount of trans-fatty acids processed foods are allowed to contain.
So what are the healthy fats?
Over the course of the last few decades we have been warned away from the saturated fats in animal products and directed towards the supposed 'healthy fats' found in vegetable oils. Unknowingly this has caused more problems than it has meant to have solved - mainly due to the Omegas fatty acid balance.
Omega 3, 6 and 9 are all important fatty acids that we need in our bodies for optimum health. The problem we are now facing is that we are currently consuming them in dangerous ratios.
Omegas 3 and 6 are 'essential' fatty acids in that the body can't create them itself, we have to have them in our diet. Omega 9 is a non-essential fatty acid - the body can create this itself, in fact it is one of the moist abundant fats in the cells of our body.
Ok, you say, that easy just consume more foods that contain 3s and 6s. Well the problem that is arising now is that we have been pushed towards the supposed healthy fats - the vegetables oils - sunflower oil, margarine, corn oil etc. These types of fat have extremely high levels of Omega 6 - not as good a thing as it sounds!
Yes the body needs Omega-6 but it really only needs in in a tiny amount. We should be consuming Omega 3 and Omega 6's in a 1:1 ratio, 1:2 at most. Having been pushed on to vegetable oils we are generally consuming a whopping 24 x the amount of omega 6 a day! Thats a ratio of 1:24!
This causes a problem due to the end products of Omega 6 - the fatty acids themselves don't do an awful lot but it is what they are transformed into that can cause issues.
When Omegas are digested they are turned into prostaglandins - these are essential for smooth muscle control, pain signalling and inflammatory response regulation. There are three types of prostaglandins.
PG 1 - Mildly Anti Inflammatory
PG 2 - Aggressively Pro Inflammatory
PG 3 - Aggressively Anti Inflammatory
So ideally we want an abundance of PGs 1 and 3 and not so many of the inflammation provoking PG 2s.
Can you guess which PG type excess Omega 6 gets broken down into? Yep you've got it! PG -2. So the most common Omega 6 found in our diet is a fatty acid called Linolenic acid. This is broken down into arachidonic acid which in turn is converted into PG-2. So if we keep shovelling Omega 6 into our body you are going to force feed the metabolic pathway that produces PG 2s. This can lead to Chronic Subclinical Inflammation (CSI).
What is Chronic Subclinical Inflammation?
Chronic - long term
Subclinical - technically means not obvious! You need blood tests to investigate.
CSI is a big contributor towards a lot of diseases today. Even heart disease is a type of inflammatory issue. It can lead to plaques forming in the walls of our blood vessels. Also we have to consider cancer as prolonged inflammation in the body can affect genes in the cell including those genes responsible for cell replication which can get out of hand.
So these supposed healthy fats aren't as good for us as we were lead to believe!
So which fats should we be ingesting??
One of the best fatty acids for us is Oleic Acid. This is abundant in extra virgin olive oil. This is by far the best oil to cook with on your stove top. It is full of Omega 9's which don't upset the inflammatory cascades. It is also associated with cardio protective properties!
So lots of people say that you shouldn't cook with Olive Oil as it degrades at high temperatures. Yes it does but we are talking really high temperature so oven cooking at 200 degrees for 5 hours for example! For stove cooking it is fine!
For the oven cooking you need to reach for coconut oil! This is a saturated fat so it has no double bonds to break and is very stable at high temperatures.
So back to saturated fats....??
Not necessarily. Once again we go back to a balanced diet! Some people are going mad and eating a lot of saturated fat with low carb diets. The thing to be careful with this that animal products are high in that arachidonic acid - the precursor to PG 2- the inflammatory one!
We do need arachidonic acid but only in small amounts. So don't go mental consuming animal products! Everything in moderation - but do go and throw out your margarines and vegetable oils. Buy yourself a good quality cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, a tub of high quality coconut oil and enjoy your animal products in moderation.
Also don't neglect your Omega 3's. As discussed these are an essential fatty acid so reach for the fish, chia seeds, seaweed, kidney beans and edamame beans to keep them topped up too!
Whilst researching for this blog I stumbled across Dale Pinnock's podcast 'Nutrition Nuggets'. The episode that I found most interesting and helpful with this topic was 'Get your Fats Straight'. Dale is a great speaker and I highly recommend looking him up if you want to know more about nutrition!
So to recap -
Cook with Olive oil on the stove and Coconut oil in the oven
Chuck out your vegetable oils and you magarines and reach for the butter instead - in moderation!
Dont neglect the Omega 3s - try and have fish at least once a week or if you are vegetarian incorporate pulses, chia seeds and seaweed into your diet.
Avoid processed foods - although trans-fats are now closely moderated, along with added sugars, processed foods still contain some.
Don't be afraid of fats - but everything in moderation!
And as always consult a registered dietician before embarking on a diet change.
So embrace your healthy fats! After all your brain needs it!