Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to check your pantry for industrial oils or trans fats and root out any remaining stragglers.
Today we’ll review the basic structures of fats and why you want to stock up on some and send others packing.
Before you’ll be able to embrace the fact that some fats are good for you, however, you’re going to have to examine the culture’s low-fat mentality, and if you’re still a bit entrenched in it, release your own fear of fat.
Yes, fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbs. But our bodies (1) need fat for optimal health and (2) don’t store fat for later – not even on your hips! – but use it for quick energy now. If you must be afraid of love handles and pants getting tighter, point the finger of blame at carbohydrates, which like to stick around your system much longer than fats.
It was over a year ago that I did an extensive series called A Fat Full Fall, exploring everything I could about the fats we eat. It’s very comprehensive, and we’ll finally be revisiting it today.
Two Base Kinds of Fat
You’ve probably seen so many terms used to describe different kinds of fat that your head is whirling when you try to remember which ones are healthy and which ones are evil: saturated fat, unsaturated fat, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans fat or transhydrogenated oils, omega-3 fats and omega-6s, the new interesterified oils, and more. It’s no wonder we don’t know what to eat!
At the very basic level, there are only two kinds of fats:
saturated and unsaturated
Saturated fats are fats that have all their atoms bonded to one another in a line, like a ladder. There are no unfulfilled atoms, which is why they’re called “saturated” – no room for anyone else! The molecule is a straight line. If you don’t like the science explanation, here’s how that plays out in the real world:
Saturated fats are very stable and do not go rancid easily, are often solid at room temperature and do not always require refrigeration. Although they’re often blamed as the “artery-clogging” fats, in reality, arterial plaque is made up of only 26% saturated fat and 74% unsaturated fat.
Saturated fats include
- beef tallow
- egg yolks
- most animal fats (like that on beef or in dairy products)
If you’re hungry for more, I highly recommend this post on Saturated Fats: Healthy or Unhealthy? It includes how saturated fats have gotten such a bad reputation and the research-based rebuttals, how saturated fats have been consumed throughout history, 7 reasons we need more saturated fat and why I personally land on the side of “yes!” in this controversial issue. I just read it for the first time in a year, and it’s striking how clear it all seems. Read it.
Unsaturated fats have one double bond at the end of the ladder-shaped molecule, with either one or two hydrogen atoms “missing”. This makes the molecule form a kink at that place. The upshot?
Unsaturated fats are generally less stable than saturated fats, especially under heat, because of that open atom which is always sort of “searching” to be fulfilled. (In other words, they go rancid faster.) They are liquid at room temperature because they don’t pack together as nicely as saturated fats on account of the “kink” or “bend” in the molecule.
Unsaturated Fats Also Have Two Kinds
Unsaturated fats are further broken down into two categories:
Monounsaturated fat and Polyunsaturated fat
Monounsaturated fat is missing just one hydrogen atom, so they are more stable than their polyunsaturated counterpart, don’t go rancid as easily and can often be used for cooking. Popular monounsaturated fats include:
peanut butter (the right kind)
almonds, pecans, cashews, and peanuts
lard (actually this is an unpopular one, but true!)
Read more about the health benefits of monounsaturated fats, almost universally agreed to be “the good guys”.
Polyunsaturated fat is missing two hydrogen atoms, are quite unstable and generally not safe under heat.
Polyunsaturated Fats Have Two Kinds, Too
Polys get more confusing yet, because there are two kinds, one of which is largely good for you and one which we need to root out:
Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats
In general, omega-3 fats are found in the leaves of plants and some well-fed animals. Omega-6s are found in seeds of plants. As our food supply has become more industrialized, we rely more on seeds than leaves. Seeds include all our grain products plus corn and soybean oil, which are, believe me, everywhere you look.
The trick with the omegas is that we need the proper balance, somewhere between an even 1-to-1 ratio and a 3:1 balance, with slightly more omega-6s than 3s. The problem is that our American culture is hanging somewhere closer to a 20-to-1 ratio, with more omega-6s than our bodies can handle.
This post on balancing polyunsaturated fats is an important read if you really want to understand the issue and all its implications. The practical bottom line:
Eat more omega-3s, like:
- salmon (and some other fish, but not farmed tilapia – see more on how to choose healthy fish)
- fermented cod oil
Fermented cod liver oil is one that I hadn’t explored when I was writing a Fat Full Fall, but I’ve learned a lot about it since then and am pleased to recommend Green Pasture as the right place to find the best stuff.
Eat fewer omega-6s, like:
never use any of these oils in cooking, if you must use them at all
just about anything you buy in a restaurant is soaked or fried in these oils
read more about understanding polyunsaturated fats
All Fats Contain All Fats
Before we read another word, it’s important to understand that any fat you eat is a blend of all three kinds of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Look at most “nutrition facts” labels on food products and you’ll see the amounts of each listed, even when you’re just reading a single fat like olive oil or butter.
Fats and oils are classified as one or the other based on which fat wins the majority. For example, olive oil is nearly 90% monounsaturated fat, although it does have other fats blended in there.
What that means is that you never have to worry about becoming completely deficient in a certain kind of fat just because you’re focusing on rooting something out. You won’t get too few polyunsaturates, for example, even if you never, ever consume corn or soybean oil. Your polys will come from all your other sources of fat just fine.
The New Kid on the Block: Trans Fats
Only in the last 100 years have people actually managed to add a completely new fat to the basic list of three: trans fats.
Trans fats, or hydrogenated oils, were created by food scientists in an attempt to make processed foods more stable and use less saturated fat. To achieve this end, liquid oils are hydrogenated, or changed at the molecular level to make them (a) more stable and (b) solid at room temperature.
Remember that unsaturated fats have a hydrogen atom or two missing. The hydrogenation process jams one back in, making the molecule more of a ladder shape like a saturated fat, which enables the molecules to line up nice and straight and become solid.
Shortening is the classic example of a hydrogenated fat: a liquid oil, made solid at room temperature that lasts for a long, long time. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t recognize these fats and aren’t able to process them without causing major health issues.
I can’t rudely attack trans fats enough: they are unnatural, unhealthy, and downright dangerous. Don’t touch them with a 10-foot pole, if you can help it. Learn to find trans fats in your food (hint: labels emblazoned with “0 trans fats!” and “no trans fats!” are actually much less helpful than you’d think). Click here for a very helpful primer on the health issues caused by trans fats and how to find trans fats. If you’re not already on patrol for this one, you need to start RIGHT NOW.
The Bottom Line: Take Baby Steps
Overwhelmed yet? I hate to throw so much out at you, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a short explanation of everything all in one place.
Your Monday Mission for today is to make a positive change – not 20 positive changes, but one at a time, starting with either the most important or the most possible. If you aren’t sure where to start, here’s how I would put the fat action steps in order:
Avoid trans fats – get rid of your margarine tubs (switch to butter!) and shortening immediately and learn to read labels
Cut down on corn and soybean oils – switch to olive oil for your liquid oil (just don’t saute on high heat) and melted butter or coconut oil for any recipes that call for “vegetable oil”
Eat more monounsaturated fats: avocados, find good olive oil
Embrace saturated fats: find opportunities to eat more butter, coconut oil, tallow, and healthy eggs
Increase your omega-3s: eat more salmon, walnuts
Disclosure: Green Pasture is a KS advertiser this month, which means they receive one link in a post. I wouldn’t recommend any product or company I don’t patronize myself, however, so don’t worry about that! See my full disclosure statement here.