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.
I was the kind of teenager who sopped the grease off her pizza with a napkin. I used to rail at my dad when he would slather (seriously, multiple tablespoons) butter on his toast or use half a stick on his baked potato. Once I was on my own in college, I always drank skim milk, bought fat-free dairy products and reduced-fat treats, and I always trimmed every bit of fat and skin off my chicken breasts.
I’ve come around a bit.
Our family drinks and eats only full-fat dairy now. I leave the fat in my chicken stock and relish the fact that I can throw in the skin. I put fat in my oatmeal instead of sweetener.
And just as butter incites fear and trembling in most Americans who think Paula Deen is headed for destruction with her stick-at-a-time saturated fat consumption, traditional foodies get a little quivery when presented with powdered milk, shortening, or artificial sweeteners.
It’s been a fat full year for us (but no one is getting fat). Now let me share a Fat Full Fall with you! And if you missed the Real Food Weight Loss and Exercise series, you’d appreciate that my husband lost weight while eating 40% and higher of his calories in FAT!
You might not be able to quick being afraid of fat this week. It may take some convincing. That’s why I’m not asking you to stop being afraid of fat…just begin to release your fear and be open to learning some new information…
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:
- olive oil
- peanut butter (the right kind)
- almonds, pecans, cashews, and peanuts
- lard (actually this is an unpopular one, but true!)
Monounsaturated fats are almost universally agreed to be “the good guys”.
Health Benefits of Monounsaturated Fat
Each food has its vitamin shining moments, but the monounsaturated fat is great for many reasons:
- Lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and has potential to raise HDL (good) cholesterol
- Reduces breast cancer risk
- Better blood sugar control
- Helps prevent belly fat and improves insulin sensitivity
- Anti-inflammatory benefits (less severe pain and stiffness for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis)
- Lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Supports gastrointestinal health
- Helps weight loss
Before we get too excited about healthy fats, there’s one thing you need to understand: all foods containing fat are a combination of the big 3: saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. I can’t say that an avocado IS a monounsaturated fat any more than I can claim that my body IS water – there’s just a lot of water in there. Foods generally get points for the fat that they contain the majority of. Olive oil is over 75% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Avocados and peanuts have more mono- fat than the other kinds of fat, but they still contain all three.
What is Monounsaturated Fat?
The Weston A. Price website explains: “Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other and, therefore, lack two hydrogen atoms. Your body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in a number of ways. Monounsaturated fats have a kink or bend at the position of the double bond so that they do not pack together as easily as saturated fats and, therefore, tend to be liquid at room temperature. Like saturated fats, they are relatively stable. They do not go rancid easily and hence can be used in cooking. The monounsaturated fatty acid most commonly found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil as well as the oils from almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts and avocados.
Super Food Star Nutrients
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) – Vitamin E, antioxidants
- EVOO isn’t a super food for nothing – look for more details in a special olive oil primer later this week!
- Avocado – B Vitamins, Vitamin A & E
- “Avocado has the highest fat content and the highest fiber content — soluble as well as insoluble — of any fruit.” source
- See our family’s favorite way to use an avocado here.
- Peanut Butter – protein, fiber, niacin, zinc, vitamin E
- Important note: peanut butter is a huge trans fat monster! If you don’t have a “natural” style of PB, I can almost guarantee the trans fat in the ingredients (see this post for how to read the labels beyond the numbers). There are so many yummy, frugal natural brands on the market now, many of which don’t require refrigeration or constant stirring. (The one above is Skippy.) Try some. You really have no excuse. It doesn’t really count as a Super Food if you eat peanut butter that has bad fat in it too!
Here’s some food for thought: LARD is also mostly monounsaturated. Who would have thought it would belong in the same group as avocados and olive oil?
Polyunsaturated Fats Have Two Kinds, Too
Polyunsaturated fat is missing two hydrogen atoms, are quite unstable and generally not safe under heat. 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 liver 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:
- corn oil
- soybean oil
- “vegetable oil”
- sunflower oil
- safflower oil
- grapeseed oil
- 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 detailed 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
But don’t forget that God’s in charge. He’s bigger than food.
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.