Friday, March 6, 2009

The Deal With Fats and Other Oily Business

Greetings and welcome back,

Before I even start talking about the different kinds of fats and what they do for and to your body, I'd like to state that one of the keys to a healthy diet is variety. An overdose of any one good thing, even water, is bad. Always aim to eat a variety of foods, balancing the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) that are right for your body's metabolic type. So with that said ...

Fat is perhaps the most misunderstood macronutrient in America, but the bottom line is, we need fat to function properly. To give you just a very quick idea, vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble which means that your body needs fat in order to make use of them. You need fat in your system for healthy skin, hair and cell walls in all your tissues. And about 60% of your brain is made of fat. So in short, we need to eat fat in order to stay healthy.

Now, not all fats are the same. For the purposes of this blog, I will just explain the differences between saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and trans fats also knows as hydrogenated oils. I feel that its beneficial to know the basic chemical make-up of fat in order to understand what all these terms actually mean so that it's not just a name memorization game. Here is a very basic, simplified explanation of the chemical make-up of fat: All fats are a variation of fatty acids that are being held together by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats have lots of hydrogen atoms holding its fatty acids together which is why saturated fats, such as butter, stay solid at room temperature. The hydrogen gives it structural integrity. Going along those lines, as you may guess monounsaturated fats lack one hydrogen atom, so their structure isn't as solid. It's actually liquid, and olive oil is a great example of monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats, then are fats that have many of its fatty acids not held together at all. Seeds and nuts contain many polyunsaturated fats, but if you extract them from their source (which is bad ju-ju to be addressed below), these fats are liquid at room temperature; namely your vegetable oils (that you should stay away from). Out of all of these mentioned, trans fats are the only ones that don't occur in nature and are a “Frankenstein fat” that is the result of trying to make extracted unsaturated fats solid by infusing them with hydrogen atoms. That's why trans fats and hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils are synonyms. The result are things like margarine, which is solid at room temperature and practically all trans fat.

You've probably heard that trans fats are bad for you. That is right. What happens when you take a naturally unsaturated fat and try to artificially solidify it is that the molecule you end up with is solid, but in a weird shape. I've heard that it has a kink in its structure and I've heard that it looks like plastic, but either way, when you get this molecule traveling through your bloodstream, you can imagine that it's easier for it to damage your artery walls or to get stuck than it is for the saturated fats that, while solid don't have an obstructive shape. And of course it's easier for trans fats to damage or clog arteries than it is for unsaturated fats that are more flexible anyway and adapt to the curving of the circulatory system. Because trans fats mess with your arteries, they have been linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Pretty straight forward. That's one tidbit of common knowledge, or I should say popular knowledge, that is true. However because I've set out to clear up misconceptions in regards to health and nutrition, I'll tackle those now rather than validate already established trends.

Here are some common misconceptions about fats:

Misconception: Animal fats are saturated fats. If that were true, meat would be a hard, waxy substance. Animal fats are a mixture of all the naturally occurring fats listed above. The harder the meat, the more saturated fat it has. To give you an idea, chicken fat is about 70% unsaturated fat. You can read more about that in the link I'll post in the next paragraph.

Misconception: Saturated fat is bad for you/causes heart disease. If that were true, your great-grandparents (unless they didn't live in America or Europe, and I haven't researched other countries sufficiently to know their historical diets) should have died early of heart attacks because they didn't have any extracted vegetable oils to cook with and ate milk, lard, butter, and meat on a fairly regular basis. Doing research for this I've read that there is no scientific evidence that shows saturated fat contributes to coronary disease any more than any other naturally occurring fat. I didn't find any. So if you find some, please send them my way. But meanwhile, here's a good article on why we need to consume saturated fat. In gist, saturated fat is necessary and pretty good for you as long as you consume adequate supporting nutrition (which is pretty much the case for any other macronutrient, remember, too much of one thing is bad). I found a very good testimony by a guy named David Brown who studies nutrition. He left a comment in response to a shoddy post on a health site and he got permission to post about a page and a half of a good book on saturated fat. Since I didn't go through the trouble to get permission to copy and paste that, whole thing, here is the link to the shoddy site, just scroll down to David Brown's response in the comment section. So if you eat a good range of nutrients, your chicken will do your arteries no harm. The same technically goes for red meat, too, but there are other reasons why red meat should be consumed sparingly. Unless your metabolic type is high protein, your body will take a very long time to break down red meat and extract nutrients from it, so it's not really an ideal food though that has little to do with its saturated fat content. If you really like steak, I wasn't able to find a definitive number of how often you can indulge in it and be on the healthy side, but 2-4 times a month seemed what I got from the research.

Misconception: Vegetable oils are good for you. I just learned this and quit using vegetable cooking oil two days ago, and the evidence is overwhelming and I was surprised it's not more publicized (but then again, lots of big companies would lose money if it were publicized). Basically, if you place the statistics of vegetable oil consumption to the statistics of heart-disease, you will notice that they are proportional to each other. The more vegetable oils are used in people's diets, the more people get sick. It seems mind-boggling at first, but bear with me.

Vegetable oils are polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are good for you, but here is the catch: if you extract the polyunsaturated fat from its source, be it sunflower seeds or whatever else you'd like, and you expose that extracted fat to heat, light or air, it goes rancid. If your oil is rancid, that means it's becoming oxidized and instead of maintaining the polyunsaturated structure that's good for your body, it's become a highly reactive free radical in your body. Free radicals are particles that cause damage to your cells and are responsible for a range of ailments, starting with premature aging to cancer. It's impossible to keep oils away from heat, light or air, (in fact the extraction itself is a heat process) so companies are further processing the rancid oil so that you can consume it without tasting that it's rancid and wreak havoc on all your tissues at the same time. In short, vegetable oils, with one exception, harm your health.

The one exception is (organic) cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. The cold-pressed part ensures that its not heated to get at it, which means that it maintains its molecular integrity (remember, it's monounsaturated, not polyunsaturated, so it's more stable when exposed to air and light and even heat to a degree). The extra virgin part means that it's the very first oil extracted from the olives and that it's practically unprocessed aside from the pressing. (Virgin is the slightly processed oil that's been somewhat heated and if the label just says olive oil, it's completely conventionally processed and you should stay away from it). Your best bet is to get it organic. This oil makes for good salad dressings and is a good cooking oil as long as it's not heated too much. As soon as you hit its smoke point, it has started decomposing and producing free radicals (you can google the smoke points of various oils). Again, you don't want free radicals in your body. (To combat the ones you do get from factors outside of your control, make sure you consume antioxidants.)

Another good oil to cook with, if you don't want to melt butter, is organic coconut oil. Unlike vegetable oils, it has a high saturated fat content and is therefore much more stable when exposed to high heat. Furthermore, it is a very good source of nutrients.

In summary, fat is a necessary macronutrient. Ever since America went on a low-fat craze, the rate of obesity has increased. I'm not trying to say that the lack of the good and healthy fat is solely responsible for obesity, but it certainly is a factor. Remember how in the metabolism blog I mentioned that obesity is a form of malnutrition? Well, if you don't get a certain nutrient, your body slows down your metabolism, so you need fat in order to burn calories and ultimately lose fat. So, here are a few tips: when it comes to whole foods, go for the non-reduced, non fat-free foods. Instead of skim milk, that's insanely processed and devoid of the nutritious fat, go for organic whole milk. Make sure it's organic and that the cows are grass-fed, for all the reasons stated in the previous blog. Yes, that milk is processed, pasteurized and homogenized, but unless you drink lots of it every day it's likely to not only not harm you, but to give you some benefit. Eat whole eggs, not just the whites. If you're eating organic meat, don't be afraid of its fat (if you're eating commercially raised meat, cut the fat off because many of the antibiotics and toxins are stored therein). Good sources of unsaturated fats include nuts and legumes. Omega fatty-3 acids are especially good fats that are often lacking in our diet and can be found in milled or ground flax seed (the seeds themselves are indigestible for us) and fishoils. However, make sure you know where your fish is coming from so that you know it's not loaded with mercury or was farmed (farmed fish, like commercially raised animals are nutritionally inferior due to the poor diet and living conditions they receive, not to mention that such ventures are disastrous to the environment and the animals). Above all, whatever you do, make sure you're eating a nutritionally balanced diet. At the very end, I'll post a link to a pretty good and short video on fats. Look at it and pass it on to people who may be equally confused about fat. However, don't listen to what the doctor in the video says about canola oil. Canola oil is little more than poison. And don't listen to what he says about cholesterol. He's off on that one, too, but I'll cover that in my next blog. So here is the summary video.

I'm on Spring Break right now, which is partly why this blog is a day late. I'll still be on Spring Break next Friday, so I doubt I'll be posting by Friday, but I won't be posting any later than the Friday after next, and the topic will be all about cholesterol! And why it doesn't cause heart-attacks.

If you too are on break, enjoy it. =)

Till then,

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” -- World Health Organization


  1. Out of mild curiosity, I started looking at life expectancy charts and trends of the US over the past few centuries and how the current trends compared to other countries. I wanted to see where this country is heading with the current proliferation of junk/fast/processed foods. I wanted the big picture. In just an initial search, the data was astounding in both the magnitude and content, but there was nothing to numerically state one cause or another, the variables are just too numerous. But there are predictions.

    Many of the observations start in the late 1700's, at the birth of the nation, when there was no such thing as genetic engineering, hormone injection, wide spread use of pesticides and even the FDA. The typical life expectancy was around ~50 years. The main causes of death were influenza, pneumonia and tuberculous. The infant mortality was also comparatively high -- when someone is one or two days old, it can really skew the average. So just looking at the founding fathers, the wealthy with access to food, medical attention and free from hard labor, they lived over 50% longer than the predicted average; George Washington – 67, John Adams – 91, Samuel Adams – 81, Thomas Jefferson – 83, Paul Revere – 83, Martha Washington – 71. This was 150 years before penicillin. The average life expectancy didn’t start to show significant increase until the 20th century where it increased to ~68 years in the 1950’s and ~76 in the 1990’s. In 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics announced that the average life expectancy was nearly 78. Compared to the rest of the world, the US ranks 42nd. 20 years ago, the US was 11th. The leading causes of death are now heart disease, cancer and stroke. Considering that obesity is considered a disease, how impactful would it be see that on the list?

    A lot of people are pointing the finger at poor health care for its treatment of sick people. After reading these blogs and learning about the strong impact of food on a person’s health, I now feel that a finger should be pointed at the food industry for producing sugar-rich, nutrient-deprived, addictive junk food for making people sick.

  2. Hey, Tina. I am curious as to where you got some of this research? I am doing research on cholesterol for a naturopathic doctor and found this post really helpful! Thanks.