Weekly Lesson #5 - Fats



Eating fat will make you fat. That’s a long standing mantra that has been debunked. Many low fat diets reduce the amount of dietary intake per day, but why? The conventional logic is that if you are trying to lose weight, you should eat as little as possible. Fats contain 9 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram. If you are operating according to simple mathematics, sure - eat less of the thing that has more caloric density over the others. However, that’s not how the body works. Now, we know that eating less has traumatic effects to our metabolism and bodily function; we lose lean mass and bone density instead of losing just fat when we enter this sort of caloric restriction.

Fats have many essential functions within the body other than just providing for long term energy storage and making you feel fat! They are necessary for vitamin absorption within the fat soluble vitamins A (vision), D (calcium absorption, bones), E (neutralizes free radicals), K (blood clotting). Fats are important components of our hormones and cellular membranes - they are vessels with which nutrients are shuttled across these active transport systems and converted into energy or absorbed by the body.

Defining Saturated Fats
One type of fat is saturated fat that comes mainly from animal products. Saturated are typically broken into two categories: long chain triglycerides (meats, cheese, butter) and medium chain triglycerides aka MCTs (coconut). MCTs are actually broken down by the body quicker and used by the body as energy more readily than long chain fatty acids.

The Saturated Fat Debate
Within the most recent years, saturated fat has gotten a bad wrap as a “bad fat”, whereas mono and polyunsaturated fats have been deemed “good fats”. Consumption of beef, for instance, has been on the decline since it’s a red meat that’s higher in fat than poultry. The interesting thing here is that although America’s consumption of chicken products has surpassed the declining demand of beef products, our incidence of coronary artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity have all been on the rise since the 1980s. Why, if we have reduced our saturated fat consumption, is this trend only getting worse? The true culprit of the increase in heart disease in America is our imbalance of saturated fats in conjunction with processed carbohydrates, added sugars, and lack of vegetables and nutrient diversity.

Saturated fat, when eaten as the sole form of fat in the body, is imbalanced. If it is ingested with high glycemic, insulin-spiking, processed sugars, then the body reacts unfavorably by increasing LDL, triglyceride levels, and shifting towards an unfavorable lipid panel. However, if saturated fat is eaten in a balanced ratio with mono and polyunsaturated fats, the body is able to recognize its purpose and work synergistically with the other fats. The ideal ratio of fat balance in the body is 1:1:1. So what does this mean? Saturated fat isn’t bad for you. It can be bad if you are eating a poor diet without nutrients, fiber, and high in sugar.

(Did you know? Grass fed beef is actually lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 content because cows are eating grass instead of corn! More on this below.)

Defining Unsaturated Fats
Another category of fats are the unsaturated fats. Within unsaturated fats, there are two kinds: monounsaturated & polyunsaturated (olives, avocados, nuts, fish oil). Polyunsaturated is comprised of 3 different essential fatty acids: omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9s (however, it is also classified as a monounsaturated fat). Omega-3 fatty acids are found in things like fish oil (EPA/DHA short chain fatty acids) and in plant sources like flax seeds (ALA long chain fatty acids); they are both considered omega-3s, but have different potencies and molecular structures. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in things like plant fats (nuts, olives, avocado, seeds, etc.) Omega-9s are interesting because they are not as crucial as the O-3 and O-6 as they can be created by the body. Omega-9s are found in the skins of animals and other plant fats.

Most foods are a combination of poly and monounsaturated fats. For instance, all nuts have a combination of the two types of unsaturated fats, but may have one a bit more than the other. Olive oil is 75% monounsaturated fat with the rest being poly. Walnuts are the nut that is highest in ALA omega-3 content, but still contains monounsaturated fats.

Oh-mega Oh-my
Earlier, in the saturated fat segment, we mention how grass fed beef is higher in omega-3 content than conventionally grown beef. Conventionally grown beef is fed corn. Grass fed beef is (obviously) fed grass. Why would we care about the omega-3 content of our foods?

The main purpose of the omega-6 fatty acid within the body is to trigger inflammation. The main purpose of the omega-3 fatty acid is as an anti-inflammatory. On a cellular level, we need omega-6 in order to aid in the recovery process: if we accidentally cut ourselves, the inflammatory process is the first phrase in repair. However, if our inflammatory response is imbalanced with the anti-inflammatory processes within the body, unchecked, rampant inflammation can lead to adverse effects like joint damage, achy muscles, cause red/itchy skin, increased allergies/infections, fatigue, and obesity (as inflammatory chemicals can cause insulin resistance).

Omega-3 fatty acids aren’t just an anti-inflammatory. They have a whole other slew of health benefits, such as fighting depression/anxiety, improving eye health, promoting brain health, lowering high blood pressure, reducing triglycerides, lowering LDL, preventing plaque from forming on arteries, reducing risks of certain cancers, lowering incidences of Alzheimer’s or age-related mental decline, among many other benefits.

The Optimal Balance
How do we find a balance between these two essential fatty acids? The best ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ranges from 1:1 to 5:1. The alarming fact is that the typical American is anywhere from 20:1 to 50:1. How do we reduce our intake of omega-6 fatty acids to achieve a more optimal balance?

  • First, we can eat more omega-3s. The EPA/DHA form from fish is the most potent, with the ALA form coming from plants second best. Don’t like fish? Can’t eat fatty fish on a regular enough basis to get the benefits? Supplement with fish oil or krill oil!

  • Secondly, we can also reduce our consumption of omega-6s, which tend to sneak their ways into our food. We not only eat omega-6s from good foods like avocados, olive oil, nuts, but we also get them unintentionally from the corn fed beef that we eat - remember the example we gave above? Cows weren’t meant to eat corn, they were meant to eat grass! Ingesting corn increases the omega-6 content in these animals.

  • In the same vein with reducing our consumption of omega-6s, we can also lower our use of processed and synthetic omega-6 oils such as canola, corn, and soybean oil. These oils have gone through heavy, industrial chemical processes that actually make them less recognizable within the human body as energy and have been studied in rats to be stored as fat rather than utilized as energy at a resting rate (over olive and coconut oils). Also, since these fats have gone through a hydrogenization process and contain small amounts of trans fats, which are the only fats that are truly deemed as BAD because they have been proven to create plaque on arterial walls and raise LDL.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to fats, there are saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats aren’t bad for you, as much of society has told you. Unfettered consumption of saturated fat in conjunction with a highly processed, high sugar diet will lead to bad things, but if you are eating your veggies, eating whole/unprocessed foods, and are balanced with other fats in your diet, you’re good to go!

Mono and polyunsaturated fats come from plants and are comprised of three essential fatty acids. Most American diets are deficient in omega-3, so try to find ways to limit omega-6 over consumption and increase omega-3 intake, either through fish itself or supplementation.

Quite simply, eat things you see in nature. Eat things that are grown from the ground. Eat things that have walked this earth and have also eaten things that they were intended to be eating in the first place. You are what you eat, and that starts from the bottom of the food chain!


Janet Navarrette