Eating Fat is Good… Maybe…Could Be… Sometimes
(It Really Depends… and You Need To Get It Right!)
Certain fats are critical for health. Aim for fat consumption of Omega-3 and Monosatuated Fatty Acids in the range of 20 to 25% of your daily caloric intake; ideally, as little as possible from Saturated and Trans Fat sources. Read on for specifics.
THERE ARE few things more confusing to us than fat. Certainly, when sagging around the waist, this unsightly jiggly is either actively ignored, scorned, or both.
But this post is not about the waistline tire, or inter-muscular fat per se, but about the macronutrient called fat, which along with its two siblings — protein and carbohydrates — is necessary, important and vital to good health.
IF the fat’s the right type.
Before I delve into why, let’s examine just what makes up the fat macronutrient, starting with names.
Here are the terms related to and/or used for “fat”:
trans fatty acids
monosaturated fat oils
All of these are connected to each other in one way or another. Without understanding how they’re related, all these terms can be very confusing. So, let’s demystify things a bit and then apply what we’ve learned to practical action.
First up is terminology. What we think of as fat is really a “lipid”, whether they be in liquid or solid form. Lipids are important for cells’ energy storage and structure, and include these compounds:
– fatty acids
– cholesterol (a “sterol”)
Next, let’s define these lipids, relate them to each other, and examine which are “good” and “bad” for you and why.
Fatty acids are organic acids, particularly those chains of carbon that are not branched. (“Branched” indicates that the series of atoms connected together that make up the fatty acid can resemble a fork in that they divide or separate into two or more branches.)
Fatty acids serve as energy for the muscles, heart, and other organs, as building blocks for cell membranes, and as energy storage for the body. Those fatty acids not used up as energy are primarily converted into triglycerides, but also exist as components of phospholipids and cellular membranes.
Triglycerides are fats that contain, in varying proportions, three groups of fatty acids – saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated – plus a molecule of glycerol.
They are the chemical form in which most fat exists within food as well as in the body. They store energy in the body, and in effect, it is stored triglycerides – aka body fat – that we remove from our bodies when dieting (hopefully).
Oils are triglycerides with low melting points — liquid at room temperature, contrasting with fats that are solid at room temperature given their higher melting temperature.
- Polyunsatured Fats are fatty acids triglycerides that are room temperature liquid oils, such as corn oil.
- Monosaturated Fats are fatty acid triglycerides that are also room temperature liquid oils but tend to solidify when refrigerated, like olive oil.
- Saturated Fats are fatty acid triglycerides that are typically solid at room temperature, such as tropical (coconut) oils, butter, margarine and animal fat. They are the only fatty acids that raise blood cholesterol levels
Phospholipids are a variation of triglycerides where one fatty acid is replaced with a phosphate group, and are important for forming the structural basis of cellular membranes.
Cholesterol, is one of a class of complex lipids called “sterols“, and comes in two forms: the “bad” form associated with low density lipoproteins (“LDL”), and the “good” form associated with high density lipoproteins (“HDL”).
HDL is thought to remove excess cholesterol from the body; whereas LDL is thought to elevate cholesterol in the blood, which can first lead to excess deposits of cholesterol and fat in the arteries, and then to heart disease and/or stroke.
[Sidebar: Take the American Heart Association Cholesterol Quiz]
OK, so for those of you still with me, on to the stuff you really care about…
The Bad Fat
Bad fats are saturated fat and trans fat.
Fats containing saturated fatty acids are called Saturated Fats. Examples of foods high in saturated fats include lard, butter, whole milk, cream, eggs, red meat, chocolate, and solid shortenings. Excess intake of saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol and increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease.
Trans Fats are found in vegetable shortenings and in some margarines, crackers, cookies, and snack foods, and will increase the shelf life of oils. But trans fats will not extend your shelf life; rather, just the opposite – consumption of trans fatty acids increases blood LDL-cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) levels and raises the risk of coronary heart disease. A nice recipe for a short life.
The Good Fat
Good fats are polyunsaturated and monosaturated fatty acids
Monosaturated Fatty Acids contain one double bond in their chemical chain. Examples of foods high in monounsaturated fat include avocados, nuts, and olive, peanut and canola oils. Scientists believe that increased consumption of monounsaturated fats (like nuts) is beneficial in lowering LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, especially if monounsaturated fats are used to substitute for saturated fats and refined sugars.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids contain more than one double bond in their chemical chain. Unlike saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat does not raise cholesterol levels. In fact, like monosaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats lowers levels of the bad cholesterol lipid, LDL. Unlike monosaturated fats, however, polyunsaturated fat is believed to lower the good cholesterol lipid, HDL, as well.
But despite polyunsaturated fatty acids’ propensity to lower the “good” HDL, they are essential to our diet because they include a special family of essential fatty acids which the human body cannot manufacture for itself called omega 3, omega 6 and omega 9 fatty acids. If you have high cholesterol, don’t overindulge with foods containing polyunsaturated fatty acids, but do include them in your diet.
– Omega-3 Fatty Acids are the best of the three “omegas”. Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids with the double bond in the third carbon position from the methyl terminal (hence the use of “3” in their description). Omega-3s are used in the formation of cell walls, making them supple and flexible, and improving circulation and oxygen uptake with proper red blood cell flexibility and function.
Fish, plant, and nut oils are the primary dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, herring, krill, algae, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, and spinach.
– Omega-6 Fatty Acids are a class of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids with the initial double bond in the sixth carbon position from the methyl group (hence the “6”). Examples of foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oil.
– Omega-9 Fatty Acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids with the initial double bond in… you guessed it… in the ninth carbon position. The niners are important, but it’s not essential that you consume them because the human body can manufacture omega-9 fatty acids in limited amounts. These are found in olive oil (extra virgin, cold pressed is best), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.
The Omega Interplay
There’s a dance between the omegas that’s important to know about — they work together to promote health, but #3 needs to be favored more than #6 and #9. The balance is important.
Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. An inappropriate balance of these essential fatty acids contributes to the development of disease while a proper balance helps maintain and even improve health.
A healthy diet should consist of roughly 2 – 4 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical American diet tends to contain 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, and many researchers believe this imbalance is a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders in the United States.
This is one reason that the so called “Mediterranean Diet” gets high marks. It consists of a healthier balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than the typical American Diet, so say various studies demonstrating that people who follow the Med are less likely to develop heart disease. It also contains the omega-9 fatty acid group, which have been reported to help lower risks associated with cancer and heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet does not include much meat (meat is high in omega-6 fatty acids) and emphasizes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, garlic, as well as moderate red wine consumption.
So, at long last we get to the end of this epic journey of Fat.
Do this: aim for fat consumption in the range of 20 to 25% of your daily caloric intake; ideally, as little as possible from saturated and trans fat sources, and as much possible from poly and monounsaturated fat sources.
Try to consume primarily Monosaturated Fatty Acids and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. So that means, nuts, avocado, salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, herring, krill, algae, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, and spinach. And cold pressed, double virgin olive oil for cooking, and (along with flaxseed oil) for salads.
Here are some guidelines given three Total Daily Calorie counts:
1,800 Calories a Day
- 40 to 70 grams of total fat
- 14 grams or less of saturated fat
- 2 grams or less of trans fat
2,200 Calories a Day
- 49 to 86 grams of total fat
- 17 grams or less of saturated fat
- 3 grams or less of trans fat
2,500 Calories a Day
- 56 to 97 grams of total fat
- 20 grams or less of saturated fat
- 3 grams or less of trans fat.
(grams per tablespoon of oil which has about 14 grams of total fat)
Type of fat
cotton seed oil