For a long time, we were told that eating fat makes us fat. Here’s why fat isn’t really the villain we thought it was – and why we need it for our health.
Recent research debunks claims that fat leads to heart disease and obesity, but it’s hard to rewrite years of programming. People can easily still find themselves trapped in the “fat is bad” mindset, even though the different forms of fat are necessary for health at a cellular level.
Sometimes we fear what we don’t understand, so let’s explore the different types of fat and how they’re beneficial for health.
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Why We Need Fat
Fats, or lipids, fall into two general categories: liquid at room temperature (unsaturated) or solid at room temperature (saturated). Lipids are fatty acid chains made from carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The body contains nearly 90 trillion cells, and each is maintained by fatty acids. Without enough fat, your body is structurally weak. When your cells are weak, the core of your being will be weak too. This is how chronic disease and breakdowns occur in the body.
We also rely on dietary fat to perform a number of other vital processes like:
- Helping the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K)
- Building and regulating hormones (reproductive, thyroid, appetite, stress, etc.)
- Insulating nerve fibers and sending messages (i.e. all the activity that the brain does)
Fats do a lot more within the body, but these are the primary reasons why we need enough fat in our diets.
The Different Types of Fat
Healthy fats are broken down into three major types: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. All fats are composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen molecules on a cellular level, with the term “saturation” referring to how saturated the molecules are with hydrogen. Fats are connected by carbon-hydrogen bonds, or double bonds. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond whereas polyunsaturated fats have several. Saturated fats are fully saturated with hydrogen and contain no double bonds. While this might not matter to most people, these subtle differences are what gives certain fats their healthy qualities and others their damaging ones.
Trans fats are extremely unhealthy byproducts of chemical production. These unnatural fats are altered with hydrogen to make them shelf-stable.
Saturated fats are shelf-stable on their own and are far less prone to oxidation, or damage from exposure to light, heat, or air. On the other hand, unsaturated fats can turn rancid from too much exposure to the above. When fats become oxidized, they lose their health benefits and can instead contribute to inflammation and free radicals in the body, which leads to oxidative stress in cells and tissues.
Monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, have one double bond.
Olive oil and other monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Light, heat and air can easily damage or oxidize them. Store these fats in a cool, dark place to help protect them.
Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include:
- Macadamia nuts, almonds, and hazelnuts
- Extra virgin olive oil
Food sources that contain MUFAs in less concentrated amounts include:
- Beef, chicken, duck, and pork
- Grass-fed butter
- Poppy seeds
- Coconut oil
Polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs, have multiple double bonds and are also prone to oxidation and damage from heat, light, and air.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are two types of PUFAs. The body can’t make them on its own.
Generally, omega-3’s are generally considered “good” and omega-6’s “bad.” However, their ratio in the body is what truly matters. Omega-6 fatty acids often outnumber omega-3s, leading to inflammation.
Find omega-3s in foods like:
- Grass-fed beef
- Chia seeds
Omega-6 fatty acids need to balanced by omega-3s. When in the right ratio, omega-6’s can actually improve cognition and boost immunity.
Find omega-6 fatty acids in these foods:
Opt for a Paleo diet well-rooted in meats and vegetables for a more balanced fatty acid ratio. The American diet relies too heavily on grains and highly processed fats, like vegetable oils.
Saturated fats have received the bulk of fat-fear and fat-shaming in the medical industry for the last 20 years. However, research shows that saturated fats are not the enemy, and, in fact, they’re the most stable of the three types of fat. This makes them better for cooking as they don’t oxidize in response to higher heat.
Saturated fatty acids are also easy to digest and quickly put to use in the body for energy.
Most saturated fat food sources are also rich in the fat-soluble vitamins that we need for health, like vitamins A and E. The best sources of saturated fats include:
- Virgin coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter, ghee, and lard
- Fatty cuts of grass-fed beef, pork, and lamb
- Chicken skin
But What About Trans Fats?
Trans fats are not natural. Your body won’t even recognize these artificially hydrogenated fats as a real food. Eating trans fats can lead to inflammation, digestive issues, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (15, 16, 17, 18)
In essence, trans fats are toxic. Avoid them at all costs!
Fatty acids are essential for health, ranging from an alert brain to reduced inflammation to proper immunity, and even cellular structure. Low-fat diets are problematic, and fatty acid balance is necessary for the best health supporting effects.
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