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
While science shows that fat intake is not the dietary bogeyman that it was long claimed to be, and does not cause heart disease or lead to obesity, fat intake can still have both positive and negative impacts on inflammation levels in the body and overall wellness depending on the type of fat you eat. (1, 2)
Fats are scientifically known as lipids and tend to fall into two categories: liquid at room temperature (unsaturated) or solid at room temperature (saturated). Lipids are composed of fatty acid chains that are made out of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The body contains nearly 90 trillion cells, each of which is maintained by fatty acid structures. Without enough fat, your body is literally going to be weak in structural form. No, it won’t fall apart on the surface, but 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 double bonds, which are literally carbon-hydrogen bonds that are strung together. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond whereas polyunsaturated fats have several double bonds. Saturated fats have no double bonds because they are already fully saturated with hydrogen. While this might not matter to most people, these subtle differences between fats are what gives certain fats their healthy qualities and others their damaging ones.
Trans fats, which are universally viewed as extremely unhealthy byproducts of chemical production and are never found naturally in nature, are unsaturated fats that have been hydrogenated – altered with hydrogen to be shelf-stable or refined for preservative purposes.
Saturated fats are considered to be 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 and are unsaturated fats because they are not completely saturated with hydrogen.
Olive oil and other monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are considered to be unstable fats, meaning that they can easily be damaged or oxidized when exposed to light, heat, and air. To prevent these fats from being damaged, they should be stored in a cool, dark place.
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.
PUFAs are perhaps best known as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are essential fatty acids because the body can’t make them on its own.
Generally, omega-3’s are considered “good” and omega-6’s are considered “bad.” What actually matters between these two types is their ratio in the body. In the standard American diet, omega-6 fatty acids are typically consumed in alarmingly higher amounts than omega-3s, and without a balanced ratio between them, omega-6 fatty acids can lead to health issues from inflammation.
Omega-3 fats fight inflammation within the body, boost brain function, balance autoimmunity, fight depression, and protect heart health. (7, 8, 9, 10) Omega-3s are found more concentrated in foods like:
- Grass-fed beef
- Chia seeds
Omega-6 fatty acids can improve cognition and immunity, but need to be kept in balance with omega-3s in order to reap those benefits. You can find omega-6 fatty acids in these foods:
By opting for a Paleo diet well-rooted in meats and vegetables, and not heavily reliant on nuts and seeds, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids will fall into a better balance than the one found in the current American diet, which is far too heavy 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 required in our bodies for the healthy structure of cells. They 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 a type of unsaturated fat that gets artificially hydrogenated through a chemical process. This type of unnatural saturated fat should be avoided at all costs since it leads to an inflammatory response within the body, and the digestive system struggles to convert this to energy because it doesn’t recognize it as real food.
Fatty acids are essential for health, ranging from an alert brain to reduced inflammation to proper immunity, and even cellular structure. Low-fat diets have shown to be nothing but problematic, but even fatty acid balance is necessary for the best health supporting effects.
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