What is the deal with fat? Is it good or bad? According to Dr. Mark Hyman (and many others), we have it all wrong. Saturated fat is not actually bad for us. So foods like coconut oil and butter are not harmful as we were told since the 50’s. Does this mean we can eat all the fried foods, cheeses, meats, ice cream, cakes and cookies we want? Of course not! As much as we want to simplify everything and just agree on whether high fat or low fat food is good for us, it's just not that simple.
There is little doubt in the medical community of the important role fat plays in overall human health. Fats are much more than just a source of energy for our bodies. They help cells grow and function, create healthy skin and tissue, transport vitamins, help form hormones. Fats play a major role in overall human health, so we actually can’t live without them. This sounds simple again, then we should just eat more fat right?
The most common concern with fat in our food is linked to studies that show how saturated fat leads to high cholesterol, which is blamed for heart disease. This over simplified association between fat and heart disease is now considered outdated. These studies didn't isolate the fat from the other ingredients in the food. We describe a food as fatty when it contains a lot more ingredients than just fat. If you take your fat and add carbs and sugar to it, then you need to be concerned with more than just the fat alone. If we want to know whether fats are causing diseases, we need to first look at the fats by themselves.
Another major concern with fats is how they are processed before they are added to foods. The more we process fat the more harmful it becomes. Heating certain fats, in particular vegetable oils, creates chemical compounds like Aldehyde that can be extremely toxic to humans. Chemically altered fats not only create toxins but they create unpaired electrons in molecules, referred to as free radicals. Prevailing theories and other evidence suggest free radicals lead to mutation, aging, and cancer. Dr. Cate Shanahan refers to vegetable oils like Canola oil and Corn oil as the “tip of the toxic iceberg”. There is a very clear connection between vegetable oils, particularly when processed and heated during cooking, and inflamation, blocking enzymes, weight gain, free radical damage and disease. Fat and oil may also contain toxins from industrial farming, GMO’s, or other contamination that occurs at the food source. Once we determine our fats are not over processed and come from a good source, we can start to examine how they impact our health.
Fats are commonly grouped as either saturated, unsaturated, or trans. Saturated fat is generally found in animals and coconuts. Unsaturated fats generally comes from plants and fish. Trans fat is “man made" fat created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats were designed in order to increase the shelf life of fat. Everyone agrees trans fat is bad for humans, but even to this day labeling of trans fats can be deceptive. Fats are defined by their components, and every fat is made up of 1 or more types of fatty acids. These fatty acids are characterized by their chemical structure and length. The length varies from short-chain to very long-chain fatty acids. Details about which fatty acids make up a food are not going to be on a nutritional label. For example saturated fat like coconut oil contains 6 different fatty acids in varying amounts. The combination and characteristics of fatty acids determine how they are absorbed by our bodies and ultimately whether they are helpful or harmful. For example, fats with a high ratio of palmitic acid and myristic acid may affect you differently than foods high in stearic acid. Some polyunsaturated fats contain very well known fatty acids referred to as Omega3 and Omega6. These are considered essential fatty acids because they are not produced in the body and must be consumed. There are lots of studies out on these fats, with newer studies suggesting that Omega-3s are very beneficial to your heart, cell membranes, hormones, and for inflammation reduction. It is said that omega3s have the greatest net positive impact when combined with omega 6s in a 1:1 ratio. The importance of this ratio is another reason why vegetable oils aren’t regarded as great fats, they often have a much lower ratio of Omega-3s.
Even though there is much more to the story on fats, the bottom line is that it is not okay to lump all fats together in order to discuss them as either good or bad for us. Consuming fats is important, but picking the right fats is just as important. Eat fats that have balanced ratios of Omega-3s, fats that are from healthy plant and animal sources, fats that are exposed to the fewest toxins possible, and fats that are not mutated by exposure to high heat and pressure when processing. Above all, avoid processed foods that are likely to contain not only harmful fats but other ingredients you simply can’t identify.
Check out some more articles on this topic: