All fats are NOT created equal!
Fats are one of the three critical macronutrients; along with proteins and carbohydrates. Some fats are super-health-boosting; and, others are super-health-busting.
Like carbs, there are good sources of fats, and bad sources of fats, but fat must be included in your diet in small amounts at EVERY meal. Fats are a more energy-dense source than carbs. Moreover, eating fats will not directly "make you fat"; increased bodily fat storage involves many different mechanisms, one of which is eating excessive amounts of carbs with respect to energy expenditure...
Keeping the subject of fats in focus, health-building fats support your brain, hormones, immune system, heart health, and moods. Health-busting fats pretty much damage all of these (brain, hormones, immune system, heart health, and moods). Hence it is so important to know which ones to favour and which ones to avoid for for optimal health.
In this post, I briefly describe the different sources of fats before listing out my favorite cooking fats. I also give you my full permission to ditch a few of the popular but oh-so unhealthy fats!
A primer on fats
The proper term is lipid; fats refer to lipid molecules that are solid at room temperature while oils are liquid. Lipids can come in different forms: saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats. Everyone has heard the bad publicity around trans fats. Well, you should know that trans fats occur naturally, and are also produced artificially. The most common source of natural trans fats is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is found in the fat of ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep. So meat and dairy contains CLA, and not only CLA is not harmful, it even has some anti-cancer properties and other benefits. On the other hand, artificial trans fats have been linked to a whole spectrum of diseases, and as you already know, they should be avoided at all costs!
Now on to saturated fats. We will explore the long-chain (LCSFA) and the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) saturated fat. The former are mostly found in the meat and milk of ruminant animals. This fat structure is the most commonly found in the body, and they are the primary source of energy for humans. The MCT fats are also found in milk, but also in coconut. Contrary to the long-chain saturated fat, this type of fat is easily digested, passing directly through the liver without secreting bile; therefore being a quick source of energy! MCT also has a lot of therapeutic properties: anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-oxidative, i.e., preventing the formation of inflammatory compounds. Hence, saturated fat is an excellent source of dietary fat!
Next are the unsaturated fats. We find the monounsaturated fats (MFA) and the polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). The MFA are found in beef, olive oil, avocado oil and some nuts. Like the saturated fats, MFA is non-toxic, even at high doses, so it can be eaten without restraint.
Now, the PUFA are most-commonly known as the omega fats: omega-3 and omega-6. These fats are very fragile and can be oxidized by free radicals in the body and leading to systemic inflammation. The intake of PUFA should then be limited in the diet, with an appropriate balance of omega-3/omega-6. Omega-3 are found in plant foods, like walnut and flax, and seafood. The omega-3 in plant foods is in the form of ALA, while seafood contains omega-3 in the form of EPA and DHA. The latter are essential fatty acids, but cannot be produced by the human body and the conversion from ALA is very inefficient. So only intake of seafood, like salmon, can insure proper intake of essential fatty acids. Beware vegetarians and vegans, eating flax seeds will not help you here!?
On the other end, the case of omega-6 is complex. Omega-6 is found in a lot of food: vegetables, grains and meat, nuts and all refined oils, like soybean corn, safflower. Omega-6 in the form of LA is another essential fatty acid, and can only be obtained from the diet, but excessive intake amount compared to omega-3 causes systemic inflammation. Hence, your diet should restrain intake of omega-6 to the advantage of omega-3.
Health-boosting fats are from:
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds
“Virgin” oils should be your first pick for a dressing/cooking oil, and here’s why. Getting the oil out of a whole food involves some processing. Sometimes it’s by squeezing, or heating. Other times it’s by using chemical solvents. The word “virgin” is used to show minimal processing and no use of solvents!
According to the World Health Organization’s Codex Alimentarius:
“Virgin fats and oils are edible vegetable fats, and oils obtained, without altering the nature of the oil, by mechanical procedures, e.g., expelling or pressing, and the application of heat only. They may be purified by washing with water, settling, filtering and centrifuging only.”
For example, extra virgin olive oil must:
Be cold pressed
Not contain any refined olive oil
Possess superior quality based on chemical composition and sensory characteristics.
Don't you think these standards ensure higher quality? I sure do!
Plus, the minimal processing helps to maintain some of the quality of delicate fat molecules, as well as their antioxidants. Double bonus!
Health-busting fats are from:
Seed and vegetable oils like safflower, soybean, and corn oils
Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.
Seed and vegetables oils should be limited because there are high in omega-6, which, if you remember the discussion above, promotes inflammation. Because we are already exposed to a lot of pro-inflammatory factors due to our contemporary diet and lifestyle, intake of omega-6 fats should be minimized and omega-3 fats favoured.
Hydrogenated oils are particularly bad; this is because they contain small amounts of "trans" fats. Studies show that trans fats lead to insulin resistance, inflammation, accumulation of belly fat. They also drastically raise the risk of heart disease. Double whammy!?
Don’t forget, it is not simply about avoiding to buy bottles of these fats for home cooking. You must also be wary of the processed foods that contain them.
How to get more health-building fats
First, you have my permission to ditch any foods in your cupboards that contain safflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, or any hydrogenated oil. Soybean oil alone accounts for over 75% of oils consumed by Americans, so it’s pretty popular in the “non-health food” department.
Second, try substituting one of the health-building oils whenever you have a recipe that calls for the other stuff. Try flax oil in your salad dressing, avocado and/or olive oil in your cooking, and coconut oil in your baking.
Third, make healthier versions of your go-to processed foods. It’s way better for you than the unrefrigerated stuff you find at your grocery store.
Now tell me: What’s your favorite source of fat and why? Let me know in the comments below.