How much fat do I need? What kinds are good? Do I need to worry about cholesterol or saturated fat?
We hear these questions all the time. And those are all valid and good questions. Yet there is a lot of information to unpack when talking about fats. We’ll have a 3 part series, the first being an overview of the types of why fat is important and the types out there. Then we’ll talk about how they can help with metabolic flexibility and how to use them to your advantage with activity levels or on an individual basis. And lastly, well talk to the concerns around cholesterol and saturated fat.
So What Do Fats Do?
Different types of fats have different functions and roles in our body. Overall, when we focus on quality fats, they help with these main things:
- Hormone and fertility health
- Help maintain blood sugar balance
- Cell membrane health
- Skin and hair health
- Eye health
- Cholesterol transport
- Brain and mental health
- Cellular repair and maintenance
- Gut health
- Absorb fat soluble vitamins
- Improve heart health
- Help with environmental toxicity
- Help with energy (or in our words, metabolic flexibility)
So as you can see, fats do SO much, and different types of fats play different roles in the benefits listed above. Broadly speaking we recommend you get at least 20g per meal as a minimum to help with all of these things, with a variety of sources you’ll read about below. Many macro counting programs will have people at less than 50g/day to help with weight loss, yet it’s not simply the fat making us fat. When it comes to our diet, t’s actually the 1. Quality of the fat (and food in general), and 2. Quantity of food in general (usually too much carbohydrates or fat) for an individual that determines excess body fat.
Let’s Dive In!
There are 3 main categories of fats: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. And before we go further, we’ll explain what “oxidation” means, since we’ll be using that word a lot when looking at these types.
Oxidation occurs when a chemical compound is exposed to oxygen, and therefore denatured from its original state and structure. So simply put, oxidation turns a substance into a toxic substance which wreaks havoc on our body’s health, increasing inflammation and at the root cause of most health issues.
“Some of the dietary ALEs (advanced lipid oxidation endproducts), which are absorbed from the gut to the circulatory system, seems to act as injurious chemicals that activate an inflammatory response which affects not only circulatory system but also organs such as liver, kidney, lung, and the gut itself. We believe that repeated consumption of oxidized fat in the diet poses a chronic threat to human health.” (Joseph Kanner, Pubmed)
Saturated are most stable at high heats due to their structural makeup with their carbons being totally saturated with hydrogen atoms and are usually solid at room temp because of that. This is what allows us to use them at higher temperatures without them being oxidized or damaged.
Saturated fats have been demonized with old and poorly done studies back in the 50’s. These studies have officially been debunked in saying that saturated fats cause heart disease. We get more into heart disease and cholesterol in this article.
Within Saturated fats, there are lengths – long chain (milk and meat), medium chain (aka MCT’s – in breastmilk, coconut and palm oils), and short chain (small amounts in butter/ghee, yet moreso made in the body). MCT’s are popularly used these days to help with fast acting energy, without the use of carbohydrates. Our body can quickly use them due to the fact that they don’t need bile salts to be digested, so they skip that process. Those without a gallbladder or poor functioning one, can benefit from MCT’s because of this.
Monounsaturated fats are a little less stable since they have a double bond in their structure – being more easily oxidized with light, oxygen, or high heat. The foods with the highest amounts include avocados, olives/olive oil, meat, and some nuts. This category of fats has the least amount of questioning or negative associations in the nutrition space, it’s regarded as a safe and healthy fat source all around if not overheated.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s) are most easily oxidized due to their structure of having multiple double bonds. Within this category, there are 2 subcategories, omega-3’s and omega-6’s.
6’s are pro-inflammatory (have their first double bond at the 6th carbon), and 3’s are anti-inflammatory (first double bond at the 3rd carbon), and we want a balance of both for our body to function optimally. Most Americans get a ratio of 20:1, 6’s to 3’s (and we wonder why we are so inflamed and sick). Most of this is due to the fact that so many packaged foods contain these, and most restaurants use omega-6’s to cook all their foods with.
There are subcategories of the 6’s, the 2 most important are Linoleic Acid (LA), and Arachidonic Acid (ARA). LA is needed from our diet (an essential fatty acid), and ARA can be produced in our body (non-essential), or found in foods like eggs, beef, chicken and pork.. LA is found in small amounts in whole foods like fruits, veggies, grains and meats, and in large amounts in nuts, poultry (due to what they are fed), and commonly used industrial oils such as canola, sunflower/safflower, rapeseed oil, soybean oil, rice bran oil, corn, cottonseed and peanut oil. An excess of LA is known to increase inflammation, cause gut dysfunction, and a vitamin E deficiency.
There are subcategories of the 3’s to mention as well. There is Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid (our body needs it via our diet), found in plant foods like walnuts and flax. Yet these next 2, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are the components of omega-3’s we benefit most from in regards to inflammation – specifically heart disease and brain health. These are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, shellfish, and oysters.
We can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, yet our body is not efficient at doing so AND in order to do that conversion, you need micronutrients that you primarily get from animal products anyways. This means we do want to be getting in fatty fish or fish oil, not just getting the plant sources of omega-3’s that are in the form of ALA.
Trans and Hydrogenated Fats
Most talked in regards to being called a “bad fat” are the trans and hydrogenated fats. These are across all boards the ones we want to avoid. Yet it’s important to mention that its the artificial trans fats we are talking about that play no helpful role in our health. There are such things as natural trans fats that occur – you guessed it – naturally in foods/animals. These are referred to as Conjugated Linoleic Acids and actually have health benefits. They are found in grass fed animals – so meat, cheese and dairy when pasture-raised.
In the next blog post, we’ll get into how we can use fat to have more energy, feel less hangry, and lose weight much more easily.
Other resources and findings used to write this article are from Chris Kresser’s website.