The Fats Of Life. Are You Eating The Right Kind Of Fat?

The topic of fats can be a confusing one as there has been much misinformation over the last few decades. We’ve gone from cooking everything in lard and butter, to then believing fat is unhealthy and switching to either low fat foods or using vegetable oils, which we were told were healthy for us. Many people have spent their whole lives eating a low fat diet only to suffer from all manner of health complaints, dry skin, depression, hormonal disruption and weight gain. And those who have been cooking in vegetable oil and avoiding saturated fats are still getting heart disease. It’s no wonder people are confused, so how do you know if you’re eating the right kind of fat?

Why eating fat is good for you

Our bodies rely on fats for many processes. Every cell membrane is made up of essential fats, without which the cells cannot function at their best. Hormones need fats for their production and the brain is mostly made up of fat. There are myriad biochemical pathways in our bodies that rely on the fats that we eat, such as substances called prostaglandins that are highly anti-inflammatory, helping our joints and skin in conditions like arthritis and eczema.

Without the right fats your body may suffer from all manner of health issues such as PMS, depression, eczema and allergies, as well as increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and dementia. Your intake of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K may also be decreased, making you prone to deficiencies in these important nutrients. With the right fats however, your risk of serious diseases goes down, your hair becomes shinier, your skin softer with less wrinkles, and your joints less creaky.

Fats that heal and fats that kill

Most people in the western world eat far too many of the fats that kill and not enough of the fats that heal. Eating up the right kind of fats can give your health a huge boost, whereas being fat-phobic, or eating the wrong fats can have a detrimental effect. Fats that heal come from nature in their pure forms, whereas the fats that kill – you’ve guessed it – are found in processed foods and fats that have been tampered with and are no longer in their natural state.

The good, the bad and the ugly

It’s all about the type of fat you eat. The good fats come from nature such as cold-pressed plant oils or grass-fed animals, as well as raw seeds, nuts, avocados and oily fish. The bad fats appear in processed foods and intensively-reared meats. The ugliest of them all are the refined, adulterated fats such as vegetable cooking oils, trans fats and hydrogenated fats found in fake foods, “low fat” products and margarine.

The 3 types of fat and why hydrogen is important

There are three types of fat – saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The “saturation” part refers to the saturation of hydrogen in the fat molecule. A saturated fat is completely saturated with hydrogen, a monounsaturated fat has only one free space for hydrogen on its molecule, whereas a polyunsaturated fat has many free spaces for hydrogen. So, what does this actually mean? Hydrogen makes the fat molecule stable. Without hydrogen there will be many free-carbon atoms trying to pair up with any available hydrogen. The lack of hydrogen on the molecule therefore makes it unstable and when you add heat into the equation, the less saturated with hydrogen the molecule is, the more unstable the molecule becomes. That’s why cooking with polyunsaturated oils is a bad idea. They cannot take any heat whatsoever, and are so unstable that heat destroys them, making them rancid and toxic for our bodies. Saturated fats on the other hand are stable enough to heat up, that’s why coconut oil is a great option for cooking, or a little grass-fed butter. Monounsaturated fats like extra-virgin olive oil are also great to cook with as they are relatively stable (only one hydrogen missing), as long as they are kept at a moderate heat and are not brought to smoking point.

3 simple rules to follow to ensure you’re eating the right fats:

  1. Eat essential fats. These should make up the majority of your fat intake. They’re called “essential” because the body cannot make them and we need to consume them for production of hormones and cell membranes, as well as a healthy brain function. They support the immune, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and are important for reproduction and fertility. They also make substances called prostaglandins in our bodies that are needed for regulation of blood clotting, heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation. Unless you are going out of your way to eat enough EFAs (essential fatty acids) on a daily basis, from nuts, seeds, cold-pressed seed oils and fish, it’s likely that you are not getting enough.
  2. Know where your saturated fats come from . It’s been recently declared that saturated fats are actually not as unhealthy as we have been led to believe. It’s now thought that it’s the refined, white carbohydrates usually eaten with the saturated fats (burger in a bun, bacon butty etc) that are responsible for the rise in heart disease, diabetes and obesity, not the saturated fat itself. However, as saturated fat can be consumed in all manner of processed foods and intensively-reared meat and dairy, it’s wise to keep an eye on the source of your saturated fat intake. As Mark Hyman" wisely says ,“…lumping all saturated fats into one category over-simplifies things much like claiming all carbohydrates are bad. Broccoli and a hot fudge sundae are both carbohydrates, yet you know that one benefits you and the other doesn’t”. Choose grass-fed animals that have been reared as naturally as possible, as well as avoiding processed meats like salami, sausages and junk food meats. Saturated fats are found in animal products, such as meat, cheese and dairy, and fats that are hard at room temperature, like suet, lard or palm oil. Our ancestors ate meat with green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and berries, not in burger buns. It’s the insulin surges from a high starch and sugar diet that causes inflammation and degenerative diseases, not saturated fat in its pure form. So if you do eat meat, make sure you’re eating animals that have lived as natural a life as possible and fill your plate up with lots of vegetables alongside it.
  3. Avoid trans fats. These fats are manufactured from vegetable oils that have been chemically altered to make them solid at room temperature by hydrogenating them, such as in margarine and fake foods. Not only is the body unable to utilise these types of fats, it considers them toxic and they block the body from being able to use the healthy, essential fats. Watch out for them in refined cooking oils, pastries, cakes, biscuits, margarine and all manner of processed foods. The best way to avoid them is to avoid processed foods and never to cook with polyunsaturated vegetable oil.

9 daily ways to get your healthy fats:

  1. Use cold-pressed seed oils regularly on salads, or drizzle over vegetables once they’re cooked.
  2. Eat a tablespoon of raw seeds and nuts most days. Almonds, walnuts, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds are the best. Grind them into a powder for better absorbability and sprinkle the onto your breakfast or use in smoothies.
  3. Eat wild, oily fish two to three times a week. Sardines, mackerel, trout and salmon are good sources.
  4. Use pumpkin seed or almond butter, coconut oil, tahini and grass-fed butter as spreads.
  5. Eat avocados regularly.
  6. Eat all polyunsaturated fats in their raw, cold-pressed form and never cook with them.
  7. Avoid fried and processed foods and minimize your intake of saturated fat from meat and dairy, always choosing grass-fed animals.
  8. Supplement daily with a quality omega 3 fish oil, evening primrose or starflower oil.
  9. Cook only with extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil or grass-fed butter.

Fat doesn’t make you fat. That’s a big fat lie

Low-carb, high-fat diets are all the rage right now as we begin to realise the importance of fat. It’s now known that sugar makes you fat, fat doesn’t. Healthy fats keep us fuller for longer and are highly satiating, helping us to regulate our food intake and avoid over-eating. If you suffer from hormonal imbalances, mood related issues, skin complaints, weight gain or aches and pains, it’s likely that your body is crying out for more healthy fats. Don’t believe the big fat lie the food manufacturers have been telling you that you need to eat less fat. Eating the right kind of fat is crucial to health. Look to nature for the answers.

Article by Jo Rowkins DipNT MBANT, Nutritional Therapist.