Fat: The Good, The Bad and The Oxidized

I used to be the kind of person who would alter recipes to make them as lean as possible. I would buy the leanest cuts of meat, sauté things with vegetable broth, opt for skim milk, use flax in place of butter, and shun the yolks. You would find me eating every couple of hours, usually something plant-based probably with whole grains, likely in bar form (but only the healthy ones). Then I got fat and sick.

Now that I know more about how the body actually works, I work with my body instead of against it. I add fat to everything, happily go 16 hours a day without eating at all, choose mostly leafy greens and meat, eat the whole egg, and I wouldn’t touch most grains, whole or not, with a ten-foot pole.

The result? Lower cholesterol overall, higher HDL, lower LDL, lower triglycerides (which had been slightly elevated before), lower blood pressure, more energy, better sleep, less brain fog, more creativity, and I no longer take anti-depressants. My skin is less irritated, softer, and has an even tone. My hair, which was starting to thin, is thicker. The gallbladder disease that runs in my family (and was starting to rear its ugly head) has been kept at bay. The ultrasound used to prove this also showed a thoroughly healthy liver. Oh, and I’m down 12 pounds and counting. I don’t exercise nearly as much as I used to either.

What’s the deal? The trick is to know the difference between good fat and bad fat. Increase the amount of good, decrease the amount of bad. And stop thinking carbohydrates, even the whole grain ones, are good for you.

Wait, I thought all fat was bad

So did I. So does every person who studied traditional nutrition or food science at a westernized institution. We went on and on (and some still go on and on) about replacing saturated fat with lean meat and heart-healthy carbohydrates like whole grains. But we were wrong. When this recommendation started to become popular, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates skyrocketed.

Before the low-fat craze started, our great-grandmothers knew that sugar and starches were fattening. They commonly used real lard, whole eggs, and full-fat dairy in cooking. Additionally, sugar was an occasional treat used only in desserts, homemade jams, and maybe a Jell-O mold on special occasions. Despite the copious use of fat, obesity was nearly unheard of back then.

low fat graph-2

Source: National Center for Health Statistics (US). Health, United States, 2008: With Special Feature on the Health of Young Adults. Hyattsville (MD): National Center for Health Statistics (US); 2009 Mar. Chartbook.

Just as the low-fat craze started, the lines on this graph started creeping up. Although this graph only proves correlation and not causation, so doesn’t prove anything scientifically speaking, it sure is a good visual.

What is the deal with fat?

First, let’s talk chemistry

Saturated fats have single bonds between each carbon molecule in the fatty acid chain and are therefore super stable. That’s because single bonds, when it comes to the fatty acid carbon chain, are relatively difficult to break. This means that they are stable even at high temperatures. Remember that heat is a catalyst for chemical change.

Read up on my favorite saturated fat, the Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT)

Monounsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon molecules replacing a single bond in the carbon chain. Because the carbon molecules are double bonded, there is no room for a second hydrogen on either of these carbons. Double bonds in fatty acids are more unstable than those in saturated fat and can break when heated at high temperatures. That is why, while monosaturated fats like olive oil are good for us, it is not advised to use them at high heat.

Polyunsaturated fats are the most unstable because they have numerous double bonds in the carbon chain. This is what vegetable oils are made of. It is interesting to note that, in order to get oil out of most of the grains used in vegetable oil it has to be heated and/or chemicals are needed. This degrades the bonds further making such fats very unstable. Additionally, this type of fat is used in the fryer vats at your favorite fast food joint over and over again. By the time you get your fries most, if not all, of the bonds have broken. More on why this is bad news in a minute.

Trans-fat is a type of polyunsaturated fat known to be toxic. Trans-fat came about in response to the demand for low-fat foods when this low-fat craze started. It is synthetically manufactured and yet another example of why we are not smarter than nature and shouldn’t mess with it. Sherlock the labels for the words “partially hydrogenated”. You will still find it everywhere (salad dressing is a biggie).

fattyacid

Can you see how saturated fats are super stable and organized and the unsaturated fats are a bit sketchy? The more double bonds a fatty acid chain has (the more unsaturated or polyunsaturated), the more unstable the fat. Why is this important? When the double bonds in mono- (one double bond) or polyunsaturated (more than one double bond) fats break, the fatty acid undergoes a process called oxidation.

Why are oxidized fats bad?

To be brief, oxidized fats create free radicals and free radicals cause cell damage. In other words, oxidized fats accelerate aging, increase inflammation, increase cancer risk, and actually increase damage to the arteries we believed we were protecting by consuming polyunsaturated fats to begin with. While some free radicals in our body are necessary for clean up and repair and a few here and there are unavoidable, we should minimize these damaging molecules as much as possible to protect our health and reduce inflammation. This is why antioxidants, which scavenge free radicals, are important in our diets.

Fun Fact: Did you know that lard has nearly one-fourth the saturated fat and more than twice the monounsaturated fat as butter? Lard is typically 40% saturated fat, 50% monounsaturated fat and 10% polyunsaturated fat. Most of lard’s monounsaturated fat is oleic acid, an essential fatty acid also found in olive oil and associated with decreasing LDL (the bad cholesterol). Pastured pigs will produce even less polyunsaturated fat in their lard, which we now know is a good thing. Even though it contains high levels of oleic acid, the high percentage of saturated fat in lard protects the more vulnerable mono/polyunsaturated fats from oxidizing with heat, making lard an excellent choice for cooking at high heat.

But won’t eating a bunch of fat make me fat?

Nope. To quote Shawn Stevenson from The Model Health Show, “believing that fat makes you fat is like believing that eating a bunch of blueberries will make you blue.” It just isn’t how the body works. But you have to choose the right fats. Skip potentially toxic polyunsaturated fats and don’t be afraid of saturated fats.

Ok, but what about the effect of all that fat on my body?

If you give your body quality fats, it will use them, but not to grow fat stores. Dietary fat activates hormones that tell you you’ve had enough to eat. So you eat less overall and you’re not hungry all of the time. You can go several hours between eating without being hungry as well. So you don’t need those unhealthy snacks. This is, of course, assuming you get rid of the fattening carbohydrates. In other words, you become a slimmer, healthier you.

Your body will use dietary fat to build highly functioning structures. Your brain (which is 60% fat) needs saturated fat to rebuild itself. So do the arteries you’re trying so hard to protect with your low-fat diet. The walls of every cell in your body are also largely composed of saturated fat and need to be to facilitate proper movement of nutrients and the effective functioning of hormones. The quality of these structures relies on the quality of the fats you consume. Do you want a polyunsaturated, partially hydrogenated brain?

The vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, which means they need fat to be properly absorbed. There are several essential fatty acids (meaning we need them to complete certain bodily functions and cannot make them on our own). When we started this whole “fat is bad” thing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, ADD, depression, and other diseases of modern society skyrocketed.

How will increased quality saturated fat affect your body? Assuming that you are replacing processed carbohydrates with fat (the high fat, low carb diet), you will increase your mental ability; decrease your risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other metabolic diseases; improve sleep; and generally become a happier, healthier you.

So let’s give up the low-fat craze, shall we?

I have a different view on fats. The same whole food concept applies here that applies in the other nutritional concepts I talk about. Keep it as unprocessed as possible. Avoid yellow industrial oils (the polyunsaturated fats). Any fat stored in a plastic container and anything that says, “heart healthy” or something similar on the label is not fit for human consumption. Highly processed seed oils, vegetable oil, soybean oil, and anything made from them like margarine and most mayonnaise (Sherlock the labels) are bad news. These are the things that will make you fat and sick.

Choose instead saturated or monosaturated fat like those in olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and wild or pastured lard. Here’s a handy infographic from Naomi Whittel, author of Glow 15 and star of the fantastic documentary The Real Skinny on Fat.

Good vs bad

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Additional Reading

Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It by Gary Taubes

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health by Gary Taubes (actually almost the same book as Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, but Good Calories, Bad Calories is much more scientific for all you science nerds out there (like me).

The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung

Articles about dietary fat and health from the Intensive Dietary Management blog: https://idmprogram.com/tag/dietary-fat/

Fat for Fuel by Dr. Joseph Mercola

The Bulletproof Diet by David Asprey

6 Graphs That Show Why The War on Fat Was a Mistake https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-graphs-the-war-on-fat-was-a-mistake

 

 

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