Many people are fat-phobic, eat the wrong type of fats, or think that “low fat” meals are healthy. Fat is good for you! You just have to make sure that you’re eating the right kind of it. In fact, fats are essential for a healthy life.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Knowing which fats to eat can be confusing, however there are 3 SIMPLE RULES TO FOLLOW:
1. Essential fats are good for you and should make up the majority of your fat intake. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are named this way because we need them. We cannot make them inside our bodies so have to eat them, and they are essential for optimum health. Our cell membranes, hormones and brains are made of them. They support the cardiovascular system, immune and nervous systems and are important for fertility. They also go towards making prostaglandins in our bodies needed for regulation of blood clotting, heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation. Unless you are going out of your way to eat enough EFAs on a daily basis, from nuts, seeds, cold-pressed seed oils and fish, it’s likely that you are not getting enough.
2. Saturated fats are mainly considered bad, as they can contribute to poor health if eaten in excess. Commonly found in animal products, such as meat, cheese and dairy, and fats that are hard at room temperature, like suet, lard or palm oil, these fats are not essential for the body. The body can use them for energy, but they also contribute to weight gain and disease. Unlike the essential fats, the body doesn’t need these fats to make hormones, cell membranes etc, so they tend to build up in the body as stored fat and the dangerous fat that is deposited in arteries. A high intake of these unhealthy fats blocks the utilsation of the essential fats, leading to inflammation and disease. The exception to this rule is coconut oil, which is a saturated fat of vegetable origin and possesses unique qualities, due to its medium chain fatty acid structure.
3. The ugliest of the fats are trans-fatty acids. These fats and oils are manufactured from vegetable oils that have been chemically altered to make them solid at room temperature, for example, margarine. To turn it solid, the oil goes through a process called hydrogenation. 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. Hydrogenisation serves no-one but the manufacturer. Watch out for them in refined cooking oils, cakes, pastries, cookies, biscuits, margarine and all manner of processed foods. The best way to avoid them is to avoid processed foods.
The heat is on
Even good oils become bad when heated. In fact, the essential fats are especially prone to heat damage, even at very low temperatures. EFAs, like flax oil, should never be heated and should only be eaten raw. This is due to their chemical structure, as they are classified as polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated oils, such as olive oil withstand heat a little better and saturated fats are very stable at high temperatures.
The problem is that the good oils become bad when you cook with them and the bad oils, even though able to be heated to high temperatures, are bad for us anyway. The solution is to eat only the polyunsaturated oils raw and cook at low temperatures with olive oil or coconut oil. There is no healthy way to fry food. Let’s have a closer look.
It’s all in the structure
Fats are classified as polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated. The molecular structure of the fat denotes these classifications and explains their chemical stability. The word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms in the fat molecule. A saturated fat’s molecule is completely saturated with hydrogen, making it very stable.
A monounsaturated fat has just one hydrogen atom missing (one short of being saturated), making it relatively stable, whereas a polyunsaturated fat has many free spaces for hydrogen, making it highly reactive and unstable.
The way a fat behaves when heated, and in our bodies, is related to the length of the fatty acid chain.
Polyunsaturated fats have a long chain molecule. They are chemically unstable and are liquid at room temperature and very prone to heat damage. They should never be used for cooking. Commercial cooking oils such as those found on every supermarket shelf, like sunflower oil, are refined and have turned into trans fats, which are highly toxic to the body. They should be strictly avoided. All polyunsaturated oils should be eaten in their cold-pressed form, which means no heat has been used to extract them, preserving their precious structure. Never cook with them, simply eat them raw by drizzling them on vegetables or use for salad dressings. Natural, healthy polyunsaturated cold-pressed oils should make up the majority of your fat intake and many are also great sources of the omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. Flax oil, hemp oil, evening primrose oil, borage seed oil, walnut oil, as well as oily fish, seeds and walnuts are great sources.
Monounsaturated fats also have a long chain molecule and only one free hydrogen, making them relatively stable and able to withstand low cooking heat. Olive oil falls under this category, but be sure to use the cold-pressed extra virgin oil only. Healthy monounsaturated food sources include avocados, nuts, seeds and olives.
Saturated fats are so called because they are saturated with hydrogen, making them un-reactive and solid at room temperature. Most saturated fats are from animal sources, such as meat and dairy products. They are made up of long chain fatty acids and even though they can be heated, their fats tend to build up in the body burdening the internal organs and contributing to weight gain and cardiovascular disease if eaten in excess.
Guidelines for getting the right fats every day
- Eat oily fish two to three times a week, such as mackerel, sardines or wild salmon.
- Use cold-pressed seed oils regularly, such as flax or hemp, on your salads, or drizzle them onto vegetables.
- Eat all polyunsaturated fats in their raw, cold-pressed form and never cook with them.
- Use pumpkin seed butter, coconut oil or tahini as a spread, instead of butter or margarine.
- Eat avocados regularly.
- 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 nutrients. Sprinkle the powder onto your breakfast or use in smoothies.
- Supplement daily with omega 3 fish oil, evening primrose or starflower oil.
- Avoid fried and processed foods and minimize your intake of saturated fat from meat and dairy.
- Cook only with extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil.
A word on coconut oil
Coconut oil is unique. It’s a saturated fat from vegetable origin and it has a unique structure. Being a medium chain fatty acid (MCFA), it works differently in the body from other saturated fats. The MCFAs do not need to be processed by the bile in the usual way, and do not contribute to weight gain, or burden the internal organs like animal fats do. In fact, the structure of coconut oil is responsible for its many health giving properties. It’s also a wonderful oil to cook with due to its stability at high temperatures.
Eat fat, be thin
Eating the right fats can crank our metabolism and keep us slim and remember the good fats are used for important bodily processes, whereas the bad ones simply make us fat. Healthy fats keep us fuller for longer helping us not to overeat. If you don’t get the right kind of fats, your body will crave fat and you’ll find yourself reaching out for unhealthy, fatty foods.
Fat for health
Without the right fats your body will begin to suffer from all manner of imbalances from heart disease to PMS to depression, Alzheimer’s, eczema, allergies and arthritis. With the right fats, your skin will become softer with less wrinkles, your hair shinier, your joints less creaky, and your risk for serious diseases will decrease.
Don’t forget also that our fat soluble nutrients, A, K and D need fats to be used by our bodies. Most people in the western world eat far too many of the fats that kill and not enough of the essential fats that heal.
Don’t be fat-phobic, eat up the right kind and you’ll be giving your health a massive boost.
Article by Jo Rowkins dipNT MBANT, nutritionist and founder of awakening health.