For many years, even decades, the prevailing wisdom has been that fat in the diet in any form is bad for us. And to this day that notion is still alive and well. There are still many who adhere to a strict low fat diet carefully reading nutrition facts. However, within the last few years attitudes toward fats began to change to more of a – “Well okay, some fat is good but only if it is certain types of fat”. Now that wisdom is changing again to essentially include all naturally occurring fats as having positive health benefits.
Dietary fats and oils are made up of building blocks called fatty acids which are made up of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. There are three main forms of fatty acids: Saturated fatty acids have many hydrogen atoms but no double bonds. Monounsaturated fatty acids have only one double bond hydrogen atom per molecule and Polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one double bond.
Saturated fatty acids: These fats are usually solid at room temperature and are found mostly in animal products such as milk, butter, cheese, and meat, and also in some tropical plant based oils such as coconut, cacao, and palm oils. Saturated fatty acids have been at the center of the fat debate for years and have been implicated, among other things, as raising levels of bad cholesterol and contributing to obesity. The fact is the latest data and research is now pointing in a new direction regarding these fats, and it is not all bad. The emerging view is that in moderation these fats are far less harmful than once thought and are necessary and important to ones diet and health.
Monounsaturated fatty acids: Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and show up in most foods but mainly in vegetables and nuts oils such as olive oil, avocado, almond, peanut and canola, etc.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s): Polyunsaturated fats like monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and show up in most foods as well as showing up in fish and meats. PUFA’s are also the class of fats that are considered essential fatty acids (EFA’s). EFA’s are well known for garnering the bulk of the positive attention associated with fats and health. At this time even the medical community has embraced and prescribed EFA’s for treating and improving certain health conditions. These fats are called essential because they cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through diet only.
EFA’s can be categorized in two main groups: Omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) mostly associated with animal sources such as cold water oily fish and organic grass fed beef. Omega-6 linolenic acid (LA) mostly associated with vegetable plants and their oils such as hemp, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, safflower, sesame, walnut and flax. From these fats our bodies make several derivatives that are extremely important to good health such as EPA, and DHA from omega-3 and GLA, AA, DGLA from omega-6.
Partially hydrogenated and trans fatty acids: Simply stated, these fats are not natural and should be avoided. These fats are found in a variety of mainstream foods such as baked goods, crackers, chips, vegetable margarines and shortenings, etc. These fats are made by the process of hydrogenation which makes liquid vegetable oils hard at room temperature and help extend shelf life. This process is extremely damaging to the structure of the oils. When ingested as part of the diet, overwhelming evidence has now linked them to many serious health concerns such as obesity, bad cholesterol, heart disease, suppressed immune function, poor growth and development, and cancer.
When one looks to improve their health by adding beneficial fats to the diet there are some things to consider. It is best to eliminate all artificial hydrogenated trans fats as they are not only unhealthy but they can directly interfere with the bodies ability to absorb and use healthy fats such as EFA’s. It’s also wise to consider the source of the fatty acids. As with any beneficial nutrients, the best way to take them in through diet is by consuming whole foods that are naturally rich in healthy fatty acids. Supplementation can be an effective and convenient way to improve consumption of fatty acids, but it’s important to choose wisely and use caution. For example, if choosing a fish oil, look for oils that are minimally processed with the least amount of fillers and additives, are cold-pressed, and that preferably come from a wild, cold water source.
Finally, try to find a balance between all the healthy fatty acids. Example; omega-6 EFA’s are quite healthy but if they dominate the diet and are highly disproportionate to Omega-3 EFA intake they can actually contribute to inflammation.