Almost everyone I meet is scared of fat.
Ask your grandma (who probably lived to celebrate her 90th birthday and never had a heart disease) to name the fats she ate (and cooked with) and she would finish the count in the fingers of half of one hand. Coconut oil (or Mustard oil, depending on which part of India you are from) and Ghee. Period!! In the western world, it was lard and butter. Full stop!!
I am very fat-friendly, but the fact remains that all fats are not created equal, and there are some awful ones around these days. And these awful ones have given a bad name to the entire community. These awful ones are the ’nouveau-riche’. They are the new kids on the block. They were never around 50 years back. So who are they? Where did they come from? Let’s take a peek behind the fatty lot (… not the fatty behinds ;)) and see who is who.
The English language has a lot to do with the fat-phobia. When we say eating fat makes us fat, the word fat has an all too evident connection between dietary fat and body fat. If we said that consuming lipids (dietary fat) may cause an increase adipose tissue (body fat science speak), suddenly the association seems rather less obvious. Now, suddenly, we can be open to the possibilities that increase in our adipose tissue could also be related to a whole lot of things, for example, carbohydrates, or proteins, or oils, or animal fats or fructose.
For simplicity, I will refer to fats and oils collectively as fats. Basically lipids in liquid form are oils and in a solid state are fats. To truly exorcise the fat phobia you need to know:
- What the different types of fat really are
- The background of this phobia
- What are the different functions of different fat types in the body
What are fats?
When you hear the word fat, different images probably come to mind, like a big gob of goo or a chunk of meat dripping with oils. But fats are much more complicated than gobs of goo that you try to avoid.
Chemically, a fatty acid is a chain of carbon atoms paired with hydrogen atoms, with an “acid group” (-COOH) attached to one end of the molecule. They exist in chains of varying lengths, shapes and orders. They are one of the vital nutrients required by the body for both energy and the construction/maintenance of structural elements, such as cell membranes.
There are so many…it’s so confusing!!
There are different types of fatty acids, based on how many of their carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen:
- Saturated Fats (SFA’s): Fully loaded with hydrogen atoms forming straight chains, and are typically solid at room temperature (for example, butter, ghee and coconut oil). It means one thing and one thing only – it just means that all available carbon bonds are saturated (paired) with hydrogen atoms, hence the name saturated. IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT SATURATED IMPLIES SOMETHING STICKY AND GOOEY THAT WILL CLOG THE ARTERIES AND PIPES!! It is the name given to the molecular structure!! It’s a term used in biochemistry! That’s it !! It does not equal a heart attack, atheroschlerosis or obesity.These are highly stable fats. Saturated fats serve critical roles in the human body. They make up 50 percent or more of the fat in our 70 trillion cell membranes (fatty bi-layers) structure. They enhance calcium absorption and immune function. They aid in body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids and provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins.
- Unsaturated Fats: These fats have lost at least one of their pairs of hydrogen atoms from their carbon chain, resulting in molecules that kink or bend at each double bond. The more hydrogen pairs that are missing, the more bent the molecules. The more bent the molecules, the more space they occupy, thereby making the fat a liquid at room temperature (oil). Unsaturated fats come in two varieties:
- Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs): Missing one pair of hydrogens. They have one (mono = one) double bond between carbons. This ‘so-called magical’ double bond (being sarcy) in monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid, mainly found in olive oil, mustard oil) for reasons that have nothing to do with biochemistry has been anointed with the powers of making your heart ‘healthy’. Sesame seed, avocado, flaxseed, peanut are other such oils. These oils contain varying levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, the rest is a mix of saturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are liquid at room temperature, but solidify when cooled.
- Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs): Missing more than one pair of hydrogens . They have more than one double bond (poly = more). And by ‘expert’ opinion, if one ‘missing’ bond is good for you, more must be better, right? (more sarcy). These oils tend to be liquid even when refrigerated. The problem is they also get rancid easily (those stale smelling fried peanuts, remember?). They are found in grain products, soybeans and fish oils. When we heat them (and we often do), they often get oxidized and we open ourselves to all kind of free radical pillaging – everything from cell membrane damage to wrinkles to arterial plaque build-up. Vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed are high in PUFA’s.
All foods containing fat- even pure oils- contain a mixture of three kinds of fat- saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. (Foods are often identified by their predominant fat- for example, olive oil as “monounsaturated”, butter as “saturated” – but all real foods contain mixtures of the three).
Most vegetable oils are high in ‘unstable’ PUFA, whereas most animal fats are high in SFA and MUFA (except for palm, coconut, and olive oils which are from plant sources).
Mustard oil has about 60% monounsaturated fatty acids (42% erucic acid and 12% oleic acid); it has about 21% polyunsaturated fats (6% the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid and 15% the omega-6 linoleic acid), and it has about 12% saturated fats.
All three types of fats are necessary and important to human health and should be incorporated into the diet in a balanced proportion.
What about the OMEGA’s ?
Unsaturated fats are further comprised of Omega-3, Omega-6, Omega-7, Omega-9 fatty acids, which is basically the position of the double bond in the carbon chain (Omega-6 -the double bond is in the 6th carbon in Linoleic acid pictured above).
Vegetable oils such as corn have low level of saturated fats, but are very high in polyunsaturated fats, the majority of which is omega 6. There is virtually no omega 3 fats here. Whereas the main component of animal fats (e.g butter) is saturated fats with omega 6 fat content being extremely low.
The unintended consequence of vegetable oil industry boom was that intake of omega 6 oils increased significantly (the yellow part in corn oil). To be more precise, this was a known consequence. We just closed our eyes to it’s detrimental effect on human health. These are highly inflammatory mediators. This is not good.
Increasing inflammatory molecules could conceivably contribute to worsening atherosclerosis, heart attack and strokes. Omega 3 fats tend to oppose the effects of Omega 6 fats and therefore increasing attention is being paid to the ratio of these fats. Vegetable oils have extremely high Omega 6:3 ratios.
It is estimated that humans evolved eating a diet that is close to equal in Omega 6s and 3s. Throughout evolution the balance between O6:O3 was thought to between 1:1 and 3:1. However, in the modern diet the ratio of O6:O3 is estimated to be closer to 25:1! It takes a pea-sized brain to realize how much damage we are doing to our body by consuming such levels of Omega 6 from vegetable oils.
The massive increase in consumption of omega 6’s in the diet can be traced to technological advances that allowed modern methods of making vegetable oil. Overproduction of seeds, the invention of the continuous screw press (Expeller), steam-vacuum deodorization and solvent extraction techniques were critical to the production of vast quantities of vegetable oils.
It’s actually a minor miracle (and with a little help of huge advertising budgets) that vegetable oils were (and still are) considered healthy at all. Consider the substantial amount of processing – pressing, solvent extraction, refining, degumming, bleaching and deodorization – that is required to squeeze the oil from a non-oily vegetable such as corn. There is virtually nothing natural about it.
The Chemical Instability of Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)
Because your tissues are made up mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fats, your body requires more of them than polyunsaturated fats (which is true of all mammals). The main dietary PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 fats. These are called ‘essential fatty acids’ because our bodies cannot make them and they must be obtained from dietary sources. Although your body does need these, it needs them in relatively small quantities. And we have always got them from natural, unprocessed food sources like fish, nuts, seeds, grains.
One of the problems with PUFAs is that they are very chemically unstable, and highly susceptible to being altered and denatured by what’s around them. Think about what happens to the oils in your pantry—they are susceptible to going rancid as a result of oxidation. In your body, PUFAs undergo a similar process when exposed to the toxic byproducts of proteins and sugars—especially fructose.
When we talk about “oxidized fatty acids,” we’re talking about oxidation of the carbon atoms that lie between double bonds (the ones with the missing hydrogen atoms). PUFAs are highly unstable because they have two or more double bonds; that’s two more weak spots vulnerable to oxidative damage. SFA’s are highly stable, resistant to oxidation, because they have no double bonds, no weak spots. MUFAs, with their one double bond, are theoretically vulnerable to oxidation—but it rarely actually happens. The literature shows that MUFA-rich oils, like olive, mustard and avocado, are generally resistant to heat damage during cooking.
When you eat too many PUFAs, they are increasingly incorporated into your cell membranes. Because these fats are unstable, your cells become fragile and prone to oxidation, which leads to all sorts of health problems, such as atherosclerosis, maybe even cancer.
Quite literally, the chemical structure of saturated fats will not be easily damaged by things that will easily damage (or oxidize) unsaturated fats, namely: heat, light and air.
Ever wonder why your high-quality olive oils are sold in a dark green glass or other opaque container? It’s to keep light from damaging the oil until it reaches your shelves. Ever wonder why coconut oil doesn’t go “off” or smell rancid from sitting out on the counter without a lid on it but a vegetable oil like corn or soybean oil will? Air, heat, light oxidizes those oils and makes them rancid. That is, damaged beyond the point that they are already just from the point of bottling.
You have to understand this, guys! It is all in the structure of the molecules.
What the processed food and fast food industry needed was a cheap stable oil to increase the shelf life their products. Think about all the packaged food you see in supermarkets – muffins, cupcakes, chips, packaged ready-to-eat sauces, soups, cookies, biscuits, frozen meals (this list can go on…but you get the idea, right?) – which hardly ever get spoilt. How did they use these cheap, industrial oils which were prone to get rancid and manage to make them stable? Welcome to the world of new plastic fats!!
You saw the missing hydrogen in a PUFA’s above? These oils are hydrogenated (the missing hydrogen atom is added but they don’t get the same structure as a natural fat) to give them stability and long shelf-life. In food industry, liquid PUFA’s such as vegetable oils are hydrogenated to produce saturated fats called Trans fats. Margarine, is a chemically processed vegetable oil which has been hydrogenated to make it saturated and therefore solid at room temperature. It’s structure is actually very close to the plastic tub it is packaged in!! These hydrogenated saturated fats flooded the processed/packaged food industry.
The other ‘new kid on the block’ is Interesterified fats: (terrified…you should be!) What are these? Also artificially saturated! We see it everywhere. These are a new breed of chemically modified fats created to avoid the trans fat label now reviled and even outlawed in many countries. Now get this. Research is showing that the effects are not just similar to trans fats but worse. Turns out these fats “may raise blood sugar levels even more than trans fats.” Just what we need in this country! The researchers suggest that this new fat actually “alters metabolism in humans.”
A little known fact is that even vegetable oils often contain massive amounts of trans fats. In one study that looked at soybean and canola oils found on store shelves in the U.S., about 0.56% to 4.2% of the fatty acids in them were toxic trans fats.. If you want to reduce your exposure to trans fats (you should) then it’s not enough to avoid common trans fat sources like cookies and processed baked goods, you also need to avoid vegetable oils.
(GUYS : Is it very difficult to understand that these industrially made saturated fat is not the same as natural occurring SFA’s like butter, coconut oil).
I will refer to Trans fats and Interesterified fats collectively as ICSFA ( Industrially created saturated fatty acids!). You have to understand this. One (SFA) is an integral part of our cells in structure and function while the other (ICSFA) is created chemically to increase the shelf-life of otherwise unstable oils and is a destroyer of cellular integrity. They are both called ‘saturated’ fats and have been collectively demonized.
When you hear the words, “avoid saturated fat,” ask which one? ask WHY? Will you avoid the one which offers a variety of nutritional and physiological benefits, including providing structure and stability to our 70 trillion cell membranes?
From the chart (Comparison of dietary fats), the predominantly blue oils are most susceptible to damage (high in PUFA). The bottom 4 are best suited for cooking.
Despite what you’ve heard, saturated fats are not all animal fats. As an example, 18 carbon saturated stearic acid in beef, 18 carbon stearic acid in chocolate, and 18 carbon stearic acid in olive oil are identical.
I hope you have some idea of the ‘WHY’ of fats by now. Once you understand that, you will not get carried away by some magazine article or your well meaning neighbour claiming that saturated fats will kill you. Ask, which saturated fats? ask why? ask about unsaturated fats being prone to oxidation. Ask them if ghee or chocolate or chemically created saturated fats from vegetable oils are the same.
You now know the importance of Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio. If you read a ‘latest research’ about the greatness of Omega-6 , you should ask ‘WHY’ because now you know that oils high in Omega-6 can cause cellular damage without the balancing act of Omega-3. It is known fact that we have always got our essential Omega’s from food sources and not from oils. You don’t need the Omega’s from industrial vegetable oils and nobody can convince you to buy this poison with a heart shaped picture. When you see an Ad like this you can laugh it off because you know the WHY!!
Our ancestors have always cooked in saturated fats (butter, coconut oil, animal fats) because of the stability it provided in high heat conditions. And no latest industry-sponsored-research can make idiots of us unless we have left our brains in the toilets this morning.
If you ask me today to name the fats we eat I would finish the count in the fingers of half of one hand, just like my grandma.