Are all Fats Created Equal?

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#don’tfearfat #fatisyourfriend, #eatyourgoodfats … I’m sure by now you have heard the trendy catch-phrases on health-food blogs and social media pages. Eating dietary fat is indeed becoming popular in the foodie world. What many food scientists have known all along is finally reaching the public ear, and actually being heard above the racket of the food industry’s apparently detrimental ‘eat low-fat’ messages. Science is proving to us that our bodies actually need dietary fat, and even favour saturated fat. So, this gives us a license to stuff our faces with all those fatty foods we dream of, right? Fat is fat? Well… sorry, but not quite. Let’s take a look at three different types of fats; saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, and how they can affect our bodies.

Saturated fats are found in foods like meat, fish, yoghurt, butter, cheese, cream, coconut and some other nuts, for example. They’re the fats that become solid at room temperature. At a very basic level of understanding, saturated fats are made up of carbon atoms that are joined to each other with single bonds. Each of these carbon atoms connects with two hydrogen atoms. This makes them saturated with hydrogen, which is why they are called saturated fats. Saturated fats are stable, and unchanged when exposed to heat.

Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like extra virgin olive oil. Like saturated fats, monounsaturated fats have single carbon bonds, but they also have one double bond. The carbon atoms with single bonds have two hydrogen atoms connected to them, but the carbon atom with the double bond has only one hydrogen. So, monounsaturated fats are missing one hydrogen atom, meaning they are not saturated with hydrogen (mono = one, and unsaturated = not saturated with hydrogen). We can call monounsaturated fats semi-stable; they are unchanged on low heats, but change (and become rancid, or oxidated) when exposed to high heats.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in most seed and nut oils, vegetable oils, margarine, and almost all processed foods. Polyunsaturated fats have multiple (two or more) double-bonded carbon atoms, each of which joins with only one hydrogen atom. Again, this means that polyunsaturated fats are missing multiple hydrogen atoms, so are not saturated with hydrogen (poly = many, and unsaturated = not saturated with hydrogen). These fats are unstable, and become rancid (or oxidated) when exposed to even low heats. So, do not use them for cooking (or better, not at all).

So there you go, a very basic run down on the chemical makeup of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. But why does this matter? How do they affect our precious bodies? Basically, we do not want highly reactive fats cruising around in our bodies. Particularly when oxygen is the very thing they are reactive with; something that we humans need a lot of, to, you know…. breathe. This means a big tick for saturated fats. Their hydrogen saturation means they are non-reactive with oxygen. Monounsaturated fats are okay too; just don’t heat them up too high. But polyunsaturated fats… they are extremely reactive with oxygen, which can cause a lot of damage to the body’s cells and to our natural cell reproduction processes. This interruption can lead to a lot of problems. In one of my absolute favourite books, Eat Real Food, David Gillespie explains (in a very readable manner) seven main ways that polyunsaturated fats can hurt your body. It causes cancer, contributes (with its good friend fructose) to heart disease, causes blindness, causes Parkinson’s disease, causes autoimmune diseases, gives you osteoporosis and causes allergies and asthma. He also explains a handful of ways in which it can harm your unborn baby, but we won’t go into that.

Yes, our bodies do need some polyunsaturated fat (or Omega 3 and 6), but only an extremely minimal amount… and more than that can be harmful. We need to eat it, as our bodies cannot produce it. The good news is, we will easily consume enough of it if we are eating real foods. The bad news is that almost all packaged foods now use polyunsaturated fats in favour of saturated and monounsaturated fats. It is cheap for ‘food’ (if you can call it that) producers to use. The food industry and significant health associations have been drumming it into us to avoid saturated fats and instead eat seed oils, vegetable oils, and margarine, because it is healthier and it will help prevent disease. I’m really not too sure why, and quite frankly it seems they can’t back it up either; at least not with science. Of course I have a little inkling that it is profit driven, and they really don’t have our health in mind at all.

So when you are choosing your fats at the supermarket, choose virgin olive oils, avocado oils, macadamia oils, full fat butters, unrefined coconut oils, and even animal fats like lard and tallow. They are not going to cause all of that oxidation at a cellular level. The solid ones are going to be better for cooking (because they are more stable), and the liquid ones may be better for drizzling on salads etc. Do not choose (most) nut and seed oils, or fake ‘low fat’ products like margarine. Canola oil, cottonseed oil, vegetable oil of any sort, sesame oil, soybean oil are all out of the question if you care about your health. The cheap ones, basically. If you think about it, it would have been very difficult to extract large amounts of oils from many of those products. It is just not meant to be. Saturated fats naturally occur in their sources in higher quantities, which means we are probably meant to eat them in higher quantities. sense? If it all gets too confusing, then eating real food is a simple and cost effective solution.

A little message at the end: These blog posts are simply to help me process my own learning. I have no medical, health-science-y background… although I am studying towards a diploma of nutritional science, and I do my best to consult reliable research. If you see any info that doesn’t quite look right, then great! Comment away with your thoughts, because I would love to know more.

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