A Guide to FAT: Healthy Fats vs. Unhealthy Fats

Fat is a complicated subject. From body composition, to eating fats to cooking with fats to not fearing that eating fat will make you fat… it’s enough to make your head spin a little. And throw in all the science, it’s confusing. But contrary to the 1990s media craze: fat is not the enemy. However, choosing to eat and cook with the right kind of fat is super important. Why? Well, allow me to explain…

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Fats are a member of a group called lipids. Fats are organic molecules and dense sources of energy for the body – making up our cell membranes. They help fuel the cells in our body, keep us feeling satiated, help to maintain hormonal balance, help absorb other vitamins and provide protection for the body. They are also the primary energy source at low intensity exercise and a higher fat diet proves to be beneficial because the body becomes more efficient at burning fat for fuel while sparing glycogen (carbohydrate source).

Fats contain a backbone called glycerol and fatty acids are attached to that. There are two general ways to classify fatty acids: chain length and level of saturation. The “healthiness” of fats really comes down to their chemical structure and composition. I was never very good at chemistry but I will try to make this explanation short, simple and practical.

 

Classifying Fats: Chain Length

Chain length, means the number of carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain.

Short-chain fatty acids have less than 8 carbon atoms in their chain.

Medium-chain fatty acids have 8-12 carbon atoms in their chain.

Long-chain fatty acids have more than 12 carbon atoms in their chain.

 

Classifying Fats: Saturation

Saturation, refers to the level of density of hydrogen atoms on the fatty acid chain. This is based on how many carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen atoms.

Saturated fats have single bonds between carbon atoms, meaning a high density of hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between carbon atoms meaning the chain bends and hydrogen can’t get as close to each other. For each double bond, one hydrogen atom is lost from the backbone. The more bonds means less hydrogen atoms, which means a disorganized structure and less stable molecule. the more bent the molecule, the less stable the molecule. Unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature.

  • Monounsaturated fats contain one double bound
  • Polyunsaturated fats contain more than one double bond (less stable)

 

What Fats Should We Avoid?

There a few fats and oils that you want to avoid – because of their chemical instability, industrial processing and promotion of inflammation.

Because of their chemical structure, polyunsaturated fats are chemically unstable and highly susceptible to being altered and denatured by what’s around them. They expose our body to free radicals (molecules that attack our cells and cause oxidative stress on the body), which can lead to all sorts of health troubles.

Highly processed, industrial oils are a form of Franken-Food that go through chemical processing to reach our table. Fats that are hydrogenated are liquid oils chemically processed to be solid = a trans-fatty acid.

Unhealthy Fats

  • Canola oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Margarine (or other buttery spreads)

 

What Fats Should We Eat?

There are many delicious and wholesome fats that you should include in your diet. These sources will help keep you feeling satiated, help maintain hormonal balance, strengthen hair and nails and give you glowing skin.

Fats from whole, real, food sources are your best best. Choose naturally occurring, minimally processed options with a stable chemical structure, nutrient-dense and anti-inflammatory.

Healthy Fats

  • Extra virgin olive oil (and olives)
  • Avocado oil
  • Macadamia nut oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Grass-fed butter
  • Clarified butter or ghee
  • Animal fats (properly sourced – organic & grass-fed
  • Organic, pastured egg yolks
  • Wild fish
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

 

Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and Omega-6 are buzz nutrition words in food marketing campaigns but what are they exactly and how much do we actually need of each? For starters, omega-3 and omega-6 are both polyunsaturated “essential fats” that our bodies can’t produce and therefore we must obtain them from food. However, the issue relies in the ratio of consumption because when omega-6 is consumed in excess, it becomes problematic and can result in chronic inflammation.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are considered to be anti-inflammatory as they stimulate relaxation of blood vessel walls.

It is super important to eat omega-3 rich foods to help protect our organs (especially our heart) against disease.

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are sources of omega-3 found in animal products like fish, fish oil and cod liver oil.
  • ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is another source of omega-3 found in nuts and flax seeds.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids are considered inflammatory because they constrict the blood vessel walls.

We need some omega-6 fatty acids (inflammation helps protect against infections and trauma) but want to limit processed sources of omega-6 and maintain a 1:1 ratio between omega-3 and omega-6.

  • LA (linoleic acid) is a source of omega-6 most abundantly found in corn oil, canola oil, soy oil, margarine and shortening – we want to avoid these sources.

So, to summarize: Increase your intake of omega-3 fats (with fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, flax) and reduce your intake of processed omega-6 fats.

 

What Fats Should We Cook With?!

When choosing what fats or oils to cook with, we must consider their fatty acid composition—the more saturated they are, the more stable/less likely they are to be damaged or oxidized by heat. Fats also have a smoke point, which this tells us how hot is too hot before the fat becomes damaged. I recommend:

High heat cooking:

  • Coconut oil
  • Butter/ghee
  • Animal fats

Medium-low heat cooking:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Macadamia nut oil

 

Questions of the day…

Still confused about fat? Comment below with your question and I’ll answer it as soon as possible! 

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16 thoughts on “A Guide to FAT: Healthy Fats vs. Unhealthy Fats

  1. Great info! I still struggle with when to cook with olive oil versus coconut oil but I’ve pretty much switched over to coconut oil since I am usually cooking on high heat. Is there an oven temp limit that you know of for olive oil?

    1. I don’t know a maximum temp but the studies I read showed researchers heating olive oil for 36 hours at 350F – there was some degradation at that time but I doubt you are cooking things for 36 hours :) I’d say 350F is fine!

  2. Thank you for this article. I have been slowly making the move over to healthier fats. More coconut oil, avacados and nuts. I just LOVE coconut oil for baking, cooking, whatever. Something I noticed (that maybe you can explain!) is when I eat a meal that includes a healthy fat I always feel more full for longer. Do they just take longer to digest? Are they more filling because they have more calories? Thanks!

    1. Hi Rachel, glad to hear you are adding healthy fats to your diet and that it is having a positive effect! You are right that there are a few factors that contribute to feeling full for longer thanks to fat. The process of digestion of fats do take longer (there are manyyy steps) so that plays a role in promoting satiety (feeling full) because your body is working to break them down. Fats are also energy dense, meaning they do have more energy than carbs and protein. Fats also help to absorb other nutrients – specifically fat soluble vitamins. So all of these things contribute to fat making you feel full and awesome :) hope this helps!

    1. Not in my books! I eat sunflower butter. Butter and oil is a different form of processing and is not heated the same way to cause oxidation of the lipids.

  3. Amy, do you need to aim for a 1:1 omega6:3 ratio? Or is it better to eat as much omega 3 as possible so your ratio would be more omega 3 than 6?

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