Discover Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Butter is bad, eggs are bad, and most of all, red meat is bad. Most of us grew up being told that we should steer clear of such foods. High in saturated fat, they were certain to clog your arteries, cause heart disease, and maybe even take your life! It’s no wonder that so many people still ascribe to the low-fat craze that swept the nation for the last half-century. However, we are here to tell you that saturated fat is NOT the enemy. In fact, it can be your friend! 

Fats: why we need them   

While fats often get a bad rap, they are essential to a healthy diet. Like protein and carbohydrates, fat is a nutrient your body needs for optimal health. In addition, fat is a vital source of energy, providing the most energy of the three macronutrients. One gram of fat supplies the body with nine calories, more than twice that supplied by proteins or carbs. 

Fat does much more than provide energy. It is a carrier of vitamins, and without fat, your body can’t absorb these vital nutrients. Fats also help protect organs, support cell growth, make hormones, and help maintain cell membranes. 

Fat is also very satiating, allowing us to feel full longer. So eliminating fat from the diet deprives the body of what it needs to function correctly. 

Fats made simple

Even for the most educated consumer, understanding the different kinds of dietary fats can be confusing. Not all fats are created equal, and understanding the difference guides our health choices. 

The difference between fats lies in their chemical structure. All fats are made of chains of carbon atoms. These carbon atoms bond to hydrogen atoms, determining the type of dietary fat. Fats are either saturated or unsaturated. 

Saturated fats lack double bonds between the carbon atoms, leaving room for them to be saturated with hydrogen atoms. On the other hand, Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond within the carbon chain. 

So, what does this mean for you? Some fats are more beneficial and heart-healthy than others. While most health practitioners break fats into “good” and “bad,” we know that nothing in life is that black-and-white. 

There is a spectrum of health associated with the consumption of fats. You can enjoy some fats freely, others in moderation, and you should avoid a few altogether. 

The (mostly) good fats

The carbon atoms in saturated fats are entirely covered with hydrogen atoms, hence the name “saturated.” These highly stable fats don’t spoil, even when heated. As a result, saturated fats stay solid at room temperature and exist in meat, cheese, milk, coconut oil, palm oil, and, to a lesser extent, chicken and eggs. 

The body loves saturated fat. Grass-fed beef, eggs, chicken, and coconut are examples of heart-healthy saturated fats. As long as they are organic, they can be enjoyed freely. 

Some fats are partially saturated. Plant-based monounsaturated fats have one unsaturated chemical bond. Liquid at room temperature, they are found in various nuts, avocados, olives, and oils. Most monosaturated fats are incredibly healthy for the body.

Polyunsaturated fats have more than one unsaturated bond, called a double bond. These essential fats must be obtained from foods, as the body can’t produce them. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, both polyunsaturated fats, are found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and some oils. 

The (mostly) bad fats

While many healthy foods are high in saturated fat, not all are good choices. Highly processed meats such as hot dogs, deli meat, and pepperoni should be left off your plate. Though dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter are high in saturated fats, they are inflammatory and should be avoided by most people. If you tolerate dairy well and choose to consume it, do so in moderation and always choose raw, organic products. 

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are praised for their health benefits for good reasons. Fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and seeds are some of the best additions to a diet. However, there’s one exception to this rule. Despite what the name implies, vegetable oils are anything but healthy.

Understanding vegetable oils

Vegetable oils, such as canola oil, are edible oils extracted from plants. Sounds great, right? Not so fast! First and foremost, most plants produced for oil production are non-organic and genetically modified. For example, the canola plant does not even exist in the wild. Instead, it is a rapeseed oil plant that big agricultural factories have genetically modified for cooking purposes. 

The second problem that arises with vegetable oils lies in the extraction process. A chemical solvent, typically hexane, is used to extract oil from the plant. It is then heated again and given a bath in multiple other chemicals to preserve color and taste. 

Vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acid, also called linoleic acid. While some omega-6 is good in our diets, such as from avocados or eggs, the excessive amount present in vegetable oils is unhealthy. Not only does it promote inflammation, but it also keeps the healthier omega-3s from doing their job. 

Finally, fats that are not fully saturated react to oxygen in the air and start deteriorating. Because fat is in our cell membranes, oxidized polyunsaturated fats can be harmful inside our bodies. Consumption of vegetable oils changes the actual structure within our cell membranes.

Consumers should stay away from vegetable oil, canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and safflower oil. 

The healthiest oils to eat or cook with include olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. Remember, always choose organic! Cooking with duck fat, pork lard, or beef tallow is also good. 

The absolute ugly fats 

Trans fats, or trans-fatty acids, are created in a factory by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them more solid and shelf-stable. Trans fats are responsible for the exact opposite of what we want with cholesterol. They raise dense/harmful low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and lower healthy high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Additionally, they create inflammation.

Consumption of trans-fats is linked with multiple diseases, including Alzheimer’s, depression, heart disease, and cancer, among many others. Trans-fats are so unhealthy that the FDA banned them effective July 18, 2018. 

However, foods containing less than 0.5 grams per serving are labeled as having 0 grams of trans fats. Since many people eat more than one serving, it’s safe to say that trans fats are still a danger. 

These “partially-hydrogenated” chemicals are in processed foods such as margarine, non-dairy creamers, cookies, pizza, and cake. 

But what about cholesterol?

You’ve probably been told that saturated fat will increase your cholesterol, which has an element of truth. Doctors often focus on total cholesterol levels, encouraging patients to decrease their cholesterol levels. However, total cholesterol is much less important than the ratio of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) to low-density lipoproteins (LDL). 

What might surprise you is that there are two kinds of LDL, and only one is bad for your health. There are larger fluffy particles and smaller, dense ones. It is these small and dense LDL particles that are dangerous and more apt to lodge into the arterial wall. Reducing saturated fat intake lowers the larger particles but does not eliminate the harmful ones. 

In fact, excess carbohydrates cause type A particles to become type B particles. Therefore, the best way to lower dense LDL particles is to eat a diet low in processed carbs. 

Does saturated fat cause heart attacks? 

The last few decades have shed light on the numerous factors contributing to heart disease. Multiple studies have examined the link between saturated fat intake and heart disease and found it weak, at best. 

A recent study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that whole-food saturated fats such as meat, dairy, and dark chocolate, don’t raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

For the study, scientists scoured results from hundreds of other studies. They concluded that there was no robust evidence that upper limits on saturated fat consumption prevent cardiac disease or reduce death rates. Conversely, they found that stroke risk might decline with increased saturated fat intake. 

Recently, researchers in Australia confirmed these findings in a study of their own. After following close to 10,000 women for 15 years, scientists concluded that higher levels of saturated fat intake did not cause cardiovascular disease. Rather, higher saturated fat intake resulted in a lower incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. 

What causes heart disease if it’s not saturated fat?

While it would be convenient to identify the actual cause of heart disease, there is no single identifying factor. More than likely, heart disease derives from multiple elements in our modern diet and lifestyle. 

The current American diet consists of excess sugars, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy trans fats. Our soil has become depleted of key minerals and, as such, our vegetables and fruits are no longer as reliable a source of essential nutrients as they once were. 

The deplorable factory-farming practices in our nation contribute to unwell animals who no longer contain the high levels of nutrients needed for health. Toxins invade our world, both through our food and the air we breathe. Humans no longer obtain the vitamin D and other benefits of regular exposure to the sun. Together, these factors create the perfect storm that leads to heart disease. 

Five reasons to eat more saturated fat 

Saturated fat is, well, saturated in health benefits. Fat is the vehicle that transports vitamins such as A, D, E, and K around the body. These fat-soluble vitamins, essential for the proper functioning of many systems, are best found in animal fats such as fatty cuts of beef, fish, and grass-fed butter. Saturated fat is also essential for:

Heart Health

Unlike most organs in the body, the heart prefers to burn fat for fuel. When given the option, the heart will always choose fat over carbohydrates. Therefore, having enough saturated fat in your diet keeps your heart happy. Further, saturated fats reduce Lp(a) in the body, a cholesterol-like molecule linked with heart disease. At the same time, saturated fat raises HDL, which is beneficial for the body. 

Brain Health 

The human brain is approximately 60 percent fat, so it should be no surprise that fat is good for the brain. A recent paper revealed that our early ancestors developed a taste for fat, even before they hunted for meat, as a means of growing their brains. Therefore, a diet low in healthy saturated fat may impact brain function. 

Weight loss

Intuitively, one could reason that eating fat causes weight gain. However, as evidenced by the keto and carnivore crazes, the opposite is actually true. Fat is incredibly satiating and allows the body to feel fuller longer, leaving you less likely to grab a high-carb snack. 

Strong immune system

Saturated fats are packed with natural immunity boosters, such as lauric acid and myristic acid. Also present in human breast milk, these fatty acids serve as natural antimicrobial and antiviral agents, warding off pathogens in the body. Interestingly, the composition of human breast milk is over 50 percent saturated fat. 

Proper hormone function 

Fatty acids and cholesterol are the precursors of hormones. Without saturated fat, it’s challenging for the body to have the tools to produce and balance hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, and Vitamin D. 

Next steps

We live in a world of perfection, and in an attempt to “get it right,” we often overcomplicate things. Humans have relied on saturated fats from animal products since the dawn of time. So instead of focusing on one type of macronutrient, it’s best to eat whole, traditional foods as our ancestors did. Stick to the 100 Year Heart Diet for a healthy, happy heart.

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 


Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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