We managed to survive the fat-free days of the 90s. Here is why – and how – to embrace a fat-eating future.
Consumers have spent more than four decades in a soap opera where one hero nutrient can switch into the villain nutrient from season to season. The first episode starred fat as the bad guy.
Table of Contents
1. The Fight Against Fat
In 1961, a battle against fat quietly started. The American Heart Association began recommending a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The science for avoiding fat was young, but the low-fat theory’s popularity would soon outpace the science.
The battle escalated into a full war in 1977. The Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs – originally formed to solve malnutrition in the country – switched their focus to solving the link between diet and chronic disease.
During two days of testimony, the committee learned of a possible link between coronary heart disease and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Cultures with plant-based diets showed lower rates of chronic disease. The committee published these findings in the Dietary Goals for the United States. This document issued a set of dietary guidelines including recommendations to cut back on red meat and dairy products.
When the United States government tells its citizens to avoid specific products, businesses get mad. When those same businesses fund congressional elections, elected representatives get nervous.
Diary farmers and ranchers pushed back on the recommendation to consume less of their products. The Senators quickly produced a new and “improved” draft. This version didn’t suggest spending less on something. This version suggested spending more on the “right” things. Reducing red meat and dairy was replaced with “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
A new political strategy was created in the rewrite. A subtle shift towards identifying and demonizing an isolated nutrient allowed the government to make nutrition recommendations without compromising business interest. Politicians rejoiced. They discovered a way to serve both their constituents and their pocketbooks. Unfortunately, the shift away from whole-food advice towards isolated nutrients would unravel into a world of consumer confusion.
Consumers have spent more than four decades in a soap opera where one hero nutrient can switch into the villain nutrient from season to season. The first episode starred fat as the bad guy.
2. Making Friends With Fats
I grew up in the peak of fat-free eating. My childhood pantry was stocked with snacks compromising flavor for zero fat labels. To this day, I have fat-free P-T-S-D.
I know dietary fat is essential. I know fat forms our cell membranes, and fat is involved in our hormone production and regulation. I know our brains and nervous system are made with fat. Important vitamins like A, D, E and K are absorbed and transported through our bodies with fat.
I know we can’t live without eating fat.
But I still feel like I’m getting away with something naughty when I add more oil or grass-fed butter to my food.
My guilt doesn’t make sense. The fat-free theory from the sixties did not age well. Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the facts in an article titled “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review.”
“It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences,” according to the article. A vast majority of studies have failed at trying to prove an association between eating saturated fat or dietary cholesterol and a risk of heart disease. Half of people with heart attacks don’t even have high cholesterol.
Scientific opinion is now embracing fats. This is good news for chefs. Fat is damn tasty. I’m happy science is cool with it, but to fix my fat guilt, I wanted a better understanding of why fat is essential to our health.
(pssst…if you want to skip the nerdy stuff, click here and jump to fats in our food.)
3. Forms of Fat
Fat is a broad term. There are specific types of fats made with different combinations of fatty acid chains.
Let’s start with a simple fatty acid. Fatty acids are made of carbon and hydrogen elements joined together in a chain. The chain is anchored with a methyl group on one end and a carboxyl group on the other.
Hydrogen atoms can bond to the hydrocarbon chain. As more hydrogen atoms bond to the chain, the fatty acid becomes more saturated. Saturated fat is a fatty acid chain with hydrogen joining all the available spots on the chain. If each hydrocarbon is a parking spot, the parking lot is full in saturated fat. This is why saturated fat is so dense and usually solid at room temperature.
If some of the carbon elements in the chain are joined together – instead of bonding with a hydrogen atom – this makes an unsaturated fat.
A fatty acid with one double bonded carbon is called a monounsaturated fatty acid. A fatty acid with more than one double bonded carbon is called a polyunsaturated fatty acid.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are two of the most popular polyunsaturated fatty acids. You can see the difference in their chemical structure based on where the double bonds occur on the chain. Omega-3 contains a double bond on the third carbon from the methyl carbon end.
Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature. This explains how omega-3 fatty acids can act like a natural antifreeze for cold water fish. The unsaturated fatty acids prevent the fish’s cells from stiffening up.
These fatty acid chains can also link together to form triglycerides. When three fatty acids bond with a glycerol – which is a sugar alcohol – a triglyceride is made. Triglycerides can be made from any combination of saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids. Triglycerides are the major form of fat found in our body and diet.
Most fatty acids can be produced in the body by breaking down triglycerides. There are two exceptions to this rule: Linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). When you hear discussions of essential fatty acids, these are the fatty acids being discussed. Eating these fatty acids is essential since we can’t produce them.
4. How Fat Works
When we eat fats, our small intestine breaks down the triglycerides. The glycerol is removed and sent to the bloodstream for energy production. The fatty acids travel through the intestinal membrane and are repackaged into chylomicrons.
Chylomicrons are big lipoproteins that carry around cholesterol and triglycerides. In their new chylomicron package, the fatty acids will slowly enter circulation by way of the lymphatic system.
Once fatty acids are circulating in our blood stream, they can be used for energy inside our cells or stored in adipose tissue or skeletal muscles.
Fat In Your Blood
The process of breaking down and circulating fat takes several hours. Part of the reason this process takes so long is that fat doesn’t like water. Fat is hydrophobic. Fats need little boats to swim around in our blood stream. These boats are called lipoproteins. There are over a dozen types and sub-types of lipoproteins, but the two most doctors pay attention to are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
LDL carries cholesterol to all cells in the body. There are two types of LDL worth monitoring. If large buoyant LDL are circulating in your blood, it’s a sign of good health. If small dense LDL are circulating, this is an indication of poor health. The more LDLs circulating in your body the more risk for plaque formation on arteries and damage to the cardiovascular system.
HDL is responsible for reverse cholesterol transport – which is bringing excess fat and cholesterol from body cells back to the liver. This is why HDL is praised as the heart healthy lipoprotein. The more cholesterol in your HDL particles suggests your body is working to return cholesterol back to your liver and protect you from heart disease risk.
Cholesterol counts need to distinguish between where the cholesterol is riding through your system. The Total Cholesterol to HDL Cholesterol ratio helps you understand where the cholesterol is going in your body. The current recommended optimal ratio is 3.5:1 (or lower) in men and 3.4:1 in women.
Most blood panels are also measuring Lipoprotein(a) (LpA). LpA is monitored because of an association between high LpA and cardiovascular disease. Scientists are still working on LpA’s specific role in our health. LpA levels seem to be genetically determined, but some nutrients may lower LpA – like Vitamin B3 and L-carnitine.
5. Eating And Supplementing Fats
Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient in our diet. Yet eating fats don’t make you fat, but eating too many calories can make you fat. Keep that in mind when you are adding fats to your diet.
Also remember that food is more than the sum of its nutrients. Food contains bioactive components that can change how genes are expressed. In terms of fatty acids, omega-3 is an interesting example. Studies suggest the omega-3 fatty acid DHA may signal genes in the brain to produce a chemical for preserving brain function with age.
When we do think about the fats in our food, we want to mostly reach for plant-based whole-food sources of fats. Cold-water fish – like sustainably sourced cod or salmon – are also good sources of fats. Occasionally, if you’re craving a burger, choose grass-fed free-range beef from a rotational grazing ranch.
The leading nutrition experts believe the best way to support a healthy diet is by consuming more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats are more common in plants with the exception of avocados and coconuts. By eating mostly plant-based foods, you are consuming mostly unsaturated fats. Fish are also lower in saturated fats, but unlike plant-based foods, fish offer more of the essential omega-3 fatty acid EPA.
Saturated fat is still a little controversial, but our body can benefit from some saturated fatty acids, like stearic acid found in cocoa butter and beef.
The only fat you need to actively still avoid is partially hydrogenated trans-fatty acids also known as “trans fats.” Fortunately, the FDA recognized the problem in 2015 and is calling for them to be phased out of food. The easy way to avoid these trans fats is by eating whole foods like nature intended. Most trans fats sneak into our diet from industrial processing.
What are some sources of fat in the Plant-First Diet®?
I’m so glad you asked.
Nuts & Seeds
Remember, how fat is calorically dense? This caloric density made nuts and seeds a great source of energy for our ancestors. Looking for nuts and seeds on the ground is a lot less labor intensive than hunting down an animal. Nuts and seeds often fueled our winter months. In addition to calories, nuts and seeds offer essential fatty acids we can’t produce like omega-3.
Oils & Nut Butters
Oils and nut butters are a little tricky. Oils – like olive oil – are delicious and easy to add to food, but they are made from pressing the fats out of seeds. This means oils become even more calorically dense. A thumb-size of oil is usually about 100 calories. The calories in an oil-based salad dressing can add up quickly, so drizzle a little less than you think you need. Nutter butters can also be a great snack, but they run into a similar situation with calories. These are awesome foods. You just need to pay attention to the quantity.
Avocados & Coconuts
Avocados and coconuts are unique sources of plant-based fats. Avocados are dense with fat. More than 75% of the calories are from fats – mostly monounsaturated fats. Coconuts are higher in saturated fats, but again, saturated fat can offer health benefits. You don’t need to eliminate ‘cados and coconuts. You could even argue the benefits of fiber they contain make them a better source of saturated fats than animal foods. Just eat them wisely.
Eggs are a fascinating source of fat. They are often attacked for being high in saturated fat, but the truth is that eggs contain more unsaturated fat than saturated fat. Most eggs are 39% saturated fat, 43% monounsaturated fat and 18% polyunsaturated fat.
What about taking essential fatty acid supplements like Omega-3 Fish Oil or DHA?
This is a great question too. I’m so glad you asked.
“Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in epidemiological and clinical trials to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease,”American Heart Association | 2002
Supplements should supplement your diet. It’s always better to focus on finding the nutrient in your foods first, but when this is difficult to do, supplements can help support a complete diet. The same rules apply to essential fatty acids. If you don’t like the taste of fish or your diet is high in grains and processed foods – which is the case for most western diets – you may want to consider an omega-3 supplement.
Before we talk about how to choose the right omega-3 supplement, we need to understand why essential fatty acids, like omega-3 fats, are essential to our diet.
All About Omega-3
We’ve referenced omega-3 fats a few times so far. Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fats. The most studied omega-3 fats are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
ALA is common above ground in plant sources like flax, chia and hemp seeds. DHA and EPA are found in the ocean. DHA is found in algae. Fish consume DHA in the algae and also produce EPA. Our bodies are not efficient at converting ALA into DHA or EPA – which is another reason why we may want to supplement.
The membranes of our cells are fat based. Omega-3 fats help keep these membranes healthy. When our cell membranes are in the best shape to function, our cells can do their job better. Brain cells can transmit messages more easily. Muscle cells respond better to nutrients. Cells in our nervous and cardiovascular (heart) systems can work better. The benefits go across many areas of the body.
Immune System & Inflammation
Omega-6 is the other essential fatty acid in our diet. The three main omega-6 fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA). We consume most of these omega-6 fatty acids from grains like soy and corn (Think about how many processed foods are made with soy and corn. Yikes!) or from farm-raised beef and fish.
One of the reasons omega-6 is an essential fatty acid is because of the way it balances the omega-3 fats we consume.
Remember the bioactive quality of nutrients? Both omega-3 and omega-6 have a bioactive influence on the production of eicosanoids. Our cells send signals with eicosanoids molecules to regulate immunity and inflammation processes. This is how omega-3 and omega-6 play a role in our immune system.
Omega-3 fats tend to increase the production of eicosanoids for sending anti-inflammatory signals. These are signals like dilating (opening) blood vessels, preventing blood coagulation and clumping, decreasing pain and dilating our airway.
On the other hand, omega-6 fats tend to increase the production of eicosanoids for promoting inflammation. These are signals like constricting blood vessels, causing blood clotting, increasing pain and constricting our air way.
Inflammation gets attacked a lot in the media, but inflammation is actually good. Inflammation is how our injuries heal. We need inflammation to occur to get better, but once we’re healed, we need the inflammation to go away. Chronic inflammation is actually the problem. When the inflammation doesn’t go away, we run into issues.
Our genes may also play a role in omega-6 fats ability to produce proinflammatory eicosanoids. Some ethnicities – particularly African ancestry – may absorb more of the omega-6 AA. This could potentially lead to more of an inflammatory response from eating this omega-6 fat, and eventually lead to higher rates of chronic inflammation and associated diseases.
The balancing act between omega-3 and omega-6 helps the body respond to an ailment, recover and return to normal. The problem is we are eating more and more processed foods, refined oils and farm-raised meats. Our diets are growing higher and higher in omega-6 fats. Scientists believe our ancestors consumed a diverse diet that contained a 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Today, scientists estimate the ratio is as high as 20:1 in the Standard American Diet.
The best way to maintain a healthy ratio in your diet to avoid processed foods, refined oils and farm-raised meats. If you’re not capable of that, this is another reason omega-3 supplements might be a good fit for you.
Now that the importance of optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is clear. How do you choose the right omega-3 supplement?
Here is what I look for in an omega-3 supplement.
The first fundamental question is where do you want to source your omega-3 fats. You can choose a plant-based route with an algal oil base, or you can choose a non-plant-based route with a fish oil. There are pros and cons to each choice.
Plant-Based Omega-3 Supplement
Plant-based omega-3 supplements will bring you straight to the source of omega-3 fats: algae. The majority of plant-based omega-3 supplements are primarily made of algal oil and some may incorporate oils from nuts or seeds as well.
Since higher concentrations of EPA are found in fish, plant-based omega-3 supplements will contain mostly the omega-3 DHA. Some people consider this a limitation, but DHA is a critical omega-3 – especially for promoting brain health.
Plant-based omega-3 supplements also avoid the nasty fish taste and smell common in most fish oil supplements. You also don’t have to worry about the environmental impact of how the fish were caught.
Plant-based omega-3 supplements are a great choice for DHA, often taste better and are often a better value than fish oil. The recommended advice is between 300 mg and 1 g of plant-based omega-3 oil a day.
Fish Oil Omega-3 Supplement
Fish oil is the third most popular supplement in the world. Based on the clinical success of omega-3 fish oil, the FDA approved a pharmaceutical-grade version (VASCAZEN®) for doctors to treat cardiovascular disease. It’s one of the only supplements that is also offered as a prescription drug. Cannabidiol – a.k.a. CBD – could be next.
Fish oil provides DHA and EPA, but not all fish oils are equal.
One of the primary complaints about fish oil is the fishy smell and taste. A lot of supplement brands started putting the oil into capsules to mask this issue, but even the capsules can be a bad experience. Fishy burps are very common.
When you’re looking for fish oil, you need to pay attention to the fishy smell and taste. You do not want a fishy supplement. The unpleasant taste and smell are an indication of a change in the oil’s chemistry.
We explained how the chemical structure of polyunsaturated fatty acids is different from saturated fatty acids. The hydrocarbon parking lot is full in saturated fats. In polyunsaturated fats, there are some parking spaces open where the double-bonded carbons occur. These open parking spaces make polyunsaturated fats less stable.
If fish oil is exposed to too much oxygen for too long, oxygen will park in these spots. Chemists call this type of parking lot “oxidized polyunsaturated fat.” The big problem here is that oxidized polyunsaturated fatty acids behave differently in the body. They do the opposite of what you want them to do. Oxidized polyunsaturated fatty acids promote oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
The fish oil that doctors are prescribing is tested for oxidization, but the majority of supplements are not. This is why fishy-smelling fish oil is a bad choice. Make sure the fish oil smells and tastes clean. The best fish oil will be made from cold-water fish with a careful production process to limit oxygen exposure. Poor quality fish oil will press anchovies and carelessly ship around the oil until it’s in packaged into capsules or a bottle.
When it comes to fish oil, your nose knows. The recommended advice is between 3 g to 5g of fish oil a day – with some recommendations as high as 10g.
Could I go on about fatty acids? Probably not. I think this captures everything I need to know. Thanks for going on this nerdy adventure in fatty acids with me. My fat-eating guilt is gone. I’ll now go on enjoying my fats with this knowledge of how it helps my health. I’ll just choose my sources wisely with smaller portions. Thanks for reading to the end. (Hi, Mom!)
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Resources & Further Reading
- Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009.
- Fung, Jason. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Greystone Books, 2016.
- Berardi, John. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition: Certification Manual. Precision Nutrition, Inc., 2017.
- Reavley, Nicola. The New Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements & Herbs. M. Evans and Co., 1999.
- de Bus, Ian, et al. “The Role of n-3 PUFA-Derived Fatty Acid Derivatives and Their Oxygenated Metabolites in the Modulation of Inflammation.” Prostaglandins & Other Lipid Mediators, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31260750.
- Irún, Pilar, et al. “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Bioactive Metabolites in Gastrointestinal Malignancies Related to Unresolved Inflammation. A Review.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, Frontiers Media S.A., 2 Aug. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31427966.
- Zhong, Shanshan, et al. “An Update on Lipid Oxidation and Inflammation in Cardiovascular Diseases.” Free Radical Biology & Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Nov. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30946962.