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In recent years, we’ve begun making peace with fat. Gone are the days of skim milk, margarine, “egg whites only,” and counting grams of fat. But if healthy fats exist, what are they, and how do you ensure you’re making wise choices at the grocery stores? More often than not, only saturated fat and trans-fat are listed on the Nutrition Facts labels. Does that really tell you all you need to know about the fat content of that food? Certainly not. There’s more to health than watching your saturated and trans-fat intake. Here’s what you need to know about healthy fats.  

Why Worry About Fat in The First Place?  

Dietary fats began to be demonized in the 1960s after scientist Ancel Keys launched his Seven Countries Study (SCS) to investigate the associations between diet, other risk factors, and coronary heart disease. [1] The SCS showed that serum cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking increase the risk of heart disease. It also found an association between dietary patterns and heart disease. The result was that the Mediterranean Diet emerged as the recommended diet for avoiding cardiovascular disease.  

However, while polyunsaturated fats like those in olive oil and nuts were praised to some extent, saturated fats were blamed as the cause of heart disease, obesity, and poor health in general. The belief was that eating saturated fats caused cholesterol to build up in the arteries, causing blockages and leading to heart attacks and strokes.  

This “lipid hypothesis” was reinforced by a cholesterol study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1965: “Quantitative effects of dietary fat on serum cholesterol in man.” Here’s a summary of the study: [2] 

Researchers -who used fats and oils supplied by Proctor & Gamble and milk and ice cream supplied by the Hood Milk Company- developed something that would come to be known as the Hegsted equation, which predicts the relationship between fats in the diet and serum cholesterol. They tested these fats and oils by incorporating them into “waffles, muffins, cakes, cookies, pie crust, biscuits, salad dressings, and spreads for bread”; their focus of concern was fats in the diet and serum cholesterol.  

Researchers tested the effects of eating fats by incorporating them into high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods. When cholesterol levels went up, they concluded that the fats and oils – not the white flour and sugar in the foods – caused the increase in cholesterol. Since then, Americans have been advised to avoid fats, especially the saturated variety.  

As they were frightened away from fats, people began trading their bacon, eggs, and butter for turkey bacon, egg whites, and margarine. Did cardiovascular disease go down? Nope. It’s still the leading cause of death in the United States, followed closely by cancer. [3] While researchers have now admitted there are benefits of eating good fats, the American Heart Association (AHA) still recommends limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories. [4] 

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats 

The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is how structurally sound they are –which goes back to how firmly the molecules are bonded together. Saturated fats are more stable than unsaturated fats, which means they hold up better and are less vulnerable to the damaging effects of heat, light, and air. Saturated fats like butter and coconut oil are usually solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats like olive oil and flax oil remain liquid. [5] 

Because saturated fats are less likely to be damaged by heat than unsaturated fats, they are better for cooking. When unsaturated fats are cooked at high temperatures, they can oxidize or break down. Eating these damaged fats can create inflammation in the body – not good! 

Saturated Fats 

Saturated fats tend to get a bad rap when it comes to health. We’re told not to eat them because they raise LDL or “bad cholesterol.” In some instances, LDL cholesterol can build up within the walls of the blood vessels creating what’s known as plaque. This narrowing of the blood vessels can slow blood flow in the arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.  

However, experts don’t agree on what causes this plaque buildup. Research is divided on whether saturated fats lead to heart disease and strokes. Many studies say it does, pointing out that LDL cholesterol influences inflammation pathways. [6][7] However, plenty of studies have also concluded that elevated LDL doesn’t lead to heart disease and stroke. [8][9][10]  

What’s really going on? Why does LDL appear to be clogging the arteries? Well, there are different particle sizes. There are big, fluffy LDLs, and small, dense LDLs. There are also VLDLs – very low-density lipoproteins. This means that they are packed with fat. It’s the VLDLs and small, dense LDLs that can get into the epithelial lining of the arteries. 

But to say that LDL accumulation creates the problem isn’t true! If not for LDL, you couldn’t even heal a cut finger. For regeneration to happen, your liver has to put out more LDL to carry fat to that area for healing. Your body doesn’t make mistakes. That plaque is a healing response to the damage in the blood vessel walls. It needs LDL for blood vessel healing and many other functions and processes, including:  

  • Steroid hormone formation  
  • Immune system support  
  • Wound healing  
  • Fighting infections  
  • Supporting the brain and memory  

And those are just a few! After the fat carried by LDL is dropped off, what happens? Now it’s become more of an HDL cholesterol, promoting excretion through the liver. 

Saturated fats also increase your HDL “good” cholesterol, and your body needs both LDL and HDL. While the small, dense LDL particles contribute to plaquing and gunk in the arteries, it’s the HDL’s job to clear it out. Other things HDL does in the body include: 

  • Fueling the body 
  • Supporting cell growth 
  • Protecting organs 
  • Promoting nutrient absorption 
  • Supporting hormone production 
  • Fighting inflammation 

 What you want is healthy amounts of HDL as well as large, fluffy LDL cholesterol that easily bounces through the blood vessels. Then there’s no need to worry about your health – your body is working just as it should! Learn more by watching the webinar “Cholesterol: Medicine’s Biggest Scapegoat,” with Dr. Stephen Lemmons. 

Unsaturated Fats (Mono- and Poly-) 

While saturated fats tend to get the blame, unsaturated fats often get all the praise, as they are the star players in the Mediterranean diet, found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, and fish.  

Monounsaturated fats are fats with one double bond holding them together, hence, “mono.” Polyunsaturated fats have more than two; hence, “poly.” [11] Monounsaturated fats have a lower viscosity and melt at lower temperatures. Polyunsaturated fats have a higher viscosity and melting point. [12 

The body can produce monounsaturated fats but cannot produce polyunsaturated fats – you only get them from the foods you eat. They’re referred to as essential fatty acids because it’s essential that you get them through your diet. 

Polyunsaturated fats can be further categorized into omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s. We know omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and good for the body. Omega-6s also have their role in health, but balance is key.  

What are Healthy Fats?   

When seeking out healthy fats, the first thing to consider is whether they occur naturally in food or are man-made. Saturated fats occur naturally in animal products like butter, cheese, and eggs but are also in coconuts. Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados and olives, for example, and polyunsaturated fats are in most plant foods as well as fish and seafood.  

Trans-fats only occur in trace amounts in nature. Most trans-fats in our diets today are synthesized in a lab from unsaturated fats. You’ll find them listed as partially hydrogenated oils, like “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.” Partially hydrogenated oils are no longer allowed in food manufacturing as of 2018, but fully hydrogenated oils are. The goal of adding hydrogen to oils is to turn liquid unsaturated fats into solids, like saturated fats. It makes them more shelf stable and less likely to go rancid. A good starting rule of thumb is to avoid all man-made fats. [13] 

Scientists have also tampered with unsaturated fats in their processing. What we might call “industrial seed oils,” like soybean oil, “vegetable oil,” canola (rapeseed) oil, and grapeseed oil, tend to be contaminated with solvents like hexane. [14] You can learn more about the dangers of these oils through the Weston A. Price Foundation’s website.  

Your Shopping List for Healthy Fats 

If you’re working on stocking your pantry with healthy fats, here’s what you’ll want to look for:  

Saturated Fats 

It’s important to note that diet matters even for animals! What they eat impacts the quality and composition of their fat. Grass-fed beef will have a higher amount of anti-inflammatory fatty acids, including omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in its fats. [15][16] It also has more antioxidants like vitamin A and vitamin E. 

The following are good sources of saturated fat:  

  • Red meat: beef, bison, lamb, and especially Doc’s favorite: organ meats!  
  • Beef tallow 
  • Poultry, especially the thighs and skin 
  • Dairy products – Full-fat dairy products like grass-fed butter or ghee, whole milk, goat milk, sheep’s milk, cheese 
  • Eggs (Pastured, organic) 
  • Tropical oils: coconut oil and palm oil 
  • Cacao: Dark chocolate and cocoa butter 

These foods can still be unhealthy, depending on how they’re processed or prepared. Charring grass-fed red meat and homogenizing milk can damage even saturated fats, doing more harm than good. Fried foods, even when fried in coconut or palm oil, can still promote inflammation in the cardiovascular system, leading to damage and disease. All fats and oil have their limit of the heat they can hold up to. Cooking “low and slow” with water is still best. 

Monounsaturated Fats 

Monounsaturated fats are primarily found in plant foods but also make up 50% of the fatty acids in lard, believe it or not.  

  • Extra virgin olive oil and olives 
  • Macadamia nuts and oil 
  • Almonds 
  • Cashews 
  • Pork – bacon fat, lard 
  • Avocados and avocado oil 

The main thing to remember with unsaturated fats is to ensure they haven’t gone rancid. Look for nuts in foil-lined containers or in some way protected from light as well as oxygen. 

Polyunsaturated: Omega-3s 

Having a good balance of omega-3s and omega-6s is vital for keeping inflammation in check. [17] Marine sources (fish) are best, but you can also get some omega-3s from certain nuts and seeds. Omega-3s are also vulnerable to oxidation, so make sure you’re getting them from fresh sources and don’t cook them at high temperatures. The following are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. 

  • Cold water-sourced oily fish (mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies) and fish oil 
  • Walnuts 
  • Flax seeds and oil 
  • Chia seeds 
  • Sesame seeds and oil 
  • Hemp seeds 
  • Perilla oil – find at an Asian grocery store. 
  • Certain seaweeds like wakame 

As a bonus, omega-3s also lower triglyceride levels – a cardiovascular marker more concerning than total cholesterol levels. [18] Again, omega-3 fatty acids are easily destroyed by heat, light, and air, so store these foods in a cool, dark place.   

Polyunsaturated: Omega-6s   

Omega-6 fatty acids are everywhere in the Standard American Diet (SAD), including snack foods and fast foods, so they can easily dominate our fat intake. While they aren’t evil, per se, they can easily become oxidized and damaged, or they can make up too much of our diets. The “SAD” tends to supply omega-6s to omega-3s at a 30 to 1 ratio. We should ideally be aiming for a 1 to 1 ratio. Here are some healthier sources of omega-6s: 

  • Sesame oil (also a common allergen) 
  • Sunflower seeds 
  • Hemp seeds (have both omega-3s and omega-6s) 
  • Pumpkin seeds 
  • Walnuts (have both omega-3s and omega-6s) 
  • Peanut butter and peanut oil (be aware peanuts are known for harboring mold) 

You want to stay away from omega-6-rich processed industrial seed oils like rapeseed (canola), cottonseed, soy, and corn. These oils also usually come from genetically engineered crops. If you focus on fresh vegetables, pastured and organic meats, and healthy fats, you’ll automatically lower your intake of omega-6s. Then add some fatty fish and walnuts, and you’re well on your way to a healthier omega-3/omega-6 balance.  

Start Somewhere and Get Inflammation Under Control 

If you have inflammatory fats and oils in your cupboard, don’t think twice – Throw out the Crisco, “vegetable” oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and butter substitutes like margarine. Inflammation is the greatest contributor to all chronic illnesses and dis-ease. Unfortunately, healthy food can also create inflammation if you’ve developed an allergy to them. To get your food allergies and underlying imbalances tested, contact a Wellness Way clinic today!  

References

  1. The Seven Countries Study – The first epidemiological nutrition study, since 1958 
  2. Quantitative effects of dietary fat on serum cholesterol in man. (cabdirect.org) 
  3. Heart Disease Facts | cdc.gov 
  4. Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association | Circulation (ahajournals.org) 
  5. Dietary fat: Know which to choose: Mayo Clinic 
  6. Dietary fat intake and risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in a population at high risk of cardiovascular disease: PubMed 
  7. Saturated fats and cardiovascular health: Current evidence and controversies: PubMed 
  8. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: Annals of Internal Medicine 
  9. Dietary saturated fat and heart disease: a narrative review: NIH 
  10. Saturated Fat Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Ischemic Stroke: A Science Update: PubMed 
  11. Polyunsaturated vs. Monounsaturated Fat (verywellhealth.com) 
  12. What’s the Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fat, and What Are Trans Fats? (weizmann.ac.il) 
  13. Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat) | FDA 
  14. Alternative Bio-Based Solvents for Extraction of Fat and Oils: Solubility Prediction, Global Yield, Extraction Kinetics, Chemical Composition and Cost of Manufacturing – PMC (nih.gov) 
  15. Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  16. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  17. Randomized Controlled Trial of Omega-3 and -6 Fatty Acid Supplementation to Reduce Inflammatory Markers in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder | SpringerLink 
  18. ω-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiometabolic Health: Current Evidence, Controversies, and Research Gaps – ScienceDirect 

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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