What Fats Do, and Why You Should Eat More!

Fats have a bad name, but why?

Dr. Ancel Keys was an American scientist who studied the impact of diet on health. Dr. Keys’ study, “The Seven Countries Study,” showed a strong statistical relationship between fat consumed and incidence of cardio-vascular disease in the United States and 6 other countries in Europe. The American Heart Association as a result made a public service announcement encouraging the American people to avoid eating fats. It was later discovered that the study originally included 22 countries, not only 7, and that Keys had thrown out the conflicting results. In other words, his hypothesis did not hold water in the remaining 15 countries originally studied. However, the damage was done, and ever since, the American public has been convinced that a diet high in vegetable oils and grains and low in fat was the only way to avoid heart disease. In the following article, we will describe what fats actually do, how they serve our bodies, and how you can develop a healthy relationship with fat that works for your body.

What does fat actually do?

-          Building block for cell membranes.

-          Main composition for our brains, nerves, and reproductive hormones.

-          Key contributor to strong memory.

-          Key source of energy.

-          Stabilizes insulin and glucose metabolism.

-          Prevents us from overeating. It is physically impossible to overeat fat. Sugar and carbs, yes, but not fat.

What happens without fat?

-          Without the right ratios of each type of fat, or without enough fat, there are serious health implications.

What kinds of fats are there?

Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

What do those names mean?

This is a bit of biochemistry. It is important to understand what makes each type of fat different.  They indicate how many, if any, double bonds exist in a given fat. Chemically, all fats are triglycerides, meaning they contain a glycerol and any of several different kinds of fatty acids. Therefore, the fats are differentiated by the fatty acids which they are made from. Fatty acids are composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Long chains of carbon and hydrogen raise the melting point of the fat, and also yield greater energy per molecule when metabolized. Saturated fat means that every carbon in the chain has a hydrogen pair. Unsaturated fats contain double bonds within the carbon chain, meaning the carbons bond to each other, rather than a hydrogen atom. Polyunsaturated fats are triglycerides in which the fatty acid chains contain more than a single carbon-carbon bond.

Saturated fats and unsaturated fats differ in melting point and energy yield. Unsaturated fats provide less energy because they have fewer carbon-hydrogen bonds. Saturated fats can stack themselves neatly because of the carbon-hydrogen pairing, and therefore freeze more easily. This is why at room temperature saturated fats tend to remain solid, while unsaturated fats are liquid.

3 Characteristics of Fat

1.Inert and stable: Solid at room temperature. For example, coconut oil, which is a short-chain saturated fat that rarely becomes rancid, even if exposed to air for years and years.

2. Liquid and easily oxidized: Linseed oil, a polyunsaturated fat, goes bad quickly.

3. The middle of the pack: Monounsaturated fats fall somewhere in the middle between saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats in terms of how quickly they go bad, and how inert they are at room temperature.

What Fats do What?

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats have suffered a pretty terrible reputation the past few years. In fact, they were singled out as the cause of cardio-vascular disease (CVD). Researchers have even linked them to things from cancer to neuro-degeneration to other autoimmune disorders. The truth is that saturated fats are actually quite helpful when consumed within reason. If we make sure to keep our saturated fat and carbohydrate intake within the levels consumed by our ancestors, it is unlikely that you will develop CVD.

-          Lauric Acid. Found in coconut, palm oil, and human breast milk. Boasts antiviral properties including fighting against HIV and chicken pox. It also helps heal the gut.

-          Palmitic Acid. Found in palm oil, beef, eggs, milk, poultry, and seafood, among other animal products. Palmitic Acid helps to optimize cognitive function by helping us to make new memories and store the old. However, among the saturated fats, Palmitic does actually pose the greatest risk for CVD.

-          Stearic Acid. Found in meat, eggs, and chocolate. Stearic Acid helps to decrease systemic inflammation. 

Monounsaturated Fats

Though there are many monounsaturated fats, the only that is important to discuss for the purposes of this paper is oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats were the primary fat in our ancestral diet, so eating plenty of it will help us to enhance physical performance.

-          Oleic Acid. Found in plant sources such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and even some grass-fed meat. Boosts insulin sensitivity, improves glucagon response, and decreases cholesterol levels. 

Polyunsaturated Fats

These fats could be called “the essential fats,” since we absolutely cannot make them and must get them from our diet. Without them, our bodies suffer. Our current lack of sufficient polyunsaturated fat represents one of the worst consequences of our heavily processed modern diet. We will look at two subfamilies of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) called omega-3 (abbreviated as n-3) and omega-6 (abbreviated as n-6). In general, n-3/n-6 are good for us, and found in grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish. However, n-3/n-6’s can be unhealthy when eaten out-of-balance. For example, our ancestors ate 1:1 ratios of n-3 to n-6. Our ratios of consumption today are around 1:10. Why? We eat way too much corn, soy, safflower, and vegetable oils, the source of much of our n-6 fats. This imbalance is the cause of many health-related issues.

1. Omega-3 (n-3)

-          Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA). Found in flax, hemp, and other plant sources. It supports enhanced performance, health, and longevity, but doesn’t deliver the nutritional punch that other n-3’s do.

-          Eicosapentaenoci Acid (EPA). Found in fish oil and human breast milk. EPA is a strong anti-inflammatory, helps to thin the blood, and blocks the growth of new blood vessels thereby preventing the spread of cancer. EPA is really good for us!

-          Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). Found in cold-water oceanic fish, this fat is critical for fetal brain development and cognitive function throughout our lives. Low levels of DHA are detrimental both for the unborn fetus, and the mother. With low DHA levels, women more frequently suffer preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and postpartum depression. DHA also boasts antitumor and anti-inflammatory capabilities. 

2. Omega-6 (n-6)

-          Linoleic Acid (LA). Found in vegetable oils such as safflower and sunflower. LA can actually cause inflammation and block the inflammatory powers of n-3 fats such as EPA and DHA. It’s not very good for us!

-          Gamma Linolenic Acid. Found in borage, primrose, and hemp oils. GLA can act as an anti-inflammatory agent.

-          Dihomo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid. DGLA is made in the body by the elongation of GLA, and very rarely traces of it are found in animal products. DGLA regulates the production of several molecular messengers that support immune function, increase inflammation, and monitor the body’s experience of pain.

-          Arachidonic Acid (AA). Found predominantly in animal products, AA regulates metabolic functions and is critical for our adaptation to exercise, muscle repair, and general brain function. AA is vital to life, but can lead to excessive inflammation if over-consumed.

Fats that we should never, ever eat.

-          Trans fat. Found in nothing our ancestors ate, ever. In fact, they’ve only existed for about 50 years. Exposing polyunsaturated fats to hydrogen gas creates trans fats, which look and act similar to saturated fats. However, trans fats have some serious flaws. They destroy liver function, ruin blood lipids, and undo our insulin sensitivity. Thankfully, trans fats are being phased out. Now even the FDA is calling for an eventual ban. 

Eat Fat: How Much, What Type, and How You’ll Feel

Now that we’ve described most of the fats we encounter in our lives at great length, we will discuss how to eat it and what the effects on your body will be.

1. How much?

While some medical practitioners have staked their careers on telling people to eat as little of fat as possible, it seems that fat intake actually has little bearing on health, disease, and even weight! The best course of action is to find what works for you through experimentation or discussing with an appropriate health practitioner.

2. What type?

-          Saturated fat is no longer the big bad wolf ready to blow down your house, or blow out your heart. The ancestral diet included 10-15% of calories from saturated fats, unless the population lived in areas near coconut, in which case the population may have eaten up to 40% of its’ calories from saturated fats such as Lauric Acid.

-          Our ancestors also tended to avoid eating much Palmitic Acid, which is a huge indicator in increasing LDL cholesterol.

-          Balanced n-3:n-6 ratios. Since omega-3’s tend to decrease inflammation and omega-6’s increase it, the fact that our ancestors ate about an equal amount of both meant that our bodies remained in balance. Our current diet skews heavily in favor of consuming omega-6’s, leading to increased inflammation throughout the body. To balance this out, eat grass-fed and wild-caught fish, and supplement with fish oil. Try to avoid most seed and grain oils, as well.

-          Coconut Oil improves heart health, boosts metabolism, promote weight loss, supports the immune system and even helps our skin look young when applied topically!

3. How will I feel and look?

Eating good, healthy fats suited to your bodies needs will help you lose fat, gain muscle, and feel amazing.

Please call 734-726-0153 to schedule a free consultation and evaluation. At Digestive Health Ann Arbor we are known for providing professional and compassionate care. We strive to guide people towards a comprehensive and holistic healing strategy. Restoring your body to health will restore the quality of your life.