Anyone feel confused about which fats are healthy and which ones aren’t? Or whether eating fats or oils makes you gain weight? Or whether they’ll give you high cholesterol? Which ones should you cook with and which ones shouldn’t be heated?
About the only thing I could have told you for sure, before really delving into this, was that Omega-3 oil was good for you. But what about Omega-6? Is that bad for you? What’s Omega-9? How about Saturated fats – are they good for you or bad? What about EPA, DHA, ALA, CLA and GLA? What are those?
This article is going to explain it all in the simplest and easiest-to-follow manner. At the end, I will sum up some easy take-aways that can help establish some clarity on the matter.
So Much Conflicting Information!
There is a LOT of conflicting data out there regarding healthy fats and unhealthy fats. It’s hard to know what’s good for us and what isn’t.
Many years ago, in the late 70s and early 80s, there was a massive media and marketing frenzy about how eating fat was the cause of weight gain. “Low-Fat” and “Non-Fat” started appearing on labels throughout the grocery store aisles. Fats and oils got a bad wrap with years of marketing that “Fat made you fat” and “low fat was healthy and the way to lose weight”. Meanwhile, the removal of fat from foods made them less tasty, so the great “solution” was to add more sugar and flavor enhancers to improve their appeal, making matters even worse. During this time margarine was marketed as “so much healthier than butter”. Now today, we find it is completely the opposite!
Currently, the latest craze seems to be the Ketogenic (or “Keto”) Diet, which focuses on eating high amounts of fats and very low or zero carbs. Is this even healthy? Are all fats created equal?
The American Heart Association dietary guidelines are vastly different from the Keto diet so I’d say the whole topic has become pretty darn hard to figure out who or what to believe.
So, to say the least, there has been a lot of conflicting information on the subject. To better understand which fats are healthy, it’s important to see how fats have changed over the years and to also look at actual research and studies to see what they show vs. opinions and marketing ploys. My hope is that by sharing this information, you will have a more accurate understanding of what’s healthy, what’s not, and why.
There are four main types of fat – Saturated, Polyunsaturated, Monounsaturated, and Trans fats. They all contain 9 calories per gram. Each of these fats contain some Omega-3, 6 and 9 fats, but their make-up varies as to how much of each.
Good fats are a necessary part of our diet and provide many nutrients that give us energy. They also help us to absorb vitamins and minerals. (Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat soluble). Additionally, they play a key role in protecting our cells and nerves by keeping the outer membranes flexible and strong. Every organ in our bodies, including the brain, need the energy that fat provides. Muscle movement, blood clotting, and the inflammation process also require fat in order to function correctly.
However, all fats are not created equally. Here are some basic facts to make understanding the different types of fats a bit easier.
Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats
Fats mostly break down into 2 basic categories – Saturated and Unsaturated. Unsaturated fats have a different chemical structure in that they contain one or more double bonds. Mono-[meaning one]-Unsaturated Fats contain one double bond and Poly-[many or multiple]-Unsaturated Fats contain more than one double bond. This is really just chemical structure jargon. One thing that makes it easier to tell the difference between Saturated and Unsaturated is that saturated fats are fairly solid at room temperature; unsaturated fats are liquid.
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as beef, fish, poultry, pork, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, coconut oil, etc. There have been some differing opinions about whether saturated fats are heart-healthy or not, however, numerous actual studies indicate that they are healthy.
Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in plant-based foods and oils and have always been shown to be a healthy fat and can even help to reduce and prevent cardiovascular disease. These types of fatty acids are found in olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil and sesame oil, along with foods such as vegetables, whole grains, avocados, nuts, and legumes. Monounsaturated fats have many benefits and help decrease the risk of heart disease. They also benefit insulin levels and help keep blood sugar under control.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods and oils, including walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, salmon and some other fish, soybean oil. How healthy polyunsaturated fats are depends on their balance of Omega-6 fatty acids vs. Omega-3 fatty acids. More about this in the section below.
Trans fats or trans fatty acids are not naturally occurring but are created through an industrial process of adding hydrogen (referred to as hydrogenated) to a liquid vegetable oil (unsaturated oil which is liquid) to make it solid. This is done to create a fat that is solid at room temperature, has a long shelf life, is inexpensive and doesn’t spoil easily.
These man-made trans fats have been deemed so dangerous that the United States Government has banned them from being used in the processing of food. That ban went into effect in June of 2018 and the World Health Organization has developed a plan to ban them worldwide by year 2023.
The Omegas: Omega 3, 6 and 9
Here are some basic facts regarding Omega-3, 6 and 9 Fatty Acids. The first thing to understand is that most fats are a combination of Omega-3, 6 and 9, but the ratio of these varies greatly.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to be healthy and extremely beneficial.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy and anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 has been shown to have a preventative effect on cardiovascular health and can help keep triglycerides in check and inflammation levels low. Omega-3 improves mood and mental health and helps prevent dementia. It also vital for weight loss, proven to decrease waist size and fat in your liver. It also improves bone density.
- Omega-3s are found in cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed. Animal fats such as beef are also an excellent source of Omega-3 provided they have been grass-fed. The rule of thumb to remember here is that we are what we eat. If animals or fish are farm-raised and fed diets high in grains and corns, their meat is not going to contain Omega-3, but more Omega-6. If they are raised mindfully and allowed to consume what Mother Nature designed them to, they will be a healthy food for humans. Omega-3 is available to take in supplement form and many doctors recommend taking it on a daily basis.
- There are many types of Omega-3 fatty acids. The 3 most common ones are EPA, DHA and ALA.
- EPA (short for Eicosapentaenic Acid) produces chemicals called eicodanoids, which have been found to reduce depression and inflammation.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) is vital for proper brain development and function.
- ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) improves energy and metabolism.
The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 on a daily basis should be 1:1. In the U.S., the average American’s ratio is more like 16:1. In other words, we are consuming 16 Omega-6 fatty acids to every 1 Omega-3, and this is NOT healthy.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding whether or not Omega-6 fatty acids are healthy. In fact, many reports say that they are actually harmful. To be clear, Omega-6 fatty acids are healthy in their natural form and when kept in proper balance with Imega-3 on a 1 to 1 ratio.
While Omega 6 fatty acids are found in poultry, eggs, whole-grain breads, meats, vegetables, seeds, and nuts, they are also found in most processed vegetable oils and most of the population gets the majority of their Omega-6 from these oils.
There are some Omega-6 fatty acids, such as GLA (Gamma-Linolenic Acid), which has been found to reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), which has been shown to reduce body fat.
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats. Olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts and Safflower oil are high in Omega 9.
The most common Omega-9 fatty acid is Oleic Acid.
Omega-9 fatty acids are not considered essential as they can be produced by the body, whereas Omega-3 and 6 must be gotten through diet and supplements.
Various studies have found that Omega-9s improve insulin sensitivity, decrease inflammation and improve bad cholesterol.
A Brief History of Fat
To better explain some of the controversy surrounding what constitutes a healthy fat, let’s first take a look at how fat has evolved, especially in the last century.
In the beginning, our ancestors ate a lot of saturated fats. Before a cold winter set in, most cultures would hunt large game and stock up so that they could sustain themselves during the cold months. They also consumed unsaturated fats in the form of fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. They were hunters and gatherers and lived off of the land. It is important to note that NONE of the fat that they consumed was commercially or chemically altered; it was all natural.
When industry started booming and the population started getting bigger in the early twentieth century, the story of fat began to change. Scientists learned ways to chemically alter it (called hydrogenation) it so that it would have a longer shelf life and would remain solid at room temperature. Two popular products that were created in that era were Crisco shortening and margarine, and thus trans-fat was born.
Crisco, owned by Proctor and Gamble, came out of an idea that began with soap making. P&G was using cottonseed oil to make Ivory soap. The process by which this was made involved extracting the oil out of the seeds by using chemicals, called hydrogenation. Though it took many years, this morphed into a new product called Crisco. It was similar to lard but had no taste or smell. They focused their marketing on moms and gave away cookbooks (with Crisco recipes) with the purchase of their shortening.
Its advertising also focused on the health benefits, saying it was “all natural, all vegetable, and digestible” – making Crisco a household staple. Their marketing efforts were wildly successful, and in 1948, Crisco held a big radio contest and made a 17 million dollar donation to the American Heart Association.
In 1979, “vegetable oil” enters the scene. There are many different types of “vegetable” oils including Corn, safflower, sunflower, canola, and soybean. In fact, soybean oil is the most commercially used oil. Canola oil is commonly used in baked goods. It has been reported that the Bayer Corporation (makers of the aspirin) is the largest soybean oil producer in the world and that they have helped the American Heart Association to stay funded through donations.
Here’s what’s dangerous about vegetable-type oils though. It’s difficult to extract oil out of seeds and beans. To do so requires chemicals and heat which affects the safety of the Omega-6 fatty acids that these oils are made from.
Coincidently, our population started to gain weight, and heart disease, neurological disorders, autoimmune and others started to rise. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in America today and obesity and diabetes has reached epic highs.
The American Heart Association Guideline to Healthy Fats
Just about everyone learned about the “food pyramid” in school and has relied on organizations such as The American Heart Association to provide us with reliable and factual information regarding nutrition and health. What has come to light in recent years, is that some of this information has been misleading, especially when it comes to healthy fats.
I’m not a doctor and don’t purport to be a medical expert, however, I can confidently say that the reason I believe the AHA dietary recommendations are misleading is because there is no research supporting some of their claims regarding healthy and unhealthy fats.
The American Heart Association guidelines indicate that we should be eating more polyunsaturated Omega-6 fats (which vegetable type oils contain) and stay away from saturated fats, because “Omega-6 fatty acids are more heart-healthy”. They also state that saturated fats cause high cholesterol, which leads to coronary artery disease and cardiovascular disease. Nothing could be further than the truth.
There have been numerous studies done regarding the effects of saturated facts on cardiovascular health. For reasons that can only be speculated, these studies have been largely ignored or delayed by the American Heart Association and their guidelines have still not changed.
The National Institute of Health performed a very comprehensive analysis, utilizing 21 different studies that had been completed on saturated fats, involving nearly 350,000 subjects (people). The conclusion of this analysis was that: THERE IS NO SIGNIFICANT EVIDENCE THAT SATURATED FAT IS ASSOCIATED WITH ANY INCREASED HEALTH RISKS. To read this study, click HERE: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648
Vegetable Oils are Loaded with Omega-6 Fatty Acids so Why Aren’t They Healthy Fats?
Many “Vegetable” type oils contain high concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids which are a type of polyunsaturated fat so it would seem that they would be healthy. However, because of the way they are processed, they are not. Here’s why:
- They are easily oxidized and have a high rancidity factor. Some manufacturers use deodorant-type chemicals to mask this.
- Petroleum solvents and other chemicals such as Hexane are used to extract oil from their seeds or beans. Hexane is also a chemical used to make adhesives for leather, rubber and roofing.
- 95% of corn oil is made from genetically-modified seeds (GMOs) which have been shown to contribute to inflammation and increase body fat
- These oils are chemically unstable and prone to oxidation; oxidized oils are easily absorbed through the intestines which can damage arteries, lead to atherosclerosis, inflammation, and damage to our DNA
- Omega-6 fatty acids in this form change the way our bodies store fat and changes the cell membrane health
- These changes result in this type of fat staying in the body for long periods of time and they are difficult to eliminate
- Omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils are considered PRO-INFLAMMATORY
Canola oil, another commonly used oil, does not come from the “canola plant”. There is no such plant. The name is short for Canadian oil, as it was developed in Canada. It comes from genetically modified rapeseeds, which are exposed to high heat and a toxic solvent, hexane, used to extract the oil from the seeds. It is then deodorized to get rid of the bad smell. (See section below on vegetable oils).
Soybean oil (a polyunsaturated fat) is the most commercially used oil in the United States. Chances are that when you eat fried food from a restaurant that it has been fried in soybean oil. It is also found in many processed foods. Soybean oil is high in Omega-6 and has virtually no Omega-3, making it not a good choice. But, more to the point, it is unhealthy due to the way it is processed, using high heat and dangerous chemicals.
To read more about harmful oxidation of vegetable oils, click HERE: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1745-4506.2001.tb00028.x
To reduce your omega-6 intake, avoid processed seed and vegetable oils that are high in omega-6, as well as the processed foods that contain them. Vegetable oils that contain high concentration of Omega-6 fatty acids are: Sunflower oil, Corn oil, Soybean Oil, Cottonseed Oil and Canola Oil.
Flaxseed oil contains much more Omega-3 fatty acid than Omega-6, making it great for use in salad dressings or drizzled over vegetables. Do not cook with it as heat changes its chemical structure. For cooking and frying we recommend using coconut oil, butter, olive oil or avocado oil.
As I stated above, Omega-6 fatty acids are perfectly healthy in their natural form. It’s only when these foods are paired with dangerous chemicals to make oils that they become dangerous. Unfortunately, most people get almost of all of their Omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils.
The Truth is Out There
What is encouraging is that many physicians and health-related professionals have become more educated and vocal about what constitutes healthy fats. They are questioning the dietary guidelines presented by the AHA and reviewing the factual studies and coming up with their own conclusions and providing better education to their patients and the public about which fats are healthy to eat.
Dr. Ronald Hoffman is a respected, esteemed physician and researcher. He is also the host of the long-time syndicated radio show called, “Intelligent Medicine.” Dr. Hoffman wrote an article and hypothesized why he thinks the American Heart Association has not yet changed their guidelines about healthy fats, and the study that was completed by the National Institute of Health. Click HERE (https://drhoffman.com/article/american-heart-association-doubles-down-on-outmoded-saturated-fat-recommendations/) to read his full article.
Summary: Healthy Fats Versus Unhealthy Fats
Ok to Eat:
- Found in animal foods like beef, pork, poultry, fish, milk, butter, cheese, natural forms of lard and coconut oil.
- Coconut oil is good for use in frying and at high heats.
- Olive oil, avocado oil, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, most nuts, almond and peanut butter.
- Olive oil is a cold-pressed oil, and not “processed”.
- Rice Bran Oil is another good option, particularly for frying, as it maintains its integrity at high heats, better than olive oil.
- Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids including cold water fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and other meats (provided they are grass fed or raised in the wild).
- Consider taking an Omega-3 supplement for cardiovascular health.
- Natural forms of Omega-6 fatty acids including meats, poultry, vegetables, and nuts. Just try to keep your Omega-3 consumption high to keep the Omega-3 and 6 ratio in proper balance.
Not Ok to Eat:
- Trans fats in any quantity.
- Any vegetable type oil that has been processed such as corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, and canola oil. These oils contain petroleum-type products and are considered inflammatory foods. They also stay in your body for long periods of time and can change the way your body stores fat (leading to weight gain and other issues). These oils are used in many foods that are processed from cereal bars to cookies and crackers, so always check labels for ingredients before eating.
I realize that this ended up being pretty longwinded, but hopefully it will provide you with a better understanding and debunk some of the false and misleading ideas that have been promulgated over the years. Happy eating!