“How can he be so skinny and yet so phat?”
Fat has become an obsession in North American society.
As a society, we revile fat people, we eat too much fat but profess adherence to low-fat diets, we say some fats are bad but others are good (and this designation changes regularly), and we buy products that are fake fat or supposed to absorb fat (or suck the fat out of our bodies… as if). Many people, especially women, fear and avoid all fat in hopes of staying slim.
In other words, we don’t have a clue about fat. There is so much confusion about fat that I could write 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Fatannica about it.
Consider this your helpful Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Fat Galaxy. And, just like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the words “DON’T PANIC” are written on the front.
I’d like to begin this article with some simple rules.
Rule #1: Most of the stuff you read about fat in the mainstream media is crap.
Rule #2: There are good fats and bad fats.
Rule #3: Your body needs fat — and probably more than you think — in order to achieve optimal health.
Rule #4: Thus low fat diets are not necessarily the best thing for health, gaining strength or losing body fat, especially if they are high in carbohydrates.
Rule #5: In fact, eating fat on purpose can help you be healthy, get strong… AND lose fat.
At this point you probably think I’m insane. I too thought the idea of deliberately ingesting fat (to lose bodyfat, of all things!) was cracked when I first heard it. But bear with me.
a glossary of terms
This is a fancy-pants word for something oil or fat-based.
Another fancy-pants word for a form of fat found in the body. You’ve probably heard this term in relation to heart disease, as in “Your blood triglycerides are elevated. Have you considered not chain-smoking those chocolate-dipped Jack Daniels cigarettes?”
Triglycerides are the storage and transport form of fat. Like an OCD child with a Lego set, your body is always assembling, dis-assembling, and re-assembling triglycerides (TGs) from fatty acids (FAs).
TGs are like suitcases. You use them to hold your stuff when you travel (in this case, around the body in the blood vessels); you open it up for customs inspection at the border or unpack when you arrive (you convert to fatty acids for transport across the cell membrane); but if you aren’t using some clothing in the suitcase, you might keep it in the suitcase (i.e. store it in the cells).
Look behind you. See your ass? That’s made up, in part, of cells stuffed full of TGs. Some of you are lighter travelers than others.
essential fatty acids (EFAs)
This term describes the two kinds of fatty acids that your body cannot manufacture on its own and must get from the diet.
“Essential” obviously refers to the fact that your body requires these substances. “Fatty acid” refers to composition of the fatty acid molecule: a fatty chain, which is a water-insoluble (think of how oil does not mix with water) chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms, attached to an acid group, which is also composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms (but looks more like a fork than a chain). Unlike the fatty acid part, the acid group does dissolve in water.
This mix of different dissolving aspects is one of the things which gives the fatty acid molecule its unique properties. Since fatty acids are such common molecules, they have to be assigned names to differentiate between the many kinds.
The two EFAs with which we are concerned are called omega-3 and omega-6, which refers to the unique configuration of the atoms in each molecule (you don’t really need to know about the ins and outs of molecular structure… all you need to know is the names of the two EFAs).
saturated and unsaturated fats
The next set of terms you need to know involve unsaturated and saturated fats. By and large (though there are exceptions, such as tropical oils), fats derived from plants (such as olive or sunflower oil) are unsaturated, and fats derived from animals (such as butter) are saturated.
Most fat sources are usually a mix of fat types. (More on this below.)
Unsaturated fats differ from saturated fats in terms of molecular shape/structure, physical aspects such as the degree of solidity at room temperature, and chemical properties such as reactivity to light, water, and oxygen. Unsaturated fats are quite chemically dynamic compared to saturated fats, which in chemical terms, are not terribly exciting.
For example, flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat and a source of EFAs, reacts to light, heat, and oxygen, and goes bad very quickly upon exposure to these things (it’s normally kept in the fridge or freezer in an opaque bottle for this reason).
In contrast, you can leave butter, a saturated fat, on the table at room temperature for a day and not have to worry about it going funky.
Saturated fats have no double bonds. They are immune to free radical attack. They are immune to heat damage. You can cook with them, you can hit them with a hammer, you can throw them on the floor and jump up and down on them. And they stay the same. Saturated fats are stable fats.
–Dr. Michael Eades, author of Protein Power
Unsaturated fats (such as olive or flax seed oil) tend to exist in liquid form as oils, while saturated fats (such as butter or lard) tend to exist in solid form. This has to do with their chemical structure, which also determines how stable they are.
There are several kinds of unsaturated fats, and the degree to which they are described as unsaturated refers to the number of hydrogens in the fatty acid chain part of the molecule. The more hydrogens there are, the more saturated the fat.
You may notice the word “hydrogenated” on the side of your margarine container, which means that hydrogen has been artificially added to the product to make it more like a saturated fat, i.e. nonreactive and solid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats are the closest to saturated fats (“mono”, meaning one, means that there is only one absent hydrogen). Polyunsaturated fats (which have more missing hydrogens than monounsaturated, since “poly” means many) are the next in line, and this term is generally used to refer to omega-6 fatty acids of the kind found in most vegetable oils. The term superunsaturated fats (which are also polyunsaturated, but to a much greater degree; they have very few hydrogens in the chain) is used to designate omega-3 fatty acids, and to differentiate them from omega-6s.
trans-fatty acids (TFAs)
You may have heard a lot about these lately. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are arranged in a shape rather like a caterpillar with a kink in it, as the molecule sort of bends around the missing hydrogens. The more hydrogens that are missing, the greater the degree of bend. This is a naturally occurring shape, and desirable for its interaction with our cells.
TFAs are not shaped like this. The naturally occurring kink has been straightened out, usually through artificial hydrogenation (like in the case of the margarine) and/or cooking.
Because of the altered shape of the molecule, TFAs can cause problems at the cellular level. The cells cannot interact properly with the TFA molecule, and this has a variety of negative effects, particularly in terms of cardiovascular disease.
Recently, nutritional scientists have suggested strongly that there are no safe levels of TFA ingestion. This is a very dramatic statement.
However, trace amounts of TFAs occur naturally in food. The evidence suggests that our body can handle these just fine, since we evolved along with our food sources over milennia. But we can’t handle the TFAs that are artificially created.
As I mentioned, food sources of fat are actually a mix of fatty acid types. F’rinstance, we might think of butter as being 100% saturated fat. But in fact, its fat composition is only about two-thirds saturated fat types. Just over a quarter is monounsaturated. And there are small amounts of trans fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats. (Butter also contains traces of protein and water.)
fat soluble vitamins
Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are vitamins that can’t dissolve in water. They must be transported to us and stored in fat, and if our dietary fat intake is too low, we risk serious vitamin deficiencies.
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you’re a fat-head.
It’s true — your brain is mostly lipid-based. As is much of your nervous system. As are pretty much all your cell membranes. As are many of your hormones. As is a whole lot of other important stuff that you need.
Extreme fat restriction can thus cause things like:
- cognitive problems: thinking, feeling, memory, etc.
- emotional and psychological problems: depression, anxiety, moodiness, etc.
- hormonal problems: suppression of ovulation, lowered libido, decreased anabolic (growing and building) hormones, etc.
- dry skin and hair
- low energy levels, fatigue
- increased hunger and reduced satiety (fullness)
And while it sounds surprising, extreme fat restriction can actually contribute to cardiovascular disease. Yes, ultra low fat can make heart disease worse.
good vs bad fats
It’s important to distinguish between good fats and bad fats. You should aim to get most of your fat intake from a balance of:
- omega-3 fatty acids
- naturally occurring monounsaturated fats
- naturally occurring saturated fats
You should avoid:
- artificially created trans fats
- artificially created, highly processed oils such as sunflower, canola, corn, and safflower
- artificially created oil products like cooking sprays and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (they should call that crap I Can’t Believe This Gets Sold As Food)
- excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids
vegetable oils: the “heart-healthy” scam
Now you’re reading this and thinking, “But what about all those ‘heart-healthy’ cooking oils? Wasn’t I supposed to eat vegetable oils and avoid bacon?”
Well, sure, you were supposed to do that in order to help Big Food Industry sleep on a big pile of cash every night, content in the knowledge that it’s disposed of cheap GMO corn and soy plus other agricultural waste products.
But no, according to Mother Nature and hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, you were NOT supposed to consume vegetable oils, especially not vegetable oils that have to be artificially created. You were also NOT supposed to avoid saturated fat.
The creation of vegetable oils involves a long industrial process. It involves solvents such as hexane — also used for things like gasoline, industrial glues, roofing, and industrial cleaning. Here is a description from a document that outlines occupational health practices in the production of vegetable oils:
The oils and fats are extracted from a variety of fruits, seeds, and nuts. The preparation of raw materials includes husking, cleaning, crushing, and conditioning. The extraction processes are generally mechanical (boiling for fruits, pressing for seeds and nuts) or involve the use of solvent such as hexane. After boiling, the liquid oil is skimmed; after pressing, the oil is filtered; and after solvent extraction, the crude oil is separated and the solvent is evaporated and recovered. Residues are conditioned (for example, dried) and are reprocessed to yield by-products such as animal feed. Crude oil refining includes degumming [with phosphoric acid], neutralization, bleaching, deodorization, and further refining.
--From World Bank Group Environmental, Health, and Safety Guidelines, “Vegetable Oil Processing”
Ummm… bleaching? Deodorizing? Yes, because it looks and smells like shit. These safety guidelines, by the way, include guidance on solvent inhalation and the production of sludge ponds. That’s right: sludge ponds.
The cruellest irony of course is that after all that work, vegetable oils can be actively harmful to human health. They are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which we do need, but in much smaller amounts. O-6s are involved in inflammation.
how to consume good fats
where do I find good fats?
Start by thinking like a cavewoman. How did Grok get her fats? Well, she got them from:
- fish, shellfish, and other marine sources such as algae, seaweed, and things that live around water (e.g. turtles)
- snails and bugs (yep, and people still eat them, too)
- wild-feeding animals, not animals fattened on industrially produced grain
- consuming all parts of animals, not just a nice tidy prepackaged chicken breast: brain, liver, eyeballs, organs, skin, etc.
- breast milk (as a baby); animal milk
- nuts and seeds
In other words:
Animal fat such as milk fat, organ meats or fatty cuts of meat (e.g. pork belly)
Nuts (e.g. macadamia, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds)
Olives (and thus olive oil)
Wild-feeding animals (e.g small mammals, game animals)
Notice something? Grains don’t appear here. Nor do vegetable oils.
We didn’t evolve to eat agricultural products, I’m afraid. We still have hunter-gatherer physiologies. (Evolution is kind of slow and lazy like that. It does stuff when it gets around to it, and it can be a bit of a procrastinator.)
Also notice something else: If you live like a cavewoman, the ratio of your omega-3 to omega-6 fats is something like 1:1. In our modern diets, it’s 1:20. We consume far too much omega-6s from vegetable oils.
What does this mean practically?
- Choose your fat sources from the table above, not fake or industrially produced fats
- Supplement with an omega-3 supplement if you don’t eat a lot of oily fish or wild-feeding game
- If you must fry things, either do it in butter (shock horror! believe it or not butter is a much more natural product than margarine, and much less harmful), coconut oil (which has unfairly gotten a bad rap), or oils such as olive oil, but you should try to minimize the amount of fried foods that you eat, as foods fried at high temperatures can develop potentially carcinogenic levels of acrylamides (try to roast, steam, or broil food instead).
If you don’t eat a lot of the omega-3 foods above you should consider supplementing. Since most folks really don’t live on oily fish and wild game, I suggest that everyone take an o-3 supplement.
Flax seeds were supposedly omega-3 nutritional powerhouses for a while. They’re high in the plant-based form of o-3, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which our body then converts into the o-3 form we actually use, either eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
But unfortunately, we don’t convert their form of omega-3s into the form our body actually uses (EPA/DHA) very well. Some folks even lack the enzyme to convert ALA at all. This means that taking flax oil does them no good.
EPA/DHA is best found in marine animal sources such as fish. If you’re a vegetarian looking for omega-3 sources, opt for an algae-based supplement instead of a plant-based one if possible. If you’re OK with eating krill (very tiny shrimpy-plankton-sorta critters), there is also a krill-based omega-3 oil available.
- When taking EFA supplements you want to get the proper ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, which is about 1:1. If you must err on one side, err on the side of getting more omega-3s.
- For most people I recommend 2-3 teaspoons of liquid omega-3 oil daily.
- Also, a teaspoon of extra-virgin coconut oil (not refined coconut oil) is often helpful.
Liquid fish oil sounds disgusting but there are some nice-tasting brands out there such as Nutra Sea, which also has thyme and rosemary oil and tastes like lemon. You can also mix it into a smoothie or protein shake, blend it into a vinaigrette, or put it over vegetables.
EFA oils should be kept refrigerated. Don’t buy them if they’re just sitting on a shelf. You cannot cook with them (although you can apply them to warm food after cooking). Buy small quantities and consume them soon after opening. There are EFA supplements sold in capsules, but if you do the math, you have to eat a huge quantity of capsules to get the same dose as 2-3 tsp of liquid oil.
If you are watching your calories, you do not need to worry about EFAs being deposited as fat. The body is actually much more likely to store carbohydrates, especially simple sugars, as fat, than EFAs, because EFAs are so fundamentally important to metabolic activities.
Run, don’t walk to your local bookstore or library, or head over to the website and pick up a copy of Udo Erasmus’ Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. This is one of the best books on nutrition and health that I have ever read.
Erasmus has a PhD in nutrition and this is cutting-edge research on fats and their importance for health and fitness. He tested his book content on 14-18 year olds before he published it, so that he was able to produce something readable yet highly informative. I’ve never actually read a book that made me interested in biochemistry before!
This book is extremely comprehensive and includes information on basic biochem, the structure of fatty acids, their place in our diet and in healing, the procedures of oil processing and manufacture (this part will make you want to run screaming through the grocery store and light all the margarine on fire), the adjunct effects of sugar, carbohydrates and protein, and fat’s role in treating and/or causing degenerative diseases. I highly recommend it for everyone.
Another one is Mary Enig’s Know Your Fats.
The Hyperlipid Blog features the adventures of a scientist eating an 80% fat diet.