Fat. Everyone seems to want to lose it, and yet it’s truly essential to our well-being. Healthy fat and dietary oil protects your organs, produces important hormones, supports cell growth, and provides your body with energy. So what exactly is it? We’ve heavily researched the topic and will attempt to ELI5 (explain like I’m 5 years old).
Fat is a molecule, like carbohydrate or protein. But unlike those other two macronutrients, fat has no taste or texture. Fatty acids are the smallest building blocks of fat. They’re made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that form chains of various lengths. Scientists have determined there are “essential fatty acids” (EFAs). Unlike essential oils, which are the “essence of” a particular plant, EFAs are truly essential.
Let’s break down healthy and harmful fats so we can determine what to leave on the market shelf.
Monounsaturated fats contain omega-9 essential fatty acids (EFAs)
The healthiest of fats come from eating whole foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, and olives. These foods are high in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), like oleic acid, which help lower cholesterol levels. While our bodies can create these from other fats, dietary monounsaturated fats play a role in reducing inflammation and cardiovascular disease risk factors like high blood pressure.
There are plenty foods to get your daily dose of healthy fat. Here are a few:
-Tahini (toasted sesame butter)
-Seeds (flax, chia, hemp)
-Nuts (macadamia, almonds, walnuts)
-Bottled oils (…but which ones?)
Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-6 and omega-3 EFA
An ideal diet includes dietary fat of equal parts omega-6 and omega-3. This is largely unachievable for most people’s preferences, which all but requires us to avoid oils altogether, so many doctors reduce that target to 2:1 or 3:1. Instead of focusing on eliminating omega-6 by avoiding affordable oils, you can up your omega-3s through flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. (These have been shown to boost mental health and contribute to healthy weight loss.)
DHA and EPA are important omega-3 fatty acids for brain health. These are found abundantly in the marine plant, algae, and less concentrated in some seeds and fish. It is a widely debated topic for how much our bodies can convert other fats to DHA/EPA and just how healthy (or unhealthy) they are, so if you want to go down that rabbit-hole, all the power to you! However, Pub Med, a widely respected source on health, concludes “the overall effect on blood lipids for marine omega-3 EPA and DHA seems to be protective due to overall improvements in LDL particle size and density”. So, if nothing else, supplementing with algae oil is good for cardiovascular health.
Cold-pressed canola oil—free of hexane—is another great way to get healthy fats into your diet. It contains vitamin E, which helps protect against damage from free radicals; it also helps regulate your metabolism so you burn more calories throughout the day! Canola oil has a 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, and a cold pressed version does not use the harmful solvent hexane to separate oil out of the seed.
Saturated fats are not created equally
Maybe you’ve heard that saturated fat is the worst kind of fat.
But here’s the thing: it’s not as simple as that. Fat is something we all need to stay healthy. It helps us absorb vitamins and minerals and keeps us satiated. Unfortunately, fat has gotten a bad rap over the years for the types of saturated fat in animal products. But there are many types of healthy saturated fats you can enjoy without guilt!
Virgin and refined coconut oils contain the highest amount of saturated fats of common oils, which is why they are solid at room temperature, but cholesterol levels tell the whole story. Healthline offers a great breakdown of how normal amounts of coconut oil consumption do not correlate with increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad cholesterol. While they admit more human research is needed, a negative effect to LDL is apparent from consuming animal fats. The point is, saturated fats are complex and our bodies treat them differently depending on the source.
The American Heart Association recommends getting just 5-6 percent of daily calories from saturated fats; too many and the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood will skyrocket. They don’t, however, separate the forms of saturated fats. Still, you can easily keep within this range by avoiding dairy products and instead consuming normal amounts of coconut oils.
Trans fat is not a healthy fat
Trans fats, which are prevalent in processed foods like meat, dairy, and hydrogenated vegetables oils, can contribute to a number of significant health problems including stroke and heart disease. The best way to avoid trans fats is to follow a plant-based diet free of hydrogenated oils. This will also lower your risk of developing diabetes and cancer.
Most countries have banned the production of artificial trans fats. In 2022, these would be hard to find available on their own. Prior, they were common in margarine and vegetable shortening. Trans fats are not, however, gone. They are prevalent in animal fats such as meat and dairy and in processed foods such as KRAFT Peanut Butter. If you’re already in the habit of reading nutrition labels and ingredients, be sure to look for “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” and steer clear!
Some individuals have deduced that our bodies can fight these trans fats in small amounts, so all is well. Even if that were true, the limit to what our bodies can fight is undetermined and a health-focused diet avoids harmful food whenever possible.
The eli5 healthy fat is actually quite simple
A healthy fat is one that is found naturally in whole food sources. This means that it is not chemically altered, and it’s not something you can find in a lab. For oils, the less processing the better. A cold pressed or extra virgin option means less processing.
If you still aren’t sure which oils are good for you, choose unsaturated:
1) Monounsaturated fats: found in olive oil, avocado oil, cold-pressed canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, algae oil, and nut butters (like peanut butter). These fats can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
2) Polyunsaturated fats: found in flax oil or walnuts (both of which are high in omega-3 fatty acids). These fats have been shown to reduce inflammation throughout your body, which helps decrease pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.
When it comes to choosing your fats, eat them! Opt for those that come from whole food sources rather than oil. Our bodies prefer fats from whole foods. For nuts and seeds, the body uses what is needed and does not store the extra fat!