How do you tell if a fat is a healthy fat or bad fat? There is a simple rule to keep in mind that you can use to determine whether a fat is good or bad. Its fail-safe and very easy to use. If a fat or oil has been made by man or tampered with by food manufacturers then it’s bad. If it’s coming straight from a natural source it’s a healthy fat. It doesn’t matter whether it’s saturated, unsaturated or from an animal or plant.
What turns a good fat bad?
Food manufacturers are the main culprits responsible for turning healthy fats and oils bad. It doesn’t matter how good it was to start off with, by the time a fat or oil has been through the refining processes that involve heating, deodorising and solvent extraction you’re left with a very unhealthy product. And these are the polyunsaturated oils that you’ve been told are the ‘good oils’, they’re not healthy fats by any stretch of the imagination.
Hopefully by now, you’ve been cured of the programming we have been subjected to all our lives that fat makes us fat. It doesn’t. Our reliance upon grains and refined carbs have has us fat. Remember the story about the farmer? To fatten his animal up before sale, he doesn’t feed it fat, he feeds it lots of grains. Notice that the expensive ‘grain fed’ steak in your butchers is marbled with fat all the way through the meat? Well grain fed humans have the same thing happening inside their body.
Low fat unfortunately still sells. I picked up a dozen eggs the other day that had 95% fat free on the carton! Food manufacturers know that if they emblazon their product with “Fat Free”, “Low Fat”, or “Light” and people will buy it. This simply fuels our fears that fat is bad, unhealthy and downright dangerous. Food manufacturers don’t care about the quality, in fact healthy fat and oils are not used as they go rancid very quickly. So any fat that a low fat product contains is likely to be very poor quality and unhealthy after being refined to within an inch of its life.
Now that you’ve a better understanding of what turns a good oil bad, it’s time to get a little more complex and technical. If you don’t understand, that’s OK. Unless you’ve studied organic chemistry understanding fats and oils can be hard work, that’s why it’s been so easy to hoodwink us into believing fats like saturated fat are bad when they’re not.
What are fats and oils?
The reason for delving deeper into the seemingly complex chemical structures of fats and oils is not to bore the pants off you or force you to leave this website, it is in fact to help you better understand terms like omega 3, polyunsaturated oils, saturated fats and cholesterol that are bandied about by people who sound like they know what they’re talking about. Because quite often they don’t. There’s a lot of myths and misinformation perpetuated about fats and oils by people who should know better.
When people talk about saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils what actually they’re referring to is the presence or absence of double bonds in their chemical structure and not whether it’s a healthy fat or not.
Fats and oils are not much more than a bunch of carbon molecules strung together surrounded by hydrogen molecules (if you want more detailed information than this, refer to an organic chemistry textbook). All you really need to know is that in some oils, some of the carbons are joined together with double bonds instead of a single bond. And these double bonds are very fragile and prone to break. As you can imagine, this is not a good thing and creates all sorts of problems inside your body.
Saturated Fat = no double bonds
Monounsaturated =1 double bond
Polyunsaturated = 2 or more double bonds
If double bonds are prone to breaking and broken double bonds are bad for your health what does that tell you about polyunsaturated oils with their multiple double bonds? They’re extremely fragile and easily damaged. Damaged oils are not a good source of healthy fat. In fact, frying oils with lots of double bonds produces things called trans fats which have had lots of media attention lately. Trans fats are as far from a healthy fat as you can get.
Trans fats are associated with
- Increased cancer
- Decreased fertility
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
- Interfere with immune function
- Interfere with essential fatty acid metabolism contributing to allergies and behavioural problems
Trans fats truly are bad fats.
Broken double bonds also cause other health problems by producing Free radicals.
Free radicals literally rust your body from the inside out.
Free radicals have a particular affinity for damaging your artery or blood vessel walls = Hello heart disease
Foods fried in supposedly healthy cholesterol free polyunsaturated oil are bad Bad BAD. And yet there are plenty of people out there still trying to tell you these oils are healthy and safe to cook with.
Polyunsaturated oils are also damaged by exposure to light and oxygen as well as heat. All those vegetable oils sitting in their clear plastic containers, shipped to the supermarket in the back of hot trucks and exposed to plenty of heat, light and oxygen while being extracted and refined, how healthy do you really think they are? About as healthy as a hangover. And yet so many people continue to promote them as healthy fats and oils, including heart associations around the world.
The problems associated with polyunsaturated oils are not a new aged airy fairy thing, it is simple, basic chemistry.
Don’t get me wrong, polyunsaturated oils aren’t all bad, but they need to be treated with kid gloves (which would cost manufacturers $$$) so are best eaten in their natural packaging as nuts and seeds. Fish oil, is a polyunsaturated oil that can be taken as a supplement. Therapeutic oils are treated very differently to food grade oils (well most are anyway so choose your fish oil carefully, a general rule is that you get what you pay for).
On the other hand, the much maligned saturated fat which has no double bonds is extremely stable is not turned into anything nasty when exposed to heat, light or oxygen. Despite everything you’ve been told, saturated fat is a healthy fat. If you’re going to fry anything, this is the oil to use.
Monounsaturated oils are somewhere in between. They’ll take a little bit of heat, light and oxygen and when they’re damaged, they don’t turn out quite as nasty as their polyunsaturated cousins. These oils are best suited to salad dressings and adding to food after cooking. They’re OK to cook with as long as the cooking temperature is low.
Which Oils Should I Be Using?
- Robust and Stable fats, perfect for frying or cooking
- Saturated: animal fats, lard, butter, eggs, coconut oil, palm oil
- Moderately stable oils, good for salad dressings and low temperature cooking. Don’t Fry with these oils. Hint: to stop the oils getting too hot while cooking, add some water or stock with the oil
- Monounsaturated: Olive oil, high-oleic sunflower
- Highly unstable oils, very easily damaged to produce trans fats and free radicals. Avoid these oils and instead consume them as part of whole foods in nuts and seeds.
- Polyunsaturated: Corn, soybean, sunflower, safflower.
- These oils are the baddest of the bad and should be avoided at all costs (an interesting point to note is that cholesterol can protect your body from some of the nasty effects of trans fats).
- Trans fats: margarine, vegetable shortenings used in commercially prepared cakes, biscuits, pastries, breads etc. Any product that has ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ vegetable oils listed on the label is loaded with this extremely nasty fat.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids (EFA’s), are exactly are their name suggests essential for health and wellbeing. They’re called essential because your body cannot make them and you must obtain them through your diet. You’ve probably already heard lots about the omega 3 essential fatty acids and their benefits as a a healthy fat already.
There are two types of EFA’s, omega 6 and omega 3. The terms omega 3 and omega 6 come from the positioning of the double bonds in their chemical structure. An important point to keep in mind is that these are families of oils or fatty acids, not individual oils.
Both types of EFA’s are polyunsaturated which means that they have multiple double bonds. Remember that double bonds are very unstable and if the EFA’s are not treated correctly they will be damaged and transformed into something very unhealthy. Your body uses EFA’s to produce chemicals called ‘prostaglandins’.
Prostaglandins work in a similar way to hormones, they allow your body cells to communicate with each other. Every single cell in your body is able to produce prostaglandins where as hormones can only be produced in specialised organs. Hormones travel in your blood stream, prostaglandins don’t.
Prostaglandins control functions such as inflammation, repair to damaged and injured tissues, blood clotting, regulating body temperature, raising or lowering blood pressure and inducing birth.
Besides being very fragile and easily damaged, the big problem with EFA’s is that most people consume too much of one and almost none of the other. Compared to a generation or two ago, most people today are getting too many omega 6 and very minimal omega 3. The current ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the typical Western Diet is 10:1, the ideal ratio is 2:1.
Whilst both omega 3 and 6 are healthy fats, most people are deficient in omega 3 and already getting too much omega 6. The imbalance in EFA’s tends to push your body into a state of inflammation. Diseases of inflammation include eczema, asthma, arthritis, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and allergies. This is why there is currently so much focus on the omega 3 EFA’s found in fish oil.
The Omega 6 Family EFA’s include the following oils: soy, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, evening primrose. All oils are widely used by food manufacturers and are found in abundance in the modern diet.
The Omega 3 Family EFA’s are found in the following oils and foods: flaxseed meal and flaxseed oil (sometimes referred to as linseed), leafy greens, grains, fish and organic egg yolks.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids: Fish oil vs. Flax Oil
Remember that the omega 3 EFA’s are a family of fatty acids, not an individual oil. There are six different types of omega 3 EFA’s each of which perform their own important role in your body. These six fatty acids form a pathway with Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) on the top and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on the bottom. Fatty acids can be converted via enzymes to the next EFA in the pathway. Flax oil is rich in ALA whereas fish oil contains the ‘more active’ fatty acid DHA.
These days, enzyme deficiency is common. Many people cannot convert EFA’s due to common nutritional deficiencies including zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. If there is a strong family history of alcoholism, obesity or diabetes in your family tree, chances are high that you have inherited a genetic disorder where the enzymes needed to convert EFA’s are defective. For this reason, I seldom prescribe or use flaxseed oil and instead focus on fish oil and organic egg yolks.
If you or anyone in your family suffers from any of the following, you should make fish, fish oils and egg yolks a regular part of your diet:
- Bed wetting
- Eczema, Asthma and other allergies
- Fertility problems
If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to start your family in the near future, it is absolutely essential that you include plenty of healthy fat in your diet. If you’re planning on having your 2nd, 3rd or 4th child then high levels of healthy fat is even more important. As well as taking a fish oil supplement you should also include 2-4 organic egg yolks in your diet each day. Tiger’s milk on a daily basis is the easiest way to include the health benefits of raw egg yolks in your diet.
Is Fish Safe To Eat Anymore?
Thanks to our utter lack of respect to the planet we inhabit, our oceans are becoming more and more contaminated and it’s now come back to bite us. Many fish are simply too contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as mercury.
Farmed fish are no healthier, the pellets they are fed with are often contaminated with dangerous chemicals. These fish bred in captivity are the aquatic version of battery hens and their fatty acid profile is far from healthy. The majority of salmon available these days is farmed and should be avoided. If you can find (and afford) wild caught salmon, make this a regular or occasional part of your diet as an excellent source of healthy fat.
Besides including wild caught salmon in your diet, the only other fish that I recommend eating on a regular basis are the much maligned sardine. They’re much cheaper than wild caught salmon as well. Sardines are a small fish, close to the bottom of the aquatic food chain and as a result do not accumulate heavy metals and toxins the way larger fish at the top of the food chain do. As well as being a great source of the healthy fat DHA, they’re also a super source of bone building nutrients calcium and vitamin D. Sardines are well worth acquiring a taste for.
What About Cholesterol?
Cholesterol has been blamed for a lot of bad things since it was first discovered. It is so feared and despised that it’s easy to forget that cholesterol is essential for good health.
Here is list of all the things that you need cholesterol for:
- Making vitamin D from sunlight. Cholesterol helps your body to convert sunlight on your skin into vitamin D. Without vitamin D you can’t absorb calcium no matter how many supplements you take. Vitamin D also protects you from cancer, in fact, it’s estimated that vitamin D could prevent around 70% of cancers, include a third of all breast cancers. Unfortunately we’re as scared of the sun as we are of cholesterol are becoming terrible vitamin D deficient. But that’s another story.
- Repairing damage to your blood vessels. Remember that free radicals produced by polyunsaturated oils like to damage your blood vessels walls. Leaky blood vessels are not conducive to a long and healthy life. Thank goodness for cholesterol who is sent in to patch up the damage.
- Making hormones. With out cholesterol, you wouldn’t be able to fall pregnant. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all made from cholesterol. Your body also uses it to make stress hormones which is why cholesterol levels increase when you’re under stress.
- Protecting your brain and nervous system. You may have heard of a substance called myelin which coats and protects the nerves throughout your body. When myelin begins to degenerate and break down, conditions such as multiple sclerosis develop. Myelin is 20% cholesterol. Restricting cholesterol in a child’s diet while their nervous system is still developing is a very bad idea.
- Protecting your memory. Memory loss is a very common side effect of cholesterol lowering drugs. Brain cells communicate to each other through connections called synapses which are dependent upon cholesterol to be built. If you want to build and maintain memories you must have plenty of cholesterol available to build synapses.
- Protects your body from infections, free radical damage and tissue damage.
I am firmly convinced that in 10 years time your doctor will be saying “Sorry, we where wrong about cholesterol”. Just like they did with stomach ulcers. Your doctor isn’t trained in nutrition, they’re trained to identify diseases and then prescribe medication to treat them. Your average doctor doesn’t understand what a healthy fat really is.
Daisy graduated from Boston university with an advanced Diploma of Naturopathy and Nutrition. Her passion is health and nutrition and also provide advice that enables you to make lifestyle changes and consume the right foods and nutrients required to promote wellbeing and quality of life.