Have you heard the buzz about "healthy" fats, "essential" fats, fish oil, olive oil, and on and on? In this article, I'm going to break down the different types of fats, and give you some simple guidelines for what's needed and what isn't.
Let's Start With the Essentials
Essential fatty acids are those that we can't make in our own bodies. We, therefore, need them from our diet. These include two types of omega-3 and omega 6 fatty acids (ALA and LA).
Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are used in the membranes that surround each cell and are especially high in the eyes, brain, and sperm. They also are used in signaling molecules that play a role in the regulation of the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems.
Omega 3 fatty acids come primarily in 3 forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA can be converted to longer forms EPA and DHA to some degree, but the rate is pretty slow which is why some people recommend eating fish or taking a supplement. Fun fact, this healthy fatty acid that you supposedly get from fish actually comes from the microalgae they eat! With that in mind, why not skip the fish since they are often loaded with saturated fat, pollutants, and mercury, among other things.
Only ALA is considered essential because it cannot be synthesized in the body. The body can convert ALA into longer EPA and DHA however. How much ALA should we be consuming? If you are an exclusively plant-based eater, then you should consume about 3 grams/day as a male and 2 grams/day as a female. Wondering how to meet that? It's SUPER easy. Check out the ALA content of some common foods:
Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
There are several different types of omega-6 fatty acids, but only one is considered essential. It's Linoleic acid or LA. It's found in foods like vegetable oil and some animal products, and most likely it isn't those you are cooking with at home, but rather those you are eating through processed foods.
Despite LA being "essential", most of us don't need to worry about making sure we get enough of it. Rather, we need to make sure we aren't getting too much of it. Why?
High levels of LA, especially in ratio to omega-3 consumption, have been shown to have pro-inflammatory effects on the body. Having a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (meaning more omega 6's than 3's) has been associated with obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory diseases like arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer's.
We can improve our balance of omega 3's to 6's by eating a more plant-based diet, reducing our processed food intake (think especially about margarine, salad dressings, and packaged goods), and avoiding oils like corn and soybean when cooking.
Getting our fatty acids mostly from the sources of ALA listed above will be most beneficial to our health.
Mufing on to Other Fats
Another type of fat we hear a lot about is monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFA's. This type of fat is found in olive oil, avocados, other vegetable or seed oils, nuts and seeds, and is also found in animal products.
Many claim that MUFA's are very healthy for us, but a lot of that research comes from studies where they swapped out things like refined carbohydrates and saturated fats to see if MUFA's had any benefit. Of course, this is true they are healthier when you substitute them for much less healthy foods!
Overall, getting these fats from whole foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds is considered healthy and safe for you. If you do cook with a little bit of oil, olive oil can be a relatively healthy oil source compared to omega-6 rich oils like corn oil. Unfortunately, oil is fat, and fat has 9 calories per gram meaning that it is a concentrated energy source, and really doesn't need to be in your diet at all!
Consider stir-frying with water or broth, using just a little baking spray when cooking something in the oven, or investing in an air-fryer to reduce the total amount of oils you are cooking with.
MCT's and Coconut Oil
Medium-chain triglycerides are touted as being beneficial for health because they are more rapidly oxidized (used for energy) and are less likely to be stored. This is advantageous in some populations who have genetic variations making it impossible to digest other types of fatty acids, or in sick populations, but is not useful in the general population.
Unfortunately, those who support using coconut oil in your daily diet often bring up the idea that coconut oil contains MCT, and therefore it is healthy. But unfortunately, coconut oil contains only about 10% MCT and is mostly saturated fat.
Coconut oil behaves very similarly in the body as saturated fat coming from animal sources and raises bad cholesterol. So, just like I recommend we consume meat and animal products rarely if at all, I recommend the same for coconut oil and coconut milk (which contains coconut oil). Yes, they can fit into a healthy plant-based diet, but should not be used as our main oil in cooking or baking.
The same is true for 2 other types of plant-based saturated fat, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. These are used a lot in processed foods, and although they do come from plants, they have negative health consequences and therefore should be limited or avoided. The most successful way to reduce these saturated fats in your diet is to increase your consumption of whole plant foods and reduce processed foods.
Saturated and Trans Fats
Most people know that saturated and trans fats are bad for you, but I thought I would just reiterate why here since we are talking about the other types of fats.
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature, therefore it is the type found in meat and other animal products like milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, coconut oil, palm oil, and as mentioned finds its way into a lot of processed foods.
It's prevalent in Western diets and is linked to diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and more. Think: If it's solid outside our body, it's solid inside!
The best way to reduce your exposure to saturated fats and reduce your risk for these diseases is primarily to eliminate animal products, then processed foods and oils like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil.
Trans fats are extremely dangerous to health, which is why they are banned from use in processed foods in most western countries. However, they still occur naturally in animal products, and therefore if we really want to eliminate our exposure to this harmful substance, we would be wise to eliminate or greatly reduce our intake of animal products.
So That's the Dish on Fat
Wondering what your main takeaway should be today? Let me summarize it for you:
ALA is an essential fat, so we can include whole food sources such as flax, chia, hemp, and walnuts to ensure adequate intake.
All other fats are usually too prevalent in our diet, and therefore we should try and eliminate them, reduce them, or get them from whole plant food sources.
I will add in one extra point, which is that if your goal is weight loss, even healthy whole food sources of fat can contribute excess calories to your diet. To support weight loss, you may want to restrict to one to two servings from the whole food fat sources category per day.
I hope this is helpful in guiding you to a better understanding of the types of fat that are out there, which ones are essential to our health, and which sources are going to be the most nourishing for us. Thanks for tuning in!
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