Fat is basically a curse word in the dieting industry. The simple thinking behind: ‘fats will make me fat’, is understandable, but wholly inaccurate. Fats are an essential macronutrient and dietary guidelines say that we should get 25-35% of our daily calories from fats.
The worst part of this is due to fat's demonized status, people feel better about eating food high in refined carbs and sugars instead, which is arguably much worse for you.
It’s time to change your opinions on fat and investigate the science behind why we should be restoring healthy fats to the position of “superfood”.
Fats are organic molecules – it’s as simple as that. It’s almost funny to think that these chains of carbon and hydrogen have earned such a bad reputation in comparison to all the others.
Fat hydrocarbons can be constructed in slightly different ways, which creates different types of fat, each possessing unique properties. The molecular configuration can also determine whether a fat is healthy or unhealthy – or at least if we consider it as being one way or the other.
The two main groups of fat that we hear about are saturated and unsaturated fats. The main difference between these two groups lies within the bond structure of the molecules.
Saturated fats contain no double bonds, meaning each carbon atom has 2 hydrogen atoms attached. The chain is “saturated” hydrogens, and these fats generally remain solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats have one(monounsaturated) or more(polyunsaturated) double bonds between carbon atoms, thus not all the carbons can bond with 2 Hydrogen atoms.
But what does this difference in structure have to do with the ‘health’ of our food?
Saturated “fats” are fats that contain a high proportion of saturated fatty acids, which contain no double bonds. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and examples include lard, coconut oil, full-fat dairy products such as butter or cream, and palm oil.
Research helps us gain the understanding that eating saturated fat seems to increase cholesterol in the bloodstream. This was an important finding back in the 20th century when the prevalence of heart disease rocketed. As we already knew that having high cholesterol was linked to an increased risk of heart disease, it was assumed that saturated fats could cause heart disease. However, no experimental evidence has ever directly linked saturated fat to heart disease. The “diet-heart hypothesis” was based on assumptions, observational data, and animal studies.
Another piece of the puzzle is the fact that the word “cholesterol” is often used inaccurately. HDL (the ‘good’) and LDL (the ‘bad’) cholesterols are lipoproteins that carry cholesterol around.
Consumption of saturated fats raises HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and changes LDL from small dense (“bad”) to larger LDL, which is mostly benign. Overall, saturated fats do not harm the blood lipid profile as was previously believed [3,4,5].
The link between saturated fats and heart disease has been studied intensely for decades, but the biggest and best studies show that there is no statistically significant association.
Studies on the low-fat diet do not show a reduced risk of heart disease or death and some studies show that replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils increases the risk. Although, some people may want to minimize saturated fat intake, including people with familial hypercholesterolemia or a history of heart disease.
Saturated fats are excellent cooking fats and foods that are high in saturated fat tend to be both healthy and nutritious. Truly harmful fats are artificial trans fats and processed vegetable oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids.
The benefits of saturated fats:
While most of us consider unsaturated fats to be the healthy fats, this doesn’t quite ring true when we look at the facts.
Saturated fats have numerous health benefits associated with their consumption. Humans consumed unprocessed forms of saturated fats in the form of organ meats, blubber, and milk for most of their history.
Humans have evolved on diets consisting of marine life, wild game and/or inland plants, which provide abundant omega-3 and other unprocessed fats.
Early humans also tended towards consuming as much of the animal as possible – including fatty tissues like blubber, organs, and brains, along with the eggs from fish and reptiles.
Perhaps a better definition of ‘healthy fat’ would be ‘relatively unprocessed fats from whole foods’.
It seems that the rule that applies most consistently to our modern-day diets is that the more processed your food, the worse it is for you. Unhealthy fats are typically those that are manufactured artificially and purposefully designed to be nonperishable. These fats include:
During our evolution, we consumed a diet of whole, unprocessed, fresh foods which were either hunted or foraged. Living in this way allowed for the human diet to consist of an even and natural distribution of mono-, poly-, and saturated fats.
Scientists have estimated through research that the omega-6/omega-3 ratio in a hunter-gatherer diet would have been around 1:1. Our modern-day diets currently provide us with a ratio closed to 16:1 – an intake that is way out of balance.
This shift in ratio is down to the large quantities of omega-6 and saturated fat that we get from refined and processed sources.
To correct this balance, we need to be getting our fats from the right sources. Here are just a few high-fat foods that are good for you:
Oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring are all loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and high-quality proteins.
Studies have shown that those individuals that eat fish tend to possess a lower risk of heart disease, depression, dementia and many other common diseases that impact the developed world. Japan is an excellent example of this.
With the entire population living off a diet high in seafood, the country's public health is seeming to be in a much better state than that of almost any other nation.
If you don’t like fish, taking a fish oil supplement can still be extremely useful. Codfish liver oil supplements contain important omega-3s and plenty of vitamin D too.
The avocado is a fruit, but it’s different from most. Where most fruits primarily contain carbohydrates, the avocado mostly contains fats.
The fatty acids within an avocado are mainly a monounsaturated fat, oleic acid. Oleic acid is associated with various health benefits. Studies have shown that consuming avocados can help to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (the “good”) cholesterol.
Avocados are also an excellent source of potassium and dietary fiber.
Cheese normally gets a bad rep when it comes to evaluating the health of our food, but it can be incredibly nutritious.
Cheese is a brilliant source of calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and selenium. It is also very rich in protein, with a single thick slice containing approximately 6.7g of protein.
Cheese is a high-fat dairy product and like milk or cream contains powerful fatty acids that have even been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
High in healthy fats and fiber, nuts are a good plant-based protein source that is also high in vitamin E and loaded with magnesium. It has been shown in research that those who eat more nuts are less prone to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
A major part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been shown to be one of the healthiest sources of fats out there.
This oil contains vitamins E and K, as well as many antioxidants that can fight inflammation and prevent LDL particles in the bloodstream from becoming oxidized. Consumption has also been linked to lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol markers.
You probably wouldn’t think about chia seeds as a fatty food, but an ounce of chia seeds contains 9g of fat. Alongside the fact that almost all the carbohydrates in chia seeds are fiber, most calories that we obtain from eating chia seeds come from fat.
Most of the fats found in chia seeds are ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Although ALA is not the most useful omega 3 fatty acids, this still makes chia seeds an excellent plant-based source of the nutrient.
Bibliography Hu, Frank B., R. M. Van Dam, and S. Liu. “Diet and risk of type II diabetes: the role of types of fat and carbohydrate.” Diabetologia 44.7 (2001): 805-817.
Amanda is a gym instructor and a diet and nutrition fanatic that has reviewed 100s of supplements for the benefit of consumers. She struggled with obesity 7 years ago and after losing more than 30lbs, dedicates most of her time in helping others achieve similar results and transform their lives.