The Fat Factor

When you hear the word ‘fat’ you don’t automatically think of the macronutrient ‘fat’.   Fat can also refer to fat in the body or to someone carrying excess weight.  We can distinguish carbohydrate and protein as food groups more easily than fat.  Protein is involved in muscle growth in the body but we don’t call it ‘muscle’. Talking about fat can therefore be confusing but from this point on, I am referring to fat ‘the macronutrient’ as a constituent of food!  In college we had an information sheet for clients called ‘Fat Phobia’.  Interesting title!  Before I read it I thought it must be about ‘a fear of becoming fat’.  It turns out the phobia is a fear of eating foods containing fat.  If you are now thinking ‘isn’t that the same thing’ then I hope by the time you have finished reading this blog your perception will have changed. This assumption that fat makes you fat is outdated and untrue.  You need fat!  The right fat!  There is not just one type of fat but many, and as with all food groups there is the good and the best avoided varieties.  It is vital to know the difference.  Fat phobia is real and many people are on a mission to eliminate fat in order to lose weight, not realizing how important it is for their health.  Choosing quality over quantity and making small dietary adjustments could make a big difference to your health.  Read on to learn more about your dietary fat factors!!

The Chemistry of Fats

In order to understand why you would choose particular types of fat in your diet, it is important to first know a little about the chemistry of fat.  All living matter is composed of atoms arranged in different ways so as to materialize into its various unique forms.  At microscopic level water molecules (H2O) are composed of 1 oxygen atom and 2 hydrogen atoms.  H2O is the chemical equation for water.  Fat is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.   In terms its chemical make-up, it is the different lengths of the chain of carbon atoms in fatty acids that makes one fat different from the next.   You will also hear about ‘saturated’ and ‘unsaturated’ fats.  This refers to the bonds between the hydrogen-carbon atoms.  A saturated fat has a straight row of bonded carbon atoms, each one also bonded top and bottom with a hydrogen atom.  Like a sponge that has soaked up as much water as it possibly can, the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain have become saturated with hydrogen atoms.  If this does not happen it is called an unsaturated fat.  The main property of saturated fat is that it is solid at room temperature.  It is more stable than unsaturated fat meaning that it is not as easily damaged by exposure to heat, light or oxygen.  Depending on the length of the carbon chain, saturated fatty acids are further classified into short, medium and long chain fatty acids [SCFAs, MCFAs and LCFAs].  Saturated fats are generally but not always derived from animal sources.  Butter is an example of a saturated fat with a short chain [SCFA] it has only 4 carbons in the fatty acid chain.  This fatty acid is called ‘butyric acid’ with the chemical equation C4H8O2.  Each carbon atom (4) is bonded to 2 hydrogen atoms (8).

Unsaturated fats have longer chains and also differ in that they contain one or more carbon atoms that bond with another carbon atom (carbon double bond) instead of a pair of hydrogen atoms.  The missing hydrogen atoms make the fat molecule bendy and liquid in form.  The more this occurs in the carbon chain the lighter or more fluid the oil is.  The double bonds are like molecular hot spots making the fat ‘unstable’ which basically means that where the hydrogen atoms are missing in the chain it can now bond more easily with other molecules in the atmosphere like oxygen, heat and light.

The best analogy I can come up with is bricks and cement.  In the saturated structure the bricks are stacked on top of one another in rows and held together with cement where they connect.  It forms a stable and solid structure and nothing else can get in there.  In the unsaturated structure there are points where bricks are not held with cement, making the structure  unstable.

Unsaturated fats are generally derived from plant sources, for example, nuts and seeds.  Unsaturated fatty acids are also further classified depending on the length of the carbon chain and the number of double bonds in the chain.  These are called monounsaturated [MUFAs], mono meaning one double bond, and polyunsaturated [PUFAs], poly meaning many.  Olive oil is unsaturated and is further classified as a monounsaturated fatty acid or MUFA called ‘oleic acid’.  The chemical equation for oleic acid is C18H34O2 with one pair of hydrogen atoms missing in a chain of 18 carbons.  Olive oil is liquid but is still quite heavy and would become solid if refrigerated.  Omega 6 and Omega 3 oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs.  Omega 6 oils include sunflower, safflower, sesame and grapeseed oil.  These are finer in texture.  One of the Omega 3 fatty acid ‘EPA’ has a 20 carbon chain and 5 double bonds.  The chemical equation is C20H30O2.  And so, 5 pairs of hydrogen atoms are missing from the chain of 20 carbons making this and all PUFAs very unstable, very fluid and very vulnerable to damage.

I hope I haven’t lost you!  Hang in there!  This explanation will be useful in knowing why you would chose one type of fat/oil over another and the best way to use them for better health.

Other Fat Facts

Fat can also be called ‘triglycerides’ as it is broken down in the body to 3 fatty acids and glycerol.   ‘Lipids’ is another word used to classify fats and oils including cholesterol.   All lipids/fats have one property in common – they are insoluble in water and will dissolve only in a fat solvent.

You need all classes of fatty acids, that is, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.  It is essential to get omega 6 and 3 PUFAs from the diet as the body cannot make these.  In nearly all cases a fat or oil contains more than one class of fatty acids, for example, olive oil is about 70% MUFA but it also contains a percentage of saturated and polyunsaturated fat.   Fat has 9 calories per gram and so can be eaten in smaller quantities.  Fat also provides satiety (a sense of being full after eating) and carries flavour.  It is important to remember that fat in the diet not only comes from the oil you fry or bake with and the spread you put on your bread, it is present in meat, dairy, oily fish, nuts, seeds, fruit (avocado) and a huge amount of processed foods.  For the health benefits of fat we need to look at its source and quality.  There is no simple answer as to how much fat in the diet is the right amount.  “The people of Crete eat a diet with 40% of calories as fat and have one-twentieth the mortality from coronary artery disease (CAD) compared with Americans.  Also, the Greenland Inuit rarely develop CAD despite a diet high in fat and cholesterol.  It can only be concluded that the type of fat is more important, than the amount.”  {Extract – Textbook of Functional Medicine}

Just some of the roles fat has in the body

Fat in the diet provides the body with a concentrated source of energy and heat. It is stored and released back into circulation in times of high energy demands or periods of hunger.  It provides insulation, reducing heat loss through the skin.  Our cells are composed of a bi-layer of fat and our brain is 60% fat.  Omega 3 is critical for keeping these cells healthy.  Our internal organs are protected by fatty tissue.  Digested fat provides transport and storage for fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and without these many related symptoms of deficiency can occur.  The covering of the nerves (myelin sheaths) are made up of fats.  Fat is involved in the formation of cholesterol.   Cholesterol is a precursor for the steroid hormones such as adrenal stress hormones and male and female sex hormones.  Omega 6 is plentiful in the average diet and too much of the wrong type has an inflammatory effect in the body whereas omega 3 has an anti-inflammatory beneficial effect but consumption is generally low.  When we use the word ‘essential’ in nutrition it means the nutrient must come from the diet.  Omega 3 is essential and hugely beneficial for brain health, vision, joints, cellular and heart health and in regulating the immune system’s inflammatory response.  It is widely used as a supplement for its anti-inflammatory properties in treating autoimmune conditions like IBD, rheumatoid arthritis, ME etc.  If sources are limited in your diet, supplementing may be worth considering.  As you can see the right kind of fat is rather important in the diet.

Fats to Avoid

Trans Fatty Acids or (trans-fats) are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated spreads and processed oils, for example, margarine and vegetable oils.  Hydrogenation involves taking plant oils (liquid) adding a nickel catalyst to them, heating them, passing hydrogen through them, re-bleaching them and then removing the nickel catalyst by filtration.  The addition of the hydrogen atoms makes the fluid into a solid (a spread).  However, this chemically alters the fatty acids to an unnatural structure that your body cannot recognize or use.  Think square pegs and round roles.  Hydrogenated oils have no health benefits and have negative health effects in the body.  These spreads and oils are promoted in the media as ‘healthy’ based on the fact that the source ingredients, seeds and plants, yield healthy oils and nutrients.  Are PUFAs healthy?  Yes, if you eat the source.  Yes, if you take some fresh sesame, pumpkin, flaxseeds or nuts, mill them in your own blender and use them straight away.  But not if that source has been processed, altered, packed, shipped and stood in a see through plastic bottle on the supermarket shelf.

Most polyunsaturated oils from plants and seeds are highly susceptible to damage once released from their protective shell.  It is similar to cutting open an apple.  You will see that it starts to ‘oxidize’ immediately.  Like the oil the active atoms in the apple, now exposed, interacts with the oxygen molecules in the air and it begins to turn brown.  It has started to rot.  Leave it in a sunny spot (light) by the window on a hot day (heat) and the rotting process speeds up.  We know apples are healthy but would you eat a rotten one?  Unfortunately, oxidation is not visible with PUFA oils but it is nevertheless a fact of life.  “Oxidation promotes the formation of ‘free radicals’ chemicals that are highly reactive and have the potential to damage cells.  Contrary to the popular belief that vegetable oils are a better choice than saturated fats in the prevention of heart disease, these oils cause free radical damage in the body that contribute to aging, inflammation and many chronic diseases including and especially heart disease.”  {Extract – Clinical Nutrition, A functional Approach} 

Some of the PUFA oils are:  Corn oil; Sunflower; Safflower; Vegetable oil – Soybean; Canola and the seed and nut oils – Sesame; Grape; Flax; Pumpkin; Poppy; Chia; Peanut.

Grapeseed oil is often used in massage therapy because it is fine in texture and a good carrier for aromatherapy essential oil blends.  This is a good use of the oil.  However, PUFA oils are not suitable for cooking with, as they are easily damaged by heat.  You are covering your food with free radicals.   A better choice for frying is to use a small amount of the saturated fat – Butter or Ghee, which is not damaged by high heat.   Consider grilling or steaming as an alternative to frying and roasting.   Extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil can be used for cooking up to a moderate heat of 180oC after which they too can become oxidized.

Low and zero fat dairy products are full of sugar and are missing all the nutritional benefits of full fat.  I covered this in a previous blog which you can read here.

1 calorie oil sprays are a labeling con!   Read more at this short related blog here.

Fats to Include

Butter or Ghee (Clarified Butter):  Butter is a saturated fat with short chain fatty acids [SCFAs].  The ‘butyric acid’ in butter nourishes the cells of the colon and has been proven beneficial in digestive health including IBD.  It also has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits.  It is stable at high temperature and so can be used for cooking and baking.  Spread a little butter instead of processed spreads on your bread.  Ah yes, that’s why we like the SPREADS!!   Okay, butter is a little harder to spread so invest in a butter dish with a lid.   Cut a chunk off the block, put it in the dish and keep it out of the fridge.

Coconut oil:  Is a saturated fat with medium chain fatty acids [MCFAs].  Where do I begin?  There are so many benefits to coconut oil it would be a shame not to find some way of including it in your diet.  It had anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.  MCFAs are easily digested and absorbed into the body.  They are not stored in the body as other fats are and so coconut oil is a great choice for anyone concerned about weight gain.  It provides an instant source of energy for the body cells including brain cells.  There is much research into the fatty acids in coconut oil for their ability to improve brain health including halting the progression of Alzheimer’s.  Read more here.  Traditionally medium chain fatty acids have been used by the medical profession in the form of MCT oil for patients that have difficulty absorbing fats.  The health benefits are widely known including lowering LDL cholesterol.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil:   Olive oil a monounsaturated fat with medium chain fatty acids [MCFAs].  It boosts heart health, memory and brain function.  It is best bought in a dark glass bottle  and stored in a cool dark place.  Mix with garlic or herbs and drizzle on bread, salads or any dish.  The benefits of olive oil are widely researched and it has an important role in the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ which is widely promoted for heart health.  This oil is not suitable for cooking at high temperatures.  Read more here.

When it comes to individual foods that have beneficial oils the one that tops the list is Avocado.  Avocado is a super-food!  Its fat type is mostly monounsaturated.  It is packed with protein and vitamin E for an immunity boost.  It has lots of folate

Source: Google Images

making it the perfect food for pregnant women.  Coconut in its natural state including the water, flesh or cream is a healthy vegetarian option to dairy.  Whipped coconut cream with a couple of drops of vanilla extract, a teaspoon of maple syrup or a sweet fruit like banana, makes a delicious healthy dessert. Olives in their natural state, almonds, cashew and macadamia nuts are also MUFAs, each with many health benefits to boast about including lowering LDL cholesterol.  Walnuts and many seeds, in their natural state contain omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids.  Walnuts are high in omega 6 and flaxseeds and chia seeds are high in omega 3.   Freshly ground flaxseeds, also called linseeds, are used as a therapeutic food to assist in detoxifying and balancing hormones in the body.  Flaxseeds are best used freshly milled in a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder or blender to release the omega 3 oil otherwise they may just act as a form of soluble fibre and pass through the body undigested.   Eggs are a good source of omega 3 as well as being a complete protein.  Salmon, sardines and other oily fish are good sources of omega 3 fish oil.

The main factors to take away

Saturated fats are not all bad and are not all created equal.  Butter and Coconut oil have many health benefits.  Butter as a saturated fat remains stable (undamaged) at high heat which makes it healthier for frying and baking.  It retains its benefits.  Coconut oil remains stable at a moderate heat.  These short and medium chain fatty acids are the easiest for the body to digest.

Saturated fats are high in meats and dairy products.  Eat in moderation.

The monounsaturated fat ‘extra virgin olive oil’ has many proven health benefits.  Unsaturated fats are less stable.  Follow instructions above for best use.

Monounsaturated fats are best eaten in their natural state.  Avocados, olives and nuts like almonds, cashews and macadamia are good sources and also add other nutrients to your diet.

Polyunsaturated fats are the most unstable fats and are prone to damage by other molecules in the atmosphere like light, heat and air.  Long chain fatty acids are hardest to digest.

Polyunsaturated fats omega 6 and 3 are best eaten in their natural state.  These include sesame, sunflower, poppy, pumpkin, flaxseeds, chia seeds, peanuts, walnuts and oily fish.   These also add fibre and other nutrient at the same time.  Omega 3 can be taken as a supplement.

Trans-fatty acids are hydrogenated processed oils that have no health benefit and should be avoided.  They are found in spreads and vegetable oils.  They are widely used in the manufacture of processed food and baked goods.  If you prefer to continue to use vegetable oil for frying, then you can counter some of the oxidative damage by adding some fresh sprigs of herbs like rosemary, sage or thyme into the bottle of oil.  These act as ‘anti-oxidants’ and in a molecular union stabilize the oil somewhat.

Nuts and seeds have a bad reputation among calorie counters but have you ever seen a fat squirrel?  They live on them!!

In a nutshell (left behind by the squirrel), if your fats are made up of butter, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, lean meat, eggs, avocados, nuts and seeds in their natural state and full fat natural dairy in moderation, you will be nourishing your body with the fats that it needs to be healthy.  And, you may be surprised to find that, like the squirrel, healthy fats won’t make you fat.

References:

  • Institute of Functional Medicine (2010) ‘Textbook of Functional Medicine’  [IFM]
  • Haas, M. Elson, MD (2006) ‘Staying Health with Nutrition’  Lipids [Celestial Arts]
  • Institute of Functional Medicine (2004) ‘Clinical Nutrition – A functional Approach’ [IFM]

The information in this blog about the chemical makeup of dietary fat and the role of fat in the body is factual and is widely available.

© AOS2018

 

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