Nutrition FAQs: What types of fats are there?
Angela Wright, RHN
Do you know how many healthy types of fats exist? If not, don't worry: we've got some answers for you. Last week, we talked about how fats aren't as bad as they're made out to be. This week, we dive deep into the different types of fats to sort out the good, the bad and the misunderstood. Because making healthy choices is all about educating ourselves! Ready? Let's get some knowledge in!
Q: What are the different types of fats?
A: Fats are classified by the length of the fatty acid molecule, as well as if it has single bonds or contains some double bonds. Sounds like a challenging chemistry class, but each of these types of fats are dominant in different food sources, have different roles in the body and need to be treated differently in our kitchen. Fatty acids are composed of carbon atoms in a chain, varying in length. In our food, these fats are found in the form of triglycerides - a molecule comprised of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. They can be short-chain (less than 6 carbons), medium-chain (6-12 carbons), and long-chain (greater than 12 carbons). We don't get short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) directly from our food, but we produce it in our guts when bacteria break down our food wastes. Some of these, like butyric acid, are super important for the health of our colon. Medium chain fatty acids (also referred to as medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs) are high in food like coconut, and are a source of easy-to-use energy. Long chain fatty acids (LCFAs) are found in many of our food sources, like fish, animals, seeds, nuts, grains and their extracted oils.
Q: What's the deal with saturated fats?
Fats can also be classified as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. When a fat molecule is saturated, it means it is saturated with hydrogen and all the chemical bonds are full. This makes it very stable. The unsaturated fats still have some bond space available, which makes them more sensitive to damage. The more saturated, the more the fat can handle heat, light and oxygen. This makes saturated fats like ghee or coconut oil ideal for higher heat cooking. It also is why polyunsaturated fats like flax oil can go rancid so quickly if stored at room temperature or in clear bottles. Much of the science on saturated fats was shown to be influenced by the sugar lobby to direct the blame of cardiovascular health issues away from refined carbohydrates. Saturated fats can actually be quite beneficial for you. You use them to build cell membranes and keep arteries stable. They can help increase your ‘good’ cholesterol and keep your brain healthy. They are also very stable and less likely to go rancid. That means fats like ghee, butter, coconut oil, and even old-school fats like lard and tallow from animals can handle high-heat cooking. As much as we don’t want these to be our only type of fat we ingest, don’t be afraid of including some saturated fats in your diet.
Q: What about omega 3s and 6s?
A: Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are both types of polyunsaturated fats. These are essential for humans, meaning you can’t produce them from anything but have to consume them in your diet. They are critical for your cell membranes, hormones, nerves, emotions, brain function, vascular system, immune function, metabolism, repair, proper inflammation and insulin regulation. They also carry your fat-soluble vitamins. We require them to be in a ratio in our diet of about 1 part omega 3s to 4 parts omega 6s to properly fill all these roles. Omega 3s and 6s are commonly deficient or out of balance, especially with a refined, processed foods diet. You can find Omega 3s in flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and wild, pastured or grass fed meat, fish, eggs and dairy. For Omega 6s, look for whole foods like sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, soybeans and whole grains. You can also find them in oils used in processed foods like canola oil, soy oil, vegetable oil, refined grains. Finally, they are high in foods sourced from animal that have been fed those omega 6-rich grains. This has led to a major imbalance in the Standard American Diet; consumers are getting about 1 part omega 3s to upwards of 40 parts omega 6s. This is contributing to major health issues around chronic inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Take a look at your choices - are you eating a processed food and commercially-raised animal food diet? Switch to whole foods, more plants and greens, and if eating animals, switch to wild, pasture-raised or free range.
Q: Should I avoid cholesterol?
A: Cholesterol is quite misunderstood. It is a fat-based molecule that is an essential part of all animals. Cholesterol is a major part of animal cell membranes (including you!), allowing for proper structure and communication. It also is the precursor to all your sex and stress steroid hormones, vitamin D and bile, which ensures you can digest your fats and eliminate your toxins out of the liver and through the digestive tract. Those roles all sound kind of critical, don’t they? We self-regulate cholesterol amounts. If we need more for important roles in the body, we make more. But if we are also eating cholesterol-containing foods, the body will make less. As it’s part of all animal cells, it would make sense that we would get cholesterol from our diet when we eat animal foods. Plants don’t make cholesterol (though they make similar phytosterols), so you won’t find them in plant foods. When LDL blood cholesterol levels are higher (this is the not-so-great marker of cholesterol in the body), it’s a signal that the body needs more to fulfill its important duties. Needs can increase with free radical exposure, stress and dehydration. Cutting out animal foods to try to bring this down can just put more of the burden on your body to fill all these roles. So it’s perfectly fine to eat cholesterol in your diet. If your blood levels are undesirable, look at your diet and lifestyle contributors.