A Primer on Dietary Fats

I think it’s safe to say that the whole subject of general nutrition and what’s healthy to put into our bodies is constantly being twisted and construed by society.

The endless varied opinions of doctors, so-called nutrition ‘health gurus’, talk show hosts, friends, family, and product labels jumping out at us in the grocery store aisles all making different claims, often directly contrasting each other’s ‘facts’!

I know we’ve all fallen victim to believing what we hear, especially on the subject of dietary fats.

So today, we are going to debunk some of the more common preconceptions related to dietary fats.  Here are some my favorite myths many people still believe to be true.

Preconception #1: There are 3 types of dietary fats

True!  I thought I’d start us off on a positive note to get us ready for the next five.

Anyone who’s grown up reading the side labels of their cereal boxes while munching down on cereal each morning like I did would probably recognize saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as the 3 different types of dietary fats in our diet.  And of course, I was told…fat was very bad for my health…

Saturated Fats

Saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature, so you can be thinking of food items like cheese, butter and fatty cuts of meat.

If we look at the molecular structure of a saturated fatty acid, the molecular chain is completely stable (hence, solid at room temperature). Each carbon in the chain has a hydrogen atom at each of its available bonds, so it resembles a strong, straight chain.

But enough chemistry. Summary – Saturated fats remain solid at room temperature because the molecules can be tightly packed together. We’ll get into more preconceptions about this kind of fatty acid in a minute. Moving along…

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

If a saturated fatty acid’s molecule is “saturated” with hydrogen, then it makes sense that unsaturated fatty acids have at least one carbon atom is missing a hydrogen- or in other words, is “unsaturated” with hydrogen.

In place of the missing hydrogen, the carbon atom instead forms a double bond with its neighbor carbon.

If you can visualize this type of molecule, imagine a string of pearls with a “kink” happening somewhere in the middle. If you have only one of these “kinks”, you’ve got a monounsaturated fatty acid.

Two or more of these “kinks” makes you a polyunsaturated fatty acid.

Since these carbon double bonds remove the stable structure of the molecule, unsaturated acids start to do some interesting things.

First of all, they’re liquid at room temperature, so think of olive oil, other seed and nut oils, and fish oil.

Secondly, these types of fatty acids are more vulnerable to oxidation, which means they can go rancid more easily.

The most important thing to remember is that saturated and unsaturated fats have different, but equally important roles in our diet.

Preconception #2: Eating Dietary Fat Makes You Gain Weight

Wrong!  I don’t know what it is exactly about fat that’s given it such a bad name, but it is a major fact that so many people avoid it like the plague to the detriment of their health.

All the images we see in the media of butter clogging arteries and the fat in our food going straight to our thighs and bellies is used to push these low-fat, high-sugar, processed-food diets that will only result in low energy and major health problems down the line.

Dietary fats are an essential component for the healthy functioning of so many parts of our body. Fat makes up a vital part of our cellular membranes, including 60-80% of our brains so it seems clear that our bodies crave fat and need it to survive.

What’s more, fat is one of the best fuel sources available. We have been so programmed by society to imagine stored fat as sitting as a lump on our thighs, but this is a complete myth!

We store fat in our bodies to burn as fuel, plain and simply. It can be efficiently stored and used when needed, while keeping your blood sugar and energy levels much more stable than if you just used carbohydrates for your primary energy source.

Preconception #3: Saturated fats are BAD for you

Wrong! I’d make a bet that 9 out of 10 people on the street would agree that saturated fats are “bad”, a testament to the job ( ‘an endless marketing campaign’) the mainstream media has had on our perceptions of nutrition!

Maybe you’re imagining a scary graphic picture of an artery, enlarged to look like a tunnel, slowly being clogged up by a gross-looking white substance. I don’t know who puts out these pictures, but it’s important to realize that every image and message has a purpose, which is often to sell you something (a diet, a lifestyle, a product.) The point is, these images have nothing to do with what really happens in your body when you consume saturated fats.

Our bodies have naturally evolved to store saturated fats as a fuel source and saturated fat is crazy effective as fuel energy!  There are 9 calories per gram in dietary fats compared to 4 calories per gram in carbohydrate.  Gram for gram, there is twice as much energy in fat as carbohydrates.

Unsaturated fats provide a great many benefits, but one thing they’re not so great at is providing energy (this is why animals store more saturated than unsaturated fat.)

If saturated fatty acids were as toxic as the media would have us believe, why would our bodies have evolved to store it naturally? The “artery-clogging” visuals have been created by the processed food industry to push consumers into buying sugary, packaged goods low in fat but also devoid of any nutritional value.

Preconception #4: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats are the healthiest fats

Wrong!  Sure, unsaturated fats are perfectly healthy, as I will explain in a moment but no more so than their saturated counterparts. For burning fuel for energy, you need saturated fats in your diet, hands down. But first let’s look more at these unsaturated fats:

Oleic acid and palmitoleic acid are two common monounsaturated fatty acids which have plenty of health benefits, including decreased risk of breast cancer, heart attacks and stroke. Olive oil is a common and well-loved source of monounsaturated fatty acids, but it by no means the only one. You can also consume these through avocados, nuts and even in animal fat (contrary to popular belief.)

Avocados are good for you!

Avocados are good for you!

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are quite well-known in society these days, with all the hype about omega-3s that we hear in the media. The polyunsaturated fatty acids are actually divided into 3 subcategories: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 (the last of which our bodies can produce naturally, so they’re not such generally discussed at length)

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids must be consumed through diet thus the name of essential fatty acids is bestowed on them simply because our bodies can’t create either of them on their own.

So we clearly see the need to include foods in our diet that are rich in these fatty acids but this leads to another common misconception…

Preconception #5: Seed oils (soybean, canola, etc) and fish are the best ways to get your Omega-3 acids

Wrong!  We hear and see so much about omega-3 fats these days, plastered on the labels of vegetable oils in the supermarket and dietary supplements in the pharmacy.

But the reality is that consuming meat and egg products in their most natural state (grass-fed) is a highly productive way to get those essential fatty acids into your body. You see, there are 3 kinds of essential omega-3 fatty acids, but soybean and canola oils provide only one of these. A small percentage of this one can convert into the others, but it is far more efficient to consume the other two essential fatty acids through your diet- namely grass-fed meat, oily fish and free-range eggs.

Eat Eggs!

Eat Eggs!

Preconception #6: Omega-3’s are more important than Omega-6’s

Wrong again!  I’ve always heard so much about omega-3 fatty acids being important for health and well-being, and omega 6’s being far too abundant in our diet.

But the truth is, omega-6 fatty acids are just as essential, so we still must consume them through our diet. The best ways to get Omega-6 fatty acids are through red meat, poultry and eggs. It’s so important to keep the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in balance just like with anything in life! Our bodies are adapted to process these fats and gain healthy benefits from them, so trust your body’s wisdom!

So as you can see, most of the messages I’ve received from society and the commercial food industry about dietary fats have been flat out wrong. It’s disheartening to think how our diets have developed to cater to the processed food industry rather than our personal health but this is why learning the truth is so essential.

Trusting your body to fuel itself eating natural foods, utilizing dietary fats as the main energy source rather than carbohydrates, will lead to great health benefits in the future.