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What’s the deal with FAT?


There are many dark and dreary stories in the annals of American history. But the one about fats has to be right up there with any of the great dramas of political machinations and sabotage. The net result of decades and decades of pumping millions of people full of unhealthy fats, misinformation and depriving them of healthy fats has resulted in a health crisis that is costing this country more than just trillions of dollars.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding good fats and bad fats; saturated versus unsaturated; omega 3, 6, 9; long chain, medium chain, short chain.  It’s all a bit hard to understand.

Fortunately, there are a lot of folks that are working tirelessly to try to help us get through the quagmire of misinformation and clarify what the hell it’s all about. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon. They have a great book out called EAT FAT, LOSE FAT.  Perhaps this short bit will help make sense of this issue if you’re still wondering what to do about fat. As you will see there are a number of ways of understanding this subject, but at the end of the day what matters is that your choices around food are grounded in a real understanding of what your body needs for OPTIMAL health.  And by the way, in case you’re wondering…it’s not a low fat or no fat diet.  Thin is in…but fat is where it’s at.

Understanding the chemistry of fats

Clearly something is wrong with the theories we read in the popular press—and used to bolster sales of lowfat concoctions and cholesterol-free foods. The notion that saturated fats per se cause heart disease as well as cancer is not only facile, it is just plain wrong. But it is true that some fats are bad for us. In order to understand which ones, we must know something about the chemistry of fats.

Fats—or lipids—are a class of organic substances that are not soluble in water. In simple terms, fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms filling the available bonds. Most fat in our bodies and in the food we eat is in the form of triglycerides, that is, three fatty-acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. Elevated triglycerides in the blood have been positively linked to proneness to heart disease, but these triglycerides do not come directly from dietary fats; they are made in the liver from any excess sugars that have not been used for energy. The source of these excess sugars is any food containing carbohydrates, particularly refined sugar and white flour.

Fatty acid classifications by saturation

Fatty acids are classified in the following way:

Saturated: A fatty acid is saturated when all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. They are highly stable, because all the carbon-atom linkages are filled—or saturated—with hydrogen. This means that they do not normally go rancid, even when heated for cooking purposes. They are straight in form and hence pack together easily, so that they form a solid or semisolid fat at room temperature. Your body makes saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates and they are found in animal fats and tropical oils.

Monounsaturated: Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other and, therefore, lack two hydrogen atoms. Your body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in a number of ways. Monounsaturated fats have a kink or bend at the position of the double bond so that they do not pack together as easily as saturated fats and, therefore, tend to be liquid at room temperature. Like saturated fats, they are relatively stable. They do not go rancid easily and hence can be used in cooking. The monounsaturated fatty acid most commonly found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil as well as the oils from almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts and avocados.

Polyunsaturated: Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of double bonds and, therefore, lack four or more hydrogen atoms. The two polyunsaturated fatty acids found most frequently in our foods are double unsaturated linoleic acid, with two double bonds—also called omega-6; and triple unsaturated linolenic acid, with three double bonds—also called omega-3. (The omega number indicates the position of the first double bond.) Your body cannot make these fatty acids and hence they are called “essential.” We must obtain our essential fatty acids or EFA’s from the foods we eat. The polyunsaturated fatty acids have kinks or turns at the position of the double bond and hence do not pack together easily. They are liquid, even when refrigerated. The unpaired electrons at the double bonds makes these oils highly reactive. They go rancid easily, particularly omega-3 linolenic acid, and must be treated with care. Polyunsaturated oils should never be heated or used in cooking. In nature, the polyunsaturated fatty acids are usually found in the cis form, which means that both hydrogen atoms at the double bond are on the same side.

All fats and oils, whether of vegetable or animal origin, are some combination of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated linoleic acid and linolenic acid. In general, animal fats such as butter, lard and tallow contain about 40-60% saturated fat and are solid at room temperature. Vegetable oils from northern climates contain a preponderance of polyunsaturated fatty acids and are liquid at room temperature. But vegetable oils from the tropics are highly saturated. Coconut oil, for example, is 92% saturated. These fats are liquid in the tropics but hard as butter in northern climes. Vegetable oils are more saturated in hot climates because the increased saturation helps maintain stiffness in plant leaves. Olive oil with its preponderance of oleic acid is the product of a temperate climate. It is liquid at warm temperatures but hardens when refrigerated.

Classification of fatty acids by length

Researchers classify fatty acids not only according to their degree of saturation but also by their length.

Short-chain fatty acids have four to six carbon atoms. These fats are always saturated. Four-carbon butyric acid is found mostly in butterfat from cows, and six-carbon capric acid is found mostly in butterfat from goats. These fatty acids have antimicrobial properties—that is, they protect us from viruses, yeasts and pathogenic bacteria in the gut. They do not need to be acted on by the bile salts but are directly absorbed for quick energy. For this reason, they are less likely to cause weight gain than olive oil or commercial vegetable oils.27 Short-chain fatty acids also contribute to the health of the immune system.28

Medium-chain fatty acids have eight to twelve carbon atoms and are found mostly in butterfat and the tropical oils. Like the short-chain fatty acids, these fats have antimicrobial properties; are absorbed directly for quick energy; and contribute to the health of the immune system.

Long-chain fatty acids have from 14 to 18 carbon atoms and can be either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Stearic acid is an 18-carbon saturated fatty acid found chiefly in beef and mutton tallows. Oleic acid is an 18-carbon monounsaturated fat which is the chief component of olive oil. Another monounsaturated fatty acid is the 16-carbon palmitoleic acid which has strong antimicrobial properties. It is found almost exclusively in animal fats. The two essential fatty acids are also long chain, each 18 carbons in length. Another important long-chain fatty acid is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) which has 18 carbons and three double bonds. It is found in evening primrose, borage and black currant oils. Your body makes GLA out of omega-6 linoleic acid and uses it in the production of substances called prostaglandins, localized tissue hormones that regulate many processes at the cellular level.

Very-long-chain fatty acids have 20 to 24 carbon atoms. They tend to be highly unsaturated, with four, five or six double bonds. Some people can make these fatty acids from EFA’s, but others, particularly those whose ancestors ate a lot of fish, lack enzymes to produce them. These “obligate carnivores” must obtain them from animal foods such as organ meats, egg yolks, butter and fish oils. The most important very-long-chain fatty acids are dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) with 20 carbons and three double bonds; arachidonic acid (AA) with 20 carbons and four double bonds; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) with 20 carbons and five double bonds; and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with 22 carbons and six double bonds. All of these except DHA are used in the production of prostaglandins, localized tissue hormones that direct many processes in the cells. In addition, AA and DHA play important roles in the function of the nervous system.29

If you want to read more check out this link…or buy their book.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Fran Scoble permalink
    11/01/2010 11:40 pm

    OK, so what fats should we eat???

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