The Truth About Fats

Eating fat is super hip and trendy – and it has been for quite some time!

There has been a surplus of new information advocating high fat low carb diets for weight loss, as well as for the treatment of various diseases, from diabetes, to heart disease, to cancer. Many sources even say that eating fat is the key to losing fat.

This concept is not new. In fact, it has been regurgitated several times over the decades to take the form in various dietary trends from Atkins, to South Beach, to Zone, to Paleo, and of course, the new and popular “keto” diet, which is of course short for ketogenic.. 

Why are these dietary trends, well, trendy? Because they are not really healthy or sustainable in anyway. 

Fat is not a magical ingredient to health and longevity, and carbohydrates are not the devil.

To sift through the trendy hype, it’s important to cultivate a basic foundation of nutritional knowledge. Apparently most of the popular sources for nutritional information –  youtube, podcasts, and blogs – do not have such a foundation in scientific knowledge.

The good news is that nutrition is not rocket science. With a basic understanding I believe our society can transform from blind followers empowered choice makers. 

The Industry 

I can’t dive into this without spending at least a few breaths talking about the industry. I wish I didn’t have to, but the truth is that pretty much everything we are exposed to these days on a large scale is dictated by a higher power. I’m not talking about God or the Universe, I’m talking about Big Food and Big Pharma.

From scientific studies to advertising campaigns and governmental policies, these industries control pretty much everything. 

Needless to say, the skewed and inconsistent information out there today has culture thoroughly confused. For the industry of Big Food, that is their goal. They want to keep the people muddled enough to remain unsure and skeptical, primed and open to the unwavering influence of marketing campaigns, the funding of which is completely corrupt. Just follow the money and you will see who is really at the source of the information you are fed.

The same was true for decades with regard to the cigarette/tobacco industry. While emerging research pointing to the harm of tobacco, the industry lobbied and boost marketing campaigns to fight the emerging science. More alarming, the tobacco industry was successful in manipulating scientific studies. The muddled results from such studies were effective in maintaining doubt and skepticism amongst the public, as well as the scientific and medical communities. Since people love to hear good news about their bad habits, millions continued inhaling the deadly smoke. If the truth were made apparent sooner, if we trusted the emerging data from cleanly funded studies, many may have put down their cigarettes sooner, potentially saving millions of lives. 

To me it is sad that we can no longer trust much of “science” in the world today. I put quotes around science because science today really isn’t science. It isn’t pure and clean, free of biases and lobbied funding. There are always dubious interests, not to mention the unavoidable research biases.  Those studies do exist, but they are mostly in the shadows of big food and big pharma. This forces each reader, whether the general public or health or science professional, to be diligent in searching and reading. We cannot simply take science at face value.

Psychology of human habit

I must also take a moment to shed light on human psychology. We are creatures of habit, and really hate change. The ways of living and eating in today’s world are the result of the above corruption that have capitalized on the addiction prone human mind.

Human beings are wired for survival. What that meant for tens of thousands of years was fueling ourselves with whatever food was available, whenever it was available. 

Needless to say, the world is different these days, but our programming is not.

Our reptilian brain still craves the dense nutrition sources in whatever form is available.

And whatever we crave, we can most certainly find – bacon cheeseburgers, cookie dough ice cream, milkshakes, doughnuts… you name it!

We all know that the body does not function well on processed junk. However, when it comes to the ideal diet, composed of real food, there is still great confusion, held steady by the industries as mentioned above.

A diet that promotes a bacon and cheese omelette and coffee with butter in it is certainly going to be more popular than one that advocates steamed vegetables and a green smoothie.

High fat, low carb diets have great allure to the westernized lifestyle. To adopt such a diet, we don’t need to give up much. We can just let go of grains and starchy vegetables while we hold onto our precious sources of fat (and protein).

I could continue the rant down the rabbit hole, but this article is intended to focus on the truth about fats, not my own opinions on the matter. So, let’s get right on into it!

Fat Facts

Fats are carbon-based molecules that also contain hydrogen and oxygen atoms. At the end of the carbon chain lies a carboxylic acid, which gives fats an alternative, and more accurate alias; fatty acids. Fats are characterized and classified in three ways; by carbon chain length, by degree of saturation, and by points of saturation. We will briefly get into this classification now.

Fats are classified by length as being either a short chain (less than 6 carbons), medium chain (6-12 carbons), or long chain (greater than 12 carbons) fatty acid.

Short chain fatty acids are very important, but are actually quite scarce in most foods. They are rather acquired indirectly through the digestion and metabolism of plant fiber by healthy bacteria in the gut. As microbes in the gut feed on fiber such as inulin and other resistant starches, they produce various short chain fatty acids including butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These short chain fats actually fuel the cells that line the digestive tract, which provide many downstream benefits when it comes to your health (gut health, anti-cancer, immune support, and more).

Medium chain fats have become a hot topic recently, with the popularization of MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil. These fats are found in foods such as coconut oil, as well as other plant and animal fats to some degree. These fatty acids are thought to be metabolized more quickly and easily, therefore less likely to be stored in the body.

Long chain fats are mainly present in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, as well as some plant based oils such as palm, olive, soybean, canola, peanut, corn, sunflower, flax, and chia. 

Fats are also classified by their degree of saturation as being saturated, mono-unsaturated, or poly-unsaturated fatty acids. The degree of saturation along with the length of the fat is associated with whether or not these fats are solid or liquid at any given temperature. For example, animal fats which tend to be longer and saturated will be solid at room temperature, while olive oil which is comprised mostly of longer chain fats that are polyunsaturated will of course be liquid at room temperature. Coconut oil, which is a medium chain saturated fat has a melting point right room temperature, at 76*.

Saturated fats have single bonds between all carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain, which allows each carbon to also be fully saturated with hydrogen bonds. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products. These fats are mainly responsible for raising blood cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fats contain a double bond between 2 carbons of the fatty acid chain, meaning these carbons lose the ability to also bond hydrogen atoms.

Polyunsaturated fats have 2 or more double bonds between carbons of the fatty acid chain, meaning they also have less hydrogen atoms associated with the chain.

We can’t forget about trans-fats! These fats are naturally occurring in some animal products, but made famous through products like margarine and other processed fats. We now well know how these fats are detrimental to health.

Finally, fats can be classified based on the location of their unsaturation, i.e. omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats contain a double bond at the 3rd carbon from the terminal carbon, while omega-6 fats contain a double bond at 6th carbon from the terminal. This might sound insignificant, but this small variation leads omega-6 fats to promote an inflammatory cascade, while omega-6s promote a so-called “anti-inflammatory” cascade.

I know it’s a lot of nitty, gritty details, but now you know that all fats are far from the same!

Fat Digestion

Fatty acids make their way into the body through our mouth, like any other food. We talked before about how pretty much all foods, even plants, have some amount of fats. In food sources as well as in the body, individual fatty acids travel in the form of triglycerides – three fatty acids bound to a glycerol molecule.

While carbohydrates metabolism starts in the mouth, fats are really not metabolised until they reach the small intestines. It should be noted, however, that saliva, gastric juices, and hydrochloric acid do promote moistening and churning which primes the process for fat digestion. The pancreas produces many enzymes, including lipase, which is responsible for breaking down the fatty acids. These enzymes are pumped into the small intestines to meet the food and instigate the biochemical process of metabolism. 

The presence of bile acids, which are created by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, are also an essential part of fat metabolism. Bile helps to emulsify fats, essentially making them water soluble so they can be transported and broken down by the lipase enzymes. The result is single fatty acids packaged in what are called micelles which make their way into the cells that line intestines.

Fat Transport and Storage

Once in the cells that line the intestines, these fatty acids are recombined to form triglycerides before they enter they lymphatic circulation as chylomicrons. Chylomicrons are big packages of lipids that carry the triglycerides through the lymphatic system to the bloodstream, where they finally make their way to other cells of the body.

Fat is mainly stored in the liver (a very metabolically active organ), as well as fat tissue throughout the body. Fats are also deposited in muscle cells, potentially leading to intramyocellularlipotoxicity – a long word that describes the root cause behind insulin resistance, and potentially subsequent diabetes.

Fat Metabolism

Fats can then be used by cells to create energy… lots of energy! One fatty acid creates up to 5 times as much energy as one molecule of glucose. However, this process only happens under certain conditions, since as we discussed before, the body’s preferred fuel source is carbohydrates, glucose. Additionally, fatty acid are mostly broken down by the liver, their main storage organ.

Fatty acids are broken down to create cellular energy in only a few circumstances; when we are fasting, when we are doing aerobic exercise, and when we are on a strict ketogenic diet (eating essentially just fat).

When fatty acids are broken down we get a bunch of ketone bodies, which are the ultimate fuel sources. These ketones have become a hot topic lately as the ketogenic diet has gained popularity. Many exogenous ketone products – supplements that contain ketone bodies – are hot sellers, promising a way to “hack” the metabolism to provide energy without directly taking in any fat or carbohydrates.

Unless someone is eating a very low carbohydrate diet that depletes cells of glucose entirely, such exogenous ketone products are largely ineffective, as the body is always going to preferentially metabolize glucose.

How much fat do I need to be healthy, and which fats should I eat?

This is the million dollar question.

Dietary fat, especially saturated fat, leads to increased cholesterol levels. But some argue that we need a certain amount of fat to maintain enough cholesterol to synthesize hormones and maintain the integrity of cellular membranes. (Cholesterol provides a structural component to both of these features that are indeed very important to our health.)

The recommended daily intake of fats is between 20-35% of calories, with less than 10% recommended from saturated fats.

If we look at many of the longest living humans, however, dietary fat is far less than this recommendation. For example, in Okinawa, the area where there have been the largest number of centenarians (individuals living past 100 years), fat comprised less than 10% of calories. Their diet that was made up of over 80% carbohydrates, mostly from sweet potatoes and rice, has led to them being one of the healthiest cultures on the planet.

High fat diets, especially those higher in saturated fat, are associated with obesity, diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, and cancer.

When it comes to optimizing fat intake, we know that we need to focus on omega-3s. Keeping the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is important for many reasons. Therefore, optimal fat sources are unsaturated in nature, with higher omega-3 content. Excellent sources of fat include chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, avocados, and olives.

My recommendation is to always get fats from whole food sources over processed fats. For example eat avocados over avocado oil, olives over olive oil, and flax seeds over flax oil. And if you eat fish, go for a piece of wild caught fish over fish oil. When it comes to fish, choose salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, or herring which tend to be smaller, and thus contain less amounts of bioaccumulated toxicants.

How to eat fats
When you think about choosing foods to put on your plate, consider proper food combination.

Since fats are broken down and metabolized differently than carbohydrates, it is important that high carbohydrate starch-based foods are not combined with too much fat, especially saturated fat.

If you want to eat foods that are higher in fat, especially saturated fat, combine these foods with lighter carbohydrates, such as non-starchy vegetables.

How about fat soluble vitamins?

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble vitamins that are important to consider. While these vitamins are carried in fat, we have to remember that (pretty much) all foods contain some amount of fats.

For example, spinach is an exceptional source of vitamin A and vitamin K. We do not need to eat a spinach salad with salmon and olive oil to get those vitamins. Nature designed foods that are perfectly packaged with nutrition to fuel and nourish the body. All we need to do is enjoy nature’s gifts responsibly.

In summary…

1 – Not all fats are created equal

2 – focus on mono and polyunsaturated fats that are higher in omega-3 content

3 – your body prefers carbohydrates for fuel

4 – you don’t need lots of fat in the diet to be healthy

5 – avoid mixing high fat foods (especially saturated fat) with high carb foods (no meat and potatoes!)

6 – fat soluble vitamins don’t require added fats for absorption

 

Blessings of Health,
Dr. Benjamin Alter

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