Fats: An Introduction
Today I am here to begin a small series looking in depth at fats. Beginning with what they are and why we need them. Hopefully by the end of this mini series I will cause you to think more about how much fat you have in your life and encourage you to have just a bit more (of the good stuff)!
My own journey into health began the traditional low-fat, high-carb way, where fat was to be avoided at all costs, for eating an avocado was the same sins/points as a mars bar! Butter was obviously evil, and as for animal fat – well you are just asking for the pounds to pile on! This ethos stayed with me for quite a few years until by accident I realised fats don’t necessarily make you fat. I lived in Italy for 6 months, so obviously during this time I ate tons of olive oil, tuna, whole milk in cappuccinos, gelato (made with pure cream), cheese, more olive oil and a bit more cheese. My attitude was one of ‘when in Rome I will eat like the Romans do’ (although I was in Florence and Venice) and expected to put on an extra tyre or two around my hips – but to my surprise I did not, in fact I may have lost a few pounds! Weird because other than sticking mainly to a gluten free diet I was enjoying all the wine and ice cream I desired. This experience was my first education in the fact that not all fats are evil .
Today I am still on a journey of learning about what fats my body needs and likes and what ones to avoid. Being on the GAPS diet has helped with my education as has my introduction to coconut oil – it is my cure-all ingredient for beauty products, baking, meals and skin problems! Although excessive consumption of fat can lead to weight gain (like excessive consumption of any food can) I have found that I am slimmer and more toned than I ever was on my ‘low-fat high-carb/grain’ diet and I eat tons of avocados!
But for today lets go back to the basics, beginning with:
What is fat and why do we need it?
Fats (or lipids) are an essential macronutrient needed for nutrition. High levels of fat are commonly found in meats, dairy products, nuts and seeds and some richer vegetables. We are all aware that fats are to do with energy storage, thats why bears eat lots and get fat before hibernation and why us humans need some stores of fat on our boney frames. This is not its only role though. Many of the vitamins we need for a fully functioning and healthy body are fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin K, A, D and E which means these vitamins are stored and transported through lipids. Fat is also a great protector of our organs which provides padding and protection from trauma and insulation for temperature regulation.
Science Alert! Fats consist mainly of triglycerides, fatty acids and cholesterol/sterols. Fatty acids, simply put, are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen filling the available bonds and can be short, medium or long . Triglycerides comprise 95% of fat in food and our bodies as they are the storage (love handle) form of fat and cholesterol is formed in the body and needed for bile and hormone production.
Types of Fat
Now we have all read labels on food that tell us they are ‘fat free’, ‘polyunsaturated’ or with ‘cholesterol lowering plant extracts’ here is what all those labels mean:
These are known as the most ‘stable’ of lipids because all the carbon atoms are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen atoms. They tend not to go off or rancid and are in a more stable form at room temperature. They are found in animal fats, tropical oils (coconut oil) and your body can also make them from carbohydrates.
These fats cannot be made by your body and are therefore essential fatty acids. These fats, in simple terms, have along their chain several (poly = more than one) double bonds which means there are missing hydrogen atoms (four or more). Omega 3 + 6 are polyunsaturated fats and they are always liquid at room temperature, and due to ‘unpaired’ atoms these are highly reactive and go rancid very easily
Like their ‘poly’ counterparts these fats also have a double bond, but only one (mono = one) and therefore are missing two hydrogen atoms. This mean they are more stable, less likely to go rancid but are also liquid at room temperature. Your body can also make monounsaturated fats from saturated fats and are found most commonly in olive oil and the oils from almonds, peanuts and cashews
Trans (or Hydrogenated) Fats
These are a new type of modern fat that have resulted from the the food industry’s desire to increase the shelf-life of its products and to make more money. They occur when hydrogenation takes place which is when they pump hydrogen into fats (unsaturated fats as they have unpartnered atoms) in an attempt to pair up all the atoms with hydrogen, making it last longer and make it more stable. Good business idea, but a health disaster because during this process some of the unsaturated fats are transformed into a new form called trans fats, which are shown to increase blood cholesterol, hinder infant development, harden the arteries (heart attack) and other common diseases. These fats are found mostly in margarine and other processed foods.
It is worth noting that all fats, whether animal or plant derived, are all combinations of saturated, poly/monounsaturated fats but it is classified by the fat of which is most abundant. For example butter consisted of 60% saturated fat and is therefore considered a saturated fat.
What fats are most abundant in your diet? Are you being misled by buying ‘healthy’ margarine?
Today is just a basic introduction to fats, next time we will look at the myths associated with fats, what to eat what to avoid (trans fats!!) and the benefits of a high fat diet! Controversial!