What’s up with Fat? Part 2

As promised, here is the followup blog on fats. In case you missed it, you may want to check out part one, in which current hot topics relating to fat were discussed. This post will be devoted to explaining the types of fat we eat and the possible health impacts of each.

We consume fat through food in the form of triglycerides and break them down to their component fatty acids in the body. 

Fats we eat are referred to as
saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.
In reality, foods contain a combination of each.

Looking at the chart below, you may understand why it is difficult to call things the “best” or “worst,” especially after reading more about the implications of each type of fatty acid.  

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For example, canola oil contains the lowest percentage of saturated fatty acids, which can raise your risk of heart disease. Yet safflower and sunflower oils contain a much higher percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are shown to be protective against heart disease. Confused yet? Read on. 

One more thing. See palm oil? You may notice that it has more saturated fat than lard. Palm oil is everywhere- keep an eye out. I’m not suggesting you never consume it, because the amounts used may be small. However, it is used like any other food additive. To enhance the shelf life, visual appearance, or taste of food, manufacturers may compromise the nutritional value of the products we end up eating.

As consumers, we are partially to blame for this, but we can also decide how much we will tolerate. For example, some natural nut butters add palm oil to reduce separation, even though the only necessary ingredients are dry roasted nuts and a little salt. Is the ease of spreading worth a few grams of saturated fat? Do we, as consumers, demand a perfectly homogenized product that requires no stirring? “Vote with your wallet,” as they say…  

Saturated fatty acids (SFAs)

Sometimes called solid fats. Found in substantial amounts in meat products like beef, pork, and chicken, butter and lard, but also in coconut oil, palm oil, and full-fat dairy*.

Eating a diet high in saturated fat 
can increase your risk of heart disease.

How much is too much? Check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Released by the USDA with input from nutrition and health professionals, the guidelines suggest limiting intake to 10% of total calories, or 44-78 grams per day**. 

Poly unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)

The 2 types of polyunsaturated fatty acids are Omega 6 and Omega 3:

  • Omega 6 PUFAs are the most abundant form of PUFAs, found in most vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butters.
  • Omega 3 PUFAs are found abundantly in the following fish species: Salmon, Mackeral, Sardines, Herring, and Tuna, and Trout

Research has found that
even a small replacement
of SFAs with Omega 6 or Omega 3 PUFAs
can reduce the risk for heart disease.

Yes, whoa! Sauteing your onions in safflower oil instead of butter could improve your health! 

Omega 3 gets extra attention because it can convert to the eicosanoids EPA and DHA, which have anti-inflammatory properties.

  • This conversion is most efficient from fish sources of omega 3.
    • The American Heart Association and Dietary Guidelines for Americans both recommend eating fish twice a week.
    • Before jumping to supplements, consider learning more and talking to your doctor. More is not always better in the case of supplements: There can be side effects and dangerous medication interactions if taken incorrectly or in too high a dose.
    • If you choose to supplement, buy from a trusted source.
  • Omega 3 can be found in small quantities in some nut and seed oils (primarily flax oil***). However, the conversion to EPA and DHA is much lower from vegetable sources.

Mono unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)

Olive oil contains the greatest percentage of MUFAs, but canola oil also has high amounts. 

  • Research is mixed about the impact of MUFAs on heart disease, yet olive oil is a big component of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to be protective against heart disease.
  • Although the research is mixed, most health professionals still consider MUFAs to be a part of a heart-healthy diet because of the positive health outcomes of people who consume them, even if we don’t know quite why.
  • Consume olive oil as part of a varied diet of fat intake that also contains fat from nuts, avocados, and other PUFA oils. 
  • Olive oil is best used in low-heat applications, such as in salad dressings and as a flavor to top pasta and veggies. 

Trans fatty acids

Not featured on the chart above, industrial trans fats were found in many processed foods until fairly recently. Industrial trans fats will not be allowed in food by 2018 because research has definitively linked them to an increased risk of heart disease

    • Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, these may still be found in foods until 2018, so check ingredient lists to limit consumption as much as possible
    • Naturally occurring trans fatty acids will still exist in the food supply in some meats and dairy products. Little is known about the effects of consuming natural trans fats, so be on the lookout for news in the future!

After reading about the component fatty acids, refer back to the chart that lists the common food sources. Now consider the things that matter to you: Tradition? Taste? A good sale price? GMOs? Consider this post as a reference in case you really want to dig in, but you may also leave with the following quick guide:

Consider liquid vegetable and seed oils
to be a good choice for cooking,
avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butters
good for snacking,
and continue to follow most old-school advice
that advises limiting red meat consumption. 

Keep in mind that fat is an integral part of any diet, particularly in those of developing bodies like infants, children, and pregnant or nursing women. Fat can make a meal more satisfying and helps to keep you full for longer. Eating fat can also replace not-so-good carbohydrates or sugar in a diet.

However, fat contains the most calories per gram of any macro-nutrient you can eat. Although calories are not the whole picture in weight loss and health, eating a moderate number of calories in a day is still an important part of a healthy diet. 

A quick note: I tried Full Sun’s VT-produced, non-GMO Sunflower seed oil recently and loved it! There are many good options, shoot me an email if you need recommendations about what the heck to buy in the grocery store. 

*New research is emerging which questions our concern with full-fat dairy. Several studies suggest that full-fat dairy may indeed be part of a healthy diet, and that it may improve weight and potentially prevent disease. These results are still inconclusive based on the limited study, but keep an eye out for new information in the coming months.

For now, healthy-weight individuals may consider full-fat dairy as a reasonable element of their diet, and focus saturated fat restrictions on those that come from meat products. Anyone dealing with calorie restrictions for weight loss or other health needs should continue to consume low-fat dairy, as currently recommended by the USDA. 

**based on a 2,000 calorie diet for healthy adults and children over the age of 2.

***Flax oil becomes rancid (ie. Oxidized) extremely quickly. In order to access the health potential of flax oil, buy in small quantities from good vendors and use quickly. All oils should be checked for expiration dates and purchased in quantities that will be replaced with regularity. 

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