Fats have gotten a bad reputation in the past 60-odd years with government agencies telling us to swap fats for carbs with the notoriously inaccurate and incorrect food pyramid, built on unscientific foundations. And that’s before “food” companies exploited our desire to be fit by selling the skinny lifestyle with “low-fat” this and “zero calories” that. And let’s collectively dismiss “I can’t believe it’s not butter!” I can certainly believe it’s not butter. Finally – thankfully – Health Canada and the F.D.A. are set to ban trans fats (the most consequential offender to health) in 2018.
Science has radically matured from the ’50s and ’60s and, with it, our understanding of fats. So we shouldn’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole crop. Just as there are bad fats, there are good fats. Chemically speaking, the distinction between saturated and unsaturated fats comes from the presence, or lack, of a double bond somewhere in the compound’s structure. The double bond(s) makes unsaturated fats more fluid at room temperature. Simply put, unsaturated fats are healthy; saturated fats are ok when balanced with unsaturated fat and bad when relatively abundant; trans fats are flat out horrible for the living organisms and ought to be avoided at all costs.
So I can end this article on a happy note, we’ll leave the Spaghetti Western reference behind and start with…
When vegetable oil is heated in the presence of hydrogen and a heavy-metal catalyst, hydrogen atoms bond to the carbon chain, solidifying the oil and keeping it from going rancid. This process is called hydrogenation, and trans fats are a by-product of it.
Ingesting trans fats has been shown to increase levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad one)and decrease levels of HDL cholesterol
(the good one). Trans fats irritate inflammation, which is linked to heart disease and stroke. They contribute to insulin resistance, which can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. In fact, trans fats are so potent that for every 2% of calories ingested daily from trans fats, the risk of heart disease increases by 23%.
Saturated fats, while not explicitly unhealthy in the same way as trans fats, they’re not particularly wholesome. Saturated fats are what you find in red meat, dairy products, and coconut oil.
Consuming too many saturated-fat-containing foods has been shown toraisecholesterol levels in the favour of LDL, facilitating blockage formation in the heart’s arteries. In moderation, feel free to enjoy red meat and dairy, so long as saturated fats are limited to 10% of your daily calorie intake. But, to be cautious, sack saturated fats from your diet altogether.
Good fats are your mono- and polyunsaturated fats (referring to the number of double bonds), the latter of which can be divided into two broad categories: omega-3 and omega-6. And what do these essential fatty acids do, you ask?
- Strengthen individual cell’s cell membrane and galvanize nerve sheaths
- Assist blood clotting, muscle movement, and control the inflammatory response
- Aid the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and a swath of other minerals
- Catalyze blood sugar stability
- Support hormonal balance
- Affect the quality of hair, skin, and nail growth
- Encourage cognitive abilities like memory and attention
Now – both the 6 and 3 variants play a role in keeping you healthy. Omega-6 incites inflammation while omega-3 subdues it. When we speak of inflammation as a result of poor diets and adrenal fatigue, what we’re really talking about is excessive inflammation. In and of itself, inflammation is a natural response to trauma and integral to our survival as it helps protect our bodies from infection and injury.
However, the modern Western diet has thrown the omega-6:3 ratio off balance by cooking everything in oils (sunflower, corn, or grapeseed oil) rich in omega-6 while forgoing additional omega-3s. Given the inflammation-facilitating nature of omega-6, in the context of the Western diet, it’s no surprise that the majority of diseases doctors diagnose can be traced to an inappropriate inflammatory response.
The research of Dr. Stephan Guyenet tells us that hunter-gatherer and other non-industrial cultures (cultures that did not suffer from uniquely Western diseases) operated at an omega-6:3 ratio ranging from 4:1 to 1:4. A vast difference from the 16:1 ratio Westerners consume today.
Reclaiming the Balance
Use the table below to bring your diet into a healthy equilibrium. If you see a dietary source of omega-6 that you regularly eat, consider lowering the amount in your diet. Conversely, if you see an omega-3 food that you don’t eat often, consider adding it to your diet.
Foods that are…
|High in Omega-3||High in Omega-6||
|Flax & hemp seeds||Walnuts||Poultry & eggs (organic ONLY)|
|Herring & Sardines||Almonds||Avocado|
|Strawberry & kiwi||Soybeans|
|Dark leafy greens (Arugula, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, sauerkraut, spinach, dandelion greens, kale, collard greens, mustard greens)||Most vegetable oils (grapeseed, canola, hemp, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, corn)|