Let’s talk fat!
But before, a quick introduction to lipids, the bigger category. Lipids are compounds that are insoluble in water, but soluble in organic solvents. Simply put, that’s why we need dishwashing liquids to clean our dirty fatty dishes. The most relevant types of lipids for us are fats, oils, fatty acids, and cholesterol.
As fats are a necessary part of our diet, it is important to learn about the types of fat out there and to become aware of the quality of sources. Fats (triglycerides) consist of a glycerine molecule and three fatty acids. Later on, we will discuss the different types of fatty acids (so the different types of fat).
But first let’s see why are fats useful for our bodies.
Functions of fat within the body
- Provide and store energy
Fats are the most energy rich macronutrients (along carbohydrates and proteins). Each gram of fat gives us 9.3 calories, 2x the amount offered by carbohydrates. Every body cell needs energy to function properly.
- Serve as solvents for fat-soluble vitamins
Without fats, these essential vitamins (E, D, K, A) could not be absorbed by our body. This would eventually lead to vitamin deficiencies.
- Have a protective function
That fat keeps us warm is not just a saying. The fatty tissue beneath our skin serves as an insulating layer, preventing the loss of warmth. It also serves as a protective layer for our organs.
- Have a generative function
All body cells need fat for the production of phospholipids (building blocks of our cell membranes). Our nervous system consists of about 40% of fats. The genitals also have a high concentration of fatty acids.
- Contribute to satiety and to the palatability of our diet
Truth be told, fat really makes our food taste yummy!
The most important issue regarding fat intake, in my view, is not the quantity (though also essential), but the quality of the fat product consumed.
That’s why we need to understand better the different types of fat we consume.
Types of fat
1. Saturated fatty acids
Occur primarily in animal products (butter, milk, cream, cheese, sausage, bacon, meat, lard) and exceptionally in vegetable sources like palm and coconut oil. They have a higher melting point and this is why they are solid at room temperature and only melt when heated.
2. Unsaturated fatty acids
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)
Fats from MUFAs include omega-9 fatty acids, are liquid at room temperature and get solid when refrigerated. The most famous example is olive oil. It is known that MUFAs are susceptible to oxidation processes when facing high temperatures, light, or oxygen, and they may produce harmful substances.
Sources of MUFAs: olive, canola, peanut, sesame, safflower, avocados, peanut butter and many nuts and seeds.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
PUFAs include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and they stay liquid while refrigerated. There are 2 PUFAs essential (which means the body is not able to produce them by itself) for humans :
- alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid)
- linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).
Nowadays, linoleic acid is consumed in quite large amounts, whereas the alpha-linolenic acid is rather scarce in our diets. An excess of linolenic acid causes an excessive production of arachidonic acid, which promotes inflammatory processes in the body. An imbalance on a mid to long term can cause chronic inflammatory based diseases: arthritis, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, Alzheimer’s. I will talk about the correct ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and how to integrate it in our daily diet in a different post.
3. Trans fatty acids
Most of the trans fatty acids (90%) are not even naturally occuring, but created during hydrogenation, a process that turns liquid oils into solid fats. This method, for example, is used to create margarine. All molecules still exist, but the configuration changes. This ‘small’ change also affects the quality of fat drastically. Trans fatty acids don’t have any useful functions and are even dangerous to our health, especially when consumed excessively. Trans fatty acids occur in almost all ready-made meals. You can usually read them on the labels under partly hardened fats, hardened fats or vegetable fats.
Tips on correct fat consumption
1. Choose the foods rich in fat over their isolated oils
As often as possible, choose olives instead of olive oil, sunflower seeds instead of sunflower oil, freshly ground linseeds instead of linseed oil, etc. The quality of fat is obviously better stored inside the original food.
2. Choose the best possible quality of oils and fats
This means, whenever possible, choose an organic origin of the raw materials (e.g. olives) and a very gentle production process at low temperatures.
3. Store oil and fats properly
Ideally, oil and fats should be consumed fresh and used up within only a few weeks (PUFAs) or months (MUFAs) after bottling. Since air, warmth and light can cause oxidation, packaging should be dark, tightly closed and stored somewhere cool (that’s why there’s always a hidden oil drawer in most kitchen cabinets).
4. Cooking & Baking with oils and fats
All oils and fats containing unsaturated fatty acids are not suitable for heating as they are 100 to 2500 more susceptible to oxidation during heating than saturated fatty acids.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common used oils and fats.
Olives and olive oil are a great source of healthy fat. But, if subject to high temperatures (above 180°C), it soon loses its many positive traits and is 100 more susceptible to oxidation that saturated fats. Ideally, it should only be added as a taste enhancers after cooking or to salads.
Recommendation: avoid heating olive oil and MUFAs in general, at least not beyond 180°C.
It receives both appraisal and criticism. Some advise against its consumption, some for its consumption. It is certain that it is very high in saturated fat, the type which we should take care to avoid. BUT this doesn’t mean we need to avoid coconut or coconut oil completely. What I recommend is to consume it with moderation. In comparison to other saturated fats, it is free from cholesterol and it is even said to contribute to decreasing cholesterol levels. It’s also said that it activates metabolism in general.
Recommendation: can be used for cooking, but with moderation. It’s very useful to our skin though as I pointed out in this homemade coffee-coconut scrub post.
Canola or rapeseed oil
There’s controversy around this type of oil as well. In its pure form (gently extracted), canola oil is a healthy and safe form of fat. If the canola oil we consume belongs to RBDs (Refined, Bleached & Deodorised), we should avoid it. This term tells us that the oils were processed after being produced (they were refined). Most often this process is so intense that the oil loses its natural color and flavor and, most of the times, also its many natural nutrients. Even more, it’s assumed that “most canola oil is chemically extracted using hexane, which can affect the stability of the oil’s molecules and can even create trans fats”. There are cold-pressed options of canola oil and as well (more expensive) which can be included in a healthy diet.
Recommendation: avoid heating canola oil, at least not beyond 180°C. Use in small amounts (e.g. 1 tbsp to enhance a salad taste) and opt for the cold-pressed / unrefined options.
Avocado or avocado oil
The first time I ate avocado was 15 years ago, when I was visiting my family in South Africa. I found it tasteless, weirdly fatty and with a horrible texture. For a considerable period of time, I think I didn’t even know guacamole’s main ingredient is avocado. Fast forwarding 10 years later, I can’t get enough of it. There’s various ethical discussions around the growing consumption of avocado worldwide, but this is not in scope for this article. From a nutritional point of view, avocado is a great source of fat. Avocado contains a variety of essential nutrients and important phytochemicals. Avocado oil consists of 71% MUFAs, 13% PUFAs, and 16% saturated fatty acids (SFA), which helps to promote healthy blood lipid profiles and enhance the bioavailability of fat soluble vitamins (already mentioned).
Recommendation: preferably eat avocado rather than avocado oil, the ideal serving size being 1/2 of avocado / person. I love eating squeezing some lemon or lime over it and eat it as a breakfast or snack.
Ghee or butter
Despite the recommendation to reduce saturated fats in general, fats from saturated fatty acids are still the better option when it comes to cooking, baking and frying. Ghee is a form of clarified butter which contains fewer dairy proteins than regular butter. It is often used in Asian (especially Indian) cuisine. Ghee has a higher burning point that most vegetable oils and than standard butter, so it is assumed to be ideal for frying.
Recommendation: You will most probably not like it 🙂 But my recommendation is to avoid frying generally, as high temperatures damage the nutritional profile of foods and we end up eating loads of fat, but less of vitamins or enzymes. Nevertheless, for that omelet or fried zucchini, I would recommend (non-vegans) to use ghee instead of butter, especially when sensitive to lactose or casein.
5. Moderation is key
But moderation can mean different quantities of fat for different people. Age, lifestyle, heart condition, sex and even psychological conditions are some of the important criteria that usually lead to different recommendations of consumption amounts.
Some sources say fat should represent 20-30% of total calories per person per day. With simple math, this means that a person consuming 1800 kcal/day, daily fat intake should be 40-60 grams/day with approximately 20-30 gram from cooking oil (visible fat). Needless to say that if you consume animal products (meat, eggs, dairy) it’s quite easy to overpass that limit.
In The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, a book that I recently read, R. Kurzwell mentions that reducing the fat consumption to 10% can save your life. The book has a very mathematical and practical approach to why reducing fat consumption benefits us on all aspects of our lives, but particularly to combat heart disease. I find the How to Eat Revisited and the Quick and Lean Cuisine chapter particularly useful as they show classical recipes converted to their low-fat equivalent and all kinds of tips on how to reduce our daily fat consumption without affecting satiety or food palatability.
7. Purchase meat & eggs from organic sources
And my intention is not to over praise the ‘bio’ and ‘organic’ marketing mania that is so present everywhere nowadays. But even as R. Kurzwell points out in his book, despite pesticides being originally applied to grains and vegetables, they end up being highly concentrated in meat. And that is, he mentions, “because it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat”. So buying meat and eggs from animals that are pasture-fed is not a fad, it’s really a life-saving choice.
8. Last but not least, EXERCISE
Even moderate exercise is of immense benefit. At least 4 days a week of moderate aerobic exercise is recommended. And, to be honest, that can simply mean a 30 minutes walk. Walk to work if possible, leave your car home, skip those 4 bus stations or simply make park visits a habit. Both your body and your brain (mood) will say thank you.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or on Instagram.
Disclaimer: all content in this article was written by myself, unless stated otherwise. The provided information is purely informative and represent my views on food and nutrition formed during my Nutrition studies and other sources I consider reliable (studies, papers, scientific articles). This article is not meant to substitute for advice or treatment of qualified medical professionals. Always consider your medical condition first.