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Good and Bad Fats or More Complicated?

In the last few years most health oriented individuals have been exposed to a wide range of information regarding implementing good fats in our diets. For many years there were fads about ‘low fat’ diets or using hydrogenated vegetable fats (i.e. margarine) for health. Today we know both of these approaches are completely erroneous. 

Fats are an important and necessary component of all healthy diets, and an unfortunate component of unhealthy diets as well. So where is the line drawn and what exactly are the differences between good and bad fats? There are a wide variety of fats that we ingest in our diet, some are oils that are either animal or plant derived and others are right inside the foods. Fats are always made up of fatty acids that are their building blocks and are also what the body then breaks down to absorb. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that there is no black and white answer regarding what a good and bad fat is. We must look at quantity, quality, ratios and how are the fats being used especially when we are speaking about cooking with oils.

Saturated and Animal Fats

Animal fats include things like butter, lard and other fats found in meats, fish and their derivatives. Plant based fats include oils such as olive, canola, hempseed, sunflower and a wide variety of other ones. When we look at animal based fats we are looking at fats that are generally very rich in saturated fats (with the exception of coconut oil). Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are made up of fatty acids such as palmitic acid, butyric acid, stearic acid and myristic acid. Other saturated fatty acids include caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acids. These are mostly found in coconut oil.

The key with saturated fats are moderation. In small amounts saturated fats especially coconut oil can have several benefits as caprylic acid can have antimicrobial benefits and generally the brain greatly likes these types of fats. The problem is when they are taken in higher amounts and this is often the case in meat heavy Western diets. Some fatty acids that are found in butter for example such as palmitic acid are associated with higher rates of heart disease and recent studies have also found possible links with cancer.

Source of saturated fats

It is therefore recommended to eat saturated fats in moderation and if possible stick to coconut rather than butter. In terms of lard (pig fat), this one is less harmful than thought especially due to high oxidation temperature, many have cooked in this fat and in general we could say that it is less harmful than butter but also has palmitic acid so use in moderation.

Plant Fats, Omegas and Health

Plant fats are the most widely used currently in processed food, restaurants and in homes. For many years plant based oils such as seed oils have been marketed as being more healthy than animal fats. This is a tricky subject as it is full of nuance. Most seed oils are made of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and have varying proportions of omega 3:6 ratios. 

Let’s start with the worst offenders for bad fats, these are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that are found primarily in margarines and processed foods. These have create fats that are fully man made called trans-fats, these fats are associated with high rates of inflammation, heart disease and a wide variety of ailments. These should be avoided at all costs. Monounsaturated fats are also very prevalent in vegetable oils such as olive oil, avocado oil and nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts. These are generally heart healthy and contain very beneficial fatty acids that reduce inflammation such as oleic acid and palmitoleic acid and linoleic acid.

vegan monosaturated fats

There a wide variety of benefits also associated with these various fatty acids including weight loss, lower inflammation and raising good cholesterol. It is important to look into the oxidation level and temperature in terms of cooking. For example olive oil is extremely healthy when used raw or cooked at low temperature but when fried becomes oxidized and loses all its benefits. Avocado oil is a better alternative for cooking. 

Polyunsaturated fats have become the celebrities of the recent interest in good fats and for good reason. The fatty acids that make up polyunsaturated fats include Omega 3s, 6 and 9s. These are found in hempseed oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and soybean.

When looking at the polyunsaturated fatty acids the key is the balance of these acids. High quality hempseed oil (Finola) has the perfect ratio for human health of fatty acids (Omega 6:3 2:1) but this should only be consumed raw and never cooked. Other oils tend to have highly unbalanced  Omega 6:3 ratios with too much omega 6 and not enough 3 in proportion.

Other interest in good fats come from EPA and DHA which most people think is only found in fish oils. This is incorrect as fish absorb it from algae and thus we can also absorb it through algae and in small amounts in oils such as hempseed and walnut. In general we recommend hempseed oil as the healthiest example of a good fat and wish to reiterate the importance of fats for human health and exorcise forever the myth that all fats are bad!

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