Fat is where it’s at. Or so say the keto diet adherents.
But are fats really healthy for you?
And if they are, which fats should you be eating?
If you’re part of the baby boomer generation, then you will have grown up with the adage that fat is bad. Avoid eggs and butter because they’ll clog your arteries and give you a heart attack. But if you’re a millennial, you were probably told that while fat isn’t great, you should consume a little. Eggs and butter are ok, but only in moderation.
Thanks to a fellow known as Ancel Keys, fat has portrayed the villain in the nutrition world for the past generation. But this demonization of fats is misguided. It’s based on old old research. Research that has been thoroughly debunked by modern studies.
While it does seem that public opinion on fats is more neutral than it has ever been, there are not many out there touting the almost-magical benefits of fats. I’m one of the few trying to sway public opinion on how healthy fats are. Read on to learn just how amazing fats are for your health and well-being.
A serious upgrade to your fat education
If a fat comes from plants, it’s healthy. But if a fat comes from animals, it’s going to give you a heart attack.
Does this sound accurate to you?
If it does, it’s time to upgrade your knowledge of fats!
The terms saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated are the lexicon needed in the world of fat. Most of you were told to avoid saturated fat and instead opt for mono and polyunsaturated fat. A common example of this is swapping butter (saturated fat) for margarine (mono and polyunsaturated fat).
Contrary to what you may believe, there are no fats that are exclusively saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. All fats exist as some combination of the three. Whether it’s a macadamia nut, bacon, or anything in between, if it’s fat, it will have a combination of different saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.
FACT: bacon fat is actually higher in unsaturated fat than saturated fat. And it’s the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil (oleic acid)!
I hope you’re starting to see how nuanced fats are. It is not as simple as good fats versus bad fats. There’s much more to fat than meets the eye. Next, let’s upgrade your chemistry!
The fat framework
Fats are nothing more than strings of carbon atoms joined together. Amongst these carbon atoms are spaces that allow other atoms to join the chain. Hydrogen likes to join the party. If all the carbon atoms empty spaces are filled with hydrogen atoms, the fat is said to be saturated with hydrogen. Hence the term saturated fat.
When the carbon atoms crowd out hydrogen by bonding with other carbon atoms, there’s no saturation of hydrogen occurring. Thus, these fats are called unsaturated fats. When there’s just one carbon to carbon double bond, the fat is monounsaturated. If there’s two or more carbon to carbon double bonds, then you’ve got a polyunsaturated fat.
Take a quick look below at the percentages of fat found in common foods:
- Saturated fat = 91%
- Monounsaturated fat = 6%
- Polyunsaturated fat = 3%
- Saturated fat = 19%
- Monounsaturated fat = 48%
- Polyunsaturated fat = 33%
- Olive oil
- Saturated fat = 16%
- Monounsaturated fat = 73%
- Polyunsaturated fat = 11%
- Duck fat
- Saturated fat = 35%
- Monounsaturated fat = 50%
- Polyunsaturated fat = 14%
Notice how each of these fats consists of a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. Remember, there are no fats that are exclusively saturated or unsaturated. Every fat exists as some combination of the three.
Are liquid fats healthier than solid fats?
Have you been told to avoid fats that are solid at room temperature? Or, perhaps you’ve been recommended to only eat fats that are liquid at room temperature?
This has little to do with the health of a fat and more to do with the fat’s chemical structure. The more saturated a fat, the more solid it will be at room temperature. If you put your coconut oil (very high in saturated fat) in the fridge, it’s going to end up being a hard brick. But if you put olive oil in the fridge (mostly monounsaturated fat) it may congeal slightly, but it won’t become solid.
Some use this as a way to differentiate fats from oils. Fats are solid at room temperature. Oils are liquid at room temperature.
The solid vs liquid debate in regards to healthiness does not hold much weight. But it really starts to make a difference when you add heat to a fat. There are certain oils you should use for cooking. And others you need to be sure to avoid!
Cooking with healthy fats on a keto diet
What oil do you fry your eggs in?
Now that you’re an expert chemist on all things fat, it’s time to learn the science behind cooking with fats and oils. Not all fats are made for the frying pan. Heat exerts stress to fats that don’t result in positive health outcomes.
You see, the more saturated a fat is, the more stable it is. The hydrogen bonds found in unsaturated fats makes them less stable when you add heat to the equation. Less stable results in detrimental chemical changes. Changes you don’t want entering your gut!
The next time you need to add oil to your frying or cooking, ensure the fat/oil you choose is predominantly saturated. That means animal fats, butter, and coconut oil make for healthy fats when cooking. But vegetable-based fats like olive oil, canola oil, or grapeseed oil are best avoided when the heat is applied. Save unsaturated fats for salads.
But before you leave this blog as a self-professed fat guru, I need you to know a little more about how fats are made. And the effects that process has on your health…
Unhealthy fats on a keto diet
You’re up to speed on which fats to cook with and which fats to put on your salads, right?
Heat + saturated fat = no worries.
Heat + unsaturated fat = bad.
Now, this scenario gets an added layer of nuance. When you prepare or make animal fat a process known as rendering is used. Rendering is the process of heating up animal fat to make them liquid. This allows you to strain out bits of meat or bone. Since animal fats are primarily saturated, adding a little heat to the equation is of little worry. And the amount of heat needed to render fat is easily obtained on your stovetop.
But when it comes to getting oil out of a vegetable (like corn, soy, or safflower) a lot more heat than your stovetop can produce is needed. To extract fat from foods that aren’t inherently fatty, you need to apply heat and pressure. And a lot of it.
Before you even fry your eggs, theses vegetable-based, unsaturated oils have been exposed to tremendous amounts of heat. Heat that unsaturated oils should not be exposed to. When you subject unstable fats to high heat the fats oxidize. This oxidization of unsaturated fats results in free radicals. If you’re wanting to optimize your health, avoiding free-radical production should be high on your list!
Making sense of the omegas
You’ve probably been told by some health practitioner (or, healthy friend/relative) that you should take fish oil. The reason behind that recommendation is that fish oils are high in omega 3 fatty acids. And omega 3 fatty acids help to lower inflammation.
But there’s more to this theory of inflammation than meets the eye. You see, what’s more important than your intake of omega 3 fatty acids is the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. If your diet is high in omega 6 fatty acids (and nearly everyone’s is) then it doesn’t matter how much fish oil you take, your body will be consumed by the flames of inflammation. That’s why you may have noticed that fish oil improved none of your symptoms. Instead of supplementing omega 3s, decrease your intake of omega 6s.
Don’t think you eat that many omega 6s in a day?
Where is all that omega 6 fat coming from?
It’s coming from those unhealthy seed oils we discussed earlier. Soybean, corn, safflower, and canola oils are ubiquitous in most households. These same oils that are unstable, cause free radical damage and even contribute to inflammation through increasing your levels of omega 6 fatty acids. These are unhealthy fats for a keto diet.
Yes, you can be in ketosis through eating these fats. But no, it’s not healthy. Healthy fats on a keto diet come from animals, olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
A simple way to think about whether you should eat this fat or not is by considering what your ancient ancestors had access to. They did not have access to fancy technology that allowed them to extract oil from corn. But they likely had avocados. And animal fats. If your ancestors had access to it, then in all likelihood your body has evolved and adapted to thrive on that food.
So what the heck do you eat?
What you thought about saturated fat – it causes heart attacks – is turning out to be false. And the advice you were given (and are likely still are given) – decrease saturated fat, increase polyunsaturated fat – is actually contributing to a lot of the negative health outcomes seen in the modern world.
You need to increase your omega-3 intake. More fatty fish, eggs, and pasture-raised animal fat. And you desperately need to decrease your omega-6 intake. Less refined vegetable oils. Less deep frying (unless it’s in duck fat!). Less processed foods.
Eat your fruits and veggies. But try adding healthy fats to them. Brussel sprouts in bacon fat are one of my favorite foods! And please, decrease your intake of refined vegetable oils. Olive oil, avocado oil, nut oils/butter are fine.
It’s the industrial seed oils you need to avoid. Remember, lowering your levels of omega-6 fats is more important than increasing your levels of omega-3 fats.
Now, go have some bacon!