The Big FAT Issue...More than Insulation!
After getting the “base” of our foundation built with proper protein sources, it’s time to get all the fun stuff behind and inside our walls installed. That’s right...I’m talking about our insulation, pipes, and wires. “So what do these things represent in my body?” Well, it's everyone's least favorite macro...FAT. This macro gets a bad rap from people thinking “eating fat will make me fat”. A perception perpetuated by generations of fad-dieting and short-sighted health recommendations, we've demonized this essential macro-nutrient long before people hated carbs. In this article, I’ll teach you how fat makes our building walls functional; while giving you the secrets to choosing the right fats for your dietary plan. Continuing our metaphor from “Protein: Your CONCRETE Foundation”, we organize our meals like we would construct a sturdy building that works for us:
First, we establish a proper protein foundation, and
Next, we pick the appropriate fats to give function to our framework...
Fats essentially give us the way to get utilities from our generators to the electronics and appliances that run our bodies. Without enough wiring, piping, etc to regulate our utilities, nothing works properly and our building never gets up to code. In our bodies, fat acts as the conduit for those utilities between cells and tissues. It regulates the fat-dependent processes that keep us alive, rather than being used to regulate electricity, water, sewage, etc.
Restricting fat in your diet is counterproductive to your health, as it would disrupt all of the systems/functions mentioned above and more. We should therefore liken low-fat dieting to telling your contractor "just make it work” when he says you need more materials for your building. We NEED fat to maintain and regulate these day to day functions, so your fat intake should never be less than 20-40% of your intake (depending on specific goals and body type).
Question: "So what kind of fats should I be eating?"
Answer: ALL KINDS
There are many types of fat, but basically the kind of fat you want to consider for your meal is dependent on the way you plan on preparing the food. For cooking, saturated fats and most healthy monounsaturated fats are going to be solid at room temperature and stable when cooked. So if you plan to cook in a fat to add flavor, these are the most relevant ones to pick from. Animal proteins, nuts, avocados and olives are examples of foods rich in these two kinds of fat. We need them in our diets to make our hormones, protect our heart and regulate our blood sugar levels; but they're not as popular as they should be. So why did our grandparents know to cook with animal fats, but now people use more plant fats?...and who's right?
Since a Senate committee ruling in 1977, people have been persuaded to substitute plant oils for the animal fats we were used to cooking with before. That's when canola and other processed oils were recommended by our government. More recently, you've probably heard how you "shouldn't cook with olive oil because it has a low flash point". Unfortunately, in both cases, the information was highly misleading. The term "flash point" refers to when an oil gets hot enough to catch fire. In the case of olive oil, that point is approximately 437 degrees Fahrenheit...meaning what they were actually referring to is the fat's "Smoke Point". where an oil begins to chemically react under heat. Now, let's look at some common healthy oils in the context of their smoke points to see if it gives us any perspective on what to cook with or not...
Oils and Fats by Smoke Point
*Values for Cod Liver Oil have been averaged from multiple sources since varying processes produce varying measures.
Green = Safe, Yellow = Conditionally Safe at or below 350 degrees Fahrenheit, Red = Highly Volatile under any heat (never cook)
**Misleading smoke point miscategorizes health benefits of sunflower oil
By this smoke point parameter (and 350 degrees being the average cooking temperature for most dishes), it wouldn't make sense why olive oil would be any different than butter or coconut oil. So what makes these oils different? A 1997 article by De Montfort University's Martin Grootveld challenged the shift toward using plant fats for cooking. His findings showed that the total percentage of saturated and monounsaturated fats in a food or oil being over 80% (with polyunsaturated fats being under 20%) are what really lend chemical stability and make them safer for cooking. Not considering those values would make one believe that sunflower oil in the above diagram would be among the safest cooking oils. So, since three of these oils don't fit the general "smoke/flash point" theory, let's see how Grootveld's theory would order our fats list...
Cooking Safety of Fats by Polyunsaturated vs Non-Polyunsaturated Status
Green = Saturated + Monounsaturated Fats >80% AND Polyunsaturated Fats <20%
(Note - due to Omega-9 and other unlisted fats, not all totals = 100% in this diagram)
Dr. Grootveld's parameters don't quite put them in the correct order either (because avocado oil should be near the top), so let's dig deeper. A group of polyunsaturated fats that we have to get in the diet are called "essential fatty acids". Known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, their levels are an important consideration for how we prioritize our fat intake because our bodies can't make them from other foods.
In general, think of the essential fats as the “switches” for various systems in your body. They are what turn on and off specific processes like repairing tissues, monitoring lipids and altering your metabolism. When our tissues are damaged, a signal to inflame gets sent out from the damaged cells (via our wiring) to let the body know it needs repairing. The Omega-6’s we store from our foods are what “switch on” this inflammation to rebuild the cells. Without that switch, we wouldn’t be able to heal, protect against infections or many other inflammatory processes needed to keep us alive. In this regard, Omega-6's act as the smoke alarm of our bodies...alerting us to areas needing attention.
On the flip side, the ANTI-inflammatory fats (the Omega-3’s) actually “switch off” the inflammatory processes of Omega-6’s. Without the Omega-3 “off switch”, we would still have every bump from every mosquito bite, bruise from every beating, etc. In this sense, we also need a disarm button to disable the alarm once it has served its purpose. The Standard American Diet (SAD) usually contains much more of the inflammatory Omega-6's than Omega-3's, so most health experts recommend prioritizing Omega-3's in the diet. From that perspective, we would expect to see our fat priority order look something like the following:
Fats/Oils Organized by Omega-3 %
The downside with Omega-3's is that they break down under ANY heat, and should never be used for cooking. High levels of Omega-3's (like in flaxseed oil, cod liver oil or fish oils) will become rancid and degrade under ANY heat, so they would be better as additives rather than cooking them at all. So again, we see that organizing fats this way doesn't help us much. Meaning maybe Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratios should be considered, but not as our main focus. Perhaps we should think of the essential fatty acids like insulation in the walls of our building instead. Just like insulation, we would wait until we have the framework and utilities of our house (protein and other fats) set up before we finish with these unsaturated oils as additives.
To summarize what we've learned so far, there have been multiple incomplete theories as to how you should choose fats:
Cooking with foods high in saturated and monounsaturated fats is healthier; so grandma was on the right track
Smoke point should be considered, but is not the end all when choosing fats...and
Polyunsaturated fat oils are highly volatile under heat, so they would be better as additives than for cooking
With these lessons in mind, we've created a novel perspective that you can implement TODAY! You've decided the protein you want to eat, so cooking with our green category fats will maintain the integrity of your meal. Yellow category fats should be used with caution because only low temperature cooking would keep your meal healthy. For this reason, our yellows would work best in light sautées, dips and finishings (poured onto meals after cooking). Red category fats would be exclusively used as finishers, flavor additives or nutritional supplements to shakes, etc; due to their high volatility under heat. Whether you are on a detoxification (vegan or vegetarian), anti-inflammatory (paleo or keto) or general health dietary parameter, these rules will help enhance what you are trying to accomplish physiologically!
Cooking vs Conditional vs Additive Fats
Green = Safe for Cooking, Yellow = Conditionally Safe for Cooking or as an additive, Red = Additive use only and never for cooking
**Misleading smoke point miscategorizes health benefits of sunflower oil
Now you know the best way to choose your fats, so let's review. First, you establish what protein you're going to have in the meal...ideally with natural fats already included (grass-fed livestock or seafood sources). Second, complete your fat needs by adding monounsaturated fats like nuts and seeds (or plan snacks with them to round out the day). And lastly, cook the meal in green category fats or add yellow/reds in a productive way to balance the meal. As with everything, you'll want to vary which ones you use and how often so that no sensitivities develop. With this process you'll have the strongest and most functional building on the block! Not only will your foundation be rock-solid, but your body's systems will work better than you've ever felt them...think your very own Colosseum, attracting crowds and inspiring games galore!
Summary: Choose grass-fed and seafood proteins to get the healthiest fat sources first, complement with nuts and seeds, and add flavor by cooking with or adding oils according to the above table.
Before reading this article, you might have known that our body fat was used to insulate the body and keep us warm. What you probably DIDN'T know, was that we don't get our body fat from eating fat (we'll teach you how that actually happens in another article). The big take-away from this lesson being that misusing fats (like you probably were before), would be like insulating your building before getting the roof on and not knowing why it got wet and fell apart. Knowing when and how to implement fats in your diet will put your health ahead of any insults that may come your way...because after all...fat is more than just insulation.
Now that you’ve mastered your fats, it’s time to move onto the final part of this three part series on macronutrients: carbohydrates. We’ll have that article out soon, so make sure to subscribe to our website for exclusive offers and content if you haven't already. Have a friend that needs this info? Share the good word and you won't be the only one in your group that now knows what FAT is really all about!
Thank you and remember to keep learning, working hard and having fun with your nutrition!
edited and curated by SYX