Dietary Fats Explained (Plus Video)

In the latest episode of my Contemporary Nutrition Series with Michael Hince on Vision Australia Radio, I dealt with the myths surrounding dietary fat.

However, our 30-minute session wasn’t really long enough to give you all the necessary information, so as we promised in the show, I am giving you more detailed resources in the video and blog post below.

The complexity of this topic is enormous and I hope this blog post will clarify the subject for those who still feel confused.

You may have noticed that my recommendations are not consistent with the dietary guidance provided in Australia by organisations such as the Heart Foundation, or that offered by other major health organisations around the world. The information that I present to you is what I have found to be true as a scientist and a nutritionist. I have devoted a lot of time to researching this topic over the years, and I have taken into consideration all the pros and cons of the different arguments and analysed all the data available to me. These are the main conclusions I have reached:

  • Low-fat diets don’t prevent heart disease. They also don’t help with weight loss. In fact, such diets are actually fuelling the obesity crisis.
  • The consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (1, 2, 3, 4).
  • Saturated fat is a vital and nourishing food that we ought to have in our diet.
  • All natural fats are essential to our wellbeing, with the exception of trans fatty acids and rancid or burned oils.
  • Man-made, highly processed vegetable/seed oils and margarine aren’t healthy. In fact, they promote cardiovascular disease (5, 6, 7, 8).

I explain my thinking below. For more information, see the article on fats I recently published in Nourish magazine. And if you already own my cookbook, Trupps’ Wholefood Kitchen, see the articles Cholesterol myth’ and ‘The truth about fats’. If you don’t have the book, you might be tempted to purchase it and try my nourishing, balanced, wholefood recipes.

There are three types of fat in nature – about 50% of the human body is made up of saturated fats, about 40% is mono-unsaturated fats and the rest is a combination of various polyunsaturated fats. Let’s briefly look at the chemical structure of these fats so you can better understand my conclusions:

  1. Saturated fat molecules are straight molecules that are tightly packed together. They are stable at room temperature and they take heat well. (Examples: butter, ghee, tallow)
  2. Mono-unsaturated fat molecules, which are called fatty acids, are twisted at one point in their chemical structure. They remain in liquid form at room temperature but harden up when refrigerated and are quite stable when heated up. (Examples: olive, sesame and avocado oils)
  3. Polyunsaturated fats, like omega-6, omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids, have several twists – or double bonds – in their chemical structure (usually three or more). They don’t pack together easily and that’s why they remain in liquid form even when refrigerated. They have exposed electrons that can easily bond with air and become rancid. (Examples: safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils)

All three types of fat are important to human health and should be incorporated into your diet in balanced proportions. Saturated fat is not dangerous to human health – on the contrary, when balanced with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, they provide real, measurable benefits in a number of different areas. What is important to understand is that saturated and mono-unsaturated fats are very resistant to heat and air and therefore are good to cook with. They last a long time and are safe to eat because they don’t oxidise easily.

Polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are fragile. They oxidise easily when exposed to air and heat (in cooking and processing), leading to the creation of free radicals. Free radicals act extremely aggressively in the body, causing uncontrolled reactions. They injure the arteries and contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease. We also know that free radicals cause premature aging.

Let’s look at the manufacturing process for these fragile vegetable oils.

They undergo bleaching, refining, hydrogenation and heating, and are then broken down into free radicals and deodorised so we can’t tell that they are rancid. But they are – they are packed with free radicals. And then we are given these oils and told to cook with them, which exposes them to more heat and damages them even further! This is unacceptable. This food that allegedly protects your health instead does a lot of damage to your body.

And let’s not forget about trans fatty acids. What happens when we eat lots of trans fatty acids is that these are mistakenly recognised by your body as saturated fats and incorporated into your cells. The research shows that trans fatty acids block chemical reactions in the body and interfere with the receptors on cell membranes. They also interfere with cell communications and signalling. The list of diseases that can arise from the overconsumption of trans fatty acids includes:

  • atherosclerosis
  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • degeneration of joints and tendons
  • osteoporosis
  • diabetes
  • autoimmune system diseases
  • eczema
  • growth disorders
  • learning disabilities
  • low baby birth weight

Knowing this, surely we do not want to overconsume the trans fatty acids that are found in margarines and processed vegetable oils – the very foods that are recommended by the Heart Foundation as healthier alternatives to butter. By the way, did you watch the recent episode of A Current Affair that showed some industry experts arguing for the removal of the heart tick? Click HERE if you missed it.

According to Edward Pinckney, author of Cholesterol Controversy (1973) as well as the editor of four medical journals and former co-editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, these are some of the dangers associated with consuming rancid polyunsaturated vegetable oils:

  • increased heart disease
  • increased cancers
  • interference with hormone production
  • depression of learning ability
  • damage to reproductive organs
  • increased digestive disorders
  • impaired growth

You may have realised from Pinckney’s book’s year of publication that this information isn’t new. We have known for a long time that rancid polyunsaturated vegetable oils aren’t good for us. We have also long known that the vegetable oil industry is a big business – so big, in fact, that it has a lot of power to influence many people. We all can think of a margarine advertisement that has tried to brainwash us into believing that margarine is a superior product to butter. The demonisation of saturated fats has been going on for at least half a decade and it will take a lot of time for everyone to catch up with the truth. And the truth is that we will do just fine by eating natural, unprocessed wholefoods – the foods that your grandparents would recognise.

Recently, I came across an article that claimed the oil industry has invented a trans fatty acid–free oil made from genetically modified soybeans. It was stated that this is a healthier alternative to either animal saturated fats or the industry’s older version of vegetable oils that were packed with trans fats. Don’t get fooled here. Saturated animal fat and olive oil are much healthier options for you. Do not go anywhere near oils that have been genetically modified, highly hydrogenated and so on. Let’s not be guinea pigs for this disturbing industry. You don’t want to find out for yourself what the adverse effects are of consuming these products.

Let me repeat my main point here: man-made, processed vegetable and seed oils – such as canola, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean, corn, safflower and many other seed oils – are all polyunsaturated oils that should not be exposed to heat and hydrogenation. We should not cook with them. We should not eat so much of them.

If we again think of the composition of our body – 50% saturated fats, 40% mono-unsaturated fats, 10% polyunsaturated fats – it is clear that we will be doing very well if we predominantly use saturated fats like butter, coconut oil or ghee for cooking. Olive oil we can use for salad dressings. We can also add small amounts of polyunsaturated oils such as fish oil or flaxseed oil to meals, or we can simply make sure we eat enough fish, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies. These oils are essential to human health but there is no need to over-consume them.

According to Mary Enig, a lipid biochemist and an authority on fats, saturated fats have enormous benefits (9, 10) that almost no-one talks about. She says it is time that people take notice of how essential saturated fats are to a healthy diet. In short, saturated fats:

  • are crucial to the formation of cell membranes
  • enhance hormone production
  • suppress inflammation
  • help insulin reception in cases of diabetes
  • enhance the immune system
  • encourage the production of sex hormones
  • carry vitamins A, D, E and K2.
  • lower lipoprotein, a substance in the blood that indicates vulnerability to heart disease
  • protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins
  • protect the digestive tract from harmful microorganisms
  • help the lungs and kidneys to function properly

Also consider these facts:

  • For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the body’s skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats you consume should be saturated.
  • Saturated fats do not go rancid, even when heated, and so are an ideal choice for all-purpose cooking.
  • Special fats found in coconut oils – medium-chain saturated fatty acids – help with weight loss, provide a quick energy boost and are antimicrobial (they kill pathogens, including candida, in the gut). They also aid intercellular communication, which helps prevent cancer.
  • Vitamin D, which is abundant in saturated fats, helps the body make neurochemicals that protect you against depression and assist in countless chemical reactions. Many Australians suffer from vitamin D deficiency, despite living in such a sunny country. I wonder why. Maybe it’s because they’ve stopped eating butter …

To summarise, these are my recommendations:

  • Throw your margarine and man-made vegetable oils into the rubbish bin. Don’t waste your money on these products.
  • Use only fats that our ancestors would recognise: all animal fats and tropical oils. You can store these at room temperature, though they will last longer if you keep them in the fridge. Spend your money on fats sourced from grass-fed animal, such as beautiful organic butter, ghee, tallow and lard. You can also use coconut oil, as it has some wonderful health properties.
  • Use olive oil, sesame oil and avocado oil in salads. Store these oils in dark glass containers.
  • For medical purposes, use omega-3 oils such as fish and flaxseed oil as supplements. Store these in the fridge. Eat foods that contain essential polyunsaturated omega 3-6-9 fatty acids, because the food protects their chemical structure and chances your body gets health giving properties of these oils are higher. East plenty of fresh, unprocessed nuts and seeds such as walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, sea wheat, whole grains, green leafy vegetables and all fish.

Stay well by changing the way you eat today. Your body will thank you for it.

Join me for the next episode of my Contemporary Nutrition Series on Vision Australia Radio with Michael Hince, where we’ll discuss detoxification.