Unsaturated Fat: “Oh He’s One of Those Guys”
Have you ever seen someone get blacklisted by association with others? Maybe this has happened to you. It has happened to me quite a bit as well as our friend unsaturated fat.
It usually happens with a friend, family member or some combination that you hang out with. Something goes wrong with a friend or family member and you are lumped in with them. As you know, it can be aggravating.
The same sort of thing has happened to fat, namely unsaturated fat.
While there was at least some solid controversy on saturated fat (while false), unsaturated fat also felt the brunt of the fat slander campaign that has gone on for the past 40-50 years.
While many said that unsaturated fat fine, they did something worse to unsaturated fat. They ignored him.
Unsaturated fat is not only interesting to eat, but also provides a lot of health value that helps us actually avoid being physically fat. This not only helps break up the fat cells from doing their business, but helps keep us full and from overeating on crappy grains and sugar.
By keeping us lean, fat gives us huge levels of confidence, better quality of life, and helps us to avoid countless diseases.
Yet with all of these positive aspects of unsaturated fat, it still has been removed from a ton of food and replaced with sugar.
The question is…why can something so good be so invisible to our society?
History of Unsaturated Fat: A Big Fat Lie
Back in the day, “the day” being the 1970’s, there was a government commission led by politician George McGovern that advised Americans to consume less fat.
Much of this was based off of a faulty study called The Seven Countries Study written by researcher Ancel Keys. Ancel claimed that with the increase of dietary fat, namely saturated fat, it raised the risk of cardiovascular disease. He showed this specifically through a linear regression image of different countries where each country that consumed more saturated fat also had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
The unfortunate error was that Ancel didn’t measure other variables like sugar and grains while holding fat constant. The bottom line is with more fat consumption can come hand-in-hand with more grains and sugar as well. Donuts are a perfect example of this.
Most of the government direction has been based off of the McGovern commission and the testimony of Keys in this commission. There were plenty of false disadvantages of unsaturated fat that were associated with it that gave it a very bad name in any form. After this “revelation” much of the fat in foods were replaced with sugar, like high fructose corn syrup, to maintain taste. Food needs something to give it taste and usually that comes in fat, sugar, or spices.
Unfortunately that sugar transforms into small, dense LDL fat in the liver and can lead to the same problems we were trying to avoid.
So we cut down on fat as a nation according to the American Medical Association and CDC. To counter that our consumption on high fructose corn syrup, which is chemically pretty much the same as any other sugar, skyrocketed. What is worse is that the obesity rate in America shot up parallel with the sugar intake and in the opposite direction of our dietary fat intake. Dr. Robert Lustig does a great illustration of this in his lecture on Sugar: The Bitter Truth.
This is what led to fat in general being thrown out…like a fat baby with the bathwater. This is a major catalyst of our obesity increase. 50 years ago 1 in 9 would be considered obese. Today 1 in 3 is obese and 2 out of 3 are overweight. Yikes.
Maybe fat isn’t the villain after all. At the very least, as we will see…unsaturated fat deserves more of our time.
What’s the Deal with Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats?
What is unsaturated fat and what are examples of unsaturated fat? The unsaturated fats are in two different parties: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats characteristically are known for becoming liquid at room temperature and can even oxidize (go bad) pretty quickly. Monounsaturated comes with a single double bond, while polyunsaturated has several double bonds, hence the “mono” and “poly” in the naming convention.
The things you learn huh?
What are benefits of unsaturated fat? They form with two other fatty acids in a warm snuggly molecule blanket called glycerol to form triglycerides, which is a fancy word for fat. This fat that comes from dietary fat tends to break up much faster into individual fatty acids that are used more often for energy such as:
- running from a bear,
- punching your boss, or
- cuddling with a significant other.
Also the plant sourced monounsaturated fats help to prevent oxidation of cells in the body. And we like this as well…why? Well pray tell it is because oxidation leads to advanced aging and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It is a primary foundation for a healthy diet and should the cornerstone of your fats.
Probably one of the most well-known examples of monounsaturated fat is oleic acid. This is an 18-carbon-long monounsaturated fat that is found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts. Again this helps to be satiated after eating a meal, gain as much energy as any supplement, and can help you to keep your skin soft for that cuddling we talked about.
Polyunsaturated fats are important. This is the fat that contains our essential fats. The reason they are referred to as essential is because they contain necessary fats that don’t occur naturally in your body: essential fatty acids called omega-3 and omega-6. These poly and mono unsaturated fats are usually in nuts, seeds, fish, and oils from plants.
Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fats
There are some other Omega-3 unsaturated fats and to define unsaturated fat you need to include these examples of unsaturated fats as well.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA): ALA is short chain omega-3 fatty acid. This is found in flaxseed oil, canola oil, nuts like walnuts, and soybean oil. For you potheads it is also found in cannabis, but that doesn’t justify it. Oh and go get a job.
This is a decent omega-3 that can be converted into the much needed EPA and DHA, but there are downsides as it is a rough process. EPA and DHA are much stronger sources of omega-3 and provide more energy than ALA. This short-chained fatty acid is often used to help lower high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but not as well as EPA and DHA. It is also a common treatment recommendation for autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
EPA & DHA: We love these two. These fatty-acids are found only in grass-fed animal meat like beef, chicken, lamb, and soylent green (avoid the soylent green). Also cold water oily fish like halibut, salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines are loaded with EPA and DHA.
They also show up in eggs from chickens that are fed flaxseed. You will get more EPA and DHA with flaxseed-fed anything being the source compared to grain-fed. We talked about how grains can be unhealthy even if it is in the irritated gut of the animal we are eating.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): This is a 20 carbon long polyunsaturated fat. EPA is a strong fighter against systemic inflammation and the hormonal damage that comes with it. It also thins blood and helps to block the growth of new blood vessels. That may sound like a bad thing at first, but those are often the characteristics of what it takes for cancer to start doing it’s dirty work.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): DHA is a 22 carbon long polyunsaturated fat that is also really important for being a smarty-pants. It helps with brain development and function throughout the course of life. So when you need to say that kind thing to your spouse after they did something stupid, DHA helps you come up with a clever, kind comment. Thanks DHA! DHA also helps to prevent birth deficiencies and postpartum depression.
Linoleic Acid (LA): LA is an 18-Carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid. Major sources include vegetable oils like safflower, corn, soy, and sunflower and minimal amounts in some nuts like almonds. The problem with this guy is if you get too much it can inhibit EPA and DHA and the positive effects that they do to stop inflammation. This is where we run into issues with that 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6 issues.
So what is this 1:1 ratio between omega-3 and omega-6? It is really important to understand so let’s see if this analogy does the trick. Think of this like when a guy hits on a girl, but another dude is diving deep into the conversation and breaking up the first guy’s swagger with the lady. The “blocker” is a usually a nice guy, but he struggles around girls. There is a term for this that most single people know and a lot of married people too, but this is a family channel and we want to keep it decent. Linoleic Acid is that guy blocking the other guy.
As you will see a lot of these omega-6 fatty acids provide value, but there can also be “too much of a good thing” with an unsaturated fatty acid.
Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA): GLA is an 18 carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid with one more double bond than linoleic acid to alter it just a bit. LA can convert to GLA if you are doing low amounts of refined carbs like grains and sugars. GLA is anti-inflammatory by blocking creation of prostaglandins. Yeah…that…
Prostaglandins come in two groups; just like the LDL we talked about. There is a good kind that repairs cells, and there is a bad kind that inflames it. Prostaglandins act similar to hormones in that they send signals to help with cell growth, say after cells have been damaged by injury. GLA helps to block the inflammatory kind.
Dihomo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid (DGLA): DGLA is a 20 carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid that is produced out of GLA. This guy regulates immune function, cell inflammation, and pain. So when you are getting punched in the face or suffering from chronic conditions like arthritis, DGLA is a great source to help.
Arachidonic Acid (AA): AA is a 20 carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid found in animal products. It is created from DGLA. AA is critical for adapting to new exercise, helping with muscle repair, and brain function. It is a supportive fatty acid as long as it isn’t in excessive amounts.
As you can see, the different omega-6 fatty acids do great jobs of helping your body heal, but if you get a lot more omega-6 compared to omega-3, then the omega-6 is going to block omega-3 from doing its job.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Balance
While it’s important to reduce our intake of omega-6 fats, it’s also important to increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. You want a 1 to 1 ratio between those two fatty-acids. Today it is 20 to 1 in favor of omega-6. That should be pretty shocking to you, because that is bad.
Now I am not going to give you a way to measure it. You can eat small or large amounts of both, but if they are fairly even then you are doing your body good. So instead let’s focus on what you should be eating, instead of how much.
There are healthier fat options lower in omega-6 fats that you should include in your diet:
- olive oil,
- coconut oil,
- high-oleic sunflower oil, and
- high-stearic sunflower oil.
We tend to do too much omega-6 by eating a lot of
- corn oil,
- soy oil,
- safflower oil, and
- similar vegetable oils.
We also can overdo some of our otherwise healthy foods like nuts and seeds, because they tend to be heavy on omega-6 and can lead to pro-inflammatory conditions. This is why it is worth limiting nuts and seeds to a couple times a day and having portions that you can fit into your closed hand. The best options tend to be macadamia nuts and almonds.
To reiterate, the richest source of omega-3s is seafood:
- Wild-caught fish like
- farm-raised fish like
- trout; and
- both farmed and wild shellfish like
- clams, and
Also grass-fed meats are a great source of omega-3. Omega-3 eggs from grass fed chickens are bountiful as well.
Just even eating fish or shellfish twice a week can dramatically improve your omega-3 intake. I would even consider daily consumption to keep variety.
So again stay away from the grains and sugars. Focus on fat sources that are high in omega-3s like those that we mentioned above. Unsaturated fat may have been forgotten by our society at times, but you can keep it on the top of your mind on a daily basis and get a lot of good benefits from it.
Where to Now?
Now that we have spent several posts talking about why fat is so important to your health, let’s talk about what type and how much of fat you should consume.