4 New Guidelines for Healthy Fats and the 5 Healthiest Fats
Here’s a guideline most of us know and live by… saturated fats are unhealthy and unsaturated fats are healthy.
This rule of thumb is better than nothing but grossly oversimplifies a complex issue. The fats found in our diets represent an extremely diverse set of molecules. You can imagine a dietary fat as being a head with three tails that differ widely amongst different fat molecules. A saturated fat has straight tails, whereas an unsaturated fat has bendy tails. However, fats also differ from each other in other ways: (1) Some fats have tails with bends in the middle (Omega-6) and others with bends at the tip (Omega-3). (2) Some fats have tails with one bend (monounsaturated) and others have tails with many (polyunsaturated). (3) Some fats have long tails (long-chain) and some fats have shorter tails (medium-chain). (4) Some fats burn at low temperatures (low smoke point) and some fats are more resistant to heat (high smoke point). All of these properties have important implications for nutrition.
So, in addition to the saturated vs. unsaturated fat guideline, here are four more guidelines for choosing the right fats:
- Aim for a high Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio: Omega-3 fats protect against the chronic low-grade inflammation that is damaging to our bodies and which leads to chronic diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, most of us eat diets low in Omega-3 fats and rich in Omega-6 fats, which can block the positive health effects of Omega-3s. In fact, the average American eats only 1 Omega-3 fat for every 16 Omega-6 fats, even though the optimal ratio for the body is probably around 1:1.
Therefore, the vast majority of us should aim for increasing our Omega-3 fat intake and decreasing our Omega-6 fat intake. Here are some tips to help you achieve this goal:
- Eat flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is the richest source of Omega-3 fats. (However, it’s important to note that flaxseed oil should NOT be used for cooking or baking because it has a very low smoke point. Instead, try adding it to salad dressings or dips.)
- Eat fatty fish. The SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring) are an excellent source of Omega-3s.
- Eat pastured eggs. Pastured eggs are richer in Omega-3s than normal eggs.
- Eat grass-fed beef. If you eat beef, grass-fed beef is superior to grain-fed beef because it has a higher Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio.
- Aim for monounsaturated, rather than polyunsaturated fats: This guideline conflicts somewhat with guideline number one because Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are essential for your body. However, polyunsaturated fatty acids are also highly reactive molecules. This means that at high levels they can contribute to the generation of certain toxic biomolecules.
Here is how you can try to increase your intake of monounsaturated fat and protect yourself against the potentially harmful effects of too much polyunsaturated fat:
- Eat avocados. Avocado oil contains about 10 grams of monounsaturated fat for every 2 grams of polyunsaturated fat.
- Cook with olive oil (or avocado oil). Olive oil contains the same 10:2 ratio as avocado oil.
- Keep your oils in the fridge. If you plan to let your oils (or peanut butter) sit around for a while, consider keeping it in the fridge and taking it out just before you need to use it. This may help some oils retain their integrity longer. However, it also means you oil may solidify. This is fine for your health, just potentially inconvenient.
- Eat a colorful diet. Generally, if you eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables you are going to get a lot of “antioxidants” which can protect your cells against the toxic molecules produced when polyunsaturated fats react with oxygen.
- Coconut oil breaks the “saturated fat is bad” guideline: In general, avoiding saturated fat is a good guideline because it will deter you from eating things like butter, lard, and too much red meat. However, not all saturated fats are created equal. Specifically, the type saturated fat found in coconut oil, called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), is totally different health-wise than the long-chain fats found in dairy and meat. As its name implies, medium-chain triglycerides have shorter tails than long-chain fats. This important fact means that medium-chain triglycerides get processed differently by our organs and cells.
Here are a few important ways in which medium-chain triglycerides are exceptional saturated fats:
- MCTs are a super fuel for cells: Because of their shorter chain, medium-chain triglycerides more easily get into mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. This means that cells, particularly brain cells, are better able to use medium-chain triglycerides as energy as compared to long-chain fats.
- MCTs make ketones: Unlike long-chain fats which go directly into the whole body’s bloodstream, medium-chain triglycerides go first to the liver where they are partially converted into molecules called ketone bodies. Ketone bodies have many beneficial effects, chief among those being that they may promote healthy brain function, particularly as we age.
- MCTs may improve our microbiome: The microbiome, or the community of microorganisms living in our guts, has become one of the hottest topics in medical science. Astonishingly, the composition of our microbiomes can affect not only our weight but also our thoughts, emotions, and risk of developing almost every disease you can imagine, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, and heart disease. Evidence suggest that MCTs may improve our gut microbiomes and, thereby, may improve our overall health and wellbeing.
- Cook with oils that have high smoke points: The smoke point of a fat or oil refers to the temperature at which it starts to burn. Burning an oil does more than destroy its flavor, it also turns many of the healthy fats into unhealthy fats and produces toxins that you simply don’t want to put in your body.
- Avocado oil and refined coconut oil have high smoke point and are therefore good for high-temperature cooking.
- Olive oil has a medium smoke point and is fine for baking or stir-frying.
- Flaxseed oil, although very rich in Omega-3s, has a very low smoke point and should not be heated above 300°F.
Based on these four guidelines, here are my five favorite fats:
If this information made sense to you and you’d like to learn more about healthy fats, here is a link to one of my favorite graphs: