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FAT-- Good or Bad?

Dietary fat is BAD, right? The media tells us fat is bad--- we are told and shown through advertising and images that our life’s goal is to regain our birth weight, cholesterol lowering drugs are really just another type of vitamin without which we can not be healthy, and we should never, ever eat vegetables…ach! Bleck!

What’s the evidence for these outrageous accusations? How many pharmaceutical advertisements have you seen lately? What about advertisements promoting the health effects of the common, lowly garden compared to the virtues of eating out at such fine dining establishments such as the King of Burgers with its double dripping patties, three strips of bacon, and a nice side of French fries or the local pizza palace with a pie piled high with a pound or more of cheese?

Seriously, this article is written in hopes of addressing some common misconceptions and alleviating fear about eating…you got it…FAT.

Where are “fats” supposed to be?
Every cell in the human body is composed of a fatty membrane that separates the interior of the cell from the exterior. These membranes are highly selective in what they allow to pass in and out of the cells. They contain receptors, which can be likened to locks in a door, that receive the chemical messengers of our body (hormones and neurotransmitters). These chemical messengers direct the inner working of the cells. Membranes are very fluid and flexible when healthy and can literally flow or break off forming new enclosures within the cell that do the work of living. 70 to 85 percent of the content of cells is water. Water is kept inside the cells largely by the repellent qualities of the fats within the cell membrane. If the membrane is not functioning properly, water leaks from the cell leaving a raisin-like structure rather than a nice plump grape-like structure. Think wrinkles…

The brain is essentially a big glob of fat…a highly organized and miraculous glob… but fat all the same. How well the brain functions depends entirely upon the make-up and inner workings of each individual cell that makes up this amazing glob.

Fat is a rich source of energy that is relatively light in weight and ideal for storage of calories for future use. Fat is also an excellent insulation and protective padding around internal organs.

Cholesterol in the blood is BAD… this we know for sure, right? Actually, all of the sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen and progesterone) are made up utilizing the basic building block of cholesterol. The adrenal-cortical hormones (cortisol and DHEA as stress hormones, and aldosterone used in water balance) are all made with cholesterol. These are the hormones that help one rise in the morning, direct the level of energy one feels, and provide the “flight or fight” response. As much as 80% of dietary cholesterol is used to make up the building blocks of bile salts… bile is the stuff that helps emulsify (break into small pieces) dietary fats!

A large amount of cholesterol is found in the skin, which acts as a physical barrier to water soluble substances preventing water evaporation from the skin and absorption of many chemicals that might otherwise easily penetrate the skin. Without this protection in the skin the amount of evaporation (as occurs in burn victims) would be 5 to 10 liters daily as opposed to only 300 to 400 milliliters.

Having too little dietary fat and cholesterol is a major health risk. This is not a statement you will see in the media.

Good Fat / Bad Fat?
All fats can be “good” fats, with the exception of so-called “trans fats,” depending upon the amounts and types ingested. Saturated fat and cholesterol can be healthy fats when eaten in moderation. “Saturated” means that in the chemical structure all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom, making the fat highly stable and unlikely to go rancid even when cooking at high temperatures. The chemical structure of these fats is straight, so they tend to “stack up” together easily, are generally solid at room temperature, and are very stable at high temperatures. Examples of saturated fats are coconut oil and animal fats such as lard.

H—C—C—C—C—H

A fat missing 2 hydrogen atoms and containing a single double bond between two carbon atoms is known as a monounsaturated fat. Wherever a double bond is present there is a “kink” in the chain, making these oils less able to pack together. These oils tend to be liquids at room temperature. The most common monounsaturated fat is oleic acid, found in olive, almond, pecan, cashew, peanut, palm fruit, and avocado oils. The double bond makes these oils slightly less stable at higher temperatures.

H—C—C==C—C—H

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) contain two or more double bonds, making them much more loosely packed because of the kinks in their chains. These fats are liquid, even when refrigerated. They are found in nearly all whole foods including nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, eggs, grains, and legumes. These foods should be eaten fresh and cooked minimally at lower temperatures or not at all. When heated, PUFAs are extremely unstable and become rancid (the addition of an oxygen molecule where the double bonds are present). During common processing, vegetable oils (such as corn, safflower, and soybean) are brought to high temperatures which encourage rancidity and the formation of harmful molecules called free radicals. The oils are then deodorized to disguise rancidity. Rancid oils are highly reactive and can cause tissue damage.

H—C==C—C==C—H

Saturated and monounsaturated fats can be made by the body from carbohydrates, whereas polyunsaturated fats cannot be synthesized in the body, making this type of fat “essential fatty acids” that must be ingested.

“Trans fats” do not exist in nature in any significant amount. They are vegetable based oils (PUFAs) that have been chemically altered by heating liquid vegetable oils to very high temperatures (300-400º Fahrenheit) with a hydrogen donor catalyst, such as nickel powder, in order to insert hydrogen onto the fat. This change renders a vegetable oil, which is very liquid, slightly more solid at room temperature making it more “palatable” for use in butter-like spreads (margarine) and in baking (Crisco). Trans fats with their misplaced hydrogen atoms are incorporated into cell membranes causing disruptions in cellular function. Animal studies utilizing trans fats have shown that ingestion of large amounts of these fats actually result in symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiencies, such as dry skin, eczema, allergies, asthma, neurological problems, behavioral problems, memory loss, inflammatory bowel diseases, and cardiovascular disease. Studies have linked ingestion of these artificial fats to low birth weight babies and elevated blood cholesterol.

Fats are incorporated into cell membranes throughout the body. PUFAs are the most fluid and flexible, while saturated and monounsaturated fats are the “stiffer” fats. A balance of both saturated and unsaturated fats is required for optimal cellular health. The length of the chain is also variable and important. Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are more water soluble and are very important for maintaining proper intestinal bacteria. They have been shown to be protective against cancer…perhaps in part due to the maintenance of helpful bacteria that also produce certain vitamins and breakdown dietary fiber. An example is butter. Medium chain fatty acids are also highly absorbable and require no breakdown before entering the blood stream. A good example is coconut oil. Long chain fatty acids are fats that are involved in inflammatory processes, which are very necessary for healing and repair, but can become pathological processes such as in arthritis or cardiovascular disease. Examples of long chain fatty acids are arachidonic acid and linoleic acid, which are both omega 6 fatty acids (so named because the first double bond occurs at the 6th position). Arachidonic acid is mostly found in animal fats.

Balancing saturated and unsaturated fats
In general, saturated fats are plentiful in the diet of most Americans. These “BAD” fats tend to be more pro-inflammatory and will aggravate symptoms of inflammatory arthritis, bowel disease, allergies/asthma, and cardiovascular disease. For optimal heath, we advise eating saturated fats in moderation, and generally to utilize them in higher temperature cooking (stir fries and baking) while focusing on ingesting higher levels of unsaturated in the rest of the diet. Coconut oil is a “healthy” saturated fat because it’s medium chain length makes this a very absorbable fat that is used preferentially for energy production. The saturation of this fat also makes it highly stable at high temperatures, and therefore an excellent choice for high temperature cooking.

Monounsaturated fats include canola, almond and olive oils. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) include Omega 3 fats found in highest quantities in seafood; particularly salmon, trout, mackerel, cod and other cold-water fish. The oils found in fish are DHA and EPA, which are both essential long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the body. Flax seed contains an Omega 3 fatty acid (alpha linolenic acid or ALA) of which about 5% can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, making this a weak source of these essential fatty acids.
Many factors can lead to a reduced absorption or conversion of ALA to EPA including:
* Low levels of key vitamins and minerals (vitamins B3, B6, C, zinc and magnesium)
* Alcohol consumption
* Some prescription drugs (interfere with enzymes that convert fatty acids)
* A diet high in hydrogenated and trans fats
* Compromised immune status (chronic illness, irritable bowel diseases, chemotherapy)
* Poor diet

Omega 6 fats such as gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) are found in some plant seed oils (evening primrose, borage oil, hemp oil, and black currant oil along with many other vegetable sources. Too much of these “GOOD” oils can also lead to inflammation. See the following diagram for how:

How much Fat should I Eat?
Balance is everything when discussing fats. A healthy person wishing to simply maintain a state of vibrant health should be focusing primarily on a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, fish, lean grass fed meats, and water. A good healthy diet may mean supplementation with additional fats is unnecessary.

A person with a chronic inflammatory process, undergoing chemotherapy, or suffering from high blood pressure, high “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and low “good” cholesterol (HDL), eczema-like skin conditions, memory or behavioral problems, neurological symptoms, heart or circulatory problems, or immune dysfunctions (to name a few) should consider a more aggressive approach including supplementation of particularly fish oils in high daily doses, avoidance of most animal-originating fats because of their high saturated fat content which is pro-inflammatory, and elimination of dietary food sensitivities which also cause inflammation.

Saturated Fat Content of Common Foods

Serving size
4 oz Cheddar or American Cheese (24Grams Saturated Fat)
1 cup Ricotta Cheese (20 Grams Saturated Fat)
4 oz Semi sweet chocolate (20 Grams Saturated Fat)
6 oz T-bone steak (18 Grams Saturated Fat)
6 oz lean ground beef (11 Grams Saturated Fat)
1 cup Vanilla Ice cream (10 Grams Saturated Fat)
2 eggs (4 Grams Saturated Fat)
6 oz Salmon (3 Grams Saturated Fat)
6 oz Chicken breast (3 Grams Saturated Fat)
1 cup 2% milk (3 Grams Saturated Fat)
6 oz Tuna (2.6 Grams Saturated Fat)
Fruits, vegetables, beans (Negligible Saturated Fat)
Excerpt from Cholesterol: Protection for Life, by Joel Fuhrman MD

Dietary fat is a requirement for optimal health. The body must receive a constant, balanced supply of essential fatty acids (because the body can not make them) to ensure proper balance of pro and anti-inflammatory compounds. If pro-inflammatory compounds become dominant, chronic inflammatory and degenerative processes develop, causing a multitude of symptoms. The main concern is ensuring a well balanced diet rich in plant sources of proteins and PUFAs that are unrefined or minimally processed. By far, the richest source of essential fatty acids is cold-water fish. Compared to flax seed oil, gram for gram, fish oil supplementation is the most cost effective and bio-available form of DHA and EPA because of the poor conversion rate of ALA to EPA.


The Following Resources are available at Sage Holistic Health’s Lending Library:

1. Fuhrman M.D., Joel: Cholesterol Protection for Life © 2004
2. Fuhrman M.D., Joel: Fasting and Eating for Health, St. Martin’s Griffin N.Y., N.Y. © 1995
3. Tapert D.O., Richard: Stop Worrying About Cholesterol, Infinity Publishing, W. Conshohocken, PA © 2005
4. Ravnskov M.D., Uffe: The Cholesterol Myth; Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease, New Trends Publishing, Washington D.C. © 2000
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