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What Makes Fats Good Or Bad?

By Connor Young on

What you’ll learn:

  • The four types of fat, and what they do for you
    • Saturated fats
    • Monounsaturated fats
    • Polyunsaturated fats
    • Trans fats
  • What foods are good fat sources
  • A sample meal plan with a healthy balance of fat

***

“Hey guys! I’d love to try Ample, but I was looking at the nutrition facts and I’m a little confused. Why are there so many grams of fat in each bottle? It seems unhealthy.”

Great question. People have been debating the merits and detriments of fat for the last 65 years. Both sides produce what looks like good science. Now and then, a government recommendation emerges from the fray like some golden beacon of truth, only to collapse on itself a couple decades later.

The back-and-forth is kind of a bummer if you’re trying to figure out how to eat well.

Or maybe you already know that you need more fat than standard guidelines suggest, but you aren’t sure why, or what types to eat, or what “healthy fat” really means.

Wherever you’re coming from, it doesn’t help that when you turn to Google for your own research, things like this tend to pop up:[source]

Good Lord.

There won’t be any more biochemistry flowcharts in this article (incidentally, there won’t be any more Time Magazine covers, either). But we do want to explain how fats work, and what your body does with the fat you eat, so there will be some technical stuff. Here’s the deal:

  1. We’ll keep the science relatable.
  2. You’ll come away from this article understanding types of fat, and what they do in your body.
  3. We’ll lay out a sample meal plan, to give you an example of how to put what you learn into action.

Let’s get into it.

The four types of fat

Fats are usually categorized by how many double bonds they have. Double bonds look like this:

That was terrible. Sorry. In actuality, double bonds look like this:

That’s a diagram of a fat molecule. It looks sort of like a dinner table, and each “H” looks like a person in a chair.

The double bond is an open seat at the table. It offers access to the fat molecule. Double bonds make it easy for something to come along and steal an electron from the fat, which oxidizes (damages) it. The more double bonds a fat has, the more fragile it is. Fragile fats aren’t bad – in fact, some of the healthiest fats are the most fragile. You just have to treat fragile fats with extra care to prevent them from going bad.

Let’s break down the four major types of fat, organized by how many double bonds they have:

1) Saturated fats

[source]

Saturated fats have no double bonds. In other words, there are no free seats at the table; the binding sites are all full (“saturated”). A saturated fat molecule looks like this: 

Saturated fats are the most stable fats around. It takes a lot to get one of those H’s to leave the table. That’s what makes saturated fats good for cooking: they can withstand high heat without breaking down and catching fire.

Saturated fats are also usually close to symmetrical. They pack together tightly, which makes them solid at room temperature – think butter, lard, red meat, and tropical oils like coconut and palm.

1a) Saturated fats come in different lengths

Really, all fats come in different lengths, but length makes the biggest difference with saturated fats. Saturated fats are appropriately categorized into three sizes: short, medium, and long.

Short-chain saturated fats come mostly from carbs that you can’t digest. When you eat fiber or prebiotic starch, it shrugs off your digestive process and reaches your gut mostly intact. There, the bacteria in your gut snack on those carbs, leaving short-chain fats in their wake. Be glad they do: short-chain fats maintain the integrity of your gut lining, which keeps your digestion running smoothly [1,2].

Medium-chain saturated fats (popularly called MCTs) do come from food. They’re abundant in coconut oil, palm oil, and human breast milk, and they’re all the rage with newborns and people on high-fat diets. Most fats have to go through your liver before you can convert them to energy. MCTs aren’t interested in a trip through the liver; they skip that step and convert to energy almost immediately. Many people report a mental boost after consuming MCTs. No studies on healthy humans to confirm that yet, but MCTs do improve brain function in diabetics [3] and Alzheimer’s patients [4].

Long-chain saturated fats are what most people think of when they talk about saturated fat. Long-chain fats help form a fatty coating called myelin that insulates your brain cells, much like rubber insulates a wire. They also make up about 50% of the membranes that wrap every cell in your body [5].

There’s a widely held belief that saturated fat links to heart disease. This is too big a topic to get into here. We’ll unpack saturated fats and heart disease fully over time. For now, the TL;DR is that after studying up on the latest science, we think saturated fats are more misunderstood than unhealthy.

Okay. Enough about saturated fats for now. Let’s get back to talking about double bonds and dinner tables.

2) Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats have exactly one double bond (hence the “mono”). They’re fairly stable, but there is one free seat for something to slip in and start oxidizing (destroying the fat). Monounsaturated fats look like this:

Monounsaturated fats are like the nice, well-behaved middle child of the fat world. They stay within the lines and get good grades, but rarely do people recognize their worth.

Monounsaturated fats hit a balance between stable and flexible that makes them particularly useful for your brain: about 80% of your brain cells contain monounsaturated fat [6]. The plentiful monounsaturated fat in olive oil, nuts, avocados, and fish could explain why people in the Mediterranean live so long, enjoying unusually low risk of heart disease and dementia [7].

These are good, well-rounded fats, and you’d do well to eat plenty of them.

3) Polyunsaturated fats

[source]

Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable type of fat, thanks to their multiple double bonds (“poly” is Greek for “many”). Enjoy your last chemistry diagram:

Polyunsaturated fats come in primarily two varieties: omega-6 and omega-3. Let’s take a quick look at them now.

You may have heard that omega-6s are bad for you, and that omega-3s are healthy. Generally, that’s true, but both are essential to keeping you alive. The key is balancing the two.

Omega-6s and omega-3s fight with each other in your body over a limited source of enzymes called desaturases. If you’re eating far more omega-6s, they tend to get all the desaturase. 

You don’t want to eat mostly omega-6s and have them hog all the enzymes. Excess omega-6s contribute to inflammation, heart disease, and possibly cancer [8].

That’s troubling, considering the average American gets about 15x more omega-6s than omega-3s [9]. Ideally you want to get that down to a 4:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, or lower. Easy ways to do that are:

  • Switching to grass-fed beef, which has a ~2:1 ratio, instead of grain-fed beef’s 10:1 ratio [10].
  • Eating fatty coldwater fish regularly. Think salmon, sardines, anchovies.
  • Taking 4-6 grams of fish oil a day.
  • Avoiding vegetable oils with lots of omega-6. You can find a chart comparing vegetable oils here. Note that the omega-6 is the blue, not the red.

4) Trans fats

There’s not much to say about trans fats that hasn’t already been said in the news. They’re unsaturated fats, but artificially added hydrogens make them behave more like saturated fats. They’re cheap and stable, which makes them great for industrial frying or baking.

Unfortunately, they’re also pretty terrible for you. A 14-year-long study tracked the trans fat intake of 120,000 nurses; it concluded that risk of heart attack doubled with each 2% increase in trans fat intake (that is, eating 2% of calories from trans fats doubled risk of heart attack; eating 4% quadrupled it) [10]. A 2006 analysis concluded that trans fats were responsible for up to 100,000 deaths since their introduction to the US food supply [11]

Another study of ~12,000 people found a strong link between trans fat consumption and major depression [12]. Trans fats also link to impaired brain function and memory loss [13].

Most governments no longer recognize artifical trans fats as safe, and in many states in the U.S. manufacturers will have to remove all trans fats from their products by 2018. Trans fats are still around now, though, especially in packaged baked goods or fried foods, and suppliers don’t always report them. Check your nutrition labels for “partially hydrogenated _______ oil.” That’s another way of saying “trans fat.” If you see it, keep your distance.

[source]

It’s worth mentioning that there are very small amounts of natural trans fats in beef, sheep, and dairy. Natural trans fats don’t seem to cause the same damage artificial trans fats do, possibly because you’d have to eat a huge amount of meat or dairy to get a meaningful amount of them [14]. The most prominent natural trans fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), protects rats from cancer [15] and diabetes [16], although studies in humans haven’t found the same benefits. It may just be a rodent thing.

In any case, natural trans fats don’t seem to be much to worry about. But definitely avoid the artificial ones.

Why it’s best to get a variety of fat

Trans fats and excess omega-6s aside, fat is good stuff, and it pays to get each type of it.

  • Fats make up cell membranes that give shape to your cells and dictate what goes in and out of them. The mix of fats in the membrane depends on the type of cell. Most of your brain cells, for example, combine saturated and monounsaturated fats in their cell membranes. A smaller portion of your brain cells pair saturated and polyunsaturated. Red blood cells use mostly monounsaturated.
  • Your brain is about 60% fat by weight, and fatty acids form essential parts of signaling molecules that help your brain respond to both growth (like when you learn something new) and damage [17].
  • Omega-3s turn into eicosanoids, hormone-like molecules that respond to cellular damage by keeping a lid on inflammation [18]. In other words, they help you heal.
  • Fats regulate cholesterol, which turns into testosterone, estrogen, and every single other sex hormone in your body [19]. If you eat lots of fat, your body makes less cholesterol to compensate, which is partly why the government no longer considers cholesterol dangerous [20].
  • You need fats to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as a host of non-vitamin nutrients and antioxidants – and because these vitamins and nutrients only dissolve into fats, eating fat tends to be the best source of most of them. Vitamin A alone regulates reproduction, vision, and your immune system [21].

Plus, fats are delicious. They lend velvety texture and richness to food. There are few things more satisfying than a grass-fed steak, or a salmon filet, or grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil.

So that’s why there are plenty of good fats in Ample. Fats are an excellent source of energy. They help you heal. They’re brain food. They’re nutrient-dense. And they taste good.

But what about outside of Ample? Let’s finish up with a simple guide to getting the right fats in your day-to-day life.

Here’s how to get good fats every day

Nutrition is funny. It varies so much from person to person that it’s hard to make sweeping statements about what’s good for you. After a lot of thought, we settled on about half of our calories from fat for Ample.

Regardless of how much total fat you eat, the ideal ratio of fats is the same. You want to get nearly equal amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s, with the rest coming from a mix of saturated and monounsaturated fats. Here’s what that would look like in a day.

Saturated fat sources (2-4 servings a day)

  • Grass-fed red meat
  • Grass-fed butter and cheese
  • Coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream
  • Pasture-raised bacon

Monounsaturated fat sources (2-4 servings a day)

  • Olive oil
  • Fish
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Black and green olives

Omega-3 fat sources (at least 5-6g per day)

Omega-6 fat sources (under 20g per day)

  • Nuts (preferably raw)
  • Chicken
  • Duck
  • Bacon and pork

A sample meal plan for a day might look like this:

Breakfast

  • 2 pasture-raised eggs, cooked in grass-fed butter
  • 2 slices pasture-raised bacon (U.S. Wellness Meats has great sugar-free, pasture-raised bacon. You can also get bacon ends to save money)
  • Half an avocado

Lunch

  • A grass-fed burger in a lettuce wrap
  • Avocado oil mayo on the side (Mark Sisson’s Primal Mayo is the bomb)
  • Mixed green salad with goat cheese, raspberries, walnuts, and olive oil-balsamic vinegar dressing

Dinner

  • Grilled sockeye salmon
  • Grilled zucchini and broccolini, drizzled with olive oil after cooking

What did we miss? Any thoughts to contribute? We’ll be checking the comments.

In good health,

Team Ample

 


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1 comment


  • What are your thoughts on butter and heavy cream they seem to work for me. On keto diet.Why not include egg yolks in the keto meals I ordered. I heard from Dr berg that egg whites stimulate insulin production bad for those with insulin resistance.

    Jeff Benedict on

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