Fats: the good, the bad, and the ugly

oil and olives

Fats: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In our diet-conscious society we’ve taken on every fad- from low-fat, to no-fat, to high fat (as in the Atkins diet), not only are people getting fatter and fatter, but chronic diseases (like cancer and heart disease), are on the rise. Some fats are dangerous to our health. But, at the same time, the right amount and type of high-quality oils are critical to a healthy life. Fats are a component of the cell membrane surrounding each of our cells. They are also needed for the development and proper functioning of the nervous system and brain (which is approximately 70% fat); for the absorption of certain nutrients (especially the fat soluble vitamins); for the functioning of the immune system; and as building blocks for certain chemical messengers within our bodies (particularly hormones). A diet deficient in fats is associated with an increased risk of hormone abnormalities, cardiovascular disease, and decreased brain and immune function.

Certain fats in the diet should be minimized:
Saturated fats:
Saturated fats are found in both animal and plant sources. These oils are solid at room temperature. They include fat from meats, butter, lard, coconut and palm oils.
Saturated increase one’s risk of heart disease.

Trans fats:
Trans fats occur when oils are hydrogenated through a process which makes them semi- solid at room temperature and resistant to spoilage (for example, vegetable shortening or margarine). These fats are abundant in processed foods. The unnatural shape of these oils does not allow them to be effectively incorporated into our cell membranes or enzymes. They become sticky and coat the arteries, predisposing to atherosclerosis. Trans fats have also been linked to cancer and liver toxicity.

Both saturated and trans fats have been associated with adverse health effects; especially to the cardiovascular system.

Fats which are critical to good health: The MUFAs and the PUFAs:
Avocados, almonds, cashews, olives, sesame seeds, and their oils, as well as canola oil, high oleic safflower oil, and sunflower oils contain fats known as MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids). These fats are liquid at room temperature but form solids in the refrigerator. They are beneficial to heart and blood vessel health.

PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) are fats which are liquid at room temperature and when cooled. Because of this property, these fats are used by our bodies to create fluid, flexible cell membranes which functions optimally.
In the category of PUFAs are included the Omega-3 fatty acid known as alpah-linolenic acid and the Omega-6 fatty acid known as linoleic acid. These fats are known as essential fatty acids since they cannot be synthesized by the body. They are converted to other PUFAs within the body, but must themselves be obtained through one’s diet.

Omega-6 fatty acids:
In general, our society gets plenty of dietary Omega-6 fatty acids in the form of linoleic acid (from corn, canola, safflower oil, sunflower oil, sesame, peanut, and soy oil) and from another Omega-6 fatty acid, known as arachidonic acid, which is found in animal products (such as beef and poultry).

Omega-3 fatty acids:
Flaxseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Other sources are canola oil and some leafy vegetables. Oily fish such as cod, salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies as well as algae and sea vegetables are the best source of Omega-3 oils. Omega 3 fatty acids are critical for health.

As mentioned above, very few people are deficient in Omega- 6 fatty acids since the Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in meat and cooking oils. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids are not widely consumed in our society. The proper balance of Omega-3 to 6 oils in the body is essential.
In order to fight infection and promote healing, our bodies use Omega-6 fats to produce what are known as “pro-inflammatory molecules. Although these molecules are necessary, the body must have a way to modulate these immune reactions. This requires Omega-3 fatty acids which are known to be “anti-inflammatory”. These fats also support the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and reproductive system, eyes, and skin. They have shown to be beneficial in conditions ranging from eczema to heart disease, to arthritis, to ADD.

Cooking and storing oils:
All oils are sensitive to heat and light damage, to varying degrees. Oxidation due to heat and light causes the oils to become rancid and creates free radicals which can contribute to a wide range of health problems. Oils high in Omega-3 fatty acids are especially vulnerable and should be stored in a dark bottle within the refrigerator.
Cooking with oils accelerates the oxidation process. Methods of cooking that require high heat, for example frying, may adversely affect one’s health. Cooking with vegetables at high temperatures produces a chemical called HNE (4-hydroxy-trans-2-nonenal). HNE is easily absorbed in food and is reactive with proteins in the body (including our DNA). It has been linked with increased cardiovascular risk (such as stroke and atherosclerosis), liver disease, and neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease). HNE content of food increases if oil is heated to high temperatures repeatedly. This is another reason why eating French Fries at the local Burger Joint is so damaging to one’s health. In addition, when oils are burned (as in smoking oils coming off of coals during barbecuing and burned oils used in frying or popping popcorn), they attain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties and should be avoided completely. The smoke point of oils varies depending on the type of oil and how refined it is. It is best to avoid cooking at high temperatures and reusing oils which have been heated to high temperatures. Use a small amount of oil and sauté foods at lower heat.

Another note of caution:
Some nutrition experts believe that if you buy only one organic product, it should be oils used for cooking. This is because heavy metals and pesticides have an affinity for fat and may therefore be quite high in these toxins.
In addition, canola, soy and cottonseed oil may be genetically engineered to withstand pesticide spraying. Organic oils are not genetically engineered.
Also, oils that are not cold or expeller pressed may be extracted using the solvent n-hexane which is made of crude oil and is a known nervous system toxin.

So, what’s the bottom line?:
Fats are essential to health but can also be damaging to one’s health- it all depends on the type of fat you eat, how much fat you eat, and how you cook and store your oils.
The take home message is to incorporate “good fats” (especially Omega-3 fatty acids and MUFAs) into one’s diet, and minimize disease-promoting fats (especially saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, and trans-fats). Cook at moderate or low temperatures for longer periods of time and avoid fried foods as much as possible.
Next time you’re eating a nutrient-loaded salad, remember that many of those nutrients require fats for absorption and reach for some healthy fat!

Please Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment. You are free to use the information in this newsletter or pass it on to others, but please keep it intact and credit it to Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND.

Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND
Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND

Dr. Kuzniar is a board member of the New Jersey Association of Naturopathic Physicians and is also a member of the Gastroenterology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She currently holds a State of Vermont Naturopathic Physician license (as New Jersey does not yet offer licensing for Naturopathic doctors).