Everyone is talking about sugars, vitamins, minerals and fibers, overlooking fats, often stigmatized for being the number one cause of health problems, overweight and obesity. Fats are usually regarded as something that must be avoided, often ignoring one simple truth: there are good fats and bad fats. Unfortunately most people on weight loss diets choose to cut fats completely, which not only does not help losing weight, but actually has the opposite effect.
What Are Fats?
They are an essential nutrient and an important source of energy. Certain processes such as minerals assimilation cannot function in their absence. Brain processes and neuronal health are also highly dependent on fats. Metabolism processes are severely impaired when fats are low. The skin becomes dry and takes longer to heal. The nails also become brittle.
The main categories of fats are:
- Animal Fats (usually solid)
- Vegetable Fats (usually liquid)
Oils are liquid fats at room temperature. You may also encounter the term lipids, used especially in medical literature, which simply means all types of fats.
Any fat is made of glycerin and fatty acids. The inner chemical structure (number and distribution of atoms) determines the fat type.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Are Fats?
- 2 Animal or Vegetable Fats?
- 3 The Common Myth: Fats Make Us Fat
- 4 Fat or Protein?
- 5 BAD: Trans Fats
- 6 BETTER: Saturated Fats
- 7 GOOD: Unsaturated Fats
- 8 A Word About Cholesterol
- 9 Getting Enough Healthy Fats in Your Diet
- 10 3 Fat Tips
- 11 Conclusions
- 12 Recommended Reading
Animal or Vegetable Fats?
In all living creatures (humans included), body fat is also a system to isolate toxins, metabolic by-products and harmful environment substances. You can imagine it like a dumpster full of smelly, rotten, bad-looking things, a closet you wouldn’t want to open ever. When we eat animal fats, all the harmful substances are transferred along. It’s like getting a concentrated, unhealthy shake. The body does its best to eliminate some of the toxins, to isolate others in more fat and allow the rest to poison its systems. Energy and valuable resources are spent in these processes, starving other organs. As a result, health afflictions start developing and the body ages prematurely.
A much cleaner source of fats are plants. The rule of thumb is: the closest the food source is to the root of the food chain, the fewer toxic substances it contains. As you rise up the food chain, each creature, whether plant or animal adds its own harmful substances. Since animals are at the top of the food chain, they contain most toxins (except people who eat them).
The Common Myth: Fats Make Us Fat
This is a common misconception, widely encountered in Western culture.
Unhealthy fats such as cooked animal fats cannot be digested properly and affect the cells’ metabolic processes. Over time, fat accumulation in the cell membranes leads to slow poisoning of the entire cell, which becomes vulnerable to diseases and eventually dies. The abnormal cell processes may also cause overweight and obesity. As you’ll soon find out, cholesterol levels are influenced by fats. Unhealthy fats can cause arteriosclerosis, coronary occlusion, diabetes and even cancer – to name a few.
Raw healthy fats have the opposite effect. They are a welcomed addition to diet and actually protect us from all of the above. Consumed correctly and in the right amounts, raw healthy fats have a satiation effect, contribute to weight loss and provide a good source of energy for the metabolic processes.
Not many people know that a quicker way to become overweight and obese is the excessive intake of carbohydrates, not fats.
To sum up, the basic idea is: healthy fats in moderate amounts.
Fat or Protein?
Since I started eating only raw foods, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked by the people around me was:
“Where do you get your proteins? You can’t possibly get enough from vegetables!“
The question was usually accompanied by a raised eyebrow or some other meaningful face expression. Proteins are life’s building blocks, so there’s no living organism (plants included) devoid of them. Proteins are perhaps some of the easiest nutrients to get, as they are contained in every vegetable we eat. Quite the opposite applies to some minerals and essential fatty acids, therefore these should require extra attention from every vegan and why not – everyone interested in a healthy way of eating.
The raw-foodist advocate and writer David Wolfe has an interesting approach to this:
“Perhaps the biggest misconception in the field of nutrition is the confusion between fat and protein. When someone says, “I need protein,” they often need and want fat. Most people and nutritionists cannot distinguish between the desire for fat and the desire for protein. Many raw-food advocates have recommended nuts for protein, when in reality the value of nuts is in their fat. Some people can give up fish much easier than cheese, because fish is mostly protein, whereas cheese is mostly fat.”
I strongly suggest you to get his book The Sunfood Diet Success Systemas it contains a plethora of information for anyone looking into raw foods.
The lack of enough fats in one’s diet leads to continuous hunger and eventually overeating, therefore generating a continuous stress for the body to handle.
If you’re planning to go vegan, start by learning everything you can. Read books by people already on the diet for years. They provide important insight and advice, things to do and things to avoid doing. Also learn to listen to your body. When the clutter and toxins are finally released, you’ll be able to sense much better what your body is trying to tell you. It’s like having a clear vision again after years of wearing glasses.
Now, let’s take a look at fat types, from bad to good.
BAD: Trans Fats
Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are synthetically produced. There is no such thing in nature, so the body has the most difficult job to handle and get rid of them. Trans fats taste good, they are easy and cheap to produce, thus being a good deal for food companies and a (near) deadly experience for consumers. Trans fats can be found in a whole range of processed products such as fast foods, fried products (french fries included, unfortunately), baked products and margarine. Have you wondered why a home made hamburger never tastes like the one you buy? One of the secrets is the lower quantity of trans fats and other additives.
Special types of trans fats also occur in milk, beef and sheep, but they are chemically different. FDA recommends that not all trans fats should be regarded as “safe”.
The National Academy of Sciences also warns that:
“Trans fatty acids are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health, whether of animal or plant origin.”
Cooking is another way to create trans fats, because heat alters the chemical bonds, generating dangerous by-products.
Trans fats are linked to coronary heart diseases, cholesterol problems, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, liver problems, obesity and cancer. They also negatively affect omega-3 and omega-6 metabolism.
BETTER: Saturated Fats
These are the most stable fats as each molecule is covered in hydrogen atoms. The main animal sources of saturated fats are dairy products and meat. Saturated fats are also contained in highly-processed foods. High amounts of saturated fats are a health risk factor, so they should be consumed with care. For cooking, these are the best fats to use as they are the most chemically stable.
Best sources of saturated fats are cold-pressed coconut oil and cocoa butter.
Some common examples of saturated fatty acids are:
- Butiric Acid – contained in butter
- Capric or Decanoic Acid – contained in palm oil, coconut oil and trace amounts in animal fats and milk
- Lauric Acid – contained in coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and breast milk
- Myristic Acid – contained in cow milk and dairy products
- Palmitic Acid – contained in palm oil and meat
- Stearic Acid – contained in meat and cocoa butter
Here it is a table showing the approximate content of fatty acids of the most common foods.
In conclusion, you should limit the saturated fats dietary intake. Plant sources should always take precedence.
GOOD: Unsaturated Fats
These fats contain fewer hydrogen molecules than the maximum amount possible. Their chemical structure is quite complex, prone to alterations caused by heat and oxidizing processes. The oils containing unsaturated fats are the most perishable of all.
As a rule of thumb, you should:
- Avoid cooking any unsaturated fat (they are best eaten raw)
- Avoid leaving them too long after opening (they become rancid)
Most important, though, are the effects of unsaturated fats on the diet and overall health.
As their name implies, monounsaturated fats molecules are not saturated with hydrogen atoms. The Mediterranean Diet is heavily using them as olive oil. The Greek island of Crete is a renowned consumer of monounsaturated fatty acids and studies shown that the risk of coronary disease among its inhabitants is remarkably low.
The natural sources of monounsaturated fats are not processed, cold pressed olive oil (highest content), sunflower oil, canola oil, grape seed oil, almond oil, sesame oil, various high-fat nuts and avocado. These fatty acids also occur in milk and red meat, but it’s always best to stick with plant oils, as they are the best sources.
Monounsaturated fats should be the primary sources of fats in a healthy diet.
There is a group of fatty acids which cannot be manufactured by the body and therefore are called “essential fatty acids”. They play an important role in keeping the nervous system healthy, during pregnancy and in various other processes.
I want to emphasize something here. Humans have basically two ways of getting the nutrients they need. Either they get them directly from dietary sources, or they get primary substances, which are further used as building blocks to manufacture the nutrient.
Sometimes animal foods are the main sources of nutrients or primary substances, which poses a problem for vegans. They need to find an alternative way to get those substances or nutrients. A good example to illustrate this point is vitamin D. If you’re lucky enough to live in a sunny region, then it shouldn’t concern you, as exposure to sun is the main source of vitamin D. On the other hand, the sun is much weaker in northern countries, so people living there need to get it from other sources – usually animal-based, such as fish. In the typical Western diet, fish-based products are the primary source of omega-3 and omega-6.
When going vegan animal-based nutrients are cut off, so particular care should be taken in order to be sure that your body gets everything that it needs. This is why every vegetarian, vegan or raw-foodist should focus on self-education before changing their dietary habits.
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acid
Alpha-Linoleic acid (ALA) or omega-3 has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, cancer, depression and ADHD. It has anti-inflammatory properties and it is preferred to omega-6.
Dietary sources of omega-3: perilla, linseed oil, flax seed oil, hemp oil, chia seed, avocado, dark green leafy vegetables and seaweed. Fish such as salmon and herring contain rather small quantities of omega-3 but they are rich in primary substances which are used to manufacture it inside the body. If you’re looking for a good source of fish oil, you should take a look at krill oil as it is believed to be the best source for non-vegans. So far, the traditional animal source was cod liver oil, available as supplement from various manufacturers.
Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acid
Also known as linoleic acid, it has been proved to reduce the risk of various health problems. Since the body needs it but it cannot produce it directly, it is important to add it to your diet on a daily basis. As it has pro-inflammatory properties, his consumption should be limited. The typical Western diet contains high levels of trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids, which negatively affects the omega-3 assimilation process. The consequence is that people lack omega-3 and the higher levels of omega-6 causes inflammations and related health issues.
Dietary sources of omega-6: corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, hemp oil, soybean oil.
Note: pay extra care to corn and soybean as they are usually GMOs. Buy only GMO-free labeled products!
Omega 9 Fatty Acid
Omega-9 is not an essential fatty acid, because it can be manufactured directly by the body from unsaturated fats. It is found in animal fats as well as in vegetable oils.
Dietary sources of omega-9: olive oil, macadamia oil, rapeseed oil and mustard seed oil.
Omega Fatty Acids in Diet
Omega-3 and omega-6 ideal intake range should be around 2:1 – 4:1. In the Western diet, the ratio is way up to 7-10:1. Such a high ratio will reduce even more the available quantity of omega-3, increasing the health risks associated with it.
The table below shows the common dietary sources of omega fatty acids. Palmitate (palmitic acid) is the most harmful saturated fat, therefore its consumption should be limited.
|Sesame seed oil||<1%||35-50%||10%||35-50%|
|Pine nut oil||<1%||49%||6%||24%|
|Pumpkin seed oil||<1%||20-60%||13-18%||<1%|
|Sunflower seed oil||<1%||50-75%||4-9%||<1%|
|Caraway seed oil||<1%||55-65%||10-12%||15-18%|
A Word About Cholesterol
Cholesterol is nowadays on the lips of everyone. Due to its intimate relation with fats, it is important to discuss a few things about it.
First, plant foods contain almost no cholesterol. There are only trace amounts of phytosterols – plant secreted cholesterol. In the animal reign, every cell secretes cholesterol in various amounts, since it is an essential substance.
In the human body, cholesterol production is mainly handled by the liver, adrenal glands, intestines and reproductive organs. The liver also transforms it into various bile acids used in digestion.
Fatty animal products increase the total amount of cholesterol.
There are two types of cholesterol:
LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein) or “bad cholesterol”
LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. A high level of LDL may cause health problems by creating plaque inside the arteries, thus triggering arteriosclerosis. Studies have shown that antioxidants are good protectors of the body, because LDL particles are relatively harmless unless they are oxidized by free radicals.
HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein)
It is also called “good cholesterol” because it has the opposite action and removes LDL particles, transporting them back to the liver.
There is a direct correlation between fat types and cholesterol levels, as shown below:
- Trans fats increase the level of LDL and decrease HDL
- Saturated fats increase both LDL and HDL
- Unsaturated fats lower the LDL level while increasing the HDL level
It quickly appears obvious that unsaturated fats are the healthiest types of fats, while saturated and especially trans fats should be avoided.
Getting Enough Healthy Fats in Your Diet
From what I’ve noticed among many vegans, fat intake is almost always very low. Many people are used to eating olives and olive oil – which is good – but in moderate amounts. Avocados? Not that often! In best case scenarios, people also eat some unsoaked nuts and seeds now and then and maybe some raw crackers from time to time, along with lots of carbohydrates in order to banish hunger. No wonder that they often overeat.
Arguably, fats are the most difficult addition to a healthy diet, simply because in the Western diet they are taken for granted. There are plenty of (unhealthy) fats in everything, so there’s no shortage there. On the other hand, going raw assumes a conscious approach to foods, also paying extra attention to food groups and overall nutrition. Since plant foods containing healthy fats are relatively less available than other food groups, fats are usually overlooked.
If you plan to keep your current weight or lose some of it, you shouldn’t exceed 20-30% fats from the overall intake. 20% should be enough for most people, but since everyone is different, you should experiment and find the right proportion for you. If you’re planning to increase your weight or build muscles, the fat intake can go up to 40%-50%. This is quite a large quantity, so be aware that the digestion of fats is stressful for the liver. Alternating high-fat with low-fat periods is a way to reduce the stress. Always consult your physician before!
Monounsaturated fats in the form of olives and cold-pressed olive oil, macadamia nut oil, sunflower oil, avocado, walnuts and various seeds and nuts can be added to salads, eaten raw or made into raw crackers. For some raw crackers ideas, take a look at my article called 5 Most Delicious Flax Seed Crackers. The daily amount of nuts and seeds should be around 100-150 grams (3-5 ounces).
Even soaked, nuts and seeds are difficult to digest so every 1-2 weeks you should take a pause for a few days.
To get enough polyunsaturated fats, eat flax seed oil (1 tbsp daily), hemp oil (1-2 tbsp) or canola oil (pay attention to GMO labeling). They can be used in salad dressings, while soaked seeds can be eaten directly. Oils are more concentrated and thus a more convenient dietary alternative. When choosing the oils, use the reference table above. This doesn’t mean you should stick only to them, a healthy diet should always contain variety.
Soaking the nuts and seeds is important, as it renders the whole nutritional content available for the body to assimilate. Soaking also inhibits the phytoestrogens which act like surplus estrogen. Playing with the hormone balance is not a safe thing to do especially on a long term. Hormone imbalance is a serious health issue, not to mention that studies have shown that the estrogen hormone has influences on where a woman’s fat is stored.
3 Fat Tips
1. Combined with sugar, fat slows down the release of energy. An avocado fruit, olives or olive oil added to a fruit salad will keep your energy high longer – and you also benefit from the added healthy fats.
2. Fat goes well with hot spicy foods such as garlic, ginger and hot peppers, reducing their hot sensation.
3. Fat metabolism uses an enzyme called lipase. Fatty plant foods contain lipase and will help the body to break and release the old fat deposits, therefore losing weight.
This was a really long article which only scratched the surface. Fats are such a large topic that it’s impossible to cover everything here. I hope I’ve been able to provide you with essential information and bust some of the most common myths.
The most important thing to remember is: don’t be afraid of fats, as long as they’re healthy ones.
- The Sunfood Diet Success Systemwritten by David Wolfe