(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Oct 13th, 2011)
Fats seem to be the most confusing nutrient for everyone. There are “Healthy Fats”, “Trans Fats”, “Saturated Fats”, “Essential Fats”, “Omega Fats”, “Triglycerides”, and so many different titles that the rooms spins when we think about it. To make sense of this we need to talk about the chemistry of fats but don’t worry, I’ll try to keep it simple. Fats are made up of long lines of carbon atoms. Carbon atoms have four hands that can hold onto other atoms’ hands. In fats carbons generally grab onto two other carbons and two hydrogens (which only have one hand each). Each hand-hold is called a bond. This line of carbons and hydrogens is called a Fatty Acid. When three Fatty Acids are brought together by a molecule called Glyceride they form a Triglyceride, the most basic packaging fats come in.
Sometimes a pair of carbons will each let go of one of their hydrogens and grab onto each other a second time. This second hand-hold is called a double bond and because of the orientation of the carbons’ hands this causes a bend in the line. This double bond is the key to differentiating between the labels that confuse us so much:
Saturated Fats are fatty acids that have no double bonds in them at all. Unsaturated Fats are fatty acids that have at least one double bond. A fatty acid with only one double bond is called a Mono-Unsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA), where as a fatty acid with more than one double bond is a Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA).
Omega Fats are unsaturated fatty acids. The Omega and number (e.g. Omega-3) designate where the first double bond is located in the chain of carbons which determines a lot of the fat’s chemical properties and what they can be used for by our bodies.
Essential Fats are fatty acids that our body needs to function properly but cannot manufacture on their own from other fatty acids. These are the Omega-3s and -6s. Yes these are the same Omega-6s we were claiming to be inflammatory previously. They are only a problem when there is too much in our systems. The ratio between 3s and 6s is the key.
When two carbons form a double bond this puts a bend in the line and the orientation of this bend is important. In one direction, the bend is natural and healthy. These are called Cis Fats, which you don’t read or hear about because every fat is a Cis Fat unless it has been processed and turned into a Trans Fat. Trans Fats are the opposite direction and do not occur in nature, so our bodies have not evolved to be able to deal with them. This is why Trans Fats are so bad and wreak havoc in our bodies. Exactly what it is they do is a whole can of worms for another time.
There is a rule in chemistry that says when a substance is going through a change it will always tend towards its most stable form with the least energy. All it takes is a little heat to destabilize a fat and when it cools down again the Trans orientation is the form with the least energy and is more stable. This means that any processing will create Trans Fats in the product. This includes the oil or butter used to cook in our homes. We have to be aware of the safe heats for different cooking oils to make sure the correct ones are used. Once again this is a large topic and will be discussed in its own entry.
Fats are an essential part of life. They are used throughout the body in a wide variety of ways. Some of the most important roles they play are as long term energy storage, the main components in the walls of our cells, and as the building blocks for many hormones. They are found in pretty much every tissue except for compact bone (but is still highly present in bone marrow). This means that fats are not the enemy that main stream media makes them out to be. Too much fat is extremely bad but this does not mean we should demonize all fats. With a little thought and effort a healthy diet including fats can be enjoyed.
Foods to Avoid
- Processed Meat (Deli, Canned, etc.)
- Margarine (High in Trans Fats)
Foods to Pick
- Fresh Organic Meats
- Cold Pressed Olive Oil
- Stable Oils (Coconut, Sesame, Grape Seed)
- Fresh Fish (Salmon, Trout) high in Omega-3s
- Fresh or Dry Roasted Nuts
Thanks for reading,