Contributing writer Virginia George joins us to tell you all about saturated fat, unsaturated and trans fats, how to watch your omega-3 and omega-6 balance, and how you can use these healthful fats in your diet.
By Virginia George, Contributing Writer
Last month we talked about plant fats. If you missed that post, I encourage you to read it as well. In it, I discussed what fat is, why it’s important, and various considerations when choosing a fat such as taste and smoke point. It will give you some good background on today’s post. You can read “‘Fat’ is Not a Four Letter Word: Plant Fats” here.
For this post, I want to tackle animal fats. There is a lot of apprehension toward animal fats in the mainstream, largely because much of the fat in animal-based fats is saturated fat. We have been told that “eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.” (Source) There is mounting evidence, however, that this is not the case. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First let’s understand what saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats are.
Saturated, Unsaturated, and Trans Fats
There are 3 major types of fats we can consume. They are saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat. Fats are categorized by their molecular structure.
From the American Heart Association, “From a chemical standpoint, saturated fats are simply fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.”
Some examples of saturated fatty acids are butyric acid (found in butter), lauric acid (found in coconut oil), and stearic acid (mainly used in soaps and cosmetics).
There have been several studies in the last 3 years that have concluded that a diet containing low-fat dairy actually increases one’s risk for obesity (sources cited below).
Liver health. A 1995 study showed that a diet high in saturated fat reversed alcoholic liver injury in rats. (Source)
Throughout this article, you will see additional health benefits of specific kinds of saturated fats. Lauric acid, for example, was addressed in “Fat” is Not a Four Letter Word: Plant Fats, and butyric acid will be discussed below.
I came across claims that saturated fat is essential to brain function and calcium absorption, but was unable to find studies to back up those claims.
Unsaturated fats are fat molecules that are not saturated with hydrogen molecules. If a fatty acid is lacking one hydrogen molecule, it is called a monounsaturated fat. If it is lacking several, it is a polyunsaturated fat.
Unsaturated fats are, in mainstream healthcare, the “good fats.” The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease published a study in 2010 that concluded unsaturated fats reduced the risk for mild cognitive impairment. (Source) There are several studies that corroborate their conclusion.
Monounsaturated fats are lacking one hydrogen molecule in their chemical structure. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, avocados, and many nuts and seeds. Monounsaturated fats tend to contain vitamin E, an antioxidant, and monounsaturated fats contribute to cell health.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fats. Common sources of polyunsaturated fats are fish, walnuts, and flaxseed. Polyunsaturated fats may reduce the risks for osteoporosis and encourage bone health. (Source)
Trans fats are the last major kind of fat we’ll talk about. Trans fats are actually unsaturated fats. They are rare in nature, but can be created artificially. In November 2013 the FDA put out a notice to gather information about trans fats and possibly classify them as “not generally recognized as safe.” This would be a huge win for the Real Food community, as partially hydrogenated oils would no longer be considered safe for consumption.
What Causes Heart Disease?
I’m not a doctor, and I’ve never played one on TV. I want to be clear that I am simply presenting the information as I have found it with hours of research. I have done my best to verify and cite my sources, but this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. There, I said it.
There is mounting evidence to support the claim that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. A Cambridge University study recently revealed no link between saturated fat and heart disease. (Source) The study found that only Omega-3 fatty acids, consumed in the form of fish and not supplements, decreased the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Similarly, Dr. James DiNicolantonio said in an interview in March 2014, “The increase in the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in the US occurred with an increase in the consumption of refined carbohydrate, not saturated fat. There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health.” (Source)
Dr. DiNicolantonio’s sentiments seem to be corroborated by Dr. Dwight Lundell, a former heart surgeon. After cutting open hundreds of hearts, he has some of his own theories on where heart disease comes from.
Dr. Lundell observed that many hearts that were riddled with disease were inflamed. Could it be that inflammation is the cause of heart disease, and not high cholesterol or saturated fat? According to Dr. Mercola and his article at the Huffington Post, it’s possible that high cholesterol is a response to inflammation and your body’s attempt to correct it. (Source) If that’s true, perhaps our diet in the form of refined carbohydrates is at least a partial cause of heart disease, and not cholesterol or saturated fat at all.
But I digress.
Omega-3 vs Omega 6 Fatty Acids
For years now, modern medicine has told us the importance of consuming omega-3 fatty acids, but do we know why? Without getting too technical, fatty acids are substances our bodies need in order to build cells, among other things.
Some are called “essential fatty acids” because they are indeed essential, but more notably, our bodies cannot produce them. We must consume them in the form of food. (If you’d like to read more, the Encyclopedia Britannica has a thorough, but understandable explanation.)
So what is the difference between Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids? First, it should be noted that they are not the only essential fatty acids out there. Other examples include oleic acid, linoleic acid, lauric acid, and stearic acid.
Let’s start with Omega-6 since it’s the essential fatty acid we all seem to get enough of. Omega-6 fatty acids are in both soybean and corn oils. Since soy and corn seem to be in almost every food commercially bought (and GMO), it makes sense that we get plenty of it. “The typical American diet tends to contain 15 to 25 times more Omega-6 fatty acids than Omega-3 fatty acids.” (Source)
While most Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation, gamma-linolenic acid, found in evening primrose oil and borage oil, actually fights it.
Omega-3 fatty acids have made the news in recent years, and I believe it’s the reason more people are using olive oil these days. It has been touted as a “heart healthy” substitute for whatever oil you were using. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, unlike their omega-6 counterparts.
Olive oil isn’t the only source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Pastured eggs are also a good source. Chickens that are allowed to graze and eat bugs lay eggs with a better Omega-3/6 ratio. Oily fish like salmon and mackerel are good sources, as well as flax and hemp.
Striking a Balance
Most Americans are getting plenty of Omega-6 fatty acids and not enough Omega-3. A study in the Scientific World Journal from 2013 concluded Omega-3 fatty acids had a positive effect on bone metabolism and posit the question of the ideal 3/6 ratio. (Source)
Dr. Donald B. Jump writes:
Just as too much dietary fat is harmful, eating the wrong type of fat is also harmful. Western diets contain too much saturated and omega-6 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) and too little omega-3 PUFA. The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 PUFA is important in the context of the production of pro- versus anti-inflammatory lipids. Chronic diseases like atherosclerosis and diabetic retinopathy are inflammatory diseases of the vasculature. Omega-6 PUFA are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 PUFA—particularly EPA and DHA—are anti-inflammatory. Therefore, the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 lipids is an important determinant in the progression of chronic inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, humans do not efficiently convert the common plant-derived omega-3 PUFA, alpha-linolenic acid, to EPA and DHA. The American Heart Association recommends increasing omega-3 PUFA intake by consuming fish like salmon and tuna, which are good sources of EPA and DHA. (Source)
What is the ideal balance? A study published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy took a look at different therapeutic ratios of Omega-6 and Omega-3. Some people recommend a ratio of 1:1, but this 2002 study found that the ideal ratio to reduce inflammation varied by disease. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis benefited from a 5:1 ratio, while patients with colorectal cancer had reduced rectal cell proliferation at a ratio of 2.5:1. (Source)
Regardless of the exact ratio to treat your particular form of inflammation, the average American is consuming Omega-6 and -3 at a 15 to 25:1 ratio.
Now that we have learned more about fats, and that we don’t need to fear animal fats, let’s look at some other considerations.
Grass-fed vs Conventional
Something to consider when choosing where to source your animal products is what the animals were fed. Some farms feed strictly grass and hay, others supplement with silage (a fermented blend of corn, soy, and other grains, and some animals are fed only grains.
Not surprisingly, the living conditions of the animal greatly reflect the quality of the food product. For example, when our bodies detect a high level of a toxin in our bloodstream, it will surround that toxin with lipids and store it in a fat cell. Animals that are exposed to fewer toxins are going to have healthier fats for us to consume.
As a general rule, pastured animals are a better food source than conventional or feedlot animals. Pastured animals are more nutrient dense and have a more ideal Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance. They are also exposed to sunlight and a better source of vitamin D. For more detailed information and great visuals I cannot hope to reproduce, visit Eat Wild.
Now let’s take a look at some animal fats and how we can use them.
Most of the dairy products we are accustomed to are bovine. The milk at the store, unless labeled otherwise, comes from cows. Same with butter, yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and more. You may have access to other dairy products at your local store, goat being the most common.
Milk is produced by a female mammal and is intended to feed her offspring. The milk of every animal is formulated for the growth needs of its infant species. Humans are about the only animal that drinks milk beyond infancy, and for that reason, many people choose not to drink milk.
There are, however, benefits to drinking milk. Especially raw milk.
Raw Milk vs Pasteurized Milk
Pasteurization came on the scene in the 1770s but didn’t become the standard for milk until a hundred years later. Pasteurization is the process of heating a substance to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time to kill the living enzymes and bacteria in it. While this kills e. Coli and other pathogens, it also reduces the nutritional benefit.
There are several health benefits to drinking full-fat raw milk, not limited to:
- Raw milk contains live enzymes. Raw milk contains lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose. Many people who have difficulty digesting pasteurized milk because of the lactose can drink raw milk fine.
- It contains beneficial bacteria.
- Raw milk has been shown to clear up some cases of allergies and eczema.
You can read Kate’s full post on raw milk here.
Butter is made from the cream or fattiest part of milk. Once milk has been allowed to sit for awhile, the fat will rise to the top and is then skimmed off. This is the cream, and according to the Scientific American, it is made of 15-25% fat globules. The cream is then agitated and these fat globules begin to break, allowing the fat cells contained within those globules to escape and cling together. The result is butter and buttermilk.
When purchasing your butter at the store, make sure you check the ingredients. Butter should have a maximum of 2 ingredients: cream, and salt. That’s it. A few brands, however, add other ingredients. Butter is now on the list of items where you need to check the label.
The smoke point of butter is 350*F making it suitable for frying as well as baking. Or eating straight off the stick.
Butter contains butyric acid, a short chain fatty acid. A 2009 study found that butyrate inhibits colon cancer cells while promoting healthy cells. (Source) Another study showed that butyrate can prevent and treat diet-induced insulin resistance. (Source)
Butter is high in vitamin K2. It contains other vitamins like A and E, but K2 is the most notable because it’s rarer. Our modern diets are markedly low in vitamin K2, a fat-soluble vitamin, so finding a consistent source is important. Vitamin K2, when coupled with vitamin D, promotes healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin K2 alone protects us from heart disease and cancer as well. (Source)
Full Fat Dairy
After years of low-fat propaganda, research is concluding that consuming low fat dairy increases your risk of obesity. There was a study published in March of 2013 in the Archives for Disease in Children, a sister of the British Medical Journal, that found children consuming low fat dairy (skim or 1%) were more likely to be obese then children consuming high-fat dairy (2% or whole). (Source)
Turns out the ADC isn’t alone in their findings. A Swedish study surveyed over 1,500 men of various occupations and geographical areas and followed up with the men 12 years later. The Scandinavian Journal of Primary Healthcare published the study in June 2013, and concluded that “a high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity and a low dairy fat intake was associated with a higher risk of central obesity.” (Source)
If two studies aren’t enough to convince you, how about one more? Some researchers did an analysis of 16 studies. In 11 of those 16 studies, dairy fat consumption was found to be inversely associated or not associated at all with risk of obesity. They concluded that high-fat dairy consumption was inversely associated with obesity risk. (Source)
What does all this mean? Put simply, it means that we were told wrong. Given this data, low-fat dairy actually increases your risk of obesity. For me, this means we don’t buy “reduced fat” yogurt (which usually is higher in sugar) or “lite” sour cream. We buy whole milk, use heavy whipping cream, and eat plenty of cheese.
Lard is fat rendered from pigs or pork. Lard used to be a kitchen staple but is now met with raised eyebrows and sideways glances.
Lard is a relatively tasteless fat and is great for a variety of things from frying to baking, and making delicious pie crusts! With a smoke point of 390*F, it is a great choice for cooking of all kinds.
Lard is a great source of vitamin D. Can’t I get that from sunlight, you ask? Yes, you can, but the jury is out on whether you can likely get enough vitamin D to meet your body’s needs. Additionally, in extreme climates it can be difficult to get adequate vitamin D in the winter months. I live in Minnesota, you won’t catch me baring my skin outdoors in January!
Vitamin D is critical in calcium absorption and maintaining proper levels of calcium and phosphorus in the bloodstream. Most Americans have low vitamin D levels. This can make your bones brittle and slow to heal. Vitamin D is a bone’s best friend. It helps bones to both grow and repair.
While fat from deer is also called tallow, we’ll be talking about beef tallow. Tallow has a smoke point of 420*F and is an excellent choice for frying foods. Did you know McDonald’s’ fries used to be fried in tallow, which is why they were so popular? (We won’t address what they are cooked in now, but know the roots of their delicious fries were all in the cow fat.)
Tallow contains conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. CLA from tallow has been shown to reduce the size of mammary tumors in mince. (Source) It also contains many vitamins, such as A, D, K, and E.
Beef tallow is very nourishing to the skin. Spread some whipped tallow lotion on your dry skin in the winter and it will thank you all day long! It is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial as well.
Fish oils aren’t typically used for cooking, they are either consumed via whole fish or taken in supplement form. “Fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring.” (Source)
Popular fish oils supplements include cod liver oil, fermented cod liver oil, and skate oil. These fish oils should be taken with a butter oil supplement for the vitamin D/vitamin K synergistic effect.
Fish oil is one of those nutrient dense foods that have more health benefits than we can understand.
There are many benefits to consuming fish oils. For instance, only omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish were linked to a lower risk of heart disease, according to a Cambridge University study. (Source) And a study done among prison inmates concluded higher intake of Omega-3, usually in the form of fish, coincided with lower murder rates. (Source)
Fish oil also has been shown to enhance white blood cell activity, suggesting it can enhance our immune systems. (Source)
For so long we have been given inaccurate information about dietary fat, among other things. Today I want to challenge you to reconsider what you’ve been told.
Fat has, for so long, been painted as a substance to be avoided. I hope over the course of these two articles you have learned, as I have, that fat is NOT a four-letter word. Good sources of dietary fat should be embraced and enjoyed. Your food will never taste better!
Do you eat saturated fat, or do you fear the old link to heart disease? What is your favorite animal fat to cook with?