|  HOME  |  BACK  |

Understanding Fats

by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project

It is often a challenge to understand which fats are healthy and which ones are not, when they all have received such a bad reputation. However, it is crucial for our health to consume healthy fats. One of the most important notions to grasp is that eating fat does not equal getting fat, and during the colder months, we need more fat to stay well insulated, maintain body temperature and to assimilate vitamins that support our immune system.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of fats and what they offer us:

Fats are our greatest source of energy, providing 9 calories per gram (carbs and proteins offer 4 calories per gram). When we eat healthy fats, our bodies know how to use them for energy, rather than storing them;

olive oil Fats are needed for proper assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K);

The membrane protecting every cell in our bodies is made from fat, and “according to modern pathology, an alteration in cell membrane function is the central factor in the development in virtually every disease” (Murray, Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, 2005);

Our brains are composed of 60% fat;

Fats are the backbones of our hormones;

Fat insulates our tissues;

Fats are satiating and can actually help with weight management.

Not all fats are created equal, however:

Saturated fats* are stable fats which are found in animal products and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil, and they can be very healthful when properly sourced and unrefined (and they are not as bad as they have been portrayed);

Monounsaturated fats* are healthy fats found in olive, sesame, macadamia, and peanut oils, and they are also better unrefined;
Polyunsaturated fats* contain essential fatty acids Omega 3 and Omega 6, and are found in cold water fish, flaxseeds, nuts, and legumes, and are usually healthy unless they are oxidized or processed (the first is often a result of the latter);

*These 3 types of fat are needed by the body, and they serve many different purposes within our system. All of the oils mentioned above contain a percentage of each of these types.

Trans fats, usually found in labels as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, are found in processed vegetable oils, such as cottonseed, corn, soybean, and canola oils. The refining process includes heating the oil from 500 to 1,000 degrees F, under extreme pressure, injecting catalyst metals to change molecular structure, and then the oil is often bleached and deodorized. Needless to say, our body does not need these types of fat, and they should be avoided.

For this article, we will take a look at saturated fats. Stay tuned for upcoming articles in our Ceres Newsletter on unsaturated and trans fats.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats have a more stable structure and do not easily go rancid when cooked at high temperatures. These fats received a bad reputation when research from the 70’s and 80’s linked them with raised “bad” cholesterol, but in current analysis combining the results of 21 studies, researchers found no clear evidence that saturated fat led to higher risk of heart disease.

Quality is still important when it comes to saturated fats, and the healthiest come from:

Dairy – cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, kefir. Butterfat from cows and goats, when sourced from healthy animals (ie. organic and pasture-raised), can have antimicrobial properties, support the immune system, contain more Omega 3 essential fatty acids, and are easily absorbed.

Eggs – soft yolk, to keep nutrients intact

Slow cooked meats – grass fed meats contain healthier fats, more Omega 3s, converted from grass
coconut oil
Coconut oil (unrefined) can be used for sautéing and higher heat. It is twice as stable as olive oil, 4 times as stable as canola oil. It also promotes weight loss by increasing burning of calories (thermogenesis).

Saturated fats are usually minimally processed or unrefined, and this alone is a good reason to consider them in our diet (see resources below to watch videos on how canola oil is made and compare it to how butter is made).

To better assimilate these fats, it is a good idea to eat plenty of bitter greens throughout the day and especially at the beginning of meals to help the liver produce healthy bile. It is also helpful to add lemon to help fats break down (squeezing a lemon on your avocado, for example), eat fermented foods such as sauerkraut, consume colorful vegetables full of antioxidants, practice moderation, and chew slowly and thoroughly.

At Ceres we use unrefined, organic, cold-pressed healthy oils such as coconut oil, butter, olive oil (no high heat exposure), and sesame oil, as well as foods such as avocados, seeds and nuts.

We will review unsaturated fats and trans fats on our next installment.


Sources and Resources:

Murray, Michael and Pizzorno, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria Books, 2005.

Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. Nourishing Traditions. NewTrends Publishing, 2001.

Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. Anchor, 2008.


Are You Fat Enough? by Mark Hyman, MD
Discover Channel video: How It's Made - Canola Oil
Discover Channel video: How It's Made - Butter



Understanding Fats (Part 2)

In our last article we looked at saturated fats, what they are, when they are healthy, and where we find them. In this second installment, let’s look at unsaturated fats.

There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.

When fats are saturated, the molecules have all their available binding sites occupied, “olive oilin other words, carbons are saturated with all of the atoms they can hold” (Murray, 2005). When one or more binding sites are left unoccupied, we get an unsaturated fat molecule. When this happens, carbon atoms form a double bond with a neighbor carbon atom, which creates a monounsaturated fat if there is only one double bond, or a polyunsaturated fat, when there are multiple double bonds.

Polyunsaturated fats can be further broken down into two types:

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats — these fats provide an essential fatty acid that our bodies need, but can't make.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats — these fats also provide an essential fatty acid that our bodies need.

According to Chris Kresser, a Berkeley-based Integrative Health practitioner, “Omega-3 fatty acids are known to be anti-inflammatory, and the relative intake of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may be a crucial dietary factor in the regulation of systemic inflammation. Our modern diets tend to be very unbalanced in essential fatty acid intake; the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in Western diets is commonly at least 10 to 1, compared with ratios of 4 to 1 in Japan and 2 to 1 in hunter-gatherer populations.”

This high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our modern diet is thought to contribute to a wide range of inflammatory responses in our bodies, and inflammation is at the core of chronic conditions. One way to lower inflammation is to increase the number of Omega-3 fatty acids in our diets and decrease the number of omega-6 fatty acids. Now, Omega-6s aren’t all bad, we just don’t need as much of them as we are getting these days.

The two types of polyunsaturated fats are important to understand because there is a huge quantity of Omega-6 fats in processed foods, restaurant foods, and even “healthy” snacks. So even though we might be sold something as “healthy,” we still need to consider the ingredients that we are about to consume and whether they will contribute to inflammation.


Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources (not so good)
Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources (very good)

Soybean oil
Corn oil
Safflower oil
Canola (rapeseed) oil

Fish: trout, herring, and salmon


In the first column you can see the oils that are in the majority of prepared, processed foods. Some oils, like soybean, can also have a small amount of Omega-3s, but this small amount of beneficial fat is not enough reason to consume it. There are other considerations: how is it processed? Is it extracted from genetically modified soy? (If it doesn’t say GMO-free, 98% of the time it will be).

The way oils are processed is important to consider. Many oils marketed as heart-healthy because they an unsaturated, are in fact so heavily processed that they become unhealthy. One example is canola oil. Did you get a chance to watch the short youtube video on how canola oil is made, which was linked in our first article? If not, check it out here.


So there isn’t a clear black and white picture when it comes to each kind of oil, but the main message here is this:

1. The less processed, the better.

2. The source matters (organic vs commercial and potentially GMO).

3. Saturated fats aren’t as bad as we were made to believe.

4. Omega-3 fats are fundamental for good health.

5. We need to know what fats are higher in omega-6 and then diminish our intake of them.


Here is a list of the best fats by category (organic as much as possible):


Now, we still need to talk about trans fats. Follow the next installment to get the whole fat story!


Sources and Resources:

Kresser, Chris. Nutrition for Healthy Skin., 2014

Murray, Michael and Pizzorno, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria Books, 2005.

Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. Anchor, 2008.


Image Credits

Salmon: Creative Commons Attribution:

Walnuts: Flickr member marfis75 licensed for use under Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Sesame Seeds: Flickr member Gudlyf licensed for use under Creative Commons.


Understanding Fats (Part 3)


In our last article we looked at unsaturated fats, omega-6 vs. omega-3 fats, and healthy sources of them. Now let’s take a look at trans fats, and talk a little bit about cholesterol.

“Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.”

– Michael Pollan

Why to Steer Clear of Trans Fats

Trans fats are created artificially; they are not easily found in nature (and your grandmother wouldn’t recognize them as food). Trans fats occur when liquid fats such as soybean, corn or cottonseed oil are hydrogenated to convert them from liquid oils to solid fats (basically artificially turning an unsaturated fat into a saturated fat.) These fats are listed on processed food labels as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

The consumption of trans fats has been linked to increased coronary heart disease, raising the levels of “bad cholesterol,” LDL, and lowering levels of the “good cholesterol,” HDL. According to PubMed Central:

“Positive associations between intake of trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease have been observed in epidemiological studies. The combined results of metabolic and epidemiological studies provide strong evidence that trans fatty acid intake is causally related to risk of coronary disease. Because the consumption of partially hydrogenated fats is almost universal in the United States, the number of deaths attributable to such fats is likely to be substantial.” (Willett and Ascherio, 1994).

Before 1910, dietary fats consisted primarily of butterfat, beef tallow, and lard in the US. However, in 1909 Procter & Gamble acquired the rights to the hydrogenation patent by the German chemist, Wilhelm Normann, and in 1911 started marketing the first hydrogenated shortening, Crisco (made mostly of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil), by giving away free cookbooks in which every recipe called for its new product.

By the late 1970s roughly 60% of all edible oils and fats in the US were partially hydrogenated. (Shurtleff and Aoyagi, 2004). It is interesting to see the charts showing increase of consumption of hydrogenated oils and increase in cardiovascular disease, as heart disease peaks in the 1950s just as margarine takes more of the market and butter consumption drops:

Butter vs Margarine

Heart Disease Mortality Diagram

Saturated Fats Pose No Additional Risk for Heart Disease

In a recent study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at the meta-data for 17 heart health studies that was drawn from 18 countries and included over 600,000 participants. One of the conclusions of the study debunks the myth that saturated fats are bad for health:

“Saturated fats, long considered a dietary no-no, appeared to pose no additional risk for heart disease according to recent research. They carried about the same cardiac risk as unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids."

butter heartSo without a reason to replace a perfectly natural fat such as butter, hydrogenated oils completely lose their appeal (if they ever had any). It is important to note again that QUALITY MATTERS. Organic butter will be far superior to commercial butter, and the best option is pasture-raised (grass-fed) and organic. As for liquid oils, you can refer back to our unsaturated fats article above to see which oils are healthiest. Coconut oil is another great oil when you need a more stable (i.e. saturated) fat.

The good news is that the FDA will now require the food industry to gradually phase out all trans fats, because they are a threat to people's health. Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the move could prevent 20,000 heart attacks a year and 7,000 deaths.

Aside from trans fats, what also has a negative effect on our health is sugar – which tends to be packed in low-fat products… so remember to read labels and avoid added sugars.


How Much Fat is Enough?

The daily need for fats differs from person to person and at different times of year (less fat in the summer when it is a warm and more fat in the winter when we need more insulation). It is safe to say that in general, someone on a 2,000 calorie/day diet, can have between 60 to 75 grams of fat a day (540 calories to 675 calories respectively). Here’s an idea of what 64 grams of HEALTHY fat might look like:

¼ cup almonds = 15 g   

2 large eggs = 10 g    

1 Tbsp olive oil = 14 g

¼ cup shredded cheddar cheese = 9 g  

1 Tbsp butter = 12 g   

4 oz baked salmon: 4 g    



Aim to have at least 2/3 of your plate composed of vegetables, no matter what fats you use.



A Note on Cholesterol:

Cholesterol is a sterol, which is a combination of a steroid and alcohol found in the cell membranes of all tissues of all mammals. It’s essential to all animal life. In fact, we wouldn’t exist without it. It plays a crucial role in forming the cell membrane, which controls how a cell moves, and it interacts with other cells and lets things in and out.

The belief that eating cholesterol and saturated fats raises cholesterol in our blood originated from inconclusive studies from 50 years ago. More recent evidence does not support this belief.

We usually have between 1,100 and 1,700 milligrams of cholesterol in our body, from which at least 75% is produced by us (by our livers, more specifically), and only 25% comes from our diet. The body regulates the amount of cholesterol in our blood by controlling internal production. When cholesterol intake via food goes up, liver production goes down and vice versa. It is when this mechanism is out of order, that cholesterol can be a problem, and there are a number of reasons for this system to go out of balance, such as stress, poor overall diet (sugar, processed foods, trans fats), and other health issues.

egg yolkA recent study showed that 75% of participants who ate 2 to 4 eggs a day experienced very little impact on blood cholesterol levels. The other 25%, considered hyper-responders, showed a modest increase in both the good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol, without affecting the ratio between the two and with no increase in the risk of heart attack. This study even suggested that eggs can help regulate cholesterol action in the body, which is great because eggs – and especially egg yolks – have essential nutrients needed for health. The yolk is a rich source of choline, a B vitamin vital to neurotransmitter production, detoxification, and maintaining healthy cells (Kresser, 2013.)

And it bears repeating: Quality matters! Hens that are fed corn and soy do not produce eggs with the same quality as pasture-raised hens. When the hens eat what is healthiest for them, their eggs will be healthiest for us. More and more pasture-raised eggs are becoming available, and you can find them locally in markets such as Oliver’s, Whole Foods, and Andy’s as well as your local farmers’ market.


Sources and Resources:

Kresser, Chris. The Diet-Heart Myth. E-book, 2013.

Jalonick, Mary Clare. FDA to Ban Trans Fats. Huffington Post, 2013.

Murray, Michael and Pizzorno, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria Books, 2005.

Shurtleff and Aoyagi. History of Soybean and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s. Soyfoods Center, 2004.

Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. Anchor, 2008.

Willett and Ascherio. Trans Fatty Acids: Are The Effects Only Marginal? American Journal of Public Health.