Many have asked the question, “Are fats and oils truly healthy and what’s the best fat to include in my diet?”

With heart health being the number once cause of death in the U.S., fats and the role of fats in our diets have sparked great interest, specifically coconut oil, which has been on the chopping block for its questionable healthfulness. With so many choices and with so much conflicting information, it’s important to get the facts straight on fats and oils.

First, a primer on fats. Our bodies require fat both for energy, to support hormones and weight loss, to modulate brain function, and to protect nerves and cells just to name a few critical functions. Fat is a macronutrient, meaning you need a daily supply and in relatively larger amounts, albeit not as high a percentage of carbs. Clearly our bodies need fats. They are finally claiming a place in our healthy diets after many years of being unappreciated.

Types of Fats

There are 3 types of FATS, each of which has a specific chemical composition, consisting of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. What makes one fat different from another is the length and shape of the carbon chain and the number of hydrogen atoms connected to the carbon atoms.

  1. Unsaturated fats – polyunsaturated fats (PFAs) and monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). A polyunsaturated fat has two or more double bonds in its carbon chain and include omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids whereas monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond.
  2. Saturated fats – medium chain (6-10 carbons) and long chain (12-18)  fatty acids (SFAs)
  3. Trans fats – from processed foods via hydrogenation

Saturated fat has been the target in recent news, and for good reason too! Saturated Fats most typically include red meat, ice cream and dairy products, as well as food-like substances…generally speaking, packaged and prepared foods…the Standard American Diet (SAD). But, saturated fats also include coconut oil and avocado…

This is where it begins to get tricky and you can see why! Not all fats are created equally, and this is true even within the grouping of saturated fats. To say that coconut oil contributes to heart disease, weight gain, and health issues more so than ice cream is intuitively not true, yet there are claims that coconut oil is on par with beef fat and butter and is worse than pork lard!  Certainly, a diet rich in saturated fats can drive up total cholesterol, but we also know not all fats are created equally and neither are the components of cholesterol. Research shows that coconut oil raises HDL, good cholesterol, to improve your overall cholesterol profile!

So What’s the Deal with Dietary Fats and Cholesterol? 

Dietary fat most definitely plays a major role in your cholesterol levels, which surprisingly is required by your body to function correctly. Cholesterol isn’t necessarily bad; again consider the type and quantity; there are good and bad types of cholesterol, and too much cholesterol can negatively impact your health.

  • HDL, is the “good” cholesterol
  • LDL is the “bad” cholesterol

The key to protecting yourself from heat disease and stroke is to is to modulate cholesterol levels, keeping LDL levels low and HDL high, since the reverse (high LDL and low HDL) is a clear marker for increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Instead of focusing on the cholesterol you eat, it’s time to shift your dietary practices to the type and quantity of fats and food types you consume.

Good fats vs. bad fats

Not all fats are created equally and good fats are required in your daily diet to protect your brain and heart. It’s smart to get educated about the foods you eat and how they play a major role in your risk of heart disease, and weight gain too. Since fat is an important part of a healthy diet, rather than simply eliminating or adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating more beneficial “good” fats and limiting harmful “bad” fats.

Saturated Fats, “traditionally coined the bad fats” actually have a healthy role in your diet, depending on the source. Saturated fats are stable (solid at room temperature), and most of the American diet comprises unhealthy and large quantities of saturated fats. From these examples, you can see why…

Saturated Fats Include:

  • Meats such as beef, poultry, pork
  • Dairy such as ice cream, cheese, butter, and milk
  • Processed meats such as bacon, salami, sausage/hot dogs, and bologna
  • Certain plant oils such as palm kernel and coconut oil**
  • Boxed, processed foods such as snack foods, crackers, chips, baked goods, and cookies

The link of saturated fats to high cholesterol and heart disease has long been shouted from the rooftops. And, while it is well substantiated that eating large quantities of saturated fats does drive up total cholesterol, the medium chain fatty acids (MCTs), with their unique structure such as coconut oil, were not taken into consideration. More on that later…

Unsaturated Fats, “the good fats,” are essential fatty acids and are required for general health. Good fats support vitamin absorption, especially fat soluble vitamins D, A, K, and E. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calories should include fats, the majority of which should be sourced from unsaturated fat. However, a 2015 study suggested that substituting unsaturated fats alone did not have the predicted significant heart health benefits and that consuming saturated fats may not be the bad culprits they’ve been made out to be!

Monounsaturated fats saw their rise to popularity in the 1960s, when the Seven Countries Study showed that people the Mediterranean region ate a high fat diet, especially rich in olive oil, a monunsaturated fat, but experienced a low rate of heart disease  And the “gold seal” of what is considered eating healthy fats was born!

Here are your unsaturated fat sources, which are the focus in a “heart healthy” Mediterranean diet:

  • Olive oil
  • Nuts, including almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias
  • Canola oil
  • Avocados/avocado oil
  • Nut butters (peanut, sunflower, almond)
  • Olives
  • Peanut oil
  • safflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Certain fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovy, which contain omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids

Trans Fats, however, should NEVER be in your diet…EVER! And, trans fast were finally banned (final deadline was June 18, 2018) in the USA since no level of consumption for these processed, hydrogenated fats is said to be safe.

Now This Is Where It Gets Interesting!

The American Heart Association (AHA) has made several recommendations on fats, including in the 1960’s, encouraging individuals to switch from butter, a long time staple in the American diet, to margarine since it was free of cholesterol. We later found that margarine also contained high levels of trans fats and therefore increased LDL bad cholesterol! According to a St. Louis cardiologist, “the truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease.” 

This is an important backdrop in the fats discussion when the AHA has recently been very vocal to encourage the use of unsaturated fats and to avoid using saturated fats as part of a healthy diet. They went on to say “coconut oil isn’t actually good for you since it contains about 90% saturated fat (SFA) which is a higher percentage than butter (about 64% saturated fat), beef fat (40%), or even lard (also 40%).” What the AHA didn’t include and where they are flawed in their argument is making no mention that saturated fats are uniquely different, coconut oil in particular!  It’s really no different than the idea that margarine is better than butter since it lacks cholesterol. That was only one piece of data and not a holistic picture of its nutritional content.

It certainly makes you question recommendations from reputable sources, especially when  additional studies have stated that the “evidence is insufficient to conclude the risk of heart disease increased with saturated fats”…and then confused us further by explaining that “replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils or high-fiber carbohydrates is the best bet for reducing the risk of heart disease!”

What About the “Holy Grail”….Coconut Oil?

If you have followed me for any length of time, you know I personally use and encourage the use of organic, unrefined, cold pressed Coconut oil. Here’s why…The benefit of coconut oil comes in its medium chain triglycerides (MCT) of which there are four kinds found in coconut oil: C6, C8, C10, and C12 (these numbers refer to the length of the carbon chains, and 6-12 are considered “medium,” and also beneficial). Sadly, the least expensive and more abundant MCT is lauric acid (C12), which acts more like a long chain triglyceride (LCT) and is processed by the liver and not used for immediate energy. Sadly and unfortunately most coconut oils don’t reflect their MCT carbon length on the labels.

Coconut oil (in the shorter chain MCT form) is metabolized faster than other saturated long chain fatty acids burning it for energy rather than storing it as fat. What’s more coconut oil boosts your metabolism and supports immune function.

There is considerable research that coconut oil is effective for weight loss and for increased good cholesterol (HDL) because it helps control cravings, increases satiety, improves metabolism, reduce insulin sensitivity and inflammation, improves cognition, and is great for skin! It is antibacterial and helps lower blood pressure. Coconut oil also provides a higher smoke point than the unsaturated plant-based cooking oils promoted by the AHA, including canola and corn oil, which means coconut oil won’t break down the compounds to become carcinogenic at higher cooking temperatures.

I’m not making an argument for copious consumption of coconut oil, but the arguments continue to stack against the AHA and their recommendations to use “better for you” canola, corn, and soybean oils, which are the Nation’s leading GMO/glyphosate crops. Regardless of your stance on GMOs, canola, soy, and corn crops are heavily treated with pesticides and especially glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. According the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), GMOs have “repeatedly shown serious health risks including infertility, auto-immune disorders, diabetes, and changes in major organs including the gastrointestinal system.” The AAEM even requested physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods. So when these GMO/glyphosate treated crops are packed into a propellant spray canister, also promoted by the AHA, that’s a double whammy! Propellants and synthetic chemicals should never be in your body, even if the oils contained within are unsaturated and healthy!

Finally, many plant based oils, such as soybean and corn oil, can create an unhealthy ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s (think flax, walnut, olive), so that inflammatory markers increase as well as your risk of disease.

The Stats Don’t Lie!

The fats and oils controversy is arguably confusing. But, the statistics speak for themselves. In 1901, heart disease was the fourth leading cause of death, yet our ancestors enjoyed lard and butter from the cows in their pastures (GMO/glyphosate free pastures!) Today, heart disease is the number one killer and the rate of cardiovascular disease and obesity continue to rise, despite our best efforts to go low fat and/or to cut butter, lard, or any other saturated fats from our daily diet.

How can this be…cutting fats should improve health according to the AHA tagline. But health didn’t improve when individuals switched to a low fat diet. Just as the switch from sugary foods to sugar free foods caused individuals to consume larger “doses” of sugar free, food-like substances, the same goes here…Low fat foods just doesn’t equate with health. Low fat foods often provide the “green light” for eating more of the (packaged) foods you really shouldn’t be consuming. Unfortunately, processed low fat foods are typically carbohydrate rich and have replaced healthy fats with simple sugars and high salt contents. As a result, the healthier fats are not being consumed but actually replaced with low-fat, chemical-filled, food-like carbohydrates.

A study from the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health found “no association between decreased risk of IHD (ischemic heart disease) and replacement of saturated fat with carbohydrates; indeed, the approach was associated with a slightly increased risk.”

And that’s the key!… Low fat foods have enticed us to eat increase simple carbohydrates, which increase overall cholesterol levels and therefore increase risk of heart disease. These carbs, including breads, pasta, crackers, desserts, packaged foods, sugary drinks, starchy and non-suspecting, sugar-filled foods (yogurt, cereal, health-food/granola/cereal bars, sauces and dressings) trigger your liver to create more fat in your blood. In essence, researchers found it’s the refined carbohydrates that increased saturated fatsSugar is the real culprit in our diets, not healthy fats!

How to incorporate healthy fats

Fats are required to lose weight and to protect our nerves and cells with proper function. But, too much of anything is bad. Healthy fats should be approximately 30% of your daily caloric intake since they are a healthy and essential macronutrient in your daily diet.

Clearly a handful of walnuts, a sprinkle of flax seeds on your granola, or a drizzle of coconut oil in your veggie saute can make a bigger difference in your cholesterol levels than the standard choices of lunchmeat, chips, or crackers. They both may contain fats, but walnuts and flax seeds also contain vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients. The perfect marriage is made…Incorporating healthy fats into your daily diet is the key piece, with vitamins, minerals, and fiber for the side show…and of course no to low-sugar and refined carbs.

This approach provides an ideal strategy for healthy cholesterol levels and reduced risk of (heart) disease. Healthy fats aren’t evil!