The Skinny on Fats – Without the Gobbledegook

[First, a quick disclaimer: while there’s a chance that I might end up in bankruptcy court because of my habit of obsessively buying books on health, food, and nutrition, reading a lot does not mean I truly understand what I am reading. It was once said that the inherent danger in books is it can create the appearance of knowledge in some – and people not versed in the area might not be able to tell the difference.

Because of this I want you to promise that you will keep this in mind while reading what follows. It’s not meant to be advice for anyone else but myself.

Actually, it’s a gamble. I’ve chosen to take an unorthodox approach to eating based upon what I’ve learned, but this is a personal decision – not an expert opinion.]

The problem with ‘fat’ is it is a gross simplification – and a dangerous one. It’s sort of like thinking every species of fish is the same and handling an interaction with a goldfish the same way you would with a great white shark.

One you might eat on a dare (in college and involving alcohol in the 1920s perhaps) and one might eat you – it’s a very different interaction.

Once we begin to explore fats in detail, for most people, MEGO sets in. ‘MEGO’ stands for ‘My Eyes Glaze Over’. There’s short chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids and long chain fatty acids, then there’s saturated fats, monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. To explain the differences at this point begins the MEGO process with discussions of chemical bonds, atoms, molecular diagrams and the wandering mind of a listener thinking about what’s on TV right about now that would be a heck of a lot more interesting.

And I haven’t even scratched the surface.

How about I don’t and instead give a simpler explanation that I think gives enough useful info without transporting you back to chemistry class? Let’s see if I can pull this off – you people out there who know way more than I do – please feel free to criticize me if you think I am leading people astray.

So I’ve made clear that there’s a whole bushel basket full of different fats. People on a low carb diet can pretty much use any of them and experience the kind of weight loss that people who respond to low carb can expect to achieve. The problem arises in that some of these fats are better for you than others, some should be eaten sparingly, some shouldn’t be used in cooking, and some shouldn’t be used at all.

To make this chaos even worse, experts of every conceivable stripe are in complete disagreement about which are which – and some people think too much of ANY fat is bad for you.

See – it’s a mess.

Here’s the conclusions that I’ve come to. I’ve concluded this because I’m tired of thinking – not because I have cornered the market on knowledge.

First and foremost. Fat is, despite what you’ve heard, awfully good for you, but fats can go rancid. Rancid fats are oxidized fats and these tear through your body pulling atoms off of other molecules and stirring up trouble – sort of like Marlon Brando and his cycle gang in ‘The Wild One‘.

wild-one-opendin-scene1

Fats are more likely to go rancid if they aren’t saturated. Oh, wait – aren’t the saturated fats the ‘bad’ ones?

Um, no.

The worst fats, which people finally woke up to after 30 years of being told were healthy, are trans fats. These fats were only healthy for the profit margins of the people who made them. They are rarely found in nature and your body doesn’t quite know what to do with them. It raises triglycerides and caused heart disease and now we’ve wizened up to it, but there’s lots more fats that cause endless mischief – and these are still being touted as good for you over the actual good fats – which are still considered bad by most experts and authorities on this stuff.

How do I think you should tell the good fats from the bad fats? An easy way to think of it is to ask yourself: just how easy would it be for little old me to get oil out of a foodstuff. You want a cup of fat and only have unprocessed food. What would be the easiest?

Meat is simple. Cook it and it will ooze liquid fat that will stay solid at room temperature and keep for quite some time in the fridge. This is saturated fat. It is stable. You can cook with it without it turning rancid, going rogue and coursing through your body tugging atoms off of innocent molecules minding their own business. Milk – at least straight from the cow – only needs to be left unmolested to let the cream come to the top. With a churn, it easily can be turned to butter.

With a little more work and the addition of microbes to digest some of the sugars in the milk, and some patience, you also get yogurt and cheese.

Your body loves these fats. They don’t, in my estimation, cause heart disease, and contain many different variants of fats – most of them pretty darn good for you.

Once you’ve gone past the meat and dairy, it begins to get a little tougher. Olives need somewhat serious equipment to be pressed, but it was nothing beyond civilizations thousands of years old. Olive oil is a monosaturated fat, and it can also be used in cooking, though it’s a bit more delicate than the saturated type – you shouldn’t deep-fry in it, and it’s best not to heat it to extract it – you want to buy the extra-virgin cold-pressed variety.

Once the olives are pressed, the only things left are the vegetable fats. As an aside: olives are actually a stone fruit like a cherry. Olive oil is really akin to olive juice and is best – like any juice – squeezed fresh and used as soon as possible.

Coconuts and avocados are also fruits though we might not think of them that way. Their oils are mostly saturated and are also pretty good for you.

Next you have things like soy, canola, cottonseed and corn. Good luck producing oil with these in your kitchen. If you’ve eaten these in their natural state they don’t taste oily at all. In order to get oil out of these things usually requires two things – high temperatures and pressure. This effectively ‘denatures’ these fats – they aren’t the same once extracted like this, and are as artificial as trans fats. Frequently solvents like hexane need to be added to help separate these fats out, then the hexane – a petroleum product – needs to be removed – but some is left behind (Yum!).

These oils are polyunsaturated, which means that from the outset they are more likely to go rancid – in fact, many can be considered rancid the moment they are produced. It only get worse from there. Stored in the clear containers they degrade further in the light and are ready to stir up trouble right from the first pour from a freshly opened bottle.

Some of these oils are pretty gnarly once produced. Nature never intended for them to exist in this form and they don’t look or smell great so they are deodorized, bleached and otherwise tarted up so that they are presentable.

While these fats are touted as ‘healthy’, they are no such thing in my estimation.

What I do is try to keep the majority of my fat intake to fats from meats, dairy, and olive oils. avocados and coconuts are also fine. I avoid seed oils as much as is possible. I don’t concern myself too much if eating out as I expect them to be used, but I certainly don’t buy them – though sesame seed oil is awfully tasty and I would happily indulge in some in the right dish. I also have a passion for mayonnaise and buy an expeller pressed canola oil version of the stuff. This means it is actually pressed and (hopefully) not chemically extracted with high temperatures. Mayonnaise is my worst transgression and I always eat mayo with both satisfaction and regret.

There’s one other aspect that needs discussion: the ‘Omega’ issue. There are 3 different types – Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9 – the last one hardly ever mentioned though it does exist. I’m going to ignore Omega 9 like everybody else does because I know nothing about it, and just talk about the others.

Most Omega-3 come from some odd sources – green stuff. Grass-fed beef has more omega-3 because they eat grass – not grains. Seeds and nuts have a lot of omega-6, and a cow fed grain has way more omega-6 in his fat than a grass-fed cow. Fish also get omega-3 from green stuff – algae. Now, you NEED Omega-3s AND Omega-6s – they are both known as ‘essential fatty acids’ – the problem is not eating them, but rather eating them in the wrong proportion to each other – or eating too much of either.

Depending on the day and what they had for lunch, experts are likely to say you should eat these in proportions like 1:1 or 1:2 Omega-3 to Omega-6, but since the world as of late runs on cheap seed oils, the ratio can be 20:1 or more for the average Joe or Jane, with most people getting way more Omega-6 than Omega -3. We try to compensate by taking fish oils to get the ratio looking better, but then we overdose on BOTH Omega-3 and 6.

If you live in modern society you should have no fear of not getting enough Omega-6. As to Omega-3, eating fish a few times a week is plenty. Flaxseed oil is also a source of Omega-3, but a few tentative studies have possibly implicated it in prostate cancer, and being of the gender possessing a prostate – I’ll pass.

Omega-3 is also a rather delicate type of oil and needs to be handled gently. Sadly, the fish oil capsules you buy at the local store have usually not been treated with kid gloves. If you are like I was, you buy the giant-sized bottles and use the same bottle for a year. I’ve come to believe that the long and complicated trip to the drugstore shelf has denatured them and their Omega-3 benefits are less than touted and their long shelf-life does nothing to improve them.

So I try to get my Omega-3s now from dairy. Instead of spending my money on fish oil gel caps, I eat pastured butter. It’s the most expensive kind, but I consider it a health food – a very, very yummy health food. I buy grass-fed beef sometimes – and sometimes I buy the grain-fed – I actually think the grain-fed tastes better myself – it has more fat. I also love my olive oil though it is damn hard to find good, fresh olive oil. The Trader Joes California Estate brand is the tastiest and freshest stuff I’ve found  so far – now it’s the only one my family buys.

I’ll still buy store made sausage at the supermarket and even enjoy a can of Spam from time to time – I don’t think in the long run some is going to hurt me much. I’ll still eat McDonald’s when I cheat, and I am sure that a sack of White Castle hamburgers lies somewhere in my future. I’m not a purist. I live in this world and enjoy foods that aren’t good for me without guilt – I just try to make sure I’m eating what I believe is ‘the good stuff’ more often than not.

So there you have it – my current thoughts on fats – the complete skinny on how I think about them and live my life with them.

Again – I invite anyone with a better grasp of this stuff to tear me a new one. I’m not looking to be right – I’m looking for the truth.

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5 thoughts on “The Skinny on Fats – Without the Gobbledegook

  1. I’m reading. Don’t want you to think I have abandoned you!!!! I don’t think I ever actually go into ketosis. This may be my entire problem with low carb.

    I read and then read, again, this post on fat. So, so true. The “good” fat you mention really fills a person up, no food cravings etc. And it tastes good. The bad fat–well, it’s just bad.

    When I have nothing else to eat, I have a quarter cup of heavy cream. I add extra butter to everything. I can’t roll roast beef up with butter. I wish I could but–just can’t eat it. The “idea” of wrapping a burger in ham is GENIUS.

    I have no one to talk to about my diet. No one. I just talk to myself. No one (I know) really thinks this way of eating is SMART. Whatever I am doing right now, seems to be working. It seems like a real free for all— eating things I haven’t eaten in two years, changing things up, having cheat days of carbs. Guess what? Pants are looser. I may be one of the people who needs to eat carbs (lots) once or twice week to get the motor running. The other days it’s back to low carb.

    Keep up the posts. I am learning things and reading is like having a conversation with someone.

    • I just thought you were busy.

      People think I’m nuts, too. But that’s ok – I think the people filling their grocery baskets with low fat crap have their circuits crossed, so we’re even.

      I also see nothing wrong with a high-carb blowout once in a while. I’ve actually noticed the same thing – it sometimes seems to stimulate weight loss.

      Glad to hear you’ve made some progress – and it sounds like you’re having fun, too – that’s the right way to do it.

    • I can only guess you don’t live in Quebec. When I visited there I was turned on to creton – and that stuff was so fatty and so good that if I ever find myself back there it will be the first thing I track down.

      I myself find my blood pressure rising when I look for yogurt that is full-fat. Almost every freakin yogurt is low fat or no fat – finding the full-fat versions among the hundred varieties is like the supermarket version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’

      While Dave Brown states that the tide is turning on the demonization of fat, it hasn’t trickled down to the typical consumer yet. Huge swaths of the supermarket shelves contain products that scream ‘low fat’ on their labels as if it is something to be proud of. When I see them I think of a skull and cross bones.

      The one bright spot in this? Because people are fat phobic, good fat can be had cheap if you can find it. I can get local raised pork bellies for $5.99 a pound at Whole Foods while the leaner cuts of meat at this unashamedly overpriced store can easily go for 3-4 times that amount.

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