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The Phat Fats

Some fats are essential and some fats are dead weight – one of the keys to good health is knowing the difference

My father, in an effort to set a good example by not swearing in front of us, used to call the people who cut us off in traffic "fat heads" – presumably meaning that the errant driver (it was never my father’s fault) was about as intelligent as his own budding beer belly. Little did he know that he was paying a compliment.

Fat was bad back then. You cut it off your steak, or spat it into a napkin. If you were watching your weight, you avoided it as best you could, shelling out for low fat mayonnaise and cutting down on the lard in your diet. People didn’t distinguish between the different types of fat, and although it was understood that fat was a minor player in the food chain, nobody ever used the word "essential" – I would have remembered that. Growing up, my house was stocked with the Lite™ version of just about everything.

Our knowledge of nutrition and human physiology has come a long way in recent years, forcing us to re-evaluate our understanding of how the body works, what the body needs and why. This includes fat.

Vitamins and minerals aside, our entire diet is made up of proteins, carbohydrates and fats – we eat what we are and we are what we eat. And one of the things we need to eat in order to be healthy mentally and physically is the right kinds of fat.

As a general rule, good fats are the ones that occur naturally in the food we eat that haven’t been damaged by high heat or otherwise refined or reprocessed by the food industry.

This is achieved by using petroleum-based chemical solvents to remove impurities from naturally occurring plant and animal fats. Unfortunately, the process also removes colour, taste and nutrients.

Hydrogenization is a process by which hydrogen is forced into polyunsaturated oils to make them more saturated. In the process, trans fatty acids are created that contribute to a wide array of health problems, including heart disease and cancer. They increase our stores of lipoproteins, the so-called "bad cholesterol" and lower our stores of high density lipoproteins, or "good cholesterol."

Margarine is produced by hydrogenization, as are many of the oils you can buy in the supermarket.

Here’s a snapshot of the process:

The oil is "degummed" or washed by using water, salts and acid to remove waxes, phosphates and other "impurities." Alkali – a substance that neutralizes acids and becomes corrosive in water – is added to remove free fatty acids that can go bad. This soap and oil mixture is heated and pumped through a separator to remove the soap from the oil.

The oil is then physically cleaned through filters. The odor compounds are removed by a vacuum steam distillation process. Then the oil is cooled, causing some lower density fats to crystallize, where they can be removed by filtration. This creates a more uniform, homogenous oil.

The oil is bleached at high temperatures, filtered using clay, then hydrogenated by pumping pressurized hydrogen into a tank filled with the oil.

While it doesn’t sound too appetizing, this level of preparation is necessary if we want our oils to decompose – after all, fat is a natural product, and everything natural tends to rot over time.

From a long-term health perspective, anything that is "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated," is worth avoiding.

There are four basic types of natural and processed oils to choose from: monounsaturated, saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Extra virgin olive oil is a monounsaturate and the exception to the rule as the only oil that is naturally produced and preserved. It is freshly-squeezed, cholesterol-free and retains all the colour, taste, vitamins, minerals and nutritional value of the olive. It’s a natural antioxidant, which means that it can be kept on the shelf for two year, longer than processed oils, without going bad.

As a general rule, monounsaturated fats are good for you, but their health benefits can be reduced by high heats and processing. For best results you should buy as natural as you can, and serve cold whenever possible.

Saturated fats are also good for you up to a point and are nearly impossible to avoid. They should never make up more than 10 per cent of your diet, however, and should not be heated if you can help it.

Saturated fats are usually solid, or almost solid at room temperature. In nature, this category includes animal fats, such as those found in meat and poultry, and dairy products. In small amounts, these fats do have some nutritional value, but because they make the body produce more cholesterol, they should never been consumed in excess.

Naturally unsaturated fats are often processed using hydrogen to make them more saturated – such as with margarine – and these fats should be avoided wherever possible because all you’re really getting is excess saturated fat without the nutritional benefits.

During the cholesterol scare of the ’80s and ’90s, people were told that all saturated fats were bad when in fact some are beneficial in small quantities. The message stuck, however, and people began to turn to unsaturated fats.

Unsaturated fats are considered incomplete in that some of the hydrogen atoms that make an oil molecule complete and saturated are missing or were removed through some form of industrial process to make the oil liquid at room temperature. The list of unsaturated oils includes soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, canola, seame oil, sunflower seed oil, palm oil, and any others that are labelled as "unsaturated" or "polyunsaturated."

They do not lead to the production of cholesterol like saturated fats, and are generally lighter in fat content. However, once again you have to be wary – the health benefits may have been exaggerated and there is some evidence that these oils can be toxic to the body.

Because the oil molecules are incomplete, when they are exposed to the free radicals (molecules with only one electron that are charged and interact with other molecules) in our bodies, they can set off a chain reaction of free radicals that can damage cells. This is more prevalent in cases where the oil has started to go bad.

Polyunsaturated oils are similar to polyunsaturated fats, and are also present in fish and fish oils. They lower levels of bad cholesterol, but also appear to lower good cholesterol in the process. Intake of this fat should be limited to a degree because they increase your intake of dietary fat.

There is still a lot of debate over these facts, and every oil product we use can be weighed separately in terms of risks and benefits. There are no bad oils and not good oils, it seems, just better or worse oils depending on what you’re going for – moderation seems to be the only thing that all the doctors, scientists and nutritionists who waded into the subject can agree on.

As it currently stands, the worst fats are margarine, fried foods, partially hydrogenated fats, refined vegetable oils, saturated fats (in excess) and most polyunsaturated fats. The better fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocados, fish oils, flaxseed, olives, organic eggs and free range meats, and fresh butter (in moderation).

There is another category to consider whose real importance has only recently come to light – the essential fatty acids.

There are 20 different fatty acids in your body, but they are basically made up from two – linoleic acid and linolenic acid. The linoleic fatty acid family is more commonly known as omega-6 fatty acids, and the linolenics are better known as omega-3 fatty acides.

These essential fatty acids are important for making prostaglandins in your body, hormone-like substances that regulate many activities and functions of your body. Some activities include inflammation, pain and swelling. Some functions include helping to control blood pressure, your heart, your kidneys, your digestive system and your body temperature. They are also important for allergic reactions, blood clotting, and in making other hormones.

Fatty acids are also natural blood thinners, preventing blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and stroke. They are natural anti-inflammatories that can relieve the symptoms of arthritis and autoimmune diseases. If you’re low, you can develop skin problems, such as dandruff, eczema, splitting nails and brittle hair.

Getting back to the whole "fat head" thing, it’s important to realize that the human brain is more than 60 per cent fat, the majority of which is DHA, an Omega-3 essential fatty acid.

According to McVitamins, an online health and vitamin retailer, deficiencies of the right kind of DHA Omega-3 fatty acid have been linked to various forms of dementia, mood swings, memory loss and eye problems. It’s also the most abundant fat in breast milk, growing and nourishing young brains and aiding in eye development. It connects brain cells to one another, and enables the transmission of signals from one cell to another. They are also found in high concentrations in the retina of the eye.

There is a need to balance omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids – the basic rule is that for every portion of omega-6 we consume, we should consume two portions of omega-3 to counteract all the bad fats that we typically consume. The problems is that omega-6 is amply supplied by a typical western diet of meat, vegetables and dairy.

While you can get a day’s worth of Omega-6 at lunch, you have to work a little harder to get your Omega-3’s. The primary sources are nuts, soybeans, canola oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed. Fish, especially cold water fish like salmon and tuna, are also good natural sources.

If you can’t work enough Omega-3’s into your diet, supplements are available as oils or tablets.

For more information on fats and fatty acids, use that fat head and check out some interesting articles on About Nutrition at