Fats are an important macronutrient that are vital to the health and wellbeing of us all. What is a macronutrient, you ask? A macronutrient, quite simply, is a nutrient that we need in vast quantities. Carbohydrates, proteins, and even water, are all considered macronutrients. These nutrients that we need in large amounts are the contenders that make up the energy, or calories, that we eat to survive. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are nutrients that we need only in very small amounts- these are vitamins and minerals. These types of nutrients work with each other and the macronutrients to help our bodies extract the most potential of all of all of our functions.
Fats are a source of long-burning, lasting energy. Carbohydrates are great for short (few minutes maximum) bursts of energy. Fats help sustain that energy for longer periods of time. Think of carbohydrates as kindling in a fire. You can start a fire with lots of kindling, but in order to keep the fire going, you need to stay by that fire, and tend to it constantly, throwing more and more carbohydrates (fuel) on it. Fats are like the big, slow-burning logs of the fire. You use a lot less of them, and they keep that fire going with a lot less attention than a fire of only carbohydrates. When you are running a marathon, your body is primarily going to be burning fat as fuel to keep you going.
Now, with all of this talk about the purpose of fats, let us talk about the different kinds of fats (The next few sections are going to get just a little technical, but stay with me!). There are three primary groups of fats, saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.
Saturated fats are the best fats to cook with. In their chemical structure, the carbon atoms are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Because of this level of saturation, the structure is very strong and stable. In cooking, it is ideal to use fats that stay chemically strong, and not break apart, or go “rancid”. Rancid fats are one of the sources of oxidative stress in the body (hence, the need for anti-oxidants), which causes aging (We all get older by number, but the general breakdown is caused by oxidation. Unfortunately, even with an infinite amount of antioxidants, we still won’t be able to live forever, but it helps the aging process become less painful and terrible). These types of fats are solid at room temperature because of their stability. Examples of these fats include bacon fat/grease, lard, tallow, palm fruit oil (sustainably harvested please), butter, and coconut oil. Did you know, the heart and brain prefer saturated fats as their primary source of energy? These two organs never take a break, and need that sustaining energy to keep functioning properly. Saturated fats are also one of the pieces that help to create our hormones, keep us feeling fuller for longer, and more satiated when we eat food.
Monounsaturated fats are O.K. to heat at lower temperatures. In their chemical structure, one of the carbon atom bonds are double bonded to another carbon atom. This means that the chemical structure is not saturated in one spot, or mono-unsaturated. The structure is still fairly stable, but if heated too high, will break apart, and rancidify. That is why these types of fats should be heated at a lower temperature, or kept cool. Monounsaturated fats, or MUFAs, are liquid at room temperature, but solidify under cooler temperatures. MUFAs can be found in olive oil, as well as nut oils, including almonds, pecans, avocados, and peanuts.
Polyunsaturated fats should never be heated. Their chemical structure is very unstable because they have at least two places where carbon atoms are double bonded to another carbon atom. Polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs, are always liquid, no matter what temperature they are in. These oils are generated from seeds, some nuts, fish, and grass-fed animals, and include flax, chia, hemp, and walnuts. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats are PUFAs. These terms are derived based on where the first double-bonded carbon is located in the chemical structure, or chain in this case. The structure of fats all have an “alpha” end, and an “omega” end. An Omega 3 PUFA has its first double-bonded carbon atom between the 3rd and 4th carbon atoms from the omega end. An Omega 6 PUFA has its first double-bonded carbon atom between the 6th and 7th carbon atoms from the omega end. Omega 3 PUFAs, or fatty acids, are anti-inflammatory fats. Omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory fats. Unfortunately, with the current Standard American Diet that many of us follow, we eat way too many Omega 6 fats, and not enough Omega 3 fats. The ideal ratio is 1:1 or even 2:1, O-6 to O-3, but the average is about 20:1 right now. No wonder the rates of inflammation are increasing at such explosive rates!
Stay tuned for further blog posts regarding the other macronutrients, as well as blood sugar regulation, and digestion.