Post from the Past: Fat Head

Original post date 2/2/09 on

Well, I would definitely revise my placement of canola and polyunsaturated fats to the “Very Bad Fat” category, and my placement of animal products and coconut and palm oil to the “Good Fat” category. But I applaud my own effort.


My mom asked about the health benefits (or not) of fats, and my business partner asked about brain health, and I thought, Hey, these are linked! Thus the inspiration for this week’s blog.

First of all, let me say that the research I found was very confusing. Most everyone condemns saturated fat while lumping monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat into one “good” category. I found it simplest to break it down by specific ingredient.

The basics of fats are these:

Good Fat: olive, flax, sesame, and canola oils; avocados; nuts and seeds; cold water fish

Apparently, “oils high in monounsaturates are better oils for cooking. Olive oil is the best as it has the highest oxidation threshold: i.e. it remains stable at higher temperatures and does not easily become hydrogenated or saturated.

Confusing Fat: animal products (meat, butter, etc.); coconut and palm oil (saturated); corn, soy, safflower, and sunflower oil (polyunsaturated)

Saturated fat can increase the risk of colon cancer, chronic heart disease, and other health issues like high cholesterol. The body can produce saturated fat on its own; therefore it’s not necessary in the diet. That said, it’s pretty clear that we need saturated fat if our bodies make it. Also, there is a percentage of saturated fat in most other sources of unsaturated fats, including avocados, nuts, and polyunsaturated oils. And some sources of saturated fat, like eggs, have been proven to increase HDL, good cholesterol, which is actually healthy.

While these polyunsaturated vegetable oils are often touted as healthy, they are the fats that are used to make trans fats. Also, the extraction of these polyunsaturated vegetable oils usually involves heat pressing, which can create free radicals. And I found general agreement that

polyunsaturated oils should never be heated or used in cooking.” Best to stick with extra virgin olive oil when cooking, which remains most stable at a high temperature.

Very Bad Fat: margarine, Crisco and other shortenings, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils—all also known as trans fats

We’ve all heard of trans fat and probably all eaten it; I think the only surprising thing is that it’s still legal. Trans fats were created largely for packaged foods because natural fatty acids tend to spoil; they are simply natural fatty acids that have been chemically scrambled by adding hydrogen, which completely destroys the good omega acids. Trans fat lowers good cholesterol (HDL) and increases bad cholesterol (LDL), and is liquid at 450 degrees, which means it’s pretty solid in our bodies. Clogged arteries, anyone?

Many restaurants use trans fats in cooking. New York banned trans fats in the city in 2006, largely as a result of Joshua Rosenthal’s campaign through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Philadelphia banned them as well, and California was the first state to ban trans fats in July of 2008.

I’ve looked for information about how to get them banned in South Carolina, but this informative site is all I could come up with. I’d like to start a petition, so I’ll keep you posted.

Fat and the Brain

The brain is 70% fat and requires essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 to function, both of which are found in polyunsaturated fats. It’s pretty much accepted that we get plenty of Omega-6 fatty acids—which are found in red meat, butter, cheese, seeds, nuts, and refined vegetable oils like soy—and not enough Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in walnuts, cold water fish, flax seeds, and even sea vegetables and green leafy vegetables. These Omega-3s are most beneficial for brain function.

In fact, “fatty acids from fats are what your brain uses to create the specialized cells that allow you to think and feel.” Two thirds of the brain is composed of fats, which perhaps is why fish has the nickname “brain food.” Myelin sheaths, the degeneration of which is a direct cause of dementia and Alzheimer’s, are 70% fat. And omega-3s have been proven to reduce depression.

So apparently “fathead” is an accurate term for just about anybody. Sadly, I’m not the first person to make this joke.

However, too much abdominal fat has been linked to a number of diseases including Alzheimer’s. And exercise has been proven to stimulate the brain, which goes hand in hand with weight loss.

Still Confused?

So are a lot of people, myself included. To play it safe:

  • eat fats that occur naturally, i.e., “real” food
  • stay away from anything that includes trans fat or partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list (most packaged foods)
  • enjoy red meat less frequently or in leaner versions–buffalo and venison are some fun alternatives
  • ask restaurants if they use trans fats, and avoid fast food restaurants (this includes Starbucks! although they are making strides to eliminate it). Here are some restuarants and food manufacturers that have made a serious effort to eliminate trans fats.
  • don’t eat a whole box of Krispy Kreme donuts just because they don’t have trans fat in them. They still have calories (and probably chemicals).
Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *