In blog post of 9/29/2014: So, what should you eat for optimal health?, I listed the seven basic principles I have extracted from the many diet books and resources I have studied. These principles are:

  1. What you eat, how much you eat and when you eat, all matter
  2. Eat clean
  3. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits
  4. Use only healthy fats and fat sources
  5. Incorporate sufficient proteins in your diet
  6. Best beverage to drink is pure water
  7. Add or subtract specific foods based on your personal needs

In the last two posts, we discussed the first three of these principles. Today, let’s focus on the fourth principle: Eat only healthy fats and fat sources. And, as usual without any fluff stuff, let’s get to it.

How much and what types of fats one should for optimal health is definitely a very controversial topic. Let’s see if I can put this controversy in proper perspective and reach some workable conclusions in this post.

To make sure that we can intelligently talk about this topics without having to get a graduate degree in biochemistry, first some basic terminology. Lipids, triglycerides, fatty acids, essential fatty acids, fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, and oils are some common terms we need to understand to really talk about fats. Here are a layman’s definitions of these terms.

Lipids are group of molecules that are used by the body for storing energy, signaling, and acting as structural components of cell membranes. Lipids include waxes, triglycerides, and fat-soluble vitamins.

Triglycerides are lipids derived from glycerol and three fatty acids.

Fatty acids are made up of long chain of carbon hydrogen atoms and are important source of fuel for the body when metabolized. Based on the bond structures, fatty acids can be Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, Trans or Saturated.

If Polyunsaturated, based on where the double bonds are located on the chain, fatty acids can be omega-3, omega-6, omega-7 or omenga-9.

Essential fatty acids are those fatty acids that body cannot make. These are of two types: alpha-linolenic acid (an Omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid)

Fats are a wide group of compounds whose basis is a fatty acid. Fats are called Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, Trans fats, or Saturated fats based on the structure of their corresponding fatty acid.

Oils are fats that are liquids at normal room temperature.   As you can see below, most oils and fats contain all three types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Oils and fat content

What most researchers seem to agree on?

  1. Trans Fats are bad – So, Crisco (or Dalda in India) is out. It is definitely bad for your health. Most people have already learned that and taken it out of their kitchens. But it is still quite prevalent for frying at home, baking pies and cookies and in processed food. In the US, since FDA has taken Trans Fats off of the Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list, it is starting to disappear from processed and restaurant foods.
  2. Adding Essential Fats to your diet is good: While most people get sufficient Omega-6 in their diets they do not get enough Omega-3. So, adding alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is good. Good sources of Omega-3 are fish, flax seeds and oil, safflor oil and Hemp. USDA recommends that at least 10% of the fat budget be Omega-3 fats.
  3. Small amount of saturated fats in diet is good: Saturated fats are needed for cell walls, hormone balance, cellular signaling and increasing HDL (the so called good cholesterol).

What is controversial?

  1. What percent of calories should come from fats: There are researchers who have demonstrated that by reducing the fat intake to 10%, you can dramatically change the lipid profile in the body, cholesterol, triglycerides issues can be totally eliminated, while significantly improving the health of cardio-vascular system (For example, see Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldewell Esselystyn, Jr. MD., The Perfect 10 diet by Michael Aziz, MD). However, to get to these levels for fat intakes, it means adopting vegan or almost-vegan lifestyle and that of course leads to the controversy.
  2. Whether to totally eliminate saturated fats from the diet: It is well-known that too much saturated fat leads to poor cardio-vascular health. However, very small amount of saturated fats are needed and found beneficial for cellular health, hormone balance and cellular signaling and increasing HDL. Controversy therefore comes when people arguing all or nothing approach to saturated fats.
  3. Fats vs. Carbs: When government and media started touting benefits of low fat diets starting in 1960’s and 70’s, people in the US started to replace their high (saturated) fat diets with low-fat high-sugar diet. If you look at any package in the grocery store, if it says, low fat, it usually means high carbs or sugars, or vice versa. This led to obesity and other issues. So, all this means sugars are bad, which means fats must be good, right?
  4. Trans Fats vs. saturated fats: Unfortunately, this controversy was created on purpose. Proctor and Gamble deployed a sales strategy to displace lards as saturated fats by Crisco vegetable shortening. This plot thickens, since P&G was the original funding source for American Heart Association. With 100 years of marketing behind it, there is got to be sufficient confusion prevalent.

Bottom line: So, what is one to do? Here is what I have decided to do, in pursuit of optimal health, based on the best current information I have:

  1. Keep fat intake to less than 15% of daily calories. So, for a 2000 calorie diet, 300 calories or 33 grams from fat in a day.
  2. Take four grams of fish oil and 2 grams of flax seed oil every day. One capsule with each meal or snack.
  3. Limit saturated fats to under  5% of daily calories. Most sources of fats, as we saw in the table above contain some saturate fats, so I don’t really need to add saturated fats, even if we do all the cooking with olive oil. Occasional egg yoke or dab of butter is okay. Since I am a vegetarian,  limiting saturated fats to under 5%is not a big issue. But if I were eating meat, I will have to eat very lean cuts of meat to be able to stay within this constraint.
  4. No Trans Fats.
  5. Manage all macronutrients, fats, carbs and proteins to make sure they all are in the optimal range.

What do you think of this approach?

Do you feel that this simplifies the confusion about fats and good/bad fats?

Do you see a hole in this approach? What would you do differently?