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Fats – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Updated: Jun 19, 2023


Here again there are lots of confusing information and advice floating around. We are constantly being bombarded with terms like saturated vs unsaturated fats, trans fats, omega 3 vs omega 6 fatty acids – and so on.

Are fats good for us’? How much fats are required and of what type? Should we be looking at supplements like Omega-3 fatty acid supplements? Or consume cold pressed oils like Olive or Coconut? These are some of the questions I intend to address here.

Let’s first understand some facts about fats.

Fats – some basic facts

  • Naturally occurring fats are of broadly of two types – saturated and unsaturated.

  • While Animal fats are predominantly saturated facts, plant fats are predominantly unsaturated

  • Saturated fats – especially the ones derived from animal source like meat, eggs, milk, etc. or processed plant foods like oils – are linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

  • Fats are an energy-dense substance containing 9 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrate or protein

An interesting fact: Low-fat milk with 2% fat still has 35% of the calories coming from fat. Even the so-called 1% low fat milk, has 21% of the total calories from fat.

Trans fats

  • Firstly, unlike satured or unsaturated fats, trans fats are not naturally occurring fats and do not exist in nature.

  • These are created through human action of hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Hydrogenation is artificially adding hydrogen to an unsaturated fatty acid and making it more saturated. This is done in all refined oils. The resultant fats are called trans fats

  • This makes the fatty acids in such oils more stable with longer shelf life and more stable for deep frying.

  • Hydrogenated fats have a molecular structure different than that which exists in nature.

  • Most trans fats come from processed foods like refined oils, margarine, cookies, pastries, donuts, cakes, biscuits, icing on the cake, crackers, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorns, frozen pizza and deep fried foods

Trans fats have a dangerous effect on cholesterol, raising LDL cholesterol and lowering the HDL cholesterol. They’ve been linked to several chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many others!

Omega 3 Vs Omega 6 fatty acids

Omega-3

  • Omega-3 fats are considered good fats, their consumption is associated with lower coronary heart disease.

  • They are anti-inflammatory.

Omega-6

  • Omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory, as opposed to the Omega-3 fats.

Sources of Omega-3 & Omega-6

  • Good sources of Omega-3 include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, brussels sprouts.

  • Souces of Omega-6 include walnuts, tofu, sunflower seeds, peanut butter

Oils

Oils are derived by processing natural whole foods like coconut or groundnut or almond or olive etc. The original whole foods from which oils are derived contain a natural balance of multi nutrients consisting of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, etc. However when oils are extracted from these whole foods fiber is totally lost, and several other nutrients are also lost or minimised, leaving a concentration (90%+) of fat content.

In refined oils this is further vitiated through the process of hydrogenation as explained earlier, thus creating trans fats which are highly detrimental our our health.

Thus oils, whether refined or cold pressed, are processed foods which become a predominantly single nutrient food in which the natural balance of nutrients is lost or worse still become a completely unnatural food in the case of refined oils.

That is why its best to avoid oils of any mind in our diet. Instead consume the whole foods which provide all the nutrients, including fats, with a natural balance.

Optimum fat in our diet – it’s all about natural balance

In a whole food plant-based diet with a good mix of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, cereals and pulses – naturally the saturated fat content is very low (sub 1%) and overall fat content (mainly unsaturated fats) is within 8% to 10% of the calories and trans fats are zero.

Various studies confirm that this is all that is needed to maintain optimum nutrition and good health. Nature has designed it that way.

This happens naturally and automatically in a WFPB diet.

However, in a standard western diet (and even in the current standard Indian diet) the fat content can be anywhere from 25% to 35% of the calories (refer table below) and most of it is saturated fat derived from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs, milk) and trans fats (from refined oils, cakes and pastries, fried food, etc.).

This is highly harmful to our health and is one of the primary causes of several chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and so on.

The table below illustrates the representative fat content of various food groups



Omega 6 vs Omega 3 ratio – maintaining the right balance

  • The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in food is really what’s important. Various studies confirm that a healthy optimum ratio of omega–6 to omega–3 fatty acids is be between a 1-to-1 and 4-to-1.

  • A high ω-6 to ω-3 ratio results in chronic inflammation and is linked with arthritis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, depression, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

  • These diseases are “inflammatory,” or to have inflammatory components, and ω-6 fatty acids tend to increase several biomarkers of inflammation.

  • In a WFPB diet the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is naturally maintained from 1:1, 2:1 to 3:1, all considered well within in the normal healthy range.

The w-6 to w-3 ratio in the modern western diet, ranges from 20:1 to as high as 50:1, which is highly pro inflammatory, resulting in chronic inflammation leading to several chronic diseases.

Omega-6 is not intrinsically bad

While focusing on the issue of W-6 vs W-3 ratio, its important to understand that ω-6 doesn’t operate alone, and inflammation is not inherently detrimental; it’s a critical component of healing and effective immune function.

Just to put things in perspective, ω-6 elevates blood pressure, ω-3 reduces it ; ω-6 promotes blood clotting, ω-3 discourages it, ω-6 and ω-3 produce different (but complementary) hormone messengers, ω-6 oxidizes arterial cholesterol, ω-3 functions as an antioxidant

The issue is of balance. Thus, the proper balance of ω-6 to ω-3s helps activate “healing” inflammation, whereas ω-6:ω-3 imbalance can contribute to the chronic pathological inflammation characteristic of many diseases.

A plant based whole foods diet is the key to good health

While fat as a percentage of diet, nature of fat consumed – whether saturated or unsaturated, and Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio are important, it’s critical to note that this balance cannot be achieved through consumption of supplements like fish oil, flax seed oil, virgin/cold pressed olive-coconut oil, etc.

Studies show that Omega-3 fats given as supplements do not work and might actually increase cancer and Type 2 diabetes risk. Same is the case with consumption of virgin, cold pressed oils, which are likely to do more harm than good.

When we consume plant-based whole foods which contain multiple nutrients including fats our bodies know exactly how to digest and absorb these nutrients.

But when we process these whole foods and convert them into a predominantly single nutrient food like in the case of oils (including cold pressed or virgin) or supplements, we are destroying the natural balance of whole foods and converting them into an unnatural substance or a dug which our bodies do not handle well.

Thus the key is to consume a varied whole food plant based diet comprising of fruits and vegetables, greens and sprouts, pluses and cereals, and nuts and seeds to meet our wholesome nutrition needs, be it for fats or protein or carbohydrates or micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals, or anti-oxidants and phyto chemicals.

Source: Dr. Colin Campbell Centre for Nutrition Studies

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