The Skinny on Fats

The Skinny on Fats
By Stan M. Gardner, M.D.

For years now, we have been bombarded with messages on our food packages: Fat free! No added fat! We have trimmed the oils and fats out of our diets to such an extent that foods tend to compete in flavor with the cardboard box they come in. In the last article, I addressed carbohydrates and their place in our diets. The next major topic to be addressed is fats and oils.

*It is important to recognize that the “fat is bad” philosophy was
introduced in 1977 by the Senate committee in its Dietary Goals for the United States. As you might recall, Americans were advised to diminish fat intake to decrease the “killer diseases.” In 1984 the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat. This recommendation had little if any scientific basis.*

The result has been a 20 % reduction in American fat intake with a 100 % increase in obesity.

We substituted carbohydrates for fat and increased total caloric intake up to 400 calories/day. Interestingly, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the NIH trying to prove a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease, all to no avail. [1]


Let’s begin with cholesterol, which is healthy and critical for life. Our 30-60 trillion cells of our body have cholesterol in their membrane. Cholesterol performs at least two important functions within the membrane:

1. It maintains membrane fluidity (the ability of the cell membrane to let in substances needed for its proper function and to let out substances that are harmful). [2]

2. It provides antioxidant protection.

In order to understand the significance of antioxidant protection, we must understand free radicals. A free radical (not a terrorist let out of prison) is an unstable molecule in a high energy state that has been stripped of one electron in its outer orbit. This is called the “oxidized state” of the molecule, which means it has undergone oxidation, whether oxygen was involved or not. It bumps into (attacks) other molecules in a random matter until it finds an electron donor (so it is now happy and stable). This is called the “reduced state.”

Free radicals are released when the body:

*breaks down nutrients or exercises

*has inflammation (whether infectious or not)

*detoxifies drugs, chemicals, additives, processed food

*is exposed to tobacco or ionizing radiation

*has inadequate oxygen flow to tissue

*has stress of any kind

In addition to the formation of free radicals, there are catalysts (those substances that accelerate a chemical reaction) for free radical production (like iron and copper) and inhibitors to free radical protection (like heavy metals and nutritional deficiencies). Uncontrolled free radicals are much like a fire that has sparks flying everywhere, instead of being controlled. These uncontrolled free radicals wreak havoc in every system of the body, including the immune system (manifested as allergies, autoimmune disease, chronic infections, chemical or metal sensitivities, or tumors and cancer), heart and vascular disease or inflammation. The core process of staying youthful or aging appears to be directly related to the amount of free radical control (or lack thereof), with its ultimate cell breakdown and cell destruction. Dr. Ames (see footnote) estimates there is one free radical “hit” per second per cell in our body. [3]

Fortunately, the body has many different antioxidant systems. Cholesterol is critically important to protect cell walls. Certain vitamins and nutrients are antioxidants.

One may ask at this point: “If an ‘antioxidant’ donates an electron, is it not ‘oxidized?’” The answer is yes. But the oxidized “antioxidant” is less toxic. The body has a way to “reduce,” and eventually convert the last “oxidized” antioxidant into the Krebs cycle (a biochemistry term), and convert the unstable energy into a stable, usable form of energy, ATP.

Wow. All of that to understand cholesterol and its protective role against free radicals. I debated whether this topic should be best dealt with now, or with the antioxidant vitamins. Perhaps it should be mentioned that lipid peroxidation (oxidized fat) is one of the most damaging free radicals and causes a chain reaction of further oxidation. [4] That’s what happens when cooking with oil. The oil is exposed to oxygen, heat and light, all of which increase free radicals. Hence, the idea that we should avoid fried foods

This discussion would not be complete unless we mentioned that there are some positive functions of free radicals. The white cells of our body fight viruses and bacteria by releasing free radicals to attack the virus cell membrane until it dies. Nitric oxide (NO) is a free radical that functions as a vasodilator in our blood vessels to improve blood flow. It is only when the body gets overwhelmed with free radicals, unchecked by its antioxidant systems that the body’s cells begin to break down.

Cholesterol is also the precursor of many hormones, including progesterone, estrogens, testosterone, cortisone and aldosterone. Vitamin D (not a real vitamin, but more a hormone) is formed when cholesterol in the skin is exposed to sunlight. [5] Much of the skin’s ability to protect itself from the elements of weather (hot, cold, wet, or dry) is provided by cholesterol. [6] Nerve tissue would not be functional without cholesterol and other fat products. Thus, in some ways, being a “fat head” is a good thing, and a correct descriptive term!


Now let’s discuss a different form of fat called triglyceride. This is a glycerol molecule that has 3 sites bound to different fatty acids, like a 3-pronged fork. Our adipose tissue is mostly composed of triglycerides, and 95 % of our fat intake is triglyceride.

They supply insulation against cold and a cushion from trauma. Excess toxic glucose in the blood is converted to less toxic triglycerides, a safety mechanism. [7] Storage of energy and essential fatty acids is another important function of triglycerides. Upon breakdown, the glycerol enters the Krebs cycle and is converted into energy or is reutilized to form cholesterol.

Essential fatty acids (omega-3 line which includes alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the omega-6 line, including linoleic acid (LA), gammalinolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA)) are like essential vitamins—they are substances necessary for body functions, but cannot be made by the body. They are responsible for both the structure and function of our every cell membrane, performing different functions than cholesterol. When the membrane doesn’t function optimally, the cell function is reduced, cellular energy is reduced, and if not corrected cell death ensues.

Another critical function of essential fatty acids is their role in prostaglandin production. Simplified, these are anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory substances. Both are needed in our body. When we cut ourselves or get an infection, we want pro-inflammatory substances to cause clotting to take place or attract white cells to the area to fight infection. However, we don’t want clotting to continue unchecked, so anti-inflammatory prostaglandins suppress overreactions. Anti-inflammatory suppression is most needed in painful joints, headaches, and abdominal cramping to mention just a few. We need both the omega-3 and omega-6 oils for this proper functioning to take place.

For those of you whose heads are spinning at this point, skip ahead four paragraphs. A brief discussion of saturated, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is warranted at this point, to place these in the whole fat picture.

Saturated fatty acids are also used as energy and contribute to proper functioning of cell membranes. Unfortunately, the long-chain (that just means their chain of carbon atoms is longer) saturated fatty acids cause platelets to become sticky. This could contribute to clots in blood vessels, called cardiovascular disease. These longer chain fatty acids are found in beef, mutton, pork and dairy products.

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol and triglycerides from foods and liver to the cells of our body. LDL has the potential to “oxidize”, thus becoming a free radical and is the only part of LDL that would contribute to vascular disease (although this part is not measured). Lipoprotein (a), which is similar to LDL, is a stronger risk factor for vascular disease than LDL, both of which are measured within the LDL level. Vitamin C is known to reduce Lp (a) levels.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry cholesterol from our cells to the liver, where it is metabolized to bile and excreted with stool.

The food industry has responded to consumer demands for a longer shelf life and consequent less spoilage and waste by changing oils into a semi-solid form that makes them easier to work with. They become rancid less quickly. This process is called hydrogenation (bubbling hydrogen through the oil) and it turns the oils into trans fatty acids (as opposed to the cis fatty acid form which has nutritional value). [8] These hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils have no nutritive value. We must be careful we are not misled by “cholesterol-free” products that contain partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil. Margarine and shortening are common products with hydrogenated oils. [9] In fact, if you check the boxes for the ingredients on the packaged food you buy, you will often find “partially hydrogenated oil” as an ingredient—and it is not good for you! It becomes trickier and trickier to find prepared, packaged food that will be a blessing to the body.

Foods and Fats

Now let’s look at each category of fat and which foods contain those elements. Omega-3 fatty acids are prominently found in seafood (especially fish), flax seed and hemp seed (probably the best overall source for fatty acids). Smaller amounts are found in walnuts and soybean. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in hemp, safflower, sunflower and sesame seeds, along with evening primrose and borage oil. Omega-9 fatty acids (not “essential”) are found in avocado, olives, almond, pecan, cashew and macadamia nuts. Cholesterol is found in butter, eggs, cheese, organ meats, cream and seafood. The longer chain saturated fatty acids are found especially in beef, pork and mutton.

Perhaps another way to look at fats is by categories of food and percentage of fat. Vegetables and fruits are less than 1 % fat, although they mostly contain omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. However, these essential fatty acids degenerate when the cells die. (The message here: Eat fresh fruits and vegetables.) Grains have .5-3.3 % fat. Most legumes have 1-5 % fat, although soy is 18 % fat and peanuts are 47 % fat. Nuts range from 35-70 %, while most seeds are in the same range or lower. Eggs are about 11 % fat. Unfortunately, chicken feed is poor in essential fatty acids, so the yolks are low in them also. Free range eggs are much better. Milk is 3-5 % fat, but poor in essential fatty acids. Butter is 81 % fat, comprised of mostly saturated fatty acids and some trans-fatty acids. However, because it has no essential fatty acids, it doesn’t break down so easily with heat, so is more stable when used in cooking than olive oil. (Butter is much better than margarine.) Cheese is 20-30 % fat (and an excellent source of calcium). Seafood contains 1-18 % fat, although more fat can be found in cold water fish. Beef and mutton or lamb has 20-40 % fat, while pork has 35-60 %. Duck, chicken and turkey have about 15-30 %, but only about 7 % is in the meat. Organ meats are 4-10 % fat, although they have more essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.

What is the bottom line on fats? Fats are a valuable part of our diet, and they are not dangerous foods to avoid. They serve an important purpose in body function. Again we go back to the amazing, inspiring messages found in the Word of Wisdom. A diet based upon whole grains and vegetables, with fruits and a little meat, is one which will provide us with optimal health and energy.

Healthful Hints:

*Fats (cholesterol and triglycerides) are essential for life, and are not to be feared.

*The essential and non essential fatty acids are found in fresh nuts, seeds and to a limited extent fresh vegetables, fruits and legumes. The dairy products, eggs and cheese, are good sources of healthy fats.
Avoid processed fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils), including fried foods.
Eat meat sparingly

The New York Times Magazine, What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?, Gary Taubes.
Fats that Heal Fats that Kill, Udo Erasmus, p. 64.
Bruce N. Ames, Ph.D. Professor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Director—National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center at University of California, Berkeley. Interview on tape. Functional Medicine Update, Nov. 2000 with Jeffery Bland.
Harpers Biochemistry, 21st Edition. p. 138.
Fats that Heal Fats that Kill, Udo Erasmus, p. 65.
ibid, p. 66.
Harpers Biochemistry, 21st Edition, p. 156.
ibid, p. 133.
ibid, p. 212-13.

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