Good Fats & Bad Fats
Fats have had bad press over the past few decades since being linked as a possible contributor to heart disease back in the 1960s. ‘Fat’ is a word that brings up negative thoughts and it’s often associated with poor nutrition. Also some people believe eating fat means getting fat, which is not the case and the bad image fats have is not warranted.
Attitudes to fat need to change and the poor information the media gives is overly simplistic. During the 1990s, we were lead to believe that saturated fats were bad and polyunsaturated fats were good. The real picture is a lot different. This article aims to unravel the issues that have been made unnecessarily over-complicated.
Fats are essential: we need fat for a number of healthy body functions; without fat we die. Indeed, some fatty acids are essential due to the fact that humans lack an enzyme involved in their metabolism or insufficient amounts of that fatty acid can be synthesized in the body for it to function effectively for good health.
Fats are triglycerides (TGs), made up of three fatty acids with a glycerol backbone. Each type of fatty acids differs by the number and position of double bonds in their structure and it’s the type of fatty acid present in the TG that denotes the type of fat.
What are the main types of fats?
There are six main groups of fats:
- Saturated fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats
- Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats
- Trans fats
Saturated fatty acids (SFAs) have no double bonds in their structure. They are most commonly found in foods of animal origin such as meat and dairy produce, but also in some plant fats. SFAs have been given a bad reputation in the past due to the fact that observational studies have linked their intake to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) by increasing blood cholesterol levels. However, more recent information may indicate that this isn’t the case (discussed below).
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) have one double bond in their structure; they are also known as omega-9 fats. These are found in high amounts in olive, rapeseed and flaxseed (linseed) oils. Consuming more of these fats as a proportion of our total fat intake may help to reduce our blood LDL or 'bad' cholesterol level, whilst keeping HDL or 'good' cholesterol levels high. This reduces the risk of CVD.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have more than one double bond in their structure and there are two types: omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs. As a general rule, increasing levels of PUFAs in our diet has been shown to help reduce total blood cholesterol. However, this also means the good HDLs may be reduced. Omega-6s are found in a wide range of nut and seed oils as well as other foods of plant origin. Due to their cheap cost of production, many heavily processed junk foods are also high in omega-6s (we’ll come back to this point later).
Omega-3s are found in high amounts in flaxseeds (linseeds) and oily fish. The benefits of a good intake of omega-3s are improved cardiovascular health, reduction in some cancers, improvement in brain function and possibly enhanced athletic performance.
People who consume oily fish, for example salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and trout, have a diet high in the omega-3s EPA and DHA , but vegetarians will need to ensure they have a good intake of omega-3s from other sources and flaxseeds are an ideal choice. Read our Guide to EPA and DHA for more information. Flaxseed oil is also a great source of MUFAs.
Early humans probably consumed a diet around 1:1 ratio of omega-3s:omega-6 fatty acids. Studies have indicated the optimal level has been shown to be anywhere between 2.5:1 and 5:1 (1,2); Huel has a ratio of just under 1:1.
Fatty acids can also differ in structure at the point of the double bond, making them trans which in turn changes the appearance and behaviour of the molecule. Trans fats are formed from the hydrogenation of fats and are used in confectionery, margarines and some heavily processed foods. Trans fats are bad and we should limit their consumption.
All the above are long chain triglycerides (LCTs); there’s another group known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Although a lot rarer in nature, they are present in a few popular fats, most notably coconut oil. MCTs are absorbed and metabolised differently to LCTs and are treated like a more energy-dense carbohydrate source than a fat. MCTs are in fact a type of saturated fat so on food labels are listed as saturates.
Which fats are essential?
There are two completely essential fatty acids (EFAs), essential because we need to include them in our diet in order to survive. These are linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3. In addition, there are four conditionally EFAs, in that if we don't consume enough LA and ALA, then they become essential. These are the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the omega-6s arachidonic acid (AA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Essential and 'conditionally' essential fatty acids, their classification and principal dietary sources
|Fatty Acid||Type of PUFA||Rich dietary source|
|Linoleic acid (LA)||Omega-6||Corn, safflower, sunflower, soyabean, peanut oils|
|α-linolenic acid (ALA)||Omega-3||Flaxseed, soya, rapeseed oils|
|Arachidonic acid (AA)||Omega-6||Small amounts in animal fats|
|γ-linolenic acid (GLA)||Omega-6||Corn, safflower, sunflower, soya oils|
|Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)||Omega-3||Oily fish|
|Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)||Omega-3||Oily fish|
Fats and Oxidation
To help understand which fats are good and which are bad, we need to firstly look at oxidation. Oxidation is a naturally occurring process where any molecule reacts with oxygen and forms free radicals; this is where the molecule becomes potentially damaging to tissues. Free radical formation through oxidation is involved in the process of some diseases including CVD and some cancers, as well as aging. Although free radical formation is natural and inevitable, we can help minimise their formation and slow the damage they do. Antioxidants are substances which help stop oxidation and these include vitamins C and E, selenium, types of vitamin A and phytonutrients like carotenoids and flavonoids. Eating a diet rich in these substances will go a long way to help slow down oxidation processes.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the term that covers heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. The process of CVD is where fatty deposits build up on artery walls making them narrower until a blood clot gets stuck and cuts off the blood supply to that area. Cholesterol in the blood is harmless enough until it oxidises which makes it ‘sticky’ and attach to the artery walls forming a plaque by a process known as atherosclerosis.
Diets high in saturated fats have been shown to be linked to a high blood cholesterol level, in particular ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. High blood cholesterol and LDL levels have been linked to CVD risk, this is because there’s more cholesterol floating around the blood; higher blood cholesterol levels means there’s an increased chance of some of it oxidising and forming a plaque. This is how the theory came about where diets high in saturated fats were linked to heart disease. However, there is one very important point here: saturated fats cannot be oxidised whereas unsaturated fats can.
We can help to prevent oxidation of fats in the blood by consuming a diet rich in antioxidants. One problem is the modern Western diet is high in overly processed junk food (note: not all processed foods are bad: read our article here) that are, not only high in saturated fats, but also contain large amounts of cheap vegetable oils. Some of these vegetable oils have been hydrogenated and are high in trans fats that are atherosclerotic, ie plaque forming, as mentioned above. These vegetable oils are also high in omega-6s; but not the good omega-6s found naturally and in nuts and seeds, but processed omega-6s which have been damaged by oxidation. By consuming these you are consuming oxidised fats with a high risk of their fate being plaque formation.
How much of each type of fat should I consume?
The healthy eating guidelines suggest around 30-31% of total energy intake should be from fats. From this around 10% should be from saturated fats. Although saturated fats aren’t as bad as we’ve been lead to believe, do bear in mind that diets too high in saturates have been associated with high cholesterol levels and also that none of the saturated fatty acids are essential, so we don't need them per se; they are, however, excellent sources of energy and should not be shunned.
The optimal ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is thought to be around 1-2:1. However, Western diets have been shown to be somewhere as high as 6-20:1. Areas where the ratio is high, CVD rates are also high, and in regions where the ratio is nearer to 1-2:1 the incidence of CVD are significantly lower. An omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1-2:1 is suggested with total polyunsaturates being 10-12% of total energy.
Monounsaturates should make up the remainder of the 30% of total energy.
Do I need to supplement with EFAs?
It’s quite rare for people to be consuming insufficient omega-6s, but not uncommon for low intakes of omega-3s. If you are not consuming oily fish or flaxseeds, then supplementing with flaxseed oil or a specifically formulated oil blend might be an idea. Be careful with oils though, as they are very prone to oxidation: they must be stored in cool, dark conditions. If they taste bad, they’re rancid (rancid is the term for an oxidised fat).
Cod liver oil supplements have been available for decades but offer little benefit in respect of fatty acid supplementation, as the doses of EFA are low. If you prefer to take a capsule fish oil supplement, check that it’s a reputable brand first, as some cheaper low quality contain low amounts of EPA and DHA and haven't been treated properly in the manufacturing process; they may even be rancid. Marine algae supplements are also available and these provide EPA and DHA; again, check the quality first.
ALA supplements are also available, but don’t overdo these: exceptionally high intakes of supplementary ALA have been linked to a higher incidence of prostate cancer in men.
Fats in Huel
Huel provides 30% of total energy from fat and all the fats in Huel are from the natural ingredients: ground flaxseeds, sunflower lecithin, MCTs from coconut and even from the oats. Huel’s been formulated to provide the optimum amounts of all the fats.
The level of polyunsaturated fats in Huel provide an ideal ratio of omega-3s:omega-6s – i.e. just under 1:1. The total polyunsaturates level in Huel is higher than some sources recommend; for example, the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (2014) suggest polyunsaturates should be below 10% of total energy intake (3). But these recommendations are based on data collected from people who consume high fat junk foods where the polyunsaturates have been exposed to oxidative damage. The polyunsaturates in Huel are from natural ingredients that have been protected from oxidation. The higher level of polyunsaturates in Huel is necessary to provide sufficient ALA conversion to EPA and DHA, as well as ample LA; at 10% of the total energy intake, there wouldn’t be sufficient amounts at 2,000 calories for the optimal intakes of the fatty acids discussed above.
Saturated fats in Huel provide 5.4% of total energy intake, a large amount of which are MCTs providing an efficient source of energy. The levels of monounsaturates in Huel are not that high but, as these are non-essential, they are more than adequate; and we feel it’s more important for Huel to provide sufficient amounts of omega-3s, omega-6s and MCTs.
- It’s OK to consume moderate amounts of saturated fat
- Avoid trans fats
- Include foods and oils rich in monounsaturated fats
- Include omega-6 polyunsaturates only from natural sources; avoid them in junk foods
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fats by consuming oily fish, flaxseed oil or ground linseeds
- MCTs are an efficient source of energy
- Huel has the optimum proportions of the various fats
- Andrew Stoll, The Omega-3 Connection. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
- Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012: Integrating Nutrition and physical Activity (2014). Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers. pp235-6.