Lesson #2: Dietary Fats



Fats are one of the three macro-nutrients: Fats, Protein, Carbohydrates.  Fats are also called oils, or fatty acids (The term “acid” in this case is a chemical term, it does not mean that fats are corrosive like hydrochloric acid.)

Overall, the right kinds of fats are very nutritious in moderation.  Because Fat is calorie heavy, it has 9 calories/gram, you should use it more sparingly than Carbs or Protein, which both have 4 cal/g (alcohol has 7).

Fats are needed to absorb the vital fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Fat also creates satiety (make you feel fuller longer) since it has a slower rate of digestion as compared to carbs.

Types of Fats

You may have heard of fats described as “saturated” or “un-saturated”, or as “medium chain” (or short or long chain), or as “essential” or “omegas”.  These are three different ways to segment fats.

First, let’s talk about saturation.

The following description of fats sounds a little scientific, but it’s actually pretty simple and will help explain the differences between the different kinds of fats.  Also, the shape of a fat molecule determines whether it is healthy or not.

Fats are basically just chains of Carbon (C ) atoms with some Hydrogen (H) attached.  Picture a long chain C-C-C-C-C-C …

Depending on what is going on with that C-C- chain and the H attached to it, fats are categorized as saturated, >mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated.

  • 1. Saturated fat has a Hydrogen atom (H) connected to every carbon atom in the C-C- chain.   Since every C has an H connected to it, you can say that it is “saturated” with H molecules.  Saturated fat is solid at room temp.  The saturation acts to protect the C-C- chain, so they are robust fats and do not easily go rancid.  These are the best fats for high heat cooking.
  • Some examples of saturated fat: animal fat (bacon fat, fat in a steak), butter, hydrogenated fat (margarine, Crisco), coconut oil, palm oil.
  • 2. Mono-unsaturated fats are almost just like saturated fats: they are long C-O chains, and every C except one has an H connected to it (mono=one, unsaturated=one C in the chain is missing it’s H).  But this seemingly small difference in structure creates a big difference in function.  That one unsaturated C makes the fat easier to break down.  Mono-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temp, and are more delicate, so they are not as good for high heat cooking.
  • Mono-unsaturated fats are also anti-inflammatory.  There are proven health benefits of consuming mono-unsaturated fats, including: reducing blood cholesterol, reduced inflammation & reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.  Olive oil in particular has antioxidant properties.  Some examples of monounsaturated fats: Olive oil, Peanut oil, almonds, Avocados, Canola oil*.  (*Canola oil is usually so highly processed that it is no longer a healthy fat.  Processing of oils causes them to become rancid.  Only cold-pressed canola oil can be considered a healthy fat.)
  • 3. Poly-unsaturated fats are similar to mono-unsaturated fats, but are missing more than one H in their C-O chain.  Just like mono-unsaturated fats, poly-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temp, and are not very good for high heat cooking.
  • Many common vegetable oils are poly-unsaturated (corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed).  Some fish also contain polyunsaturated fats.
  • However, even though poly-unsaturated fats are similar to mono-unsaturated fats, poly-‘s do NOT have proven healthy benefits.  Polyunsaturated fats are not inherently bad, but these fats can break down during certain conditions, like high heat, and become unhealthy. Highly processed oils (such as vegetable oils listed above) become rancid during the manufacturing process.  Rancid fats are unstable, like free radicals.

Note: When oils are “hydrogenated”, hydrogen atoms are added to the open carbon atoms, creating saturated fat, which is more shelf stable. Margarine and Crisco are hydrogenated. Hydrogenated, or “trans-fats” are also used in many, many processed foods. Hydrogenated saturated fats are much cheaper to produce than natural saturated fats.  This fact, paired with the fact that they are more shelf stable (i.e. don’t spoil), is why they are widely used in the food industry.

Next, let’s talk about chain length.

Again, picture fats as chains of Carbon (C ) atoms with some Hydrogen (H) attached.  Picture a long chain C-C-C-C-C-C …

Depending on the length of that C-C- chain, fats are categorized as short chain, medium chain or long chain.

There is talk about medium chain fats (MCF) being “better”.  One thing is true, that MCFs are digested differently than other fats (they are absorbed and sent straight to the liver, bypassing normal fat digestion and absorption), but there is some, but not a lot of evidence to support claims such as MCF’s:

  • make people feel more full or satisfied than other fats
  • help people get leaner and improve body composition
  • result in sudden fat loss
  • help the body burn more calories than other fat sources
  • have body composition benefits.

And, third, let’s talk about Essential Oils

Some fats are what is known as “essential”.  This means that your body cannot make these nutrients on their own, then need to be ingested. We call these “Essential Fatty Acids”, or EFA’s.  “Fatty acid” refers to the structure of “fat”.  (Your body is capable of producing saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and cholesterol.)

Omega-6 (linoleic) and Omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, a.k.a ALA) are EFA’s. They both serve important functions related to tissue strength, cholesterol metabolism, muscle tone, blood clotting & heart action. They are so important that EFA’s need to make up at least 10% of the calories you consume.

Omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties and it is recommended to consume a lot of them.  Examples of omega-3:

oils: flaxseed, canola, walnut, olive;

fish: mackerel, sardines, herring, salmon, bluefish, cod, crab, scallops, tuna, lobster;

nuts: flax, walnuts, pecans; beans: soy; greens: spinach, kale, collard greens

Omega-6 fats are Pro-inflammatory. We tend to get a lot of Omega-6 oils in our American diet. Examples of omega-6: Oils: corn, cottonseed, safflower, sesame; margarine; packaged foods.

You need balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3. Since Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory, and Omega-6’s are pro-inflammatory, the balance between the two is important to control inflammation. The ratio should ideally be 1:1 (equal amounts of -6 and -3), and should definitely be less than 4:1 (4 times more Omega-6)..

By the way, both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are long chain poly-unsaturated fats.

When fats become bad

Although fats obtained from whole-food sources are almost always healthy, these days most fats are processed. Fats can break down during certain conditions, like high heat, and become unhealthy. Highly processed oils (such as vegetable oils: corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed) become rancid during the manufacturing process.

When fried foods are cooked at too high of a temperature, they are more difficult to digest because substances in the fat break down into irritating materials. In addition, when oil is heated hotter than 350, it starts to hydrogenate, becoming partially hydrogenated oil.

The worst is Hydrogenated fat

When oils (mono- and ploy-unsaturated fats) are “hydrogenated”, hydrogen atoms are added to the open carbon atoms to create saturated fat, which is more shelf stable. What this means for the food manufacturers is that they can use these hydrogenated fats in their products and they won’t go bad for a long time. In addition, saturating vegetable oil is much cheaper than using natural saturated fat like lard, butter, or coconut oil. Margarine and Crisco are hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oil, or “trans-fats” are also used in many, many, many processed foods. This is one of the reasons to avoid processed foods.

Hydrogenated fats are bad for you because of the shape of the molecule itself. A normal saturated fat molecule is a “V” shape. The trans-fats are straight. The problem is that the straight hydrogenated fats can still open the “fat doors” in cells, but because they are not V-shaped, they get stuck in the door-way, thereby blocking the way for normal healthy fats. Then the cell can’t function properly because it’s not getting normal healthy fats.

A food that claims “No Trans Fats” does not have zero trans fats, it only has less than 0.5gram/serving. Read the ingredients to see if any of the ingredients are hydrogenated, or partially-hydrogenated oils or fats.


Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. Oils are mono- or poly-unsaturated, they are liquid at room temperature. Oils are not as stable as saturated fats and can go rancid, making foods made with them not as shelf stable.

  • Saturated fats, solid at room temperature, can be heated to a higher temperature, so are better for cooking
  • Mono-unsaturated fats, liquid at room temperature, are good for you, but break down more easily than saturated fats
  • Poly-unsaturated fats, liquid at room temperature, are ok
  • The extraction process of oils, and frying foods in oils, breaks down the oils in such a way that they become unhealthy
  • Hydrogenated oils, partially-hydrogenated oils, or trans-fats are very bad for you
  • Try to consume more Omega-3 fats. Fish oil supplements is one way to do this

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