Fats – Clearing Up the Confusion

Fats - Clearing Up the Confusion

PLANT-BASED PRACTICE:  Find your fat in food – whole, plant food.  Eating a variety of whole food coming from all the different parts of the plant will provide all the fat needed in the right amounts.  From the bottom up this includes root vegetables, green stems and leaves, colorful vegetables and fruits, whole grains and seeds, and legumes – the things in pods.  Oil is not a whole food and the body has no need for it; all the fat that is needed can be found in the unprocessed food.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly Fats

It’s true that fat in general has gotten a bad rap for decades, accused of leading to weight gain and obesity, vascular disease and other chronic illness.  Lately we are hearing that fat isn’t all bad and that there are “good fats” and “bad fats”, and that carbohydrates are the real bad guys leading to weight gain and metabolic diseases like diabetes.  Such assertions offer a misleading view which reflects research or opinion considering fat as a single entity, outside the context of the overall dietary pattern. 

There are four types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats.Understand that we do need fats in our diet to survive and thrive. They are crucial for each and every one of our cells. They make up structural components of the cell membrane, provide energy reserves play a role in hormones. They deliver vital nutrients to cells. So we should not be surprised to learn that there is fat in each and every plant that we consume. Plants need fats to survive as well!  There really is no such thing as a “fat-free” diet unless one is relying solely on processed foods that have been altered, like skim milk (well even “non-fat” milk has roughly 5% fat by weight).

All whole foods contain fat. Consider the following fat contents, as % of total Calories:

  • Iceberg lettuce has roughly 5% fat
  • Walnuts have roughly 83% fat
  • The body requires 10-15% fat to maintain health1

So unless you somehow extract the fat out before you eat lettuce, you are getting some fat. Now, if you choose to eat nothing but lettuce in your diet, you are probably not going to get quite enough fat. On the other hand, eating a variety of whole, plant foods gives us just the right amount of fats, along with all the other nutrients that make up a perfectly balanced diet, including protein, carbohydrate, micronutrients, antioxidants, and fiber (technically not a nutrient but essential to health).

Trans Fats and Saturated Fats

All whole foods have a combination of fats, and all fats serve a function in the body. Well that’s not exactly true – all naturally-occurring fats serve a function, often categorized as either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.  Trans-fats, on the other hand, serve no nutritional purpose whatsoever. They are associated with heart disease, diabetes and even sudden death.  They are found in animal foods – cheese, milk, yogurt, burgers, chicken fat, turkey meat, bologna, and hot dogs, according to the USDA’s nutrient database.  But they are also in processed foods. Man-made, hydrogenated fats (hardened vegetable oils) are created to enhance processed foods and lengthen shelf life, are not recognized by the body, and do not support health.2  This is such a foregone conclusion, in fact, that the FDA has proposed banning trans fats as illegal food additives.

Both trans- and hydrogenated fats act as saturated fat does in the body, which is not essential, but serves a specific purpose.  Saturated fats are the storage fat in both plants and animals. They last longer without oxidizing as easily.  The more saturated a food is, the more solid it becomes at lower temperatures. These fats tend to elevate risk for cardiovascular disease, triglycerides, and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol.  They are also pro-inflammatory and associated with most chronic disease.  Also note that saturated fat is more commonly found in animal-based foods than whole plants. In fact, fat intake in general is positively proportional to animal food intake, by upwards of 90%. A high-fat diet is likely dominated by animal foods – cheese, meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, etc.3

Fat 101 – Chains of Fatty Acids

Fats are chains of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen. Saturated fats are fully saturated with hydrogen, leaving no space for a double bond between two carbons. Saturated fats stack well on top of one another, making them denser and more solid.  It’s easy to eat lots of saturated fat because it’s so dense that it doesn’t take up much room in the stomach, like packing a suitcase with rocks, rather than fluffy jackets.  Once it gets into the bloodstream, it slows the flow and gunks up the plumbing, (as does any excess of fat, but saturated is the worst). In contrast, unsaturated fats are carbon chains that have fewer hydrogens attached to the carbons that they could, and every time there is one less hydrogen, two carbons are double-bonded to each other – that is what makes them unsaturated. Unsaturated fats have bends at the double bonds, so they don’t pack as densely, and this allows them to be liquid at room temperature. 

Saturated fats are non-essential, meaning that we can make them in our body when needed, and they are only needed to store fat. In contrast, the fats we need to consume in our diet, the essential fats, are unsaturated ones. 

Now, understand that we don’t eat one kind of fat in isolation. We eat food and foods have a combination of fats in them. Plants have a variety of fats, including saturated, but their fatty acid make-up is generally low on saturated fats, though coconut is an exception.4

Those Omegas, and What’s Essential?

There are only two essential fatty acids (EFAs) that the body cannot manufacture and needs to take in through food. From these EFAs the body can make all the other fatty acids needed. Those two EFA’s are omega-3 and omega-6. In proper ratios they complement each other for homeostasis in the body.4  It is absolutely essential that we consume both of these fats from food, and given proper nutrition, the body really does make all other fats it needs, for metabolic function, brain development and nerve function.  We need a certain range of one to the other in order to maintain the appropriate balance.  The healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is between 1:1 and 4:1.4 In other wording, eating as much as four parts omega-6 to one part omega-3 will give you an optimal balance. Among different diets the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s varies greatly, from the optimal all the way up to 50:1. Typically the American diet ranges from roughly 10:1 to 15:1. This ratio heavy in high omega-6 is linked to diseases, including cancer, heart disease and other inflammatory conditions like arthritis.  Interestingly, it’s also linked to high consumption of processed and animal foods. On the flip side, healthy populations consuming traditional plant-based diets tend to have ratios closer to 2:1 to 4:1 (omega-6: omega-3). 5

Fish Deficiency?

There is a common concern that those eating a plant-based diet don’t consume enough a particular omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and therefore can’t manufacture enough EPA or DHA. This is why there is a growing business of EPA and DHA supplements. However, this would only be true in the case of consuming far too many omega-6 fats. If total fat is low, then the amount of omega-6 will also be low, and you won’t need as many omega-3 fats to get the right balance.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the principle precursor to the EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 fatty acids and essential for brain development, neurological transmission and other important functions. Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, to complement the inflammatory properties of omega-6.  It also has blood-thinning properties; (as it helps fish survive in cold water, for instance). If you cut yourself or sprain your ankle, you want those inflammatory fluids to rush on over to the sore spot and flood the area with protection and nutrients to allow the healing process to begin.Then they dissipate and inflammation eases.This is the beauty of the two essential fatty acids at work together. As Dr. T. Colin Campbel explains in The China Study, we balance omega fatty acids and alleviate chronic inflammatory conditions by consuming a whole food, plant-based diet, consisting of a wide variety of unprocessed plant foods.6  But eating an abundance of omega-6 over omega-3 gums up the blood and creates excess oxidation of the fat which needs to be cleared out of the system. The simplest way to get enough omega-3, and the right balance of omega-3 to omega-6, is to eat a whole food, plant-based diet, because such a diet is naturally low in fat and with the right balance of fats.

Flax seeds, soy foods and walnuts are good sources of alpha-linolenic acid, along with another important source – green leafy vegetables! Taking in a varied, whole-food plant-based diet allows us to obtain all the essential fatty acids we need, at any stage of life and activity level.

Animals get the bulk of their ALA from eating greens (something for us to consider!), which is why grass-fed animals have different fatty acid ratios – higher in omega-3 and lower in omega-6 – than grain-fed ones. They store this fat in their tissue, and this is how humans get omega-3s in meat. Having lots of good fat in meat does not make the meat healthy, even though it has something healthy in it. Fish do not make their own EPA and DHA, by the way, but accumulate high levels in their internal organs by consuming microalgae.

One difference between animal and plant omega-3 fatty acid sources is that EPA and in particular DHA is already formed in animal tissue, so that our bodies don’t have to convert ALA to EPA, and then EPA to DHA. It takes a lot of energy to convert ALA to DHA, and some extra steps using four desaturase enzymes to break down the fat in different places within the cell.  This is why there is the notion that animal sources of omeg-3 fatty acids (like fish) are superior.  They are not; they just spare the body from breaking down fatty acids to build DHA inside the body. This process in itself may or may not be helpful or protective to the body. We just assume that because the body does less work, that somehow this translates to a benefit. Further, several new studies are finding that omega-3 supplements, often sold in the form of fish oil, do not improve the health of the brain or heart. Here we see an illustration of the common myth that more of an isolated good thing (a certain kind of fat) must be better.7-10

Today’s typical diet supplies a whole lot more omega-6 than omega-3: a ratio of omega 6 excess to omega 3 deficit. This encourages chronic inflammation, as seen in our nation’s leading killer diseases. So we have a problem not only with the larger intake of fat in our society, but with the balance of omega-3s to omega-6s. The skewed balance does not occur when eating primarily whole, plant foods. Intact fats in plant foods supply both the plant itself as well as the animals that eat them a perfect balance.

“Good” Fats?

Since we know enough about the benefits of fats, many foods are promoted as good for you because they contain the good sort of fats – fish for example, which are generally high in omega-3 fat.  Also, monounsaturated fat has been shown to be somewhat heart-protective, lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) and raising HDL in some studies. They may be heart-protective compared to saturated fat, but since all fat is 100% fat, it can easily lead to weight gain and the chronic conditions associated with it. 7-10

Olive oil is touted for its “good” (monounsaturated) fat and antioxidants to fight cancer, protect the heart and stimulate weight loss. Interestingly olive oil is roughly 14% saturated fat.  Considering that the American Heart Association recommends limiting our intake of saturated fat to no more than 7% of Calories, how can a pure fat, (that’s 100% fat), with 14% of it saturated, be protective? The presence of polyphenols like the antioxidant vitamin E in the oil is nice, but the benefits are slim compared to those in whole plant foods.  They are not enough to protect against an influx of concentrated fat and its damage from oxidation.  It constricts blood flow more than other oils, canola for instance, and suffocates endothelial cells, which keeps them from producing nitric oxide, an essential element that allows blood vessels to stay relaxed.11,12

Canola oil is often claimed to be a natural, heart-healthy oil and low in saturated fat.  But it is a highly processed product, using high heat and chemicals (commonly hexane and then bleach) to make it industrially strong and long-lasting. Further, the majority of canola is derived from genetically-modified rapeseed, (part of the mustard family), which itself raises long-term health concerns including neurological dysfunction and heart disease.

Coconut does have a healing reputation among some.  In its whole form it has fiber, vitamin E, other phytochemicals and healing properties including antimicrobial, from its lauric acid.  But there is a big difference between identifying isolated nutrients in a food, and the effects of that food in the body.  As with any high-fat food, too much will add weight, triglycerides, vascular sludginess, and complications thereof.  Consider that most people take in too much fat to begin with, and to suggest that such a high fat food might enhance health is risky at best. Understand that in the populations where we see the benefits of coconut, it is consumed as part of an overall diet – primarily unprocessed with its fiber, as their primary source of fat.  Is it the coconut that is responsible for the lower rates of chronic disease or the overall dietary and activity pattern?

Coconut oil, like all oil, is 100% fat.   It packs 117 Calories per tablespoon. True, its predominant saturated fat is lauric acid (along with other saturated fat) which appears to raise HDL cholesterol levels more than LDL, and LDL is a better predictor of coronary heart disease, but if overall cholesterol is high, HDL levels cannot offer protection.  Further, atherosclerosis involves many other components beyond cholesterol, which may imply that cholesterol is a biomarker of the disease and not simply the cause.   

Lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid, presumed to be less easily absorbed than long-chain fatty acids, and used more directly for fuel, as they do not need a carrier molecule to enter mitochondria, (the cell’s energy-producing organelle), But if we take in too much fuel, these fats will be stored like any excess fat.  So if we add coconut oil to a high fat diet, the harm may outweigh any protective effects.  If we are native Pacific Islanders eating a simple, whole-food  diet and moving all day, the fat from coconut would be essential to our health.13   

The Fat We Eat

Extra fat is stored, no matter what flavor it is. Further, extracting it, processing and heating fats have a whole slew of risks including by-products associated with cancer risk.14-16

All oil, even the finest olive oil, is 100% fat. Any oil in the blood immediately suffocates the fragile endothelial cells of the arteries and vessels and keeps them from moving freely.Then it takes time for the body to clear it out.  It can also lodge in vessels adding to plaque.

Oil is not a whole food. It is an isolated and concentrated, extracted plant part, so it has no fiber to mitigate how it gets into the blood.  It is associated with cardiovascular disease. Oils easily oxidize in the body and create toxins that can be damaging to cells.  PUFA-induced lipid peroxidation is common among people who supplement with flax and fish oils and who have inadequate antioxidant protection, (meaning eating enough whole, colorful plants with antioxidants), thus supplementation of any omega-3 oils may be risky for anyone not taking in enough antioxidants – so that would be most people, because people don’t eat the plant foods that contain them!  According to much research, anyone with elevated levels of PUFAs are at risk for increased lipid peroxidation, (which demand antioxidants to mitigate them), and corrections should include lowing PUFA intake and increasing antioxidants.10

A whole food, plant-based diet provides around 10-15% fat.  You get a natural balance of “good” fats, with a natural limitation of saturated fat, along with fiber and nutrients. The high level of carbohydrate accompanying that fat in plants keeps the metabolism running most efficiently to limit the storage of fat, and the fat in the whole plants carry important vitamins and antioxidants, protecting against any oxidation and inflammation. You won’t find a more efficient way of obtaining fat, than eating it in whole plant package with all the nutrients combined, to make a body vital and healthy!


  1. 1. Nutrition Facts Database. http://nutritiondata.self.com/.
  2. 2. Greger M. The True Shelf-Life of Cooking Oils.  http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-true-shelf-life-of-cooking-oils/
  3. 3. Armstrong D, and Doll R. “Environmental factors and cancer incidence and mortality in different countries, with special reference to dietary practices.” It. J. Cancer 15 (1975): 617–631.
  4. 4. Gropper SS, Smith JL & Groff JLAdvanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 5th edition. Belmont, CA. P 133-134. . 2009.
  5. 5. Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.
  6. 6. Campbell, T. Colin and Thomas M. Campbell II. The China StudyBenBella Books. Dallas, TX. 2006. P. 82.
  7. 7. Bosch J, Gerstein HC, Diaz R, et al. n–3 fatty Acids and cardiovascular outcomes in patients with dysglycemia. N Engl J Med.Published online June 11, 2012.
  8. 8. Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ. Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. Published ahead of print, April 9, 2012.
  9. 9. Dangour AD, Andreeva VA, Sydenham E, Uauy R. Omega 3 fatty acids and cognitive health in older people. Br J Nutr.2012;107:S152-S158.
  10. 10. Lord RS.  Bralley A.  POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACID-INDUCED ANTIOXIDANT INSUFFICIENCY.  Integrative Medicine. Vol. 1, No. 1. Dec 2002/Jan 2003
  11. 11. Covas MI.  Nyyssonen K., et al. The effect of polyphenols in olive oil on heart disease risk factors: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145(5):333-341.
  12. 12. Vogel RA. Brachial artery ultrasound: a noninvasive tool in the assessment of triglyceride-rich lipoproteins. Clin Cardiol. 1999 Jun;22(6 Suppl):II34-9.
  13. 13. Davis B.  Melina V.  Becoming Vegan Express Edition. Book publishing Company.  Summertown, TN.  2013. P.75-78
  14. 14. Doll R, and Peto R. “The causes of cancer: Quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the Unites States today.” J Natl Cancer Inst 66 (1981): 1192–1265.
  15. 15. Purasiri P, Mckechnie A, Heys SD, Eremin O. Modulation in vitro of human natural cytotoxicity, lymphocyte proliferative response to mitogens and cytokine production by essential fatty acids. Immunology. 1997 Oct;92(2):166-72.
  16. 16. Griffini P.  Dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids promote colon carcinoma metastasis in rat liver. Cancer Res. 1998 Aug 1;58(15):3312-9.

PLANT-BASED PRACTICE:  Find your fat in food – whole, plant food.   Eating a variety of whole food coming from all the different parts of the plant will provide all the fat needed in the right amounts.  From the bottom up this includes root vegetables, green stems and leaves, colorful vegetables and fruits, whole grains and seeds, and legumes – the things in pods.  Oil is not a whole food and the body has no need for it; all the fat that is needed can be found in the unprocessed food
The Good, Bad, and Ugly Fats
It’s true that fat in general has gotten a bad rap for decades, accused of leading to weight gain and obesity, vascular disease and other chronic illness.  Lately we are hearing that fat isn’t all bad and that there are “good fats” and “bad fats”, and that carbohydrates are the real bad guys leading to weight gain and metabolic diseases like diabetes.  Such assertions offer a misleading view which reflects research or opinion considering fat as a single entity, outside the context of the overall dietary pattern…