What Fats are Best for a Healthy Diet?
Now that we know fats should form the foundation of our diet, what are the best daily goals for specific types?
By John Bagnulo
Fats are a foundation to a healthy diet. They have been vindicated this past decade with countless studies reflecting risk reduction in almost any population when they eat more fat, and especially when dietary fats displace sugars and refined carbohydrates. The PURE Study—18 countries, 5 different continents, 50,000 plus subjects—is one of the best examples of this.
Of course fats come in so many different forms and some have relatively low ceilings before they start to cause issues. Some of the fats with the lowest ceilings might surprise you. Other fats, many of which have been maligned over the last 40-50 years, have the greatest potential to protect against chronic disease and the highest ceiling for safe consumption.
Quest Diagnostics and many other labs now offer a variety of fatty acid testing where the red blood cell membrane is analyzed to assess the presence and percentage of membrane occupied by almost every possible fatty acid that could be found in our diet. The research surrounding this area of tissue analysis is fascinating.
One standout finding that is consistent and very significant is the association between high levels of a unique saturated fat, heptadecanoic acid C:17:0, that’s really only supplied by high fat dairy products, primarily grass-fed animal products. The research on this fat goes back to 2010 and follow-up investigations supported the earlier findings: higher levels of this fat in our cell membranes appear to offer high levels of protection against strokes and other chronic disease processes. Eat more grass-fed dairy products.
This guide is intended to provide a better understanding around fats. Careful consideration should be made regarding the amounts that can support health each day. A most recent review of literature has been performed for each type of fat with supportive studies included.
Please use this guide to assess the compatibility of the fat sources in your diet. Eat and be well!
Omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids: arachidonic acid.
The precursor to inflammation, this fatty acid is way too abundant in an average American’s diet. Primarily found in grain-fed meats and animal products, with chicken by far the leading source. Dark meat and the skin of chicken contain the most (A), pork that is fed corn and soybeans ranks second.
Arachidonic acid should be limited to a very small percentage of a person’s overall calories. Limiting chicken to one time per week and avoiding the dark meat and skin will help, as will sticking with only grass-fed meats and dairy products.
Higher levels of arachidonic acid have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s (1), obesity (2), metabolic syndrome (3), and certain types of cancer (4).
1. Goozee K, Chatterjee P, James I, et al. Alterations in erythrocyte fatty acid composition in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. Scientific Reports. 2017;7:676. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-00751-2.
2. Simopoulos AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):128. doi:10.3390/nu8030128.
3. Choi H-N, Yim J-E. Effects of Erythrocyte Membrane Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Overweight, Obese, and Morbidly Obese Korean Women. Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2017;22(3):182-188. doi:10.15430/JCP.2017.22.3.182.
4. Rahrovani F, Javanbakht MH, Ghaedi E, et al. Erythrocyte Membrane Unsaturated (Mono and Poly) Fatty Acids Profile in Newly Diagnosed Basal Cell Carcinoma Patients. Clinical Nutrition Research. 2018;7(1):21-30. doi:10.7762/cnr.2018.7.1.21.
Shorter chain omega 6 fatty acids: linoleic acid
These polyunsaturated fats are primarily found in seeds, seed oils, and most nuts. They are needed in very small amounts regularly but those amounts range from 1 to 3% of calories respectively.
This means that for someone eating approximately 2500 kcal per day, their requirements for these omega 6 fats are only 4-6 grams per day. When we eat too many of these omega 6 fats, they start to contribute to membrane instability and higher rates of lipid peroxidation within cells. There are many directions that these two processes can go with respect to chronic disease and none of them are good.
Limit the amount of these omega 6 fats by avoiding industrial seed oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, safflower, and canola oil. Stick with more mono and saturated fat-based oils. (see below).
Limit polyunsaturated fat-containing nuts to a moderate amount daily, such as a small handful of almonds or cashews, while limiting the richest sources such as sunflower seeds and walnuts to just a tablespoon daily.
Omega 3 fatty acids—Long chain omega 3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA
These fats are primarily concentrated in marine species of fish and grass-fed meats. They are important in maintaining cell membrane fluidity and cell signaling efforts. DHA and EPA are essential, primarily because they assist in maintaining normal circulation and help to produce anti-inflammatory substances.
We need these daily, but again in moderation. Their total percent of calories should also be in the 1-3% of calories, so again a 2500 kcal dietary pattern would require only 4-6 grams of omega 3s.
Short chain omega 3 fatty acids: alpha linolenic acid
These plant-based omega 3 fats are the fatty acids best received by the flora of our microbiome. Research has shown that omega 6-rich oils generally cause adverse reactions within our digestive tracts, as many families of bacteria respond poorly. Omega 3-based oils however, such as flax oil, are the best type of oil to use in an effort to provide essential omega 3 fatty acids without causing damage to intestinal flora.
These are still gaining supporters, although slowly after more than 5 decades of being bashed by cardiologists. More and more evidence pours in weekly to strengthen the argument for making these fats the foundation of all the fats that you eat. They are the most stable and resistant to oxidation of all fats when incorporated into or cell and mitochondrial membranes. This reduces the formation of highly reactive oxygen species that ultimately cause damage to critical parts of who we are.
Saturated fats, particularly those found in high-fat dairy products, are being associated with protection against diabetes, heart disease, and strokes (1). When examining the erythrocyte membrane and other tissues where unique types of dairy-based saturated fat can be found, researchers have repeatedly found lower risk and better overall health with higher levels of these fats, particularly heptadecanoic acid in those over the age of 60. There is a huge risk reduction for heart disease and strokes with higher levels of this fat found in cheese, butter, and full fat yogurts.
Of course, the saturated fats found in coconut and macadamia nuts are great too. These are the best fats to acquire in the largest quantities. Pacific Islander populations eating a traditional coconut-based diet have very low risks for any cardiovascular disease. Sri Lankans and other areas of the world where saturated fat is the predominant type of fat, especially from coconuts, also experience the lowest incidence of heart disease globally (2).
In general, as one leading expert said in a recent interview:
“In the nutrition field, it’s very difficult to get something published that goes against established dogma,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian MD MPH, assistant professor, Harvard. “The dogma says that saturated fat is harmful, but that is not based, to me, on unequivocal evidence.”
Mozaffarian says he believes it’s critical that scientists remain open-minded. “Our finding was surprising to us. And when there’s a discovery that goes against what’s established, it shouldn’t be suppressed but rather disseminated and explored as much as possible.” (B)
(B. as quoted in Men’s Health)
Dr Mozaffarian’s work showed that heart disease was reversed with increased saturated fat, reduced omega 6 fats, and carbohydrates replaced with fat in general (3).
It makes sense to us. Hopefully you have found this helpful and have a better understanding of which fats support you or your loved one’s health.
1. Krachler B et al. Fatty acid profile of the erythrocyte membrane preceding development of Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2008 Sep;18(7):503-10. Epub 2007 Nov 26.
2. Nagashree RS et al. Effect of a Diet Enriched with Fresh Coconut Saturated Fats on Plasma Lipids and ErythrocyteFatty Acid Composition in Normal Adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2017 Jul;36(5):330-334.
3. Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB, Herrington DM. Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2004;80(5):1175-1184.
Here are a few more foundations to remember:
• A high carbohydrate diet increases inflammation and inflammation plays a role in most diseases.
• C-Reactive Protein is one way to see inflation markers in our blood analysis.
• Eight hours of sleep each night is key.
• Reducing stress and finding pure joy in your life is essential.