Healthy Fats: A Super-Simple Guide

Photo © cyclonebill

Photo © cyclonebill

Vilified for causing everything from heart disease to obesity and even cancer, fats have gotten a pretty bad rap over the years. And while that trend seems to be on the mend, it’s still a fairly incendiary topic.

A quick google search on fat will lead you to a mountain of articles and blog posts that tend to go one of two ways: they’re either staunchly for or against, with little-to-no middle ground; or they’re overly scientific and complicated, to the point of being functionally useless.

I imagine this leaves you with some questions. So let’s dig in with some practical, applicable answers (and leave the more technical stuff to anyone writing a term paper).

What are fats?

Just as carbs are chains of glucose molecules, fats are chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Depending on the chemical bonds involved, they can be saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

They look kind of like this:

Click the image for a more in-depth look at the different types of fat.

Click the image for a more in-depth look at the different types of fat.


Aren’t fats bad for you?

No, they’re not. Fats are an essential part of the human diet. Fats not only provide us with energy, but they help us to absorb essential nutrients in our food (vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble, for example).

Not only this, but fats are an important part of our bodies. Literally! Fats are part of the actual structure of our cells. In fact, our brains are composed of 60% fat.

Sixty. Percent.

The list of functions and benefits of fats is quite long, but let’s get on with our simple approach. The point is that no, fats are not inherently bad.

Yeah, but only healthy fats, right?

Ah, the ever-present rebuttal to the “fats are good” argument.

In my experience, the idea of healthy fats has become FAR too convoluted to be useful in an everyday context. So let’s remedy that, shall we?

First, we’ll define our terms:

What is a healthy fat?

While the FDA doesn’t seem to specifically define healthy fat, the Decidedly Non-Hardcore definition is a simple one:

A healthy fat is any fat that comes from a real-food source (avocado, steak, nuts, etc.) and not a food product (donuts, fried chicken, etc.).

Does it get more complicated? Sure. There are varying ratios of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats that you might manipulate. Or there are oxidation issues to consider when cooking. And yeah, that grass-fed bison might have a better fatty acid profile than your conventionally-raised beef.

But from a functional standpoint, there really is no need to stress over the minutiae.

For anyone simply looking to lead a Happy, Healthy, Strong Life, take yes for an answer and go about your day.

Quick Note: In some instances, it might be appropriate to make sure you are getting enough of the right types of fats. Some ailments or conditions might be caused by a deficiency in (or reversed by a supplement of) certain fats, but that is best left up to your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to determine. Here, we are simply talking about living a healthy, fit, lean life.

Gray Area Foods

There are, of course, some things that are a little more difficult to define. What about almond butter? It’s made of almonds, but they’ve been ground up. What about oils or butter? They’re from natural sources, but they have gone through some form of processing to become what they are.

The best way to approach this dilemma is to take the specific food you’re contemplating and analyze its context: what it’s made of, and where it came from.

Butter, for instance, is simply dairy fat that’s been mechanically separated from the liquid (the base being cream). No chemicals, no additives (save salt, in the case of...dun dun duhhh!...salted butter): just a minimally-processed product made from real food.

Nut butters, on the other hand, can be a little trickier. While some are simply ground up nuts (or, technically, legumes, in the case of peanut butter) and maybe some salt, others contain all sorts of additives that take them farther from “food” and closer to “food-product.” Check the ingredients list.


Though mentioned above, I wanted to separate these out as their own topic.

These are where, unfortunately, it pays to get a little more technical with the approach.

Essentially, oils are derived from plants using one of two methods: mechanical extraction or solvent extraction.

Mechanical extraction simply means the oil has been squeezed out of the plant in some way. Some plants lend themselves more easily to mechancial extraction than others. Good examples of these are olives, avocados, and coconuts. But even with these, look for labels that mention being expeller- or mechanically-pressed.

Chemical extraction is a much nastier process. But it’s cheaper and more efficient, so why not?!


Essentially, the process works like this: they create a pulp out of the raw material (soy beans, rapeseeds, etc.), mix it with a chemical solvent (usually hexane) to dissolve out the oil, and then remove the chemical solvent to be used again.

Well, they remove most of the chemical solvent. What happens to the rest of it? eat it.

Again: gross.

For a really great breakdown of common oils and their benefits (or lack thereof), check out Mark Sisson’s Definitive Guide.

So I can eat bacon and not have a heart attack?


The Takeaway

From a potentially in-depth and complicated topic, the takeaway is quite easy: if you’re eating whole, real foods rather than food products, there is really no need to worry about the fat content.

There are exceptions, of course, like certain phases of the AltShift Diet, but in the context of plain ol’ healthy eating, go ahead - get the steak.