Fats are a hot topic – as the whole world of nutrition is. Plus, there is a ton of bullshit around the public about fats. Some consider fat as the devil himself, while others think of fats as the healthy holy grail for longevity. Others praise vegetable oils, why they condemn animal and saturated fats. It’s a thick quagmire to pass through. But I hope that we on our journey discover some truth about fats by looking at our ancestral way of living to create a few solid guidelines on how to approach nutritional fats nowadays within your nutrition – for optimal health and performance as a human.
Some of the best-known myths are:
Fats make fat and there are few unique benefits to fats
Eat lots of vegetable oils and polyunsaturated fats for optimal health
Saturated Fats are unhealthy and clog your cardiovascular system
Low LDL is a good marker throughout the population
I think you too might have encountered many of these. May it be by your aunt suffering an eating disorder, your I-know-everything-better-friend, or the idiot at every gym who positions himself as a guru but knows less than John Snow.
Even health professionals act all too often on outdated knowledge or misleading epidemiologic studies.
Fortunately, many of these myths have been crushed by qualitative science, and instead, fats offer many health benefits for us humans. In fact, some anthropologists go so far as to coin humans as fat hunters, because many indigenous cultures hugely value and look for fats within their hunts.
So – let’s make it better and update that Jane-Fonda-Era-Knowledge and look at fat. The No-Bullshit way. By looking at how mankind handled fats since the dawn of time.
First of all, let’s define what we talk about! Fats are types of molecules with a unique atomic markup. Each fatty acid is made up of lots of triglycerides1– they differ mainly in their carbon chain length and the kinds of bonds they have. But later more on the bonds within fatty acid carbon chains!
Fats provide around 9kcal per gram of nutritional energy and are also the main way in which our body stores energy. Within our adipocytes, fatty acids are stored in the form of triglycerides, when circulating throughout the highways of your body fatty acids are bound to transport proteins. Because fats contain usable energy they’re considered as one of the 3 (or 4 if you want alcohol included because of its nutritional value) big macronutrients within human nutrition – the other two are carbohydrates and proteins.2
What are the 3 different Kinds of Fats within Nutrition?
Saturated Fats are Fatty Acids that have mostly, if not solely, single bonds between each carbon atom of their carbon chains. A few common saturated fats within our diet are:
Butyric Acid (C4 – mostly contained in butter and interestingly short-chained fatty acids are crucial within our microbiome3)
Myristic Acid (C14 – often found in dairy and cheese products)
Palmitic Acid (C16 – found in palm oil and meat)
Stearic Acid (C18 – predominant in meat and cocoa butter)
Within our diet, saturated fats are mostly found in animal fats, like butter, meat, fatty fish, dairy, and interestingly coconut. Coconut is one of the few plant foods high in saturated fats. Besides those, processed foods are high in saturated fats, too. All of those are solid at room temperature. That is where the old myth that saturated fats might be dangerous comes from, but later more on that misleading epidemiologic finding.4
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids aka MUFAs
Monounsaturated Fats are Fatty acids that have one double bond present within their entire chain. A few examples are:
Palmitoleic acid (C16:1)
Oleic Acid (C18:1)
In our diet, we find them in animal products, plants, as well our own metabolism. Most commonly they’re present in olive oil, fatty fruits like avocados, dairy, lard, tallow, and different nuts.5
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids aka PUFAs
Polyunsaturated Fats are Fatty acids that have more than one double bond at various points of their chain. Common known examples are:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids (e.g. Alpha-Linolenic Acid, EPA, DHA
PUFAs are found in plants, as well as in animal foods and our own metabolism. Common examples of that are EPA or Arachidonic Acid, especially within our brain. Isolated they tend to be liquid at room temperature and easily deteriorate when exposed to high temperatures (150°C and above), like when cooking with them.6
As a quick fun fact – what does omega refer to? Let’s have a look at that as an omega 3 fatty acid. It simply means that there is a double bond present 3 carbon atoms before the whole chain ends. Same with omega 6 and 9, but there the last double bond between two carbons occurs 6 or 9 carbon atoms before the chain ends.
Fats and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Fats
The Explosion in Brain Size
Now that we got SFs, MUFAs, and PUFAs established let’s talk about the history of fatty acids within our diets – some anthropologists even went so far as to coin humans and hominids as fat hunters.7 Man indigenous cultures tend to especially scavenge for fat animals and value it to a great part.
Humans split off apes around 4 million years ago – the first hominid was the Australopithecus. This happened in the lush landscape of eastern Africa. This early hominid was more close to apes than to humans – it was in evolutionary intermediate. Walking upright was tougher, and he ate a mixed diet of plants and carrions. Where it gets really interesting is around 2 million years ago when our brain size seemed to implode. So what happened back then?
The theory is that humans became carnivores. Hunting requires mental resources – especially hunting in a social compound. Based on nitrogen analysis of bones, hominids seem to be exclusive carnivores – so far that we managed to kill much of the megafauna around. The nitrogen levels in the bones of Homo Neanderthalensis was higher than in other well-known carnivores such as hyenas.8 Other important indices are our sharp nose, our jaws, the white in our eyes, our intestinal makeup, our ability to make tools, and many more. Plus, the ancestor who tried to go vegan, Paranthropus, got eradicated. We’ve already been there.9
What’s so unique about Animals as Food?
Based on Paul Saladino’s analogy from his great book The Carnivore Code*plants run on a different operating system as humans do – think of MAC vs. Windows. They function the same as we do but use different substances:
Many nutrients found in Animals are already in the highly-bioavailable form we need, just think of Zinc, Iron, Vitamin K2, or Folate. Many substances found in plants aren’t for much use for us. That’s why vegans run into tremendous problems regarding vitamin K2, vitamin B12, heme-iron, and many others, especially the fat-soluble ones. While you can find vitamin K1 in many plants our body can’t make much sense of it.11 It’s like trying to install a MAC Program on a Windows system. Error 404. Fuck off, MAC.
Plus, plants don’t want to be eaten. And as they can’t run away or fight people off they came up with another solution to the predation problem. Over the billion years of their lifespan they developed a myriad of different defense substances, also called phytoalexins. I bet you’ve heard beforehand about lectins, oxalates, goitrogens, and the like. These are all specific examples of different plant defense substances. Some plants are even outright toxic. I’d go so far as that all plants are toxic – some tremendously, others less. Some contain ricin, or hydric acid, others ‘just‘ gluten and sulforaphane. Broccoli doesn’t love you.12
If an animal-based diet sounds like something worth diving into, you can download a brief ebook, summarizing the points outlined in my mega-long post, to help folks get started on their path towards superior human health. Feel free to download it by clicking the button down below.
To wrap it up let’s get back to fats. From the assumption that hominids were mostly carnivores, mixed with plants as survival foods, an ultimo ratio, humans were mostly consuming animal fats. We were consuming a huge amount of saturated fats, with small amounts of monounsaturated fats and minuscule amounts of polyunsaturated fats. That is exactly the opposite to the modern narrative of nutrition recommends!
And if you’d dive deep into physiology and biochemistry that makes totally sense. PUFAs in extent are toxic for your body, mitochondria in particular. The recommendations are based on bad epidemiology and capitalistic gains by the big players. I bet you must feel skeptical right now – I was, too, when first reading about all of that:
It’s a big and disturbing rabbit hole to go down far off public recommendations, but I truly believe that it is true. But don’t take my opinion for yours, make up your own mind. The above points are only a few ones mentioned. There is much more to it and probably enough material for me to write a book. The linked sources are great points to start reading about these topics!
The modern Problem with Fats: The Advent of Seed Oils
Vegetable Seed Oils
Seed Oils are probably the biggest problem for human health as they contribute hugely to pathologic insulin resistance, obesity, and inflammation. In excess, they’re toxic to mitochondria and bypass ancient metabolic pathways within those. That’s a huge statement – I’m going later into the details.
We as humans would’ve never gotten access to that big amount of PUFAs. If we look at what our ancestors could gather from animals, even from plants, most fats would be saturated animal fats. Most of the year there are no avocados and coconuts around, not even fruit. Plus the ancient tubers, and plants do not even closely resemble what can be found nowadays at a grocer store.
Plus, extracting seed oils is a big process. Just have a look at that disgusting process. They first were used as lubricants, especially for artillery before one big player come up to use cottonseed oil for human consumption to replace butter, lard, and tallow around the 1900s. Up to that point, many chronic diseases were unheard of. Two great talks going into the depth of PUFAs and the history of chronic disease is this podcast with Dr. Chris Knobbe or this with Peter Dobromylskyj.
Satanized Saturated Fatty Acids
With the advent of seed oils, big players tried to ridicule animal fats, until in the 80s fats were ridiculed as a whole. Fortunately this trend reverses by today, as the evidence is piling up that fat is not what contributes to the modern obesity crisis.
Even nowadays saturated fats are satanized – they raise LDL cholesterol, clog your arterial walls, and kill your heart. But is a substance that accompanies us for 4 million years really the one that kills us? This is too contradictory to be true.
In my opinion, saturated fats are of unique nutritional value and should make up most of your consumed energy from fat. On their own, they don’t seem to clog arterial walls, only when inflammation and insulin resistance is present.
The Epidemiological LDL Cholesterol Myth
I guess everybody and his grandmother heard about cholesterol and its bad effects on the cardiovascular system. Especially the cholesterol in your bloodstream bound to low-density lipoprotein is often mentioned as LDL cholesterol.
But what is so bad about raised LDL? Just because it correlates with something doesn’t mean it’s causing it. The human body is complex and it’s all about context. A high LDL on its own without other markers won’t tell a lot on its own. Nonetheless, many doctors fall off their chairs if they see elevated cholesterol and quickly make you pop statins.
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Cholesterol is of huge importance as a building block, while lipoprotein is the carrier. The LDL’s can get stuck within the cell membranes when going in and out. That’s why people came up with the conclusion that high LDL’s are harmful. But that’s not the case – without pre-existing conditions as inflammation lipoproteins don’t seem to get stuck. That said – LDL is about the context of the individual it is observed in. But to say all higher levels of LDL are harmful, without judging the individual, nor other markers like free triglycerides, metabolic health, or HDL, is too short-sighted. A great place to start reading about general and LDL cholesterol, as well as cardiovascular health, is Dave Feldman’s Blog and work.
I’d even think that higher cholesterol is healthy for human beings, because of its important role in immunology.13 But going into that would blow that article length.
Don’t be afraid of saturated fat, consume a lot of them. Be afraid of being metabolically unhealthy, insulin resistant, and inflamed. That’s the root cause of chronic disease. Not LDL and saturated fats.
Choose Fats over Carbohydrates
Don’t get me wrong carbohydrates aren’t bad, but regarding our ancestral touchpoints with carbohydrates, I’d err on the side of more fats. Carbohydrates are hardly available when you look into nature – only in larger quantities in fruit and honey. And if they are in the context of roots and tubers they come with a lot of phytoalexins.
Plus, fats seem to offer a few metabolic benefits in the way your mitochondria metabolize them. When burning fatty acids, you produce more cofactors that are beneficial on their own for the organism.
That said, don’t get rid of carbs as a whole. I don’t think that ketosis all day every day is a long-term solution and that’s what we’re in for, aren’t we? Carbs offer unique benefits, especially if you’re active and need to consume a lot of calories – just make sure to choose the least toxic carbohydrates available like fruits or honey.
Biochemistry for Pro’s
This post could fill a few books if I’d go into detail on each topic and would require tons of research on my part, too. I’ll go briefly into the biochemistry here and link or already have linked to great further sources elsewhere. If you’re interested dig into them, they’re worth their time commitment. The ROS theory evolved by Peter from Hyperlipid whom I really praise for his work. Check it out, but be warned it gets really into it superfast. I try to break it down for better understandability – Brad Marshall from Fireinabottle does the same here on his blog in much greater detail. For the metabolites have a look at Tucker Goodrich’s work and presence in podcasts for further explanation.
The problem with polyunsaturated fatty acids is that they act toxic onto your mitochondria by manipulating your satiety in the first place and the break-down into toxic metabolites on the other hand:
PUFAs manipulate Satiety
Satiety is manipulated by the reduced build-up of reactive oxidative species. Why should that be a good thing?
Reactive oxygen species build-up, when there are enough electrons within your mitochondria, and they get transported in the reverse direction through all the complexes. That ramps up the creation of O2- which signals the cell that it is satiated with energy. Satiety kicks in. O2- then get broken down by the SOD into H202 and eventually water. This is a normal redox process of your body’s genius antioxidative system. Within this process, the cell gets insulin resistant – and in that context, physiological insulin resistance is an awesome thing!
How do PUFAs manage to do that?
Within ß-oxidation, the pre-existing double bonds hinder the body in creating energy intermediates, such as FAD+ and NADH. You get fewer intermediates out of poly-, and monounsaturated fats than you can get out of saturated fats. The fewer intermediates make for fewer electrons that eventually enter the complexes and undergo reverse transport. Fewer electrons mean it takes more overall for the satiety signal to kick in and the cells to get insulin resistant. The same is true for carbs – they create fewer intermediates within glycolysis.
PUFAs create Oxidative Stress
The other problem is the production of oxidative stress through metabolites such as 4-HNE that can be tied to cancer.14 Wait, didn’t I say beforehand that reactive oxygen species are good? Yes, within a controlled feedback loop within your mitochondria. Not within your body by breakdown products of PUFAs such as predominantly linoleic acid.
These oxidated breakdown products are even tied to creating inflammation within your arterial wall – within which LDL can get trapped. It doesn’t start with LDL but rather with inflammation and oxidative stress of the wrong kind. Further, they’re tied to damaging adipocytes directly.15. That said, they’re tied to more scary stuff. PUFAs and especially linoleic acid aren’t for human consumption and should be zealously avoided. They contribute strongly to human chronic disease.
Congrats man! I hope you’re still with me. I loved to write this biochemic part it’s a topic I hated back in the days and really learned to love nowadays – because it’s at the root of everything living. The root of disease and health. Let’s go on and get much more practicable again!
How to approach Fats within your Nutrition + Best Sources
How many Fats should I eat in a Day?
The common general recommendation is roughly about 60-80g of fats per day.
I would go even further and say that you shouldn’t go below 1g fat per lb of body weight.
For a 180lb male, these are 180g of fat per day which is around ~1.500kcal a day from fats. If you sprinkle these with around my recommended 150g of Protein you come on a total of 2.100kcal solely with these two macros. That should already be a huge amount of your overall calories – add more fats if you like and carbs as you wish to get onto your individual estimated amount of calories. Just make sure to not over consume on proteins.
You are more likely to gain weight if you eat more than you burn and vice versa.
But the quantity of your calories is only one part of nutrition – quality matters, too!
Which Fats should I consume?
As we’ve talked about in extent, the best fats come from animals raised naturally. High-quality grass-fed, grass-finished beef, pork or lamb, fish or poultry. Try to get all of your fats from animals – there is no need for plant-derived fats, really. If you like to add some low toxic plants like avocados or fruits for texture and taste that’s totally fine, too.
The quality really matters – the more natural the animals are fed the better the fat portfolio of them is and the more beneficial they will be from an environmental standpoint. Corn-fed animals tend to be higher in PUFAs.16
Great sources are bacon, belly fat, suet which is the fat that sits above the kidney, fatty meat cuts, tallow, lard, or butter. Just make sure to not overconsume on the liquid fats. They’re a good addition, but too much could be subpar too and upset your microbiome. A few spoons of butter won’t harm anyone, but just consuming lean meat and drowning everything in butter could lead to issues.
The only thing I’d wholeheartedly recommend to everyone is to avoid seed oils and PUFAs at all costs. If you only remember one thing out of this long post – NO Seed Oils.
Special case: Omega-3-Fatty acids
Many folks praise fish oil and Omega 3’s to the sky. What people most often talk about are: EPA and DHA.
They are very important for your cognitive function and how your body responds to inflammatory processes. But if you eat a high-quality animal-based diet, there is no need to supplement with rancid and oxidized fish oil. You’ll get plenty of those, in a highly bioavailable form, plus even more fatty acids like arachidonic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid. As an aside, don’t even try to consume ALA from flax oil, as some vegans do. Your body can’t convert those well into EPA & DHA. Plus, you’re consuming seed oils then.
Is Keto a good idea?
Going keto refers to only consuming fats and stay below a rough number of around 50g of carbohydrates per day. What that does is to promote changes in your metabolism from burning carbohydrates for fuel to being fat-adapted. Your body starts to produce more ketones and burn them instead of sugars – with that change come a ton of other metabolic and hormonal changes.
That said, I don’t think being keto all the time is good, nor is never tapping into ketosis. But, a huge but, I think everybody should be fat adapted and tap into ketosis regularly. Not consistently, but regularly. People who get hangry and can’t fast without getting jittery or feeling bad aren’t fat adapted. Their body gets calories all the time and doesn’t know what to do when they’re not available. Unfortunately, that is the default for most modern humans. I’d strongly advise changing that by eating more fats and incorporating fasting into your lifestyle.
Ketosis and Fasting offer many benefits – don’t miss out. But don’t indulge in them for the cost of carbs.
Cheatsheet: How to use Fats, the Right Way!
Never ever eat less than 80g of fats per day. Even aim for more – my recommendation is 1g per lb of bodyweight. But don’t eat less.
Avoid Seed Oils at all costs. No excuses. PUFAs are not your friend in these doses.
Don’t worry about Omega 3’s If you eat qualitative meats, organs, and fish you surely will get enough of those and many other beneficial fatty acids.
Don’t eat solely fats Carbs should also be a part of your diet, especially as an active individual. But fat-adaptation through more nutritional fats and fasting is very beneficial.
Keep it simple!
Thank you for reading through this quite long, and super complex post! I surely upset a few people by many statements because they challenge the modern medical paradigm on many levels. And make more sense in my opinion. I’m always open for discussion and hope you could follow me through these topics – kind of:
The take-home message of this post is that saturated fats offer many benefits, and PUFAs are in fact the devil, as they’re very inconsistent with what we humans are historically used to eat. Stay close to nature, live like your ancestors, and indulge in health.
Now it is your turn! I would love to know how you treat fats in your very personal nutrition. Shoot me a comment on how you manage fats. As you’ve read I am a big fan of these beauties. IMO – everything with butter or baked with cheese tastes two times better.
Queries and further reading recommendations:
I owe a lot of knowledge within this post to the work of the below people. Check them out to dig down the rabbit hole of fats and chronic disease in our modern world. They challenge the paradigm and search actively for truth. Isn’t that what we should all do?
Peter Dobromylskyj from Hyperlipid – his block goes into the very depths of insulin resistance and requires extensive knowledge of human metabolism and biochemistry. But when there is a will there is a path.
Brad Marshall from Fireinabottle – Brad breaks Peter’s very complex approach down and applies his own thoughts to this framework. He has lots of posts about reactive oxidant species, saturated fat, and insulin sensitivity over there going into the weeds of biochemistry. Plus, he proves his approach by his own diet.
Dave Feldman from ColesterolCode – Dave Feldman does research regarding keto and blood lipids. Over at his blog he shares extensive knowledge, easily accessible, although it is a very complex topic in the form of posts or animated YouTube videos. Highly recommended if you want to dive down the cholesterol rabbit hole.
Paul Saladino from CarnivoreMD – Paul Saladino is a medical doctor and one of the biggest advocates for a nose-to-tail carnivore diet. He shares a lot of super in-depth science on his podcast and his book The Carnivore Code*. I’m a huge fan of his work and can only recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in health and the root causes of modern disease.