Saturated Fats, Unsaturated Fats, Omega 3’s and 6’s

Just a few days ago as my friend and I were out grabbing food at the local BBQ spot, did I get asked about fats. As my friend and I ate dinner, he turned and said to me with a mouth full of pulled pork, “Saturated fats are the fats that are bad right?”.  

My response was, “No, saturated fats aren’t bad necessarily, it’s damaged saturated fats that are bad.”  That’s all I said. I wanted to say more, but to be honest I couldn’t verbalize at that moment all of the knowledge that I have gained over the years of training and dieting about fats.  There is a lot of complexity when it comes to dietary fats. So I decided to share some of the knowledge today; so buckle up as we dive deep.

saturated fats and unsaturated fats

Saturated Fats vs Unsaturated Fats

What is the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats?  The “saturation” of a fat refers to how many bonds the carbons make with hydrogen.  Carbon that is fully “saturated” means it is bonded to the maximum number of hydrogen atoms (H3C-CH3 vs H2C=CH2.)  Unsaturated fats have double bonds or triple bonds between carbon molecules which takes up a place(s) for hydrogen to bond to it.  It is considered unsaturated because the maximum amount of hydrogen is not bonded to carbon. The double/triple bond causes the molecule to become more “kinked” and “bendy” (check out the picture) which is one of the reasons unsaturated fats tend to be liquids at room temperature.  Saturated fats, i.e. butter, coconut oil, tend to be solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated Fats: Polyunsaturated vs. Monounsaturated

The prefix “poly” means multiple, hence polyunsaturated fats have multiple double or triple bonds in the molecule. “Mono” means one, and therefore, monounsaturated fats have only one double or triple bond in the molecule. The omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids are apart of the polyunsaturated family of fats. Monounsaturated fat sources can be found in olive oil, nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias, nut butters, and olives.

What are the differences between the two?  The terms omega-3 and omega-6 simply describe the position of the first carbon-carbon double bond (the double bond makes it unsaturated) in the fat’s backbone. This position of the double bond creates a different shape of the molecule and hence, affects its function in the body.  

Unsaturated fats: Omega 3 fats vs Omega 6 fats

“Omega-3” refers to the position of the final double bond, which is three carbon atoms from the “omega” or tail end of the molecular chain. “Omega-6” is 6 carbons from the molecular chain. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids.  This means your body cannot produce them, therefore, they must come from exogenous sources i.e. the foods we eat.  These fats end up getting incorporated in the membranes of our cells, make up some of our cellular receptors and also makeup hormones like testosterone and estrogen.  So, they are pretty important, to say the least

Which one is better?  Well, both are needed for proper cellular function and it is important to get a healthy serving of the two.  What makes omega 3 fats so special is their anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that omega 3 fatty acids help to produce types of anti-inflammatory compounds known as resolvins and protectins.  Omega 3 metabolites help to restore proper cellular function after bouts of inflammation. (10)

 As stated before, omega 6 fats are essential for proper cellular functioning, but the average American consumes way too much of these fats and they become pro-inflammatory at high levels.  They need to be balanced with omega 3. This is difficult because the average American consumes up to 25 times more omega 6 fats than omega 3 fats. A healthy omega 3 to omega 6 ratio should aim to be around 1:4.

Getting the proper amount of omega 3 essential fatty acids isn’t easy. For example, purchasing farmed raised salmon has been shown to have equal or more levels of omega 3 fatty acids, but the meat is usually filled with antibiotics to keep the fish healthy during their lifespan. Tuna is a good source of omega 3 fats, but you can’t eat too much of it due to the high levels of mercury. You can try and find fish oil and krill oil supplements, but these can also be dangerous for your health as well. Most of the essential fatty acids in fish oil are oxidized/rancid by the time you purchase it from the store. Supplementing with oxidized fish oil will do more bad than good for you. One way to check if your fish/krill oil supplement is OK is to actually bite into the pill. If it tastes rancid, ditch it.

My solution for getting a healthy serving of omega 3’s is by eating sardines. Why sardines?

  • Much cheaper than tuna or salmon
  • Convenience- no cooking necessary and easy cleanup.
  • Low in mercury- Since sardines are lower on the food chain there is less bioaccumulation of toxins like mercury
  • Sustainable- Eating lower on the food chain is energetically more efficient
  • Wild Caught
  • High in protein
  • Very filling
  • Keto/Paleo friendly

My sardine of choice? Wild Planet Sardines. These sardines are wild-caught from the pacific ocean.

“Sustainably sourced, Wild Planet sardines are nutritional powerhouses loaded with essential nutrients. Each meaty sardine portion is packed with Omega 3, protein, calcium, iron and potassium. Wild Planet offers seven Sardine varieties: in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; in Water; in Water with No Salt Added; in Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Lemon; in Marinara Sauce, Skinless & Boneless Fillets in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Skinless & Boneless Fillets in Water.”

If you don’t want to eat sardines then supplementation is key. My suggestion would be Bulletproof Krill Complex

Bulletproof Labs makes great products including this Krill OIl compund. Here’s the description:

  • POWERFUL OMEGA ESSENTIALS: Triple strength blend of omega-3s made with fish roe and krill sourced from certified ocean-friendly fisheries. Enhanced with GLA plus extra antioxidants from astaxanthin and olive fruit for clinically backed brain, heart and joint support.
  • HIGH QUALITY PHOSPHOLIPID FORMS: The EPA and DHA in Antarctic krill and Norwegian herring roe (the caviar of fish oil) are bound to phospholipids—or little fat packages that are able to easily pass through your cellular membranes to deliver their benefits.
  • BOOSTED WITH GLA: Gamma-linolenic acid is hard to come by in the traditional diet and has been used due to its powerful ability to support healthy skin. The GLA in Omega Krill Complex comes from borage seed (Borago officinalis), the highest-potency natural source of GLA available.
  • POWERFUL ANTIOXIDANTS: Astaxanthin helps prevent oxidative damage and you get 8X more in one serving of Omega Krill Complex than the same amount of just krill oil. Hydroxytyrosol is the naturally occurring polyphenol in olive fruit responsible for olive oil’s amazing cardiovascular support.
  • GREAT LEMON TASTE: Diners squeeze lemon zest on fish dishes for a reason! We added fresh California lemon oil to Omega Krill Complex for a bright, citrus-y taste

Omega 6 Fat Sources

Sources of omega 6s are found in corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, and certain nuts and seeds

Omega 6 fats and inflammation

Omega 6 fats increase the production of ARA (arachidonic acid) which is a precursor to a number of potent pro-inflammatory mediators like prostaglandins and leukotrienes. If you refer to the graph you can see that high levels of ARA (omega-6 fat) produce high levels of prostaglandin E2 (inflammatory biomarker) and EPA and DHA (omega 3 fats) produce almost 6 times less!  

Omega 3 essential fatty acids have also been shown to bind to PPAR which demonstrate improved insulin sensitivity (9)

unsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats effect on inflammation


Not all Omega 6 Fats are Created Equal

Conjugated linoleic acid is a omega 6 polyunsaturated fat(technically a trans-fat due to its chemical structure) that has many beneficial properties. It has been shown to burn fat and to promote muscle gain and also has anti-inflammatory properties much like omega 3 fatty acids(11) (12)(13)(14). CLA isomers bind to PPAR-gamma receptors which then inhibit the genes responsible for fat storage and adipocyte production. Sources of CLA are found in grass-fed dairy and grass-fed meat products.

Omega 3 Sources

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain fatty acids (they have more than 14 carbons in their tails). They can be found in most fish, eggs, grass-fed meat, walnuts, Brussel sprouts, and soybeans. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) can be found in mainly plant sources such as chia seeds and flax seeds. ALA does not absorb well as EPA or DHA, so its easier to get your omega 3’s via animal sources.

Trans fats

Trans fats are well known to increase LDL cholesterol levels (bad cholesterol), decrease HDL (good cholesterol) levels, heart disease, and obesity (6)(7) Trans fats are formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into semi-solid fats using hydrogen gas.  This process is called “hydrogenation”. The process of hydrogenation takes these double or triple bonds that are formed between the carbon-carbon backbone and breaks them, and then adds hydrogen; hence the term “hydrogenation.” Manufacturers hydrogenate fats to make the shelf life longer for their products.  Places that fry foods over and over like fast food chains also use trans fats. Why is this process so unhealthy?  Well, for one it’s not a natural fat.  Its a man-made process of turning liquid vegetable oil into solid fat. Your body doesn’t really know what to do with the end product which causes inflammation.  Some trans fats do occur naturally in animal products like butter and beef in the form of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Microbes in the guts of animals like cows and goats naturally hydrogenate unsaturated fats into trans fat. The molecular structure of CLA is different from the molecular structure of man-made trans-fats and, therefore, is not harmful.


Saturated Fats

saturated fatty acid
Saturated Fatty Acid

Saturated fats are less likely to oxidize and generate free radicals in the body.  This is due to its chemical structure. All the bonds between the carbons are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms and those bonds are less likely to break and free up an electron making an inflammatory molecule.  Healthy sources of saturated fats can be found in beef, eggs, and butter.

Another great source of saturated fat can be found in butyrate. Butyrate is a short-chained fatty acid  Butyrate is created by your gut microbiota via fermentation of dietary fibers.  But is can also be found “pre-made” in foods with high levels of fiber such as white rice, potatoes, legumes, and fruits.  Butter and some cheeses contain a direct source of butyrate as well. Butyrate has been shown to have many benefits for the gut that include anti-inflammatory properties, improved energy metabolism, improved immune-properties, and improved insulin sensitivity. (8)

Where is Fat needed?

Fat is needed everywhere in the body.  In fact, each 1 of your 30 trillion+ cells requires fatty acids to make up their membranes.  The cell membrane is responsible for some of the most important reactions that take place in the entire cell.  The mechanism for firing a nerve signal, binding to different hormones, and cellular signaling are all governed by the actions of the cell membrane.  Pretty important stuff! 

Your brain is also composed of a large percentage of fat molecules; 60% to be exact (1).  Along with your brain, all of your nerves are covered in a protecting, insulative sheath called myelin.  Having properly formed myelin will ensure that your nervous system is functioning correctly. 

Fat also makes up your hormones.  Testosterone and estrogen are derived from fat.  If you aren’t getting enough fat you could really me hampering some of the most

Fat Consumption Benefit:

One of the biggest benefits of consuming fat when compared to the other two macros, is that fat has little effect on insulin and blood glucose levels.  If you have read or listened to some of my work you know that managing your insulin levels is one of the most important things you can do for fat loss and improving body composition. 

People today have thrown around the word “keto” and ketosis a lot. One of the reasons people have seen great weight loss results using keto/high-fat diets is because of the lack of insulinogenic response from the pancreas when consuming fats.  Insulin is responsible for fat storage. By keeping insulin levels low you will keep fat storage at a minimum 

What are the best fats to cook with?

Cooking with high heat oxidizes fats.  When fat gets oxidized it creates toxic compounds that cause cellular oxidative stress, which can wreak havoc upon your cells.

The University of the Basque Country’s Pharmacy Faculty did some research on what happens to fat as it oxidizes. “hydroperoxides are first produced and subsequently aldehydes…degradation of lipids in foods can produce toxic oxygenated aldehydes. These compounds, well-known in medical studies for their geno- and cytotoxic activity, considered as markers of oxidative stress in cells as well as being causal agents of degenerative illnesses”(5)  If you have ever been super hungover then you know a little about how the effects of aldehydes. Aldehydes are also produced when fats are oxidized and affect you the same way as a bad hangover.

So which fats tend to oxidize more readily and which fats tend to not?.  It all has to do with how “saturated” the fat is. Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds or points of “unsaturation.”  Therefore, they have multiple targets where high heat can come in and damage them. Saturated fat has no double bonds, and thus, no place for oxidation to occur.  The extra hydrogens are like a protective armor that prevents damage to occur. 

So what’s your best choice of fat to cook with? I say frying with coconut oil or ghee is your best choice.  Coconut oil is almost 90% saturated fat and has a smoke point of 437 degrees. The smoke point is the temperature at which the molecule begins to breakdown a produce harmful free radicals.  Frying above the smoke point of these fats would no longer keep them stable and defeat the purpose of trying to use a healthier fat to fry with.   Ghee is only made up of 3% polyunsaturated fat.  It has a smoke point of 487 degrees.

So that is a basic understanding of fats. I hope you got some value from this post.

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23651522…  keto results
  3.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6386412 insulin fat storage
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26868600 butyrate good for brain and gut
  5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050617065306.htm oxidized fat
  6.  http://www.eurekaselect.com/75988/article trans fat causes obesity 
  7.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20209147 trans fats bad for ldl
  8. https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/9/1/21/4849000
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3117990/
  10.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22404117
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17490954 CLA fat loss
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17313718 CLA fat loss
  13. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/79/6/1118/4690231 CLA fat loss
  14. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/5/1203/4632999 CLA fat loss

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