Everyone’s debating fat with an awful lot of conviction: should it be low carb high fat with lots of animal fat, or high carb low fat with lots of plant fats or …? You’ve heard it, maybe you’ve even joined the debate? You know what Noakes says, you know what some dietitians say. But that’s really irrelevant. What you do need to know is what will work best for your body, not what’s working well for other people.
Fat digestion, like everything, is individual. There are general rules of thumb, but we all have our very own genetic pattern, so you have to be open to discovering your own truth. Understanding the stats and chemistry around fat digestion helps, but you’ll need to do some experimentation and listen to your body to know your truth. This blog post provides you information so that you can strip away the ideology and work with facts.
What are the good fats?
Eating naturally occurring fats as close to their original state as possible is always the best. That includes raw nuts, seeds, olives, fatty fish e.g. salmon and trout, and avocados. Meat and eggs are fat in its natural state, but all the growth hormones and antibiotics fed to the animals are stored in their fat cells, so it’s a good argument for organic eggs, meat or maybe swapping to venison.
Balancing good fats takes some awareness. We should have equal amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in our diet, but western diets have skewed us to about one Omega 3 for every twenty Omega 6s. The result is that we’re Omega 6 heavy. Don’t stress too much about the Omega 6s, you do still need them, but make sure you get lots of Omega 3 sources in your diet, including salmon, trout, sardines, marine algae, walnuts, soaked chia seeds and ground flax seeds. Don’t get too hyped on rules, just be sure to include liberal amounts of these in your diet.
What are bad fats?
Anything that says hydrogenated or trans-fat is very bad. Anything that doesn’t say extra-virgin is very bad. That’s because they are broken fats.
Fat free and low fat foods are bad if they normally have fat. They’ve been messed with chemically and they’ve got other additives. [Snide aside: If something is naturally fat free and the marketers still stick a fat free label on it, you should rate their bank account as high as they rate your IQ and give their product a miss.]
Supermarket-shelf mass-produced oils have been heated or chemically treated to extract them, which means their fatty acid bonds have been broken. They’re damaged. If they don’t say “extra virgin”, avoid them like the plague.
Any fat that has been messed with chemically is damaged. De-flavoured coconut oil has been treated with bleach and other chemicals, so it’s broken.
The difficult ones to differentiate are flavoured virgin oils because we don’t know what process was followed in their infusion. Maybe it’s safest there to infuse your own? I must admit that I adore Willow Creek’s Persian Lime Flavoured olive oil – it tastes like pudding.
Best practice tips
Any fats exposed to air get damaged by oxygen and light very quickly, so there are some best practice tips to follow to keep fats fresh and undamaged.
- Keep nuts and seeds in the freezer until you use them.
- Grind seeds or nuts freshly before use rather than buying them ground.
- Buy oils in dark bottles that protect them from the light.
- Saturated fats are more heat stable, but frying does damage fat bonds. The higher the heat and the longer the exposure, the more broken the fatty chain bonds will be.
- Dairy is pasteurised, which means it’s heated, so all dairy products, including butter, potentially contain some broken fats. On the other hand butter is relatively heat stable and fares well in anti-inflammatory panels, maybe because of butyrate?
You’ll see more below to explain why, but the very best sources of fats to include in your diet are avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, and oily fish.
You and your genes
The fats that you eat support your body’s chemical processes right down to genetic level. Give it some thought: what type of fats do you want supporting your genes?
Conversely, your genes also interact with the way you process fats and what fats are better for you, and it is very different from one person to another. In the longer term, it’s worthwhile getting genetic tests done if you are serious about managing your health. If you do that, it’s important to understand that our genes are our foundation, but our practices, how we live and what we eat determine what kind of house we build on that foundation. In other words, our lifestyle choices can have a very big impact on how our genes work. That’s a new, emerging science called epigenetics.
A genetic risk factor for a disease is just that, a risk. Your lifestyle, stress, nutritional status and other factors all play a critical role in how that risk is realised. The other side of the coin is that understanding how genes can change individual responses does help you understand how very individual we are. It also helps you see why any studies that report on how much fat is good or bad for you is going to have a wide spectrum of results, so they’re not useful for you as an individual. Listen to your body and follow its cues – don’t let anyone bias you by telling you what’s healthy besides the obvious. Broken fats can’t be good and avoid them because they will make everyone sick, but the rest is individual.
Diving deeper into genetics
APOE genes influence how your fat is packed up and transported around your body. The size of these transporters affect the types of fats that they best transport – polyunsaturated, monounsaturated or saturated. All this changes depending on your combination of APOE alleles.
E2 is the rarest form and the best to have because it protects enormously against lifestyle diseases like heart problems, obesity and Alzheimer’s.
- Disease protective
- Manages high level fats – up to 50%
- Good with all types of fats, vegetable and animal
E3 is the most common and more neutral in that it doesn’t seem to affect lifestyle diseases either way.
- It manages moderate fat – up to 30%
- Dietary emphasis best on a mostly pesce-vegetarian diet, but is flexible
E4 is the problematic allele for lifestyle diseases
- Raises risk of lifestyle diseases
- Manages lower fat – 15 to 20%
- Dietary emphasis is best on a pesce-vegetarian diet, with lower high-carbohydrate foods and avoidance of alcohol
Best Diet from a genetic perspective?
Looking at fats from a genetic perspective, given current knowledge (and it is being constantly refined because nutri-genomics is a relatively new science), it seems the best general diet to follow could be a Mediterranean style diet, with lots of fish and veg, but possibly lighter on the intense carbohydrates like rice. I would start testing fat percentages at between 20 or 30% of your macronutrient intake. Great sources of fats to include for all alleles are avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, and oily fish.
Signs to look out for as you test your body’s response to fats
- clarity of thinking and brain energy vs brain fog;
- general everyday energy vs feeling sluggish, moist vs dry skin.
If you can’t work out how much fat best suits you, then fat as 20% of your diet seems to be safe for all. It’s the upper limit of what works for the more the risk genotype E4, and the lowest for the protected alleles E2. It’s close to the middle of E3 which is the most common.
The best protection you can have against damage from fats, especially if you are E4/E4, is to avoid broken fats and make choices that help you avoid hypertension and diabetes. That means that an overall moderate lifestyle based on real foods, around 8 hours of sleep and good exercise is still the golden rule.
Your digestion of fats
Your genes are the blueprint for what fats work better for you, but life also happens. We get older and produce less enzymes or we lose our gall bladder. What should you do when you struggle to digest fats? You need them for so many chemical processes in your body and your brain, so you can’t stop eating them.
If you can use apple cider vinegar, then have a tablespoon in half a glass of water thirty minutes before you eat. The apple cider vinegar will stimulate your body to produce more enzymes.
You can also take enzyme supplements with a meal that is heavy in fat. It must have lipase in to help digest fats. Have a look at this Heartburn blog post because it has more information about digesting proteins and using enzymes.
Coconut oil passes through a different metabolic process to other oils which bypasses your gall bladder, so use more coconut oil if you can easily tolerate more saturated fats.
Is this the final answer?
No! It’s a guide, it’s a starting place. There are also other things that influence our fat metabolism, like our physical structure, our microbiome and other genes, so there will still be an interplay between these. What this is, is an empirical point of departure where you can start to understand what the influencers are and accept your individuality.