The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

What’s In A Fat?

May 26th, 2009 · 9 Comments · Posted in Blog

The kind of fat you eat does make a difference
The kind of fat you eat does make a difference

 By now most of you have probably clued into the benefits of the so-called omega-3 fats (isn’t that why we’re all popping fish oil pills?) Omega-3s, found in oily, cold-water fish as well as animals raised on pasture and certain plant foods, such as flax seeds, are good for the heart. These are fats that originate in green plants and algea. What you may not know is that their counterpart fats from the plant kingdom–the omega-6 fats, derived from seeds such as corn and cotton–may be killing us. At least when consumed in the mega-doses that our industrial diet now encourages.

Our ancestors likely consumed these fats in a ratio roughly 2-to-1 in favor of the omega-6s. But with all the processed foods that have become a modern diet staple–foods loaded with cheap oils made from corn, cottonseed, safflower, soy and their ilk–that ratio has been blown to smithereens. And if you happen to be a consumer of all those processed omega-6s (as you no doubt are, if you are eating anything out of the supermarket other than fruits and vegetables from the produce section), taking fish oil supplements won’t do much good. Omega-6 fats compete with the omega-3s for space in our cell membranes. Very likely, you have no room in your inn for the omega-3s in those free-range eggs you bought at the farmers market over the weekend.

Susan Allport, author of “Queen of Fats,” spent some time researching the important differences in the fats we consume, including the mostly villified saturated fats, the mostly lionized mono-unsaturated fats, and the widely misunderstood polyunsaturated fats. She treats the story much like a detective novel, or at least an intriguing series of profiles of the scientists and researchers who, for the last several decades, have been trying to unravel the mystery of some very specific mechanisms–good and bad–that these different fats assert on our bodies.

Allport happens to believe that the emergence of processed foods, and consequently the gross imbalance in our diets of certain omega-6 (polyunsaturated) fats, are likely behind a complex of diseases involving obesity, diabetes and heart disease. I happen to believe that this same complex of diseases (and you can throw in hypertension as well) is caused by an overconsumption of cheap carbohydrates. In any case, we and the scientists at the center of Allport’s tale all concur that “the low-fat mafia,” as one of her heroes refers to them, have grossly misled the public to believe that it’s fats in general that are behind all our dietary ills, when in fact it’s the quality of fats that counts more than the quantity.

We need to be very careful not to throw the good fats out with the bath water.

I admit I had some trouble getting past the initial chapters and the many details about how these different types of fats distinguish themselves on a molecular level. (If you find yourself referring to the glossary, don’t be afraid to skip ahead to the next chapter.) The individual stories about our hero scientists–especially the ones who can’t get their research funded or their papers published–are where the real action takes place. After hearing how they’ve been ignored and rebuffed by the nutrition “science” community, you just know that civilization will one day read this story and give itself a good Bart Simpson smack in the forehead for not being more skeptical of popular diet dogma.

Even without chosing between types of fats and carb loading as the source of our current epidemic of diet-related diseases, it’s hardly a stretch to look at how our industrial food system has evolved over the last century–making refined, calorie-dense carbohydrates cheaper and cheaper, driving omega-3 fats out of our foods in favor of government-subsidized corn oil–and see how this trend line parallels the rise of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and atherosclerosis. Our beef cows, our pigs, our chickens–they’re all chilren of corn as well. So eating them just compounds the problem.

We are awash in products previously unknown to the human diet whose only virtue is that they make lots of money for corporate food interests. One wonders why we spend so much time gnashing teeth over the occasional beef recall or disease outbreak, yet pay hardly any attention at all to the health issues that have been quietly incorporated into our food system and affect us daily, with consequences still to be told.

As Allport notes, some omega-6 fats as well as more omega-3 fats are necessary for health, but “the fat in any healthy diet will be mostly monounsaturated and saturated.”

If you have any concern at all about your health and what you are eating, the best course would be this: ditch the starchy carbs and eat more green vegetables. Lose the cheap “vegetable” oil and switch to canola oil for cooking. Don’t eat foods from any supermarket shelf, and keep a safe distance from all fast food joints and most restaurants as well.

And if you can grow your own, even better.


Leave a Comment

Please note: Your comment may have to wait for approval to be published to ensure that we don't accidentally publish "spam". We thank you for understanding.


  • megwolff

    I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks.

  • megwolff

    I will definitely read the book.

  • Sylvie

    and to add insult to injury, those calorie-dense processed food are nutrient poor, deficient in so many fibers, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and probably other components we don’t even know about yet. And missing on all the synergies of food working together that we are just starting to appreciate. And so, many people now think that by swallowing a multi-vitamin pill along with their fat-free TV dinner, they are eating “healthy”. Very sad.

  • Ed Bruske

    Meg, I’d be curious to know what someone from the macro-biotic world would think of this book about fats.

  • cheflovesbeer

    I am confused by your wording. I was under the impression that we should have more omega-3’s than 6’s. It sounds to me you are saying the opposite.

    Anyway, love the new look!

  • Ed Bruske

    Sylvie, you’re right. It’s sadly comical to see people buying highly processed industrial foods whose nutrition had to be added as a supplement, rather than just purchasing the genuine article. The food corporations have us well trained.

    Chef, I’m sorry if I confused you. Of course you want more omega-3 fats in your diet. The historical ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s was probably around 2-to-1, but now may be as high as 50 to one. The author has a nice chart in her book showing the ratio for many different kinds of cooking oils. In order to restore balance, consumer fewer omega-6s and more omega-3s.

  • cheflovesbeer

    Thank you. I’m new to the whole omega-3/6 thing. Just trying to figure out what is healthy, even if I do not always make the right decision.

  • FoodRenegade

    I like the recommendations to eat more pasture-raised meats because those have a healthier balance of Omega 6 to 3 fats, and I agree with the assertion that we need to eat mostly monounsaturated and saturated fats.

    But canola oil? It wasn’t invented until 1970, and contains too many polyunsaturated fats to be your primary cooking oil. Most of us are likely to get plenty polyunsaturated fats just by occasional snacking on seeds or nuts.

    Why not recommend more traditional oils like lard or tallow (from foraged/pastured animals), or even the traditional tropical oils like coconut or palm? Those all better fit the picture Allport paints: naturally good balance of Omega 6/3 fats, mostly monounsaturated & saturated.

    I’m eager to read the book, though, and grateful for your review.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • Ed Bruske

    Kristen, I love the idea of cooking with lard, butter, tallow, coconut oil. I save all my bacon grease and use it to cook certain things. But I don’t reject everything invented after Woodstock, nor do I think it’s practical for everyone to switch their general-purpose cooking oil to one of those you mentioned. Canola oil, in fact, is 57-60 percent monounsaturated fat, and has an extremely good omega-6 to omega-3 balance of 2:1. That’s why I use it, along with olive oil, for most of my stove-top cooking.