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30 Days to Change Your Diet Sustainably: Step 4 - Fat: Types & Quality

Fats have gotten a bad rap the last 50 years: you've probably seen the reduced-fat products in the aisle at the supermarket, which can leave you feeling guilty when you go for that block of full-fat cheddar cheese you've been craving.

But don't worry! Fats are essential for human survival, and though they are the most energy-dense macronutrient, we all have an allowance that affords us rich possibility to incorporate delicious fats into our diet.

Another concern we need to take into account now that climate change has earned a warranted place in the front of our minds is sourcing healthy fats in a way that doesn't cause undue stress on the environment. So if you want to know what fats give you the most bang for your environmental buck, this is something we'll dive into in this article.

But first: What are fats, and will they kill me?

Fat = Bad is a way over-simplified narrative we've assigned to a complex macronutrient, so let's quickly brush up on what fats are.

All fats are comprised of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. What differentiates the types of fat is the length and shape of their carbon chains, as well as the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms.

The three types of fats are:

  • Saturated fats
  • Mono- and polyunsaturated fats
  • Trans fats 

Saturated fats get their name because they have a large number of hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon. You can identify a saturated fat by the consistency of it. The chemical structure will cause it to be more dense at room temperature, which you'll see in saturated fat sources like butter, coconut oil, and many other animal-based fat sources.

Trans fats, apart from small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat in some animal products, are usually the result of vegetable oil being hydrogenated (adding more hydrogen to the carbon chains) to ensure firmer products with longer shelf lives.

Poly- and monounsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms linked to the carbon chains, which makes them liquid at room temperature, not solid. Monounsaturated fats have one less pair of hydrogen atoms connected to their carbon chain than saturated fat, and polyunsaturated are missing two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms. 

Now that we have a general overview of the different types of fat let's look at how they benefit us

  • Omega-3 and Omega-6 (long-chain polyunsaturated fats) are essential fats, which means that they cannot be made by the body, though they play a part in many critical metabolic processes, and are linked to reduced inflammation as well as having a positive effect on cardiovascular health.
  • Monounsaturated fats protect our heart by maintaining levels of good cholesterol while reducing levels of bad cholesterol.
  • Fat also makes it possible for the body to absorb vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K: also known as fat-soluble vitamins.

Since most of the health benefits of eating dietary fat are linked to unsaturated fats, does that mean that the other two are bad for you?

Most research points to trans fats being decidedly bad for you. Eating large amounts of trans fats increases the value of harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood, while also decreasing the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Saturated fats have also been linked to increased LDL cholesterol, but they lie somewhere in between trans- and unsaturated fats. As long as you try to make unsaturated sources the main star of your fat intake, you'll be well on your way to reaping the full range of benefits fats have to offer you without putting yourself in harm's way.

Most foods contain a mix of the different types of fats, so to make it easier to know what to reach for next time you're food shopping, here is an overview of the best sources of unsaturated fats:

  • Virgin Olive oil and Cold pressed Rapeseed oil
  • Fish - anchovies, salmon,
  • Seeds - Chia, Flaxseed, Hemp 
  • Nuts - almonds, peanuts, walnuts

So how do I get my fats without harming the environment?

We've already covered agriculture in step 3, the primary source of foods rich in saturated fats, and the effect it has on the environment, so let's focus on essential fatty acids found in polyunsaturated fats, and how to get enough of them without harming the environment.

Let's quickly break down the different kinds of Omega 3 acids to understand better what we're working with:

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid): hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, avocadoes, walnuts
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid): fish, seafood, roe, and algae

Fish oil is the best source of EPA and DHA, but to protect fish species and the oceans' ecosystems, making sure you are getting seafood from certified sustainable sources is essential. What constitutes a sustainable seafood choice is not black and white: in some cases, farmed fish is a better choice for the fish in question, and in other instances, wild fishing has a lower impact on the environment.

To give you peace of mind, it can be a good idea to look up the type of fish you are interested in eating on an online database or making sure you are eating certified sustainable fish. This will ensure that the sources you get your fish from are taking the environment into account.

If you want to go entirely plant-based, there are alternatives to seafood. The land-based ALA omega 3 sources are very nutritious foods. Still, they do not carry the same omega 3 punch as marine sources, as ALA is converted to EPA and DHA in the body, and lower amounts become bioavailable than if you ate EPA and DHA directly. Now, this is where algae oil becomes an interesting player for vegans. Algae is what fish themselves eat to obtain their omega 3 content, and one study has shown algal oil capsules to be nutritionally similar to cooked salmon and work the same way as fish oil in your body. This is excellent news, as large volumes of algae can be grown very effectively in a short amount of time, without harming the ecosystems in our seas.

Recipe 

Pink lady salmon fishcakes

Amount

Enough for 2 as part of the main meal.

Preparation time

18-20 minutes.

How to use

Eat them for dinner or add them to a packed lunch box. You can use other kinds of fish than salmon. If you use white fish that is not fatty, then add 1-2 tbs of extra virgin olive oil to prevent them from being too dry. And if you are intolerant or allergic to oats, then replace them with buckwheat flakes or the like. And the beetroot can be replaced with other finely grated vegetables.

Expiry

They keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator … if you have not eaten all of them immediately after cooking them.

Kitchen gear needed

Your frying pan, a food processor, a bowl, one tablespoon. 

Ingredients

250 gr or 9 oz salmon without skin or bone

½-¾ dl or ¼-½ cup oats

2 onions or red onions, minced finely

1 clove of garlic, minced finely

1 egg

Salt

Pepper

1 large beetroot, grated finely

How to prepare

Add all the ingredients except grated beetroot into a food processor and process at high speed for a couple of minutes until you have a smooth creamy mixture.

Transfer to a bowl and gently stir the grated beetroot into the mixture.

Divide the mixture into fishcakes. Use one heaping tablespoon for each small fishcake.

Fry at high heat for 1 minute on each side and then for another 2-3 minutes on each side at medium heat, until done and tender.

Flaxseed-cinnamon sprinkles

Sprinkle this flaxseed-cinnamon mix over your yoghurt for a healthy source of fats to replace processed cereal products. There's no sugar but it's still sweet from the cinnamon and it's a powerhouse of phytochemicals. Apply liberally on your breakfast such as organic plain yoghurt or soy yoghurt, homemade müesli, oatmeal or a homemade smoothie.

Also, try using this as a sort of “dip” for fruits. Place in a bowl and serve with chunks of apples, pears, pineapple, watermelon or banana slices. Dip each piece of fruit in the mixture before eating. Yum!

Amount

Depends on how much you put in your blender or food processor.

Preparation time

5 minutes

How to use

You can also try mixing in other seeds such as sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds or even nuts and almonds. Other spices can also be added. Try some of the spices usually used for desserts, such as ground nutmeg, ground cardamom, vanilla or ground cloves.

Expiry

The mixture will keep up to 7 days in a covered jar kept in the refrigerator.

 

Kitchen gear needed

A powerful blender, food processor or an electric coffee mill for grinding the flaxseeds.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons of whole flaxseed

3 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

How to prepare

Place flaxseed and cinnamon in a powerful blender or food processor and process until the flaxseed is completely pulverized and you have uniform velvety powder.