What’s worse for your health than processed white flour, refined sugar, or high fructose corn syrup?
You might be surprised.
Let’s have a little look at our food supply in recent history, shall we? At the turn of the last century, corn and soybeans were fast becoming the largest crop grown in the US. When they started becoming by far the cheapest crops we were growing, thanks to government subsidies, marketing geniuses in the booming ag industry thought of a great plan.
This whole movement toward the use of polyunsaturated fats, instead of saturated fats, culminated a few decades later with the advent of the lipid hypothesis — the fraudulent claim made by one really terrible scientist that told everyone saturated fat and cholesterol were the cause of heart disease.
We all know how that’s played out.
Saturated fat is still demonized to this day, while consumption of unsaturated fats, especially PUFA’s, are encouraged by practitioners of mainstream medicine. And of course, we have more heart disease than ever.
What are PUFA’s?
PUFA stands for Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acid. In chemical terms, that means that the fatty acid has more than one (poly) double bond in the carbon chain. They’re unsaturated because they’re missing out on what saturated fatty acid has — hydrogen atoms. That makes the bonds sort of incomplete, in a sense. So, imagine a chain of links that are sort of missing a joint or two, on each and every link — it wouldn’t be very strong or stable. Because of this instability, polyunsaturated fatty acids are very much prone to oxidation, which is basically getting their chain all kinds of messed up and broken, and causes problems with how your body reacts to the acid.
Um. Enough chemistry.
It’s really pretty simple. Because of their instability, and the negative effects on the body’s systems these oils have in excess, PUFA is bad. Saturated is rad!
Omega-3 and Omega-6
There are two main types of PUFA’s — omega-3 and omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are found in fatty fish, shellfish, liver, and in some seeds like flax. They’re good for us in moderate amounts.
Much, much more prevalent however, are PUFA’s in the form of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-6 PUFA occurs naturally in small quantities in natural foods like seeds, nuts, legumes, and also in properly-raised animal products. (Except, we tend to raise animals amid poop-filled lagoons these days where they are fed the same crap that most people eat — a steady diet of PUFA-rich food which they can’t digest and makes them sick.)
The biggest problem with this omega-6 stuff is that our bodies just aren’t meant to handle much of it. Our fat cells are comprised of very, very little omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are instead are made up of mostly saturated and monounsaturated fat. So when we start consuming the oils from these foods in concentrated form, instead of eating moderate amounts of the actual foods they came from, we wind up with a serious imbalance, and the various health problems that result.
Let me put it this way. When was the last time you sat down and ate a big bowlful of cotton seeds? What’s that?? Never!? Well, thanks to modern technologies of the food processing industry, cottonseed oil has become a common food, that you’ve more than likely consumed in disgusting quantities, right along with soybean oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, corn oil, safflower seed oil, sunflower seed oil, and aaaall kinds of these concentrated forms of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Why is Polyunsaturated Fat So Bad?
If you google “polyunsaturated fat,” you’re soon bombarded with the “facts” from mainstream medical sites advocating the use of PUFA over that dastardly artery-clogging saturated fat we’re all told to shun from our diet. But, those of us who’ve been educated from sources other than those profiting off of the food and medical industries understand that’s a big load of Metamucil’ed crap. They are onto something, though. Not all fats are healthy. So what makes polyunsaturated fat so inferior to saturated? There’s more to it than you might think.
DNA-Disrupting Inflammation and Free Radical Damage
The most widely-recognized danger of PUFA oils is the inflammation in the body caused by consuming it in excess. Lots of foods are somewhat inflammatory. And, that’s okay. A little inflammation actually keeps things like your immune system running smoothly. But when taken to the extreme, inflammation isn’t so helpful. High levels of inflammation have been linked to all sorts of serious issues, like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Excessive inflammation in the body from PUFAs happens because of the presence of free radicals formed in the processing of the industrial oils (like vegetable and canola), which renders them rancid. Free radicals are atoms with an unpaired electron floating around, which causes them to basically go nuts. These compounds attack cell membranes and red blood cells, and they even cause damage to DNA and RNA strands, leading to cellular mutations in the body’s tissues. In skin, it causes wrinkles and premature aging. In blood vessels, the buildup of plaque. In tissues and organs, it can set the stage for tumors to form. I think you get the picture. Free radicals are bad, bad news, and they’re ever-present in industrial PUFA oils.
Processing PUFA Oils from Corn, Seeds, and Soy
Free-radical forming oxidation of the PUFA happens when it is exposed to heat, light, or oxygen. Kinda hard to avoid that when you’re cooking with these fragile oils.
But before they ever touch a frying pan or a Frito-Lay factory, the PUFA oils are oxidized to oblivion just by the process used to manufacture them. As you might imagine, it’s pretty difficult to make oil out of things like seeds. People have been making oil from olives for thousands upon thousands of years, because it’s pretty easy — you squeeze it. Oil comes out. Squeeze a genetically-modified rapeseed and, well, you’re still pretty oil-less.
Factory-processed PUFA oils are created through measures of high heat and extreme pressure, exposing the oil to all sorts of oxidative damage, polished off with a good dumping of chemical solvents to get every last bit of that profit-producing oil out of the seeds, or corn, or soy. Some of the chemical (usually hexane) remains, and yet another chemical is added to deodorize the rancid PUFA oil’s stench. In that process, the small amount of omega-3 present in oils like canola, actually transforms into trans fatty acid. And finally, carcinogenic BHT and BTA are added as chemical preservatives, since any naturally-occurring preservative substances, such as antioxidant vitamin E which were once naturally found in the food, have been thoroughly killed off in processing. Yummy!
PUFA and Your Metabolism
PUFA oils have an absolutely devastating effect on the body’s metabolism. That’s because PUFA’s directly interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland, and also how well the thyroid hormones are able to be utilized, or metabolized, by the body. This type of interference with thyroid functioning is a major cause for a sluggish metabolism in the body.
Oh and remember that pesky inflammation PUFAs tend to cause? Well, that leads to a big rise in the counter-inflammatory stress hormones of cortisol (the “belly fat” hormone) and a weird thing called Suppressor of Cytokine Signaling (SOCS-3). That’s because those hormones come out to play when they start seeing things like Interleukin-6, which although it sounds more like the name of a sci-fi starship commander, is an example of an inflammatory molecule which are known to rise in direct proportion to the presence of omega-6 PUFAs in the diet. The stress hormones released as a result are a big, big deal. Why? Matt Stone of 180DegreeHealth explains:
It‘s significant because of all the factors that have been studied when trying to determine what causes leptin resistance (the hormonal state that makes your body think it‘s starving, keeping your metabolism subdued and continuing to try to store fat even if you have way more than enough already), the closest ties are to these counter-inflammatory substances.
So fat IS making us fat after all! Polyunsaturated fat, that is! You can learn a whoooole lot more about all this, and how to get your metabolism to a nice, healthy, fat-burning state in the book, Diet Recovery, which I highly recommend.
Modern PUFA, Modern Diseases
I’m fast becoming an avid collector of vintage and antique cookbooks. I have a couple that date back as far as the late 1800s. You know how everyone is constantly pointing to processed white flour and refined sugar as the be-all-end-all reason to why we’re all so fat and unhealthy in our modern age?
That’s a little weird to me, because cookbooks from the 1800’s still have white flour and white sugar in their recipes. Plenty of it.
People in the 1800’s did not have diabetes and heart disease like we do today. And they were eating white flour and sugar!
But you know what they weren’t consuming?
You won’t find any vegetable oil, shortening, or any major sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids in any of the recipes in those antique cookbooks. They were still using lard, butter, and other animal fats back then that came from farms, not factories.
The advent of industrial polyunsaturated fats in our diet is, without question, the single most prevalent change to our diet in recent history. We’re eating about the same amount of carbohydrates, about the same amount of protein, about the same amount of saturated fat, but over two-and-a-half times the amountof polyunsaturated fat, and climbing.
Oh and, wanna know another fun little factoid about how badly the consumption of these PUFA oils have affected us? Polyunsaturated fats actually accumulate in your cells and can be passed on from generation to generation. So, for over a century now, we’ve been experiencing the cumulative effects of all that excess PUFA on every cell of our bodies — inflammation, thyroid disfunction, leptin resistance and all. Thanks so much for switching to Crisco, Grandma! It takes years and years to flush out PUFA from your system, even if you cut your consumption of it right away.
Sources of PUFA: The Worst Offenders
Where they are, and what you need to avoid.
Hydrogenated PUFA in Processed Food Products
PUFA oils in their absolute worst form are those which have been fully or partially hydrogenated. This is a chemical process the factories use to make the oil solidify at room temperature, and make it much more shelf-stable. They start by adding tiny particles of toxic heavy metals which bond to the fat before it’s subjected to a highly pressurized hydrogen gas reactor. Soap-like emulsifiers and starches are squirted in there to give it the right consistency, before the solidified oil is steamed at extreme temperatures to clean out some of the weird taste. Then, the hydrogenated fat is bleached, dyed, and artificially flavored to make it resemble something edible. Oh, and they can still legally call this stuff, “All Natural!”
Another name for hydrogenated polyunsaturated fatty acids is trans fats. Bet you’ve heard of that one. The rumors are true — trans fats do contribute to heart disease and other major chronic health problems.
You’ll find hydrogenated polyunsaturated trans fats in just about any processed food, from cake mixes to granola bars, breakfast cereals to fast food fries, crackers, cookies, popcorn, you name it. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to make a habit of looking for hydrogenated PUFA fats on the label, before you indulge on your favorite processed goodies from time to time.
Industrial PUFA Oils in Processed Foods
Look for these industrial oils on the label of just about any processed food, and you’re sure to find them.
Here’s their omega-6 content by percentage of total calories. Keep in mind that we’re aiming for no more than about 4% of total calories in our diet to come from PUFAs.
- Corn oil: 54.5% Omega-6 PUFA
- Sunflower oil: 68%
- Vegetable oil (Look at the ingredients, there’s only one: soybean oil.): 51.4%
- Cottonseed oil: 52.4%
- Canola: 19.0% (and the omega-3’s present are transformed to trans fats from the factory processing)
Fake Versions of Animal Fats
Would you like some hydrogenated trans fat with your PUFA? Sign me up!
- Tub margarine (yes, that would be your favorite “heart-healthy” buttery spread): 33% PUFA, 4.3% trans fat
- Stick margarine: 21.4% PUFA, 26.7% trans fat
- Vegetable shortening: 23.7% PUFA, 12.2% trans fat
PUFA in “Healthy” Cooking Oils You’re Being Told to Use at Home
Also found in processed foods, but these are the oils that are praised as being so much “healthier” than saturated-based fats. Yeah, not so.
- Grapeseed oil: 70.6% Omega-6 PUFA (can I get a “holy-freaking-CRAP!?“)
- Walnut oil: 53.9%
- Sesame oil: 42%
- Peanut oil: 33.4%
- Canola: 19% (never mind the fact that it’s GMO)
- Olive: 9.9% (totally fine in moderate amounts, but the PUFA content is why it’s not the best choice for cooking due to oxidation)
PUFA in Actually Healthy Cooking Fats You Should Use at Home
Fats that are mostly saturated are what we really want to be using. Here’s how low these traditional fats are in omega-6 PUFAs:
- Butter: 3.4% omega-6 (find grass-fed clarified butter here)
- Beef Tallow: 3.1% omega-6
- Coconut oil: 1.9% omega-6 (find quality coconut oil here)
Factory-farmed Meat, Eggs, and Animal Products
You’re eating a nice burger for dinner, but what did the cow that your burger came from eat? Probably, a whole lot of nasty PUFAs in the form of soy, corn, and seed-based animal feed.
Factory-farmed, or CAFO meat and animal products are loaded with omega-6 PUFA. Here’s why:
What Should We Eat Instead?
To put it simply, we should be eating mostly real, natural food. By only using those actually healthy cooking fats which are mostly saturated, instead of liquid cooking oils, minimizing processed foods, and eating grass-fed animal products instead of factory-farmed, you’re pretty much covered in cutting out toxic levels of PUFA in your diet.
Does the ratio matter?
Some say that it’s not so much that PUFAs are the problem, but more the ratio of the different kinds, omega-6 and omega-3, in the foods you eat. You want to maintain a ratio of from 1:1 to 3:1. So, eating foods and supplements rich in omega-3’s can help boost that ratio in your diet.
But, for the purposes of sustaining a healthy metabolism, you should ideally be keeping your consumption of all PUFA to the minimum that you actually need. If you’re eating plenty of grass-fed animal products, decent amounts of seafood, and ideally some organ meats thrown in there, you probably don’t need to go out of your way trying to incorporate extra omega-3’s into your diet. You only need a little, and those foods will provide it, with a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. I don’t believe in supplementing with fish oils for omega-3. Sure, it’ll improve your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA, but it’s a much better idea to just cut out the foods which are high in omega-6 PUFA, eat natural foods which have an appropriate ratio, and leave it at that.
Do you avoid polyunsaturated fat in your diet?
Why do you think it’s important? Share in the comments below!
Nutrient Content of the U.S. Food Supply, 1909-2000, USDA
“The Skinny on Fats,” Dr. Mary Enig, PhD, Sally Fallon
PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog, including Amazon.com links. I only recommend products I genuinely love, and that I believe would be of value to my readers. Thank you for your support!
MEDICAL DISCLOSURE: Your health is between you and your health care practitioner. Nothing in this blog is intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations is at the choice and risk of the reader.