Fats, carbs and protein are the three macro nutritional categories for food. These three basic categories are what make up the calories or energy in our food. Two of these categories are essential, meaning that we must have them in our diet to survive—the two we must have are fat and protein. Protein is made up of amino acids and we need those to make up the proteins in our bodies. There are 21 essential amino acids that are used to make up the proteins in our bodies. We cannot make these amino acids, so we must get them in our diets. The same is true for some fats—we must get them in our diet. Recent dietary recommendations have even suggested removing dietary recommendations on total fat in our diet.
Fat is a very simple word for a very complex group of molecules. Most people do not realize that there are certain fats, called essential fatty acids or EFAs that we must get in our diet. These EFAs are poly-unsaturated fats usually referred to as omega-6 and omega-3. Both omega-6 and omega-3 are essential, but we need to have them in equal quantities in our cells. High ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 are associated with many of the health problems we have in the US. It is hard to avoid high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 given the typical food choices we have in America or in so called Western diets.
There are other fats which, even if they are not essential, they are beneficial. Some of these non-essential fats are fats that our body can make—like cholesterol or oleic acid. Oleic acid is a mono-unsaturated fat found in nuts, olive oil and even in real butter. Oleic acid is considered a beneficial fat and is found in nuts, olive oil and avocados; however these foods also come with high levels of omega-6 and can raise our omega-6/3 ratio if we eat them too often. Too much cholesterol is harmful, but our bodies will still make it even if we already have too much if we overeat. Our bodies can use any fat for energy, but there are some fats that can be processed as ketones and do not produce free radicals that can damage our cells, like glucose does. Medium chain triglycerides like those found in coconut oil can be processed as ketones.
Dieticians often tell us that saturated fats are bad, but not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, but most of that saturated fat is in the form of short and medium chain triglycerides that can be processed as ketones and provide energy without the damaging free radicals we get from carbs. There was a recent article I read that suggested high levels of a particular saturated fat (palmitic acid) in our cells can cause cell death. It also pointed out that the presence of oleic acid can prevent the cell death. We don’t necessarily get the high levels of palmitic acid in our cells directly from foods we eat—we also make it from carbs as a way to store fat when we eat too much.
Carbs, or carbohydrates, are the one basic category of food that is not essential. We use carbs as a basic source of energy, but we can use fats or protein for energy as well. When we eat more carbs than we burn in our activities, our body converts that excess energy to fat and stores it. Carbs come in two basic categories, sugars and starches. Starches have to be broken down into sugars to be used in our bodies. When our bodies burn sugar (as glucose or fructose) for energy, it produces free radicals that can damage our cells. Our bodies are very efficient at digesting carbs and converting them into sugars to get them into our bloodstream. Insulin then forces our cells take the sugar out of the blood. When our cells keep getting too much sugar they become resistant to insulin and we can develop diabetes!
With refined carb foods like sugar and bleached flour, we don’t get any additional benefits of vitamins and mineral we get with fruits and veggies. When we eat refined carbs, we don’t get much of anything but the calories out of the food, but most natural foods high in carbohydrates do come with at least some beneficial nutrition. So, it is best to get most of the carbs we have in our diet from fruits and veggies that provide many additional benefits like vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and even including cancer fighting compounds like those found in most cruciferous vegetables. Processed foods are often high in refined starches and oils high in omega-6 or trans- fats that are not beneficial or even harmful.
My book, the Oil Change Diet has many healthy recipes and will teach you the sources of omega-6 and omega-3 and how to balance your essential fats.