Science of Food: The facts about fats

Lisa Julian, Ph.D.
Science of Food
Cholesterol is a type of fat, used to build cells and certain hormones.
Courtesy iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Facts about fats workshop

Workshop: Facts about fats: A perspective on the role of common dietary fats that either promotes or prevents chronic disease with Dr. Lisa Julian

When: Thursday Oct. 29 5:30-7 p.m.

Cost: $20. Reservations required. Call 970-401-2071.

For more information visit:

We have all been told that eating fat is bad. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, everything in the markets seemed to be either “low-fat” this or “fat-free” that, and I and my family, as unknowing consumers, succumbed to the propaganda. In fear of the dietary fat causing not only excess body fat and weight gain, but also due to the supposed connection between a high-fat diet and coronary heart disease, fat was demonized and stripped from foods.

The primary push for fat’s bad reputation likely was Time magazine’s now highly-controversial articles published in 1961 and 1984, proposing the connection that a high-fat diet could be linked to heart disease, and so the “lipid hypothesis” was born. But this hypothesis is wrong. And, in 2001, even prominent Harvard scientists agree, “it is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.”


There are different kinds of fats that are essential to our health, and, by the word fat, I mean a long chain of carbon atoms bound together that makes up its greasy, oily property. Triglycerides are one type of fat that serve as an energy reserve and play a central role in the development of heart disease if present in high amounts. Cholesterol is another type of fat, used to build cells and certain hormones and is a major player in this picture that has also been condemned. Even the highly-nutritious egg has been scrutinized because of the high cholesterol content, and we have been warned not to eat too many eggs.

What we know now is that it is an imbalance of fats as well as “oxidized” fat that can be a major driver for the progression of heart disease. For example, science has studied specifically the proteins that carry cholesterol back and forth from the liver (HDL and LDL). It is the oxidized form specifically of LDL that has been implicated as a major driver for the development of atherosclerosis (the plaques that build up in arterial walls) that can cause blood clots, blockages and ultimately heart attacks.


Fatty acids are another type of important fat in our bodies that have specific functions. Literally “you are what you eat” as they build the structural components of cell membranes and brain matter and thus are integral to a healthy brain. These fats are also important signaling molecules, meaning they are involved in chemical communication between cells and play a crucial role in inflammation and signaling in cell growth (e.g. cancer) and the immune system. Dietary fats in general also aid in the absorption of important fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins, carotenoids and antioxidants that are present in foods.

The dietary forms of the fatty acids are diverse, and here is where is gets a little more complicated. There are the saturated and unsaturated fats. The unsaturated fats can be further broken down into the synthetic trans fats and the naturally occurring cis fats that differ mostly in their three-dimensional shape. It was perhaps unpredictable that this slight difference of chemical structure of a trans fat could cause such havoc in the body and were once even thought to be “a great boon to America’s arteries,” as it was a substitute for the “bad” saturated fat present in butter and beef fat that was often being used industrially. However, in light of the results from this failed human experiment, the government is now working to ban all trans fats in food products.


More recent data has provided insight on the functional roles of the naturally occurring cis “omega” fatty acids we have all been hearing about and why fish oil supplements are so popular. It is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that is crucial to our health, and, in our Western diet, high omega-6 seed oils and vegetable oils are prevalent, such as corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, soy and palm oil. Unfortunately, these high omega-6 intakes are not balanced with the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-9 fats, promoting inflammation, metabolic disorders and chronic disease inside the body.


It is essential that we eat a diet with plenty of good fats to keep the body and the brain healthy. The concept I will always promote will be to eat in a balanced way with lots of variety and to stick with whole foods over processed foods. Completely eliminate trans fats also disguised as “partially-hydrogenated oil” on food labels. Our country relies heavily on corn-based food products and cattle feed, so avoid these processed oils and corn-fed beef, chickens and their eggs. Choose grass-fed because “you are what you eat” and the above-mentioned poor-quality meat will be loaded with omega-6 and saturated fats. Eat fish like salmon regularly, and use oils like olive, walnut, flaxseed or other high omega-3 oils for everyday cooking at home. Coconut oil is also a good alternative to refined seed oils, but don’t load up on it too much as it is high in saturated fat. Balance is always key.

To achieve a healthy body, the mind must also be involved. “Free radicals” and oxidation in the body is caused by stress and can trigger a heart attack or even the onset of cancer. I cannot underestimate the importance of lowering stress through regular movement and exercise, mindfulness practices and a balanced lifestyle. By using a holistic approach to bring awareness to our daily habits, the foods we eat and our overall mental well being, and by knowing these facts about fats, I hope we’ll begin to see a shift toward achieving the correct balance.

Lisa Julian, Ph.D, has a passion for organic chemistry the “molecules of life” and its application to food and health. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or

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