We’ve been told for years that saturated fats are bad for us. Yet, Ayurveda has a high regard for coconut oil, ghee and other dairy products, which are all high in saturated fat.

So, there seems to be some discrepancy between modern dietary theory about fats and that of Ayurvedic experts.

Before we go into why some oils or fats are considered good for us, and some bad, let’s first look the role of oils and fats in our diet.

Our body is full of fat

Fat tissue is an important component of every body cell and we need to regularly consume new supplies of fat.

  • We need dietary fat to build our cells and tissues and also manufacture various biochemicals, such as hormones.
  • Vegetable oils and animal fats help our body create fat tissue. This tissue is called Medha in Ayurveda.
  • Fat tissue gives padding and protection to our bones and internal organs. It also insulates the body to prevent heat loss.
  • Fats, proteins and carbohydrates are our basic sources of physical energy; and out of these three, fats have more than double the energy potential of either proteins or carbohydrates.
  • Fat tissue keeps our skin from drying up and ageing, and it keeps our hair full-bodied and supple.
  • Every cell is surrounded by a protective membrane that holds the cell components together, and fat is the main ingredient in this membrane.
  • Fats play a key role in the absorbtion of certain essential nutrients.

While it’s clear that we need a regular supply of fats in our diet, will any kind of fat do? Are all oils equally useful for our body?

Not all oils are created equal

One way of classifying fats from both animal and vegetable sources, is by determining how much saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids they contain. This classification depends on the proportion of hydrogen to carbon atoms in a fatty acid molecule (one of the building blocks of fat).

Almost all vegetable oils (apart from palm and coconut oils) are liquid at room temperature and these liquid forms of oil have a lower proportion of hydrogen to carbon. The more solid oils (palm and coconut oils, and all animal fats) have a higher proportion of hydrogen to carbon.

All vegetable and animal fats are composed of a mixture of different fatty acids. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat, but it has a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. Lard has an equal proportion of saturated fat to monounsaturated fat, but it also contains some polyunsaturated fat.

Apart from palm, coconut, and olive oils, vegetable oils tend to be high in polyunsaturated fats. Most animal fats are higher in saturated and monounsaturated fats.

Because the fats that make up our body are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, we require more of them than polyunsaturated fats. And is so happens to be, saturated and monounsaturated fats are more easy to assimilated.

Yest, over the last few decades we’ve been told that saturated fats are major ‘baddies’ in our diet and are particularly bad for our heart. We’ve been told to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fats, such as coconut oil, meat, eggs, and dairy products. Meanwhile, the food industry has made lots of revenue by creating a new food category called ‘low fat’.

What fats did our great grandparents consume?

What fats people did people eat a hundred years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century ‘low fat’ was an unknown concept. People’s major fat intake was from dairy products or meat. Yet, at that time, fewer than one in a hundred Europeans and Americans were obese and coronary heart disease was a rare occurance.

Is it the case that our forebears ated less saturated fat than we do now? This is hughly unlikely. Or is it the case that, since those times the type of fats we have been presented with has become increasingly artificial and adulterated.

Crisco vegetable shortening vs lard

In 1911, Procter and Gamble started marketing an animal fat substitute called Crisco as a new kind of food. Originally used to make candles and soap, Crisco was promoted as a ‘healthier’ alternative to lard.

A prolonged series of marketing campaigns gradually converted American housewives from lard to Crisco, as their cooking fat of choice. At the same time Crisco, and many similar products (collectively called shortening), increasingly found their way into processed foods all over the western world, including the UK. Crisco was the first of many such animal fat substitutes, the main ingredient of which is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, or trans fatty acids. These products were originally created from cottonseed oil and more recently from soybean oil. The cheapness of these oils was the main reason for their use and big profits were made.

How fatty are your acids?

The margarine concept was first patented in 1869 and the original commercial product was mostly composed of beef fat. Later on, and mostly for cost reasons, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were used in the margarine production. Hydrogenation involves passing hydrogen through oil in the presence of a metal catalyst. This increases the melting point of the oil and “hardens” it. When oils are partially hardened into what is known as partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are produced.