Saturated fats are found principally in animal products, but also in coconut and palm oils. The term saturated means that all of the carbon atoms in the long chains of these fats, often described as the carbon backbone, are connected to each other with single bonds.
When the carbon chains of these fats have all the hydrogen atoms they can hold, they are said to be saturated with hydrogen. These fats have high melting points and so are typically solid or nearly solid at room temperature (except for coconut and palm oils). This is critical to understanding the saturated fat MS connection.
If one double bond is present between any two carbon atoms in a fat, that fat is monounsaturated. A typical example is oleic acid in olive oil. These fats have lower melting points and so are liquid at room temperature, but will solidify a little or go cloudy in the fridge. Monounsaturated fats are sometimes called omega-9 fats because the only double bond present in the backbone is at the ninth carbon from the omega end.
If more than one double bond is present, the fat is polyunsaturated. These fats have the lowest melting points and are liquid at room temperature and in the fridge. Many of these polyunsaturated fatty acids are what we call essential fatty acids. That is, they are essential for normal bodily function, but cannot be manufactured in the body. They must be consumed through diet, and can be thought of in the same way as vitamins.
There are two principal types of polyunsaturated fats:
- Those with the first double bond at the third carbon from the omega end of the chain, known as omega-3 or n-3 fatty acids, are typified by fish oil and flaxseed oil
- Those with the first double bond at the sixth carbon from the omega end, that is, omega-6 or n-6 fatty acids, are typified by all the familiar cooking oils, namely sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, and so on. Note: These polyunsaturated ‘cooking’ oils are very poor foods and should be avoided altogether in cooking
You are what you eat
We now know that the melting points of these fats determine their stickiness and flexibility when they are incorporated into cell membranes. A membrane made up of fats surrounds each cell. Our cells are not static; they are constantly being remade. Depending on where they are, they may be remade rapidly, as in the gut or skin, or slowly, as in bone or cartilage. But the fats that make up the outer layers of these cells come from the foods consumed when the cells are being remade.
If the fats in the diet are mainly saturated, then the cell membranes will be hard and inflexible and tend to stick together. This one fact is at the heart of the current epidemic in Western countries of diseases caused by cells that stick together. Diseases due to clots – like heart attacks, strokes, and deep venous thrombosis – are all caused by this increased stickiness. Tissues and organs made up of these hard and inflexible cells become hard and inflexible.
So the big blood vessels coming out of the heart, for instance, become very rigid, in a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. When the heart pumps out blood, the pressure rises much higher than if the arteries were soft and flexible. Hence high blood pressure (hypertension) results. If polyunsaturated fats were the main fats in the diet, the tissues would be soft and pliable, therefore less likely to clot or cause high blood pressure.
Hard cells are also more prone to degeneration, which is now known to be a key part of the development and progression of MS.
Immune system chemicals
The saturated fat MS connection is about more than just melting points. Fats form the basic building blocks of immune system chemicals.
- A diet high in monounsaturated fats is neutral for the immune system
- A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids yields chemicals that suppress inflammation
- A diet high in omega-6 fatty acids results in chemicals that promote inflammation
- A diet high in saturated fats dramatically promotes inflammation
Obviously, this is important in a disease like MS, where inflammation is at the heart of the disease process.
Trans-fatty acids and other altered fats
Evidence suggests that while saturated fat is harmful for people with MS, it is also extremely important to avoid altered fats; i.e., human-refined and human-made fats.
Making a mess of oil
Refining basically turns fragrant nut or seed oil extracts into tasteless, odorless oils that don’t really resemble the original food. Typically this begins with mechanical pressing, which can generate temperatures up to 203 degrees Fahrenheit (95 Celsius). The nuts or seeds are cooked for around two hours at high temperature, and then the pulp is mashed and the oil filtered out.
Most oils are then subjected to solvent extraction, in which the oil is treated with powerful acids and alkalis, deodorized and bleached, and sold as pure vegetable oil. By now it is full of trans-fatty acids, cyclic compounds, dimers and polymers not found in nature.
Until this century, these trans-fatty acids did not exist in our diets. They are the result of major food-processing practices that have transformed the way most people eat. It is likely that MS did not exist either until fairly recently. Most authorities believe the first case of MS ever described was that of Augustus d’Este in the first half of the 19th century.
In manufacturing new fats, commercial processes heat unsaturated fats to high temperatures in the presence of certain metallic catalysts. These convert liquid oils into semi-solid fats, either to alter their spreadability or to prolong shelf life so they can be used in products like biscuits and shortening. These altered fats are known as hydrogenated fats and trans-fatty acids.
Range of harmful effects
Trans-fatty acids are like mirror images of the original fats, but unlike the originals, they are hard, have higher melting points, and they stick together. As little as 5g a day of trans-fatty acids increases the risk of heart disease by 25%. They are likely to have similar effects on other degenerative diseases. The effects of all these altered fats in the body are quite unpredictable, although we know they are extremely harmful.
Trans-fatty acids are involved in a wide range of Western diseases such as cancer, heart disease and immune dysfunction. They make cell membranes even more rigid and dysfunctional than saturated fats and are to be avoided at all costs. This means margarine is out, and so are pies, biscuits, and particularly fast foods, like French fries and so on.
It is important to look carefully at labels. Avoid products that contain ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.’ Indeed, ‘vegetable oils’ should be avoided, as they are likely to contain the cheaper saturated vegetable oils like coconut and palm oils.
Trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated vegetable oils are worse than saturated fats, yet many manufacturers try to pass them off as healthy vegetable oils. Trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated vegetable oils are bad for us in many ways:
- The manufacturing process reduces the good omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
- They also damage arteries, because of their effects on cholesterol
- They compete with the essential fatty acids for inclusion in cell membranes and in making the eicosanoid chemical messengers
Membranes containing trans-fatty acids are like those made of saturated fats; they are even more rigid and less pliable. The US Food and Drug Administration says there is no safe level of consumption of trans-fatty acids.
MS cooking and oils
In an MS-friendly diet, avoid frying. If absolutely necessary, a small amount of extra virgin olive oil may be used. The omega-3 and omega-6 oils are too unstable to cook with, particularly flaxseed oil, so they should never be used in cooking, but especially not in MS-friendly cooking.
The heating of oils causes oxidation and conversion to fat breakdown products, which are harmful to health. Avoid so-called ‘cooking oils’ altogether. As noted above, these are refined, bleached, deodorized, heated and generally tampered with, so they bear little resemblance to the original food.
The only freely available oil that can be used as an all-purpose oil is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). It has a distinctive flavor, lasts for ages, and is money well spent.
It is called ‘extra virgin’ because it is made from the first cold pressing of the olives and is not subjected to the refining processes described above.
Virgin olive oil is made from later pressings, and regular olive oil is refined oil – thus no better than other vegetable oils.
EVOO is relatively stable, but avoid cooking with it, because all oil degenerates with heat.
Substitution is important in cooking for MS. By substituting olive oil for butter and margarine, by using only egg whites and employing soy milk instead of cow’s milk, it is possible to make a range of delicious cakes and desserts that contain very little saturated fat.
The moistness in cakes can often be achieved by substituting fruit juice for oil. It is sensible to use only a small amount, but if possible, avoid oils altogether in cooking. Baking is better than frying because it doesn’t heat the oil to a temperature where unstable frying breakdown products are formed. These are very harmful once incorporated into cells in the body.
It’s true that the OMS program focuses on omega-3s, but neither they nor omega-6s should be used for cooking. For instance, sesame oil, an omega-6, is wonderfully fragrant and can give an Asian dish a superb aroma and taste. We recommend drizzling it over a cooked dish rather than using it in the cooking process. Some people prefer to take their flaxseed oil supplements this way.
Oils should be stored in the fridge, where they will last longer. All contain some saturated fat, and this is probably the main reason not to use too much of them.