I was a teenager in the late 80s and young adult in the early 90s and remember the low fat craze at that time, and the messaging that eating fat is what can make you fat, can contribute to high cholesterol and ultimately cause heart disease and death. I did everything I could to stay away from eating fat and actually had a fat counter book that listed foods and their respective content of fat grams. I mean it made sense right? Fat has 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrate, so of course eating fat is what can cause weight gain and lead to other health problems, but wow were we wrong. Unfortunately, there was a lot of flawed data, and data taken out of context, used to back up those claims. Big business stepped in and boom hello processed food world and good-bye health...
So, when people stopped eating fat, what did they eat? A lot of sugar and a lot of unhealthy, highly processed man-made fats. Speaking from my own experience, I spent the majority of my adult life eating low, low fat foods like: salads with no dressing, baked potatoes with nothing on them, bread with no butter, baked potato chips, cereal with non-fat milk, and highly processed snack foods like Snackwells and low-fat Entenmann's (remember those - yikes). I had no awareness that healthy fats are critical for our bodies and brains and that not all fats are equal. Our ancestors did not have access to all of the processed foods that we do now, so our bodies evolved eating fat from whole food sources, including saturated fat! Thankfully, more and more research is coming out about how wrong we were and this information is making it out in the mainstream media, although slowly. A good book that discusses how we got into this way of thinking is "The Big Fat Surprise" by investigative journalist, Nina Teicholz. I also like the book "Fat Chance" by Dr. Robert Lustig and "Eat Fat, Get Thin" by Dr. Mark Hyman. Now, I am passionate about nourishing my body and my brain with healthy fat, and I invite you to do the same!
Dietary Fat Overview
Why do we need healthy fat in our lives?
There are several health promoting reasons to eat fat. Healthy fats:
- Help our bodies absorb and use certain vitamins that are fat-soluble: Vitamins A, D, E and K
- Using olive oil on salads; butter/ghee with steamed veggies, etc can help us absorb those nutrients from the vegetables too.
- When we don't eat fat, how well can we absorb those important fat-soluble vitamins? Not very well! Not having all of the nutrients our bodies need is not going to allow us to live optimally and thrive.
- Make up around 60% of our brains ~ think of high fat breast milk for a baby's developing brain for example
- If we are following a low-fat diet, how would we have the building blocks for the cells in our brain? We wouldn't, and that would be a problem! According to Dr. Hyman, "Low-fat diets have been associated with dementia and higher-fat diets shown to prevent it." Is this from not getting enough fat, or because if we aren't eating fat, we could be filling that void by eating more sugar and processed foods? Perhaps both, and there are a lot of people currently researching the health benefits of high fat diets and brain health.
- Fat is needed for making myelin, which is the fatty tissue that surrounds the nerves in our brain and nervous system, and helps with the conduction of the messages throughout the nervous system.
- Are important for maintaining healthy skin and hair
- The right omega-6:3 fatty acid ratio is very important for skin health, and I would add that the fat-soluble vitamins A and E are especially important for skin health, which require fat to be absorbed by the body.
- Promote healthy cellular function and are the building blocks for our cell membranes
- Our cell membranes are made up of fat and provide structure to our cells as well as cell signaling, so if we don't eat fat or are eating unhealthy fats, our cells will not have the building blocks they need to function properly, or to make new cells. Why is this important? Cells are the basis for life.
- Are needed for hormone production
- Fat, specifically cholesterol, is the precursor to hormones like: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, etc. Think of women with very low body fat, for example, they tend to stop having their periods.
- Fat also plays a role in the regulation of when the body makes hormones.
- Promote satiety (that feeling of fullness) and healthy blood sugar regulation
- Having enough healthy fat to promote that feeling of fullness can help keep us from overeating, and can also set the stage for balanced blood sugar, which goes a long way to help with balanced energy and mood, maintaining a healthy weight, etc.
- Can be used as an energy source (which can also fuel the brain)
- Help us maintain body temperature and provides protection to our internal organs ~ think insulation!
What are the different types of fats?
Fat molecules consist of a chain of carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen atoms. Each type of fat has a different length and shape of the carbon chain, and a different number of hydrogen atoms and double bonds. Whole food sources of fat, contain a mix of the different types of fats, in different ratios. For example, coconut oil is really high in saturated fat, like over 90%, but also contains some unsaturated fat, and on the other hand, olive oil is comprised of mostly monunsaturated fat, but also contains some saturated fat. Here is a brief overview of the different types:
- Saturated Fat ~
- Has no double bonds, is solid at room temperature, and tends to be more stable than unsaturated fats
- Tends to be good for cooking
- Is used by our bodies for things like: healthy immune system function, brain and nervous system health, bone health and more
- Food sources ~ butter and ghee; coconut oil; full fat dairy; tallow, lard, duck fat, bacon grease (important to opt for organic, and, or grass-fed/pastured sources)
- Unsaturated Fat ~
- Liquid at room temperature
- Not as stable as saturated fat and can become damaged by high heat and exposure to light
- Main types ~
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA)
- Has one double bond
- Promote heart and cardiovascular health
- Food sources ~ olives, olive oil, avocados, avocado oil and most nuts
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA)
- Has 2 or more double bonds
- Used to build cell membranes and the tissue that covers the nerves
- Helps prevent heart disease and stroke
- Supports blood clotting, muscle movement and managing inflammation
- Includes the essential fatty acids (i.e., omega fatty acids), which means your body needs them, but cannot make them, so you have to get them from food; important to get the right balance of Omega-6:3 ratios
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and arthritis; found in high concentrations in the brain
- Food sources of the active forms, EPA and DHA ~ wild, cold water fish, such as: salmon, herring, sardines; grass-fed beef, lamb (as opposed to grain fed that is higher in omega-6) and eggs from pastured chickens
- Food sources of ALA, which is the plant form of omega 3 that has to be converted by the body into the active form (not everyone is efficient at making this conversion) ~ flax, chia and pumpkin seeds; walnuts; dark leafy greens
- Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Our bodies need omega-6 fatty acids too, but in the appropriate ratio with omega-3 fatty acids, as too much omega-6 can promote inflammatory pathways; important to get from whole food sources and not from industrial seed and vegetable oils that can be extremely high in omega-6 fats and throw off that ratio
- Food sources of omega-6 fatty acids ~ brazil nuts, pecans, peanuts, chicken, spirulina, evening primrose oil
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA)
- Fats to stay away from ~
- Trans Fats ~ stay away from these guys!
- Highly processed fats that are man-made to be more stable and add to the shelf life of processed foods
- Have a different shape than healthy fats found in whole foods, which can alter our cell membranes and create problems
- Linked to inflammation, which is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions
- According to Harvard Health, "Trans fats have no known health benefits and there is no safe level of consumption." Drop the mike...
- Sources (look out for hydrogenated and/or partially hydrogenated oils on food labels) ~ margarine, shortening, some commercial baked goods and fried foods
- Industrial vegetable and seed oils ~ these are actually PUFAs, but are taken out of context of the whole food and tend to not be stable, oxide easy and you should stay away from these guys too!
- Really high in omega-6 fatty acids and can throw off the balance of omega-6:3 in favor of inflammatory pathways in the body that is associated with heart disease
- Sources ~ vegetable, sunflower, cottonseed, corn and soybean oils
- Trans Fats ~ stay away from these guys!
Which foods are sources of healthy fat?
- Olives and Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Avocados and Cold Pressed Avocado Oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Coconut meat, milk and oil
- Grass-fed Butter and Ghee
- Full fat dairy
- Eggs from Pastured Chickens
- Cold water, wild fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, black cod, herring)
- Meat from pastured/grass-fed animals
- Lard, tallow, duck fat from clean sources for cooking
How much fat should we be eating?
- Each person's needs are very individual and figuring out your own needs can take some experimentation. Some people are better at burning carbohydrates for energy and some are more efficient at burning fat for energy, and there are some who are efficient at using both.
- In general, it is a good idea to include healthy fat at every meal, and aim to include a variety from clean whole food sources.
- Strive for an omega-6: omega-3 ratio of less than 5:1, and ideally nor more than 3:1 to help manage inflammation, so eating fish once or twice a week can help with those ratios, as well as not eating foods with industrial seed and vegetable oils. People who eat a Standard American Diet are around 16 or so to 1...
- If you are trying to transition from a high carbohydrate way of eating to a higher fat approach, it can take some time for your body to transition to burning fat as fuel ~ this is a topic for a whole other blog post!
Reference and Resources:
Downloadable Guide for Fats/Oils from Balanced Bites Website: http://balancedbites.com/PDFs/BOOK_EXTRAS/PracticalPaleo_GuidetoFatsOils.pdf
Hyman, Mark MD (2016). Eat Fat, Get Thin. Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group: New York, NY.
New Health Guide Website. Function of Fats in the Body. Retrieved from: http://www.newhealthguide.org/Function-Of-Fats-In-The-Body.html
Wellness Mama Website (2017). Why Saturated Fat is Not the Enemy. Retrieved from: https://wellnessmama.com/1265/saturated-fat/
Dr. Axe Website. The Benefits and Truth About Monounsaturated Fat. Retrieved from: https://draxe.com/monounsaturated-fat/
Authority Nutrition Website (2013). How to Optimize Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio. Retrieved from: https://authoritynutrition.com/optimize-omega-6-omega-3-ratio/
Harvard Health Website (2015). The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good