If you’ve spent any time scrolling my recipe pages, you’ve likely noticed a theme; fats are everywhere. But believe it or not, for most of my adolescence and early 20’s I was terrified of fat! Everything I ate was either “low-fat”, “reduced-fat” or “no fat”. But fortunately, now I know the truth. Fats are essential for brain health, hormone synthesis, blood sugar regulation, maintenance of body temperature, and they also store and carry nutrients around the body. Fats take longer than carbohydrates and protein to digest so they help keep you full longer too.
So why does fat get such a bad reputation?
Let me take you on a little history lesson. Back in 1969, President Eisenhower died suddenly from a heart attack, leaving his people anxious about the fate of their country and desperate for answers. One scientist made a very linear correlation, stating that President Eisenhower ate a diet high in fat, therefore fat causes heart disease, so, if you eat a diet high in fat you will have a heart attack and die. Pretty wild, right? In reality, these facts couldn’t be further from the truth. You’d be surprised to learn that there has never been a study linking saturated fats to heart disease. Yet, fifty years later and this is still one of the biggest scams in medical history. It has become so ingrained into health and medical communities that no one dares question it. Until now, that is.
Let’s dive into the different types of fats and learn the true benefits of each
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in animal fat, butter, or tropical oils, such as coconut oil. A few key functions include:
- energy production
- serve as building blocks for hormones
- slow the absorption of foods to maintain blood sugar balance
- heat production
- carry fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K, and E) around the body
- feed the good bacteria in our gut, and is
- a key constituent of mammalian breast milk
Saturated fats don’t seem so scary now, do they?
There is a caveat, however. If the internal environment is hostile and you consume more saturated fats than your body can use, it makes your platelets (blood-clotting cells) sticky and can lead to narrowing of the arteries. BUT, if you’re active and consume ample amounts of inflammation-busting essential fats, then you can consume saturated fats in moderation without fear.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)
Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and solid when refrigerated. While they are best known for their cardio-protective features, they also help keep arteries and skin supple, quell inflammation, and support a healthy metabolism. Examples of MUFAs include olive oil, olives, sesame oil, nuts, legumes, soybeans, and avocados,
Canola oil is also a MUFA, however, it should be avoided when possible. It is made from the genetically modified rapeseed plant and has high amounts of erucic acid, a dangerous, naturally occurring contaminant found in some vegetable oils. Canola oil has zero nutritional benefits and also goes rancid easily. In fact, it’s banned in baby formula!
** pro-tip: swap out canola oil for olive oil and you’ll be doing your body a huge favor.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and while refrigerated. They are essential because the body cannot make them, meaning we have to get them from food. PUFAs are required for proper cell functioning and also have important implications in brain function, adrenal health, cell membrane protection, and if you recall, they are important in balancing saturated fat intake.
PUFAs are classified by their structure, you may be familiar, with Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Ideally, you want to strive for an Omega-6 to Omega-3, 1: 1, or 1: 2.5 ratio.
Omega-6’s are found in plenty of whole foods, such as nuts, seeds, meat, or poultry, but are most notably found in vegetable oils.
And although they are ‘essential’ and have many wonderful health benefits, when consumed in excess they have inflammatory effects on the body. Interestingly, the standard US diet has a ratio closer to 40:1. Ouch. That’s a lot of inflammation.
So where did we go wrong?
As a whole, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of processed foods, and thus Omega-6’s. To extend the shelf life of these foods, they are laced with inflammatory, hydrogenated oils, such as soybean, sunflower, safflower, or canola. Studies show that consumption of soybean oil in the United States increased by more than a thousand-fold throughout the last century. When we have too many omega-6s compared to omega-3s it becomes problematic and counterproductive.
Omega-3s, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory and are found in:
- Flax, chia, hemp, and their oils
- Wild-caught salmon
- Walnut + pumpkin seeds
- Grass-fed beef
- Pastured eggs
** Fun fact: The Intuit, whose diet consists of mainly animal blubber, has a 1:2.5 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3’s. The Inuit also have the lowest rates of heart disease worldwide. Chew on that for a minute.
Trans fat “the bad fat”
Trans fat (like canola oil) has zero health benefits. They are artificially manufactured during the hydrogenation of oils as referenced above. During the hydrogenation process, a polyunsaturated fat is altered under pressure to change its chemical structure and become more rigid. This rigidity is hard to clear from the body and causes damage on many levels.
- makes the blood hard and sticky,
- increases thickening of arterial walls,
- increases inflammation,
- increases the toxin load, and
- disrupts the body’s ability to use those anti-inflammatory, essential fats.
Bottom line, no trans fat, ever.
And last, but not least, cholesterol, is another one of my favorite medical fallacies. News flash, cholesterol is essential for good health! It’s present in every one of your cells and is also found in human breastmilk as it’s required for proper brain and nervous system development.
Other essential functions include:
- a precursor to sex and steroid hormones
- helps the body make Vitamin D
- a requirement for proper serotonin function
- maintains the intestinal wall barrier in preventing leaky gut, and
- heals and protects the skin
A recent study in the elderly shows that those who have the highest levels of cholesterol may have as much as a 70% risk reduction in dementia. So go ahead, eat your eggs and butter!
Eating increased amounts of cholesterol does not necessarily lead to heart disease (as we were led to believe with President Eisenhower). Good sources of cholesterol are found in animal sources, whereas it can also be obtained through a diet high in calories or refined carbohydrates. Under normal conditions, the amount of cholesterol is regulated without any issues. It only becomes problematic when there is not enough fiber to bind and remove excess cholesterol, the diet is lacking in essential fats, or the diet is high in calories and refined carbohydrates.
I hope this post helps clear the confusion about fats, which are good, and which are not so good. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so making an informed decision is very challenging.
- Saturated fats are good for you and are ok in moderation if you are active and consume ample Omega-3 essential fatty acids.
- Eat unrefined, unprocessed good fats
- Consume Omega-3’s to your heart’s delight
- Eat less or eliminate seed oils (sunflower, safflower, and canola)
- Eliminate trans fat!
- Obtain cholesterol from whole food sources
Here are a few of my favorite fat-dense recipes.
How has this article changed your perception of fats? Are you willing to be a fat-lover too?