(Originally written for Pure Plates)
There’s a lot of buzz about fat in the media these days. And while dietary fat was never the leading cause of obesity and heart disease, this message is slowly reaching mainstream.
Fat is Not the Enemy
Since the 1970’s, we’ve been warned of the dangers of fat. We’ve been told dietary fat is what makes us fat. And saturated fat specifically clogs arteries and leads to heart attacks. However, these theories were never proven by science. In fact, according to this article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the sugar industry paid scientists to produce studies that would paint fat as the villain and shed doubt on sugar’s role in the development of heart disease.
Nevertheless, this topic is still controversial. Thus, we think it’s important to understand the key functions of fat to get a better understanding of why we need fat in our diets.
Key Functions of Fat
- Fat is required for the absorption of essential fat-soluble vitamins, which include A, D, E, and K. For instance, leafy greens are especially high in vitamin A (as beta-carotene) and vitamin K. Thus, adding a source of healthy fat to your salad will increase your nutrient intake.
- Fat is used to synthesize hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Therefore, diets void of fat may lead to hormonal imbalances as well as infertility.
- A membrane consisting of fat molecules encapsulates every cell in our bodies. Therefore, we need fat in our diet to produce healthy cells capable of obtaining nutrients, removing toxins, and communicating with other cells.
- Our brains are mostly made of fat. They need a constant influx of fat molecules for optimal development and performance. Therefore, low fat diets can negatively impact your memory, productivity, and mood among other things.
- Fat protects our organs, and it insulates nerve cells to assist with the transmission of nerve signals.
- Fat is involved in the regulation of body temperature as well as metabolism. It can also be used as energy source in the absence of carbohydrates.
- Fat gives food flavor! When manufacturers removed fat from their products based on faulty dietary guidelines, they added more sugar and other food additives to improve taste and texture. And we think most people would agree that veggies roasted or sautéed in olive oil or coconut oil taste much better than steamed veggies.
Based on all of the above, we think it’s safe to say dietary fat is an essential component to a well balanced and nourishing diet.
Eating Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat
Now if you’re wondering if eating fat makes you fat, the answer is “no.” The truth is eating an excess of refined carbohydrates (i.e., pasta, bread, crackers, etc.) and sugar is what triggers your body to store fat. And while these foods are easy to over consume, high fat foods are not. For example, a half of an avocado or a handful of olives or nuts are much more filling than an entire bag of chips.
Further, we’re not suggesting eating as much fat as you can. But we are saying that eating foods with fat and cooking with oils is healthy (and delicious).
Not All Fats are Created Equal
Now that we got that settled, it’s important to understand that not all fats are created equal. While some promote optimal health, others promote disease.
All foods with fat consist of multiple different types of fat. However, they are characterized by their predominate type of fat. There are four types of dietary fats:
- Saturated fat
- Monounsaturated fat
- Polyunsaturated fat
- Trans fat
The difference in these fats comes down to structure. A saturated fat is solid at room temperature ((i.e., butter or coconut oil). And an unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature (i.e., olive oil).
Saturated fats are mostly found in foods such as cheese, butter, eggs, meats, and cream. The best saturated fats come from healthy and humanely treated animals.
Coconut (and it’s unrefined oil) is another healthy source of saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil doesn’t require a complex digestive process. Therefore, it passes quickly into the bloodstream to provide an instant source of energy.
Unsaturated fats are broken down into two categories – mono and poly. Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in avocados, olives, and some nuts. There is little debate about the health benefits of monounsaturated fats. They are a staple in the diet of many healthy cultures.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils. They are broken down into essential Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their anti-inflammatory properties. They also play an important role in heart health, immune function, and brain development. Unfortunately, they are often lacking in the standard American diet.
On the other hand, Omega-6 fatty acids are often consumed in excess since they are found in most packaged and processed foods in the form of highly refined vegetable oils (i.e., canola, corn, soy, sunflower, and safflower).
Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation, which is necessary to fight infections among other things. But an excess of Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to chronic inflammation, which is now believed to be an underlying risk factor in many modern diseases. Therefore, we recommend getting a healthy dose of polyunsaturated fats from whole foods, including seafood, nuts, and seeds.
Now the worst type of fat comes in the form of “hydrogenated” oils (a.k.a. trans fats). Hydrogenated fats are artificially altered to produce unsaturated fats that are solid at room temperature. While this creates a cheap, highly stable oil, it’s also very damaging to the body.
Trans fatty acids have the ability to replace natural fats in our cells (including our brain cells), which can negatively impact their functionality. Further, trans fats have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
The medical and nutrition community agree that no levels of trans fat are safe. Fortunately, the FDA has banned their use. However, manufacturers have until 2018 to completely remove them from their products.
To Sum it Up…
Dietary fat is not only needed to survive, but it’s also needed to thrive. However, not all fats are created equal. We recommend steering clear of heavily processed vegetable oils and trans fat. Instead, we suggest eating and cooking with naturally occurring and unrefined fats and oils from whole foods to boost nutrition and flavor.