Why You Shouldn’t Fear Fat
We've come a long way since the 90's trend of demonizing fat to the current day glorification of avocado (and I'm not complaining!). However, during this fat revolution, conflicting recommendations, misinformation, and over-generalizations have muddled the fat facts.
Let's break down fat, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What is the role of fat?
Fat serves several crucial functions in our body. It provides energy and insulation, forms structural components of all cell membranes, contributes to the synthesis of vitamin D and certain hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol, and is essential for reproductive health and lactation. Said differently, fat is critical from everything to glowing skin, hair, and nails to sustaining life.
And that's saying nothing about its value in our food. Fats increase satiation and help you stay fuller longer. Flavor, aroma, texture, and palatability all benefit from a bit of fat. Vitamins A, D, E, and K require dietary fat for their absorption and utilization. Adding fat to an otherwise carbohydrate-based meal blunts glucose and insulin spikes resulting from carbohydrate intake. This effect lessens the hormonal fluctuations that can cause hunger and weight gain and may help prevent a cycle of carb-cravings.
That said, not all fats are created equal (neither are carbohydrates or protein for that matter, nothing is that simple, sorry!!)
So what do I eat?
These heart-healthy fats reduce the risk of heart disease and improve cholesterol by lowering “bad” LDL and raising “good” HDL. Snack on olives, avocados, raw nuts and seeds, and use extra virgin olive oil as a dressing or in low temperature cooking to incorporate more monounsaturated fats.
🥚Essential fatty acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are considered “essential” because our bodies require them but cannot synthesize them. Omega-3 fats have an anti-inflammatory role, while omega-6 fats have a pro-inflammatory effect. Both are necessary, but balance is key (and hint: it's severely lacking).
Our modern, Western diets are overloaded with omega-6 fats thanks to the ubiquitous use of corn, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil in packaged and prepared foods. Furthermore, these oils are delicate and become damaged during the heat and processing required to make your favorite boxed or bagged snack. Consuming these damaged and pro-inflammatory oils contributes to the systemic inflammation associated with nearly every chronic disease.
You can correct the imbalance by eating less of these omega-6-rich oils and more omega-3-rich whole foods like fatty fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and the egg (with the yolks!) of pasture-raised hens. I recommend eating 2-3 servings per week of low-mercury, high-omega-3 fish like wild Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, herring, rainbow trout, sardines or anchovies. If fish isn't a regular dietary staple, opt for a high-quality, third-party tested fish oil. An algae-based DHA supplement is a good alternative for vegans or anyone allergic to fish.
Be discerning of:
Cholesterol got a bad rap for decades, but it turns out that eating cholesterol is less responsible for elevating LDL cholesterol than diets high in saturated fat. With saturated fat, quality matters. I'm not worried about a moderate intake of saturated fat from coconut, coconut oil, or pasture-raised and grass-fed meat, eggs, butter and dairy (particularly in an otherwise plant-focused diet full of nutrient-rich and fiber-packed veggies and fruits). Conversely, you should avoid factory-farmed meat, poultry, and dairy loaded with chemicals, hormones, and toxins.
What to avoid:
🍰Trans-fats, the worst!
The real red flag of dietary fat, however, is man-made trans-fat. Trans-fats are unsaturated oils chemically altered to behave more like solid fats (think margarine, yuck). This process prolongs shelf life at the expense of raising LDL cholesterol, lowering HDL cholesterol, and increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. They are commonly in packaged and convenience foods like crackers, muffins, cookies, cakes, pies, and frosting, as well as frozen or microwavable dinners, pizzas, breakfast sandwiches, and popcorn. Read food labels; if you see either "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated oil" in the ingredient list, think trans-fats and run, don't walk away.
Lastly, I'll leave you with this tip. Toxins are stored in fat. If you're eating out and unsure of the quality of the meat, opt for the leanest cuts. Despite what any restaurant-loving New Yorker will tell you, you're not nuts for ordering the chicken.
Dietary Fats. (2014). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats.
Essential Fatty Acids. (2019). https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids
The Functions of Fats in the body. (2015). https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/facts-on-fats-dietary-fats-and-health
Trans fats. (2015). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/trans-fat