Opinions differ on the amount of fat intake needed for a healthy diet, but all sources agree on one important point: a body needs fat! Fat is basic to the structure of cells, much like a foundation is basic to the structure of a building. Many of us misunderstand the concept of good fat, and it can be difficult to explain the chemical complexities in layman’s terms. Learning to navigate through this river of information remains one of the toughest challenges we face when making healthy dietary choices. However, understanding fats becomes less daunting once we’re familiar with a few key concepts.
SATURATED FATS, including coconut oil, butter, and animal fat, have a bad reputation because overconsumption tends to gum up the arteries. Blocked arteries, as we’ve been told, lead to heart disease, diabetes, immune suppression, obesity, and other chronic disease processes. But, overconsumption of many things in the diet will cause imbalances - the poison is in the portion.
Saturated fats provide health benefits when eaten in moderation. In other words, eating a pat of organic butter on a piece of whole wheat toast is healthier than eating margarine, or any butter substitute found in a tub. The saturated fat ingested in butter not only satisfies the appetite, but the body uses this fat to its advantage because it recognizes butter as good. You may have struggled with chemistry in school, but your body understands the chemical structure of butter! If you are a carnivore, grass-fed, grass-finished, and organically fed animal proteins are also viable sources of saturated fats, as are raw, organic dairy products. Worthy of the extra cost, they are meant to be consumed in moderation only. A diet of grilled cheese sandwiches and sixteen ounce steaks is unhealthy, regardless of where the food originates.
Some of the many benefits attained from a diet including a sensible amount of saturated fats are healthy bones and effective calcium assimilation; protection of the liver from alcohol and other toxins, including over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like Tylenol; and immune system enhancement, meaning they help you stay well.
MONOUNSATURATED FATS are generally considered to be heart healthy, and include foods like olive oil, raw nuts, and avocados – to name a few. In countries where extra virgin olive oil is the predominate fat, rates of heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, colon cancer, obesity, arthritis, and asthma are much lower. However, overindulging in even the healthiest fat will make you sluggish and unhealthy. One half of an avocado pushes the limit on daily fat intake for the average person. So do three tablespoons of olive oil. Again, moderation is key.
POLYUNSATURATED FATS include the essential Omega-6 (linoleic acid, or LA) and Omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) fats. The body can make all the fat it needs from LA and ALA, but it can’t make LA and ALA. In other words, the only way Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats get into the body is through the diet; hence, they are “essential.” Essential means we must have them to live.
Most Americans get more than enough Omega-6 in the diet through meat and oils. However, those of us who follow the Standard American Diet (SAD) may be deficient in Omega-3 because our food choices are nutritionally unsound. Omega-3 foods include raw walnuts, flaxseeds (ground or oil), eggs from happy chickens fed an organic diet, and wild-caught, coldwater fish; even green leafy vegetables provide a small amount of nourishing omega-3 fats.
Many symptoms are associated with Omega-3 deficiency, including aching joints, arthritis, chest pain, indigestion, gas, and bloating, hormone imbalances, constipation, forgetfulness, inflammation, and frequent sickness. For most Americans, decreasing Omega-6 intake and increasing Omega-3 intake would make a profound difference in brain function, heart health, metabolism, and overall vitality. While Omega-3 deficiencies are common in today’s hustle-bustle, fast-food society, Omega-6 deficiencies are rare.
TRIGLYCERIDES are the most prominent form of dietary fat in the human body, and high levels generally correspond with disproportionate Omega-6 intake. An excess of circulating triglycerides indicates an increased risk for heart disease, liver stress, and metabolic syndrome. Any person - regardless of weight - who consumes a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugar will most likely show high levels of triglycerides, as well as high cholesterol. However, the news isn’t all bad! Triglycerides provide a necessary function in the body by serving as insulation for organs and as a source of energy storage. They are an integral part of a balanced and healthy body.
Today’s television advertising leaves the impression that CHOLESTEROL is an evil interloper: always dangerous, but manageable through pharmaceuticals. However, cholesterol plays a vital role in the health of cell membranes and blood vessels. For example, if an artery is damaged, cholesterol acts as glue, actually protecting the tear so the vessel can heal. Not only that, but cholesterol must be present in the body to generate estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone production.
The body can make all the cholesterol it needs, and this is where problems begin for about 30% of the world’s population. Diets high in cholesterol signal the body to decrease its internal production, and, for most of us, the body obeys. However, for the 30% whose body misses the cue, cholesterol levels rise. For most of these people, a high fiber diet made of whole foods, regular exercise, and adequate water intake will effectively lower cholesterol. If these simple supports are ignored, cholesterol levels will continue to climb.
Fiber is needed to transport cholesterol out of the body. Up to 95% of cholesterol can be reabsorbed and recycled if fiber isn’t present in the diet. In other words, cholesterol and other toxins meant as waste are put back into play, and the body becomes sick. Think of fiber as the truck driver who takes your body’s trash to the dump. You want that guy to visit every day.
The process of HYDROGENATION was invented in 1910 when manufacturers discovered how to turn liquid oils into solid fats that didn’t turn rancid. The industrial food industry loves hydrogenated, or TRANS FATS, because they extend the shelf life of their products. For example, if you buy a bag of Oreo cookies today and store them properly, they will still be fresh in nine months (assuming you can hide them from your kids). If you need a visual example of a trans fat in action, place a stick of butter and a stick of margarine outside on a sunny, hot day. The butter melts, and bugs eat it. The margarine retains its shape and nothing will touch it, except maybe your dog. It’s true: margarine is one molecule removed from plastic. People shouldn’t eat plastic.
According to the FDA, trans fats comprise about 2.6 percent of the American diet of adults. Several well documented studies show no safe level of these fats in our diet. In other words, trans fats are ugly and should have no place at anyone’s dinner table, or in any child’s school lunch. They are fake, man-made, hidden toxins, and are found in many of our favorite processed foods. For example, some Little Debbie snack cakes host not one, but two label listings for trans fats. The takeaway is this: consumption of trans fat is a deadly addiction that will eventually destroy the mechanics of the most incredible Mouse Trap game ever invented – the human body. Leave Little Debbie on the shelf.
ABOUT FAT-FREE: If you’re buying fat-free processed foodstuff, please stop. The only reason most of it has any flavor at all is because of added sugar and chemicals. Generally speaking, fat equals flavor, mouth feel, satisfaction. By removing fat from food, you starve the body of a necessary nutrient, which causes binge eating. You cannot lose weight by starving your body of fat. Omega-3 fats actually increase metabolism, therefore supporting weight loss and helping to establish and maintain a healthy weight. Just so you know: Omega-3 fats are not found in McDonald’s cheeseburgers or Baskin Robbins milkshakes, but a well-made pumpkin pie with a walnut crust is chock full of them!
All credible health professionals, regardless of field, agree that trans fats are bad for you. All would agree that the body needs fat for every cellular function – without fat we could not live; and all would agree that some saturated fat in the diet is unavoidable. However, there is passionate disagreement when the discussion turns to quality of fat in the daily diet. For example, Dr. Mark Hyman, author of the best-selling book Ultrametabolism, loves a high fat diet; so does Nourishing Traditions author and dairy advocate Sally Fallon. Although their views on dairy and saturated fat are diametrically opposed, they could be considered members of the same team, as the deepest rift regards quantity of fat rather than quality.
California’s Dr. James McDougall represents the antithesis of high fat philosophy. Although he agrees that whole foods with high concentrations of fat are health-promoting, he is strongly opposed to vegetable oils, including olive oil. In his August 2007 newsletter, he states, “Extraction processes (of oils) have removed all of the other ingredients of the whole food. Thus, free oils are no longer intermixed with the naturally-designed and balanced environment of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other chemicals found originally in plants.” In other words, all bottled oils have been processed and altered from their original state, rendering them useless to the body, and possibly damaging on a cellular level when consumed. What's a girl to do?
All essential nutrients are made from plants with the exception of Vitamin D, which is a gift from the sun, and B12, which is made from bacteria. This includes the essential Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. We, like all other animals, must get these essential fats directly by eating plants, or indirectly by eating animals that eat plants and store these essential fats in their tissues. Remember, we don’t make them. According to Dr. McDougall, our requirement for essential fats is very small; essential fatty acid deficiency is basically unknown in America, unless one is very ill – and even then, one can meet their need through applying small amounts of oil to the skin. Furthermore, he discards the notion of an imbalance of omega-6 to omega 3 as mostly bunk and possibly dangerous to one’s health.
The most obvious red flag in Dr. McDougall’s approach – as well as that of Sally Fallon – is the lack of discussion regarding biochemical individuality, meaning we are all different; when it comes down to the nitty-gritty science of nutritional chemistry, there is a standard approach to be considered, but we all have unique dietary needs. To say that we will all be healthier if we eat more butter, or less oil, is naïve, irresponsible, and confusing to the public. A more balanced approach helps to clarify the fat mystery for those of us willing to do the work.
Everything natural to the body’s function was designed to serve a positive purpose, including fat. Good science teaches us that eating a nourishing, nutritional, high fiber diet - complete with healthy fats - will support the body’s desire to be in balance. Say yes to real food!