Fat Facts

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If you had the choice between a full fat product or the fat-free version, which would you choose?  Whole milk or skim?  Fat-free yogurt or 2%?  Low-fat cheese?  Be honest!  This is a judgment free zone.

If you are a fat-free or low-fat fan, I’m not surprised.  We have been told for years that fat is bad and eating large amounts of fat can cause heart disease.  But now the tide is changing and fat (good fat at least) is back in favor.  And guess what?  Studies have shown that eating fat actually doesn’t make you fat.  Well, how about that.

So how did fat become so vilified?  I’m a fan of history, so let’s to take a trip back in time to the 1950s and 60s.  During this time scientist Ancel Keys was conducting research to find the root cause of heart disease, a condition that was a big concern in the U.S. at the time (and still is, obviously).  From his findings, he concluded that saturated fat was to blame.  Though many scientists at the time called out flaws in his research (he only selected countries that would prove his hypothesis, only reported a small portion of the participants he studied and inaccurately interpreted correlation as causation), his theory took off and played a significant part in the rise of the low-fat/fat-free movement.

When Keys’ theory took off the food industry reacted by removing fat from its products.  But it’s important to note that when fat is removed from food it doesn’t taste too great, so the fat was replaced with sugar.  And what’s sad is that we didn’t get any healthier as a result of these changes.  In fact, they backfired.  Since the 60s heart disease levels have only increased and today we are experiencing an obesity epidemic of staggering proportions.

Recent studies have shown that good fats are not only beneficial, but necessary for optimal health.  Fat is filling, satiating, not addictive (unlike fructose in sugary products), and helps fuel our metabolism.  It is necessary for brain health (more on that later), helps fight depression and contributes to healthy skin, hair and nails.  It also is necessary for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K (i.e. if no fat is present when these are consumed, the body cannot absorb them).  

So what is fat?  Fat is a basic building block of the body and has a direct impact on its function.  The body uses fat to build cell walls.  Considering there are 100 trillion cells in our body, I’d say that the health of said cell walls is quite important.  Healthy cell walls made from good quality fats are flexible and responsive. Those made from a diet of processed foods high in poor quality oils such as corn, soy or safflower are stiff and rigid. Stiff and rigid cell walls slow cellular function and make our cells more vulnerable to inflammation.  Chronic inflammation can lead to disease.

If you take anything away from this article, it is the type of fat that matters. Not all fat is created equal. Good quality fats are key to our health, all the way down to our cells.  So what are good fats and what are bad fats?  Let’s break it down:

GOOD FATS

  • Saturated Fat – I know what your thinking…  Really, saturated fat is good?  Research has shown no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease.  It helps us absorb those fat-soluble vitamins and calcium, improves immune function and is necessary for healthy cell walls.  Good sources of saturated fat include butter, coconut oil and animal fats.
  • Monounsaturated Fat – Monounsaturated fat has been shown to decrease breast cancer, reduce bad cholesterol, lower risk for heart disease and stroke, and aid in weight loss. A great source of monounsaturated fat is olive oil.  
  • Polyunsaturated Fat – Two types of polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6.  These are two of the most important fats for the body, though it is important that we eat a good balance of the two.  When our proportions of these fats are out-of-balance we are more vulnerable to inflammation and disease.  Right now, the general population eats waaaaay too many omega-6 fats, which are common in processed food, and are deficient in omega-3 fats.  Omega-3 fats help to decrease inflammation, decrease triglycerides (bad fats in the body) and boost good cholesterol.  Sources of omega-3 fats include cold water fish (salmon), omega-3 rich eggs, organic canola oil, walnuts, Brazil nuts and sea vegetables.  If you don’t have many of these things in your diet supplementation is also an option.

BAD FATS

  • Trans Fat – Trans Fat is created when polyunsaturated fats are damaged due to heat.  It is common in processed and packaged foods as it helps to extend shelf life and also fried food.  Beware of trans fats!  They are no good.  They are now specifically called out on food labels if they are present, so read your labels and learn what’s in the food you are eating.
  • Inflammatory Vegetable Oils – As mentioned above, these include oils made from corn, soy and safflower.  Also common in processed foods as they are cheap and abundant.

With the rise of Alzheimer’s and dementia, brain health is a hot topic these days.  Our brains are actually 60% fat, most of which is an omega-3 fat called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).  DHA is needed to spark communication between cells.  Having a diet containing good quality fats boosts cognition, happiness, learning and memory.  Omega-3 deficiencies have been linked to depression, anxiety, dipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Below are some of my favorite sources of healthy fats:

  • Avocado
  • Nuts:  almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts
  • Seeds:  pumpkin, sesame, chia and hemp
  • Fish:  wild salmon is rich in omega-3 fats as well as sardines, mackerel and herring
  • Extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil are my go-tos in the kitchen (coconut oil has a high smoke point so is great for sauteeing)
  • Grass-fed, organic and sustainably raised animal products (eggs, beef, chicken and pork)

As always, a balanced diet is necessary for optimal health.  This includes a healthy amount of protein and carbohydrates as well as fat with each meal and snack we consume.  If you want to learn more about protein, check out my previous post on the topic here.

Sources:

Photo credit:  Image courtesy of lchunt on flickr

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