For many of us, fat has been vilified as the root of all evil- making us fat and clogging our arteries. Since the first nutritional guidelines came out in the late 70’s, conventional wisdom has said saturated fat is bad. This caused many to switch away from red meats to plant-based oils, such as corn, soy and canola as part of a ‘healthier’ diet. The food industry touted margarine as a better choice and started substituting soy, corn and other plant oils in their processed foods. They even created whole new lines of low-fat foods (i.e. Snackwells). What people didn’t realize was that to make the foods taste good they had to add a lot of refined sugar, mostly as high fructose corn syrup, which is metabolized differently by the body and has led to the obesity epidemic.
What many of us don’t know is that fat is an essential nutrient. It is needed for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins- (A,D,E,K) and essential for many biological processes such as cell construction, nerve function, digestion and hormone formation. Every cell membrane is composed of fat and our brain is over 60% cholesterol and fat. Bottom Line: It is not fat per se, but the type of fat we consume that matters.
Short Premier on Fats
Fats are composed of essential fatty acids and come in several forms- saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These fatty acids are used as the building blocks for everything mentioned above.
- Saturated Fats are stable, solid at room temperature, don’t oxidize (go rancid) easily and are easiest for the body to breakdown. They have a high smoke point so are good for cooking These includes butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, and palm (not palm kernel) oil. As will be discussed later, the source of these saturated fats is important when
considering what and how much to eat. For those who are dairy intolerant, refined coconut oil is a good alternative for cooking.
- Monounsaturated Fats require more enzymes to break them down to be used as energy and are liquid at room temperature. They come from both plants and animals and have been found to have diverse health benefits such as control blood pressure, control insulin sensitivity and reduce LDL cholesterol. The best-known plant sources are olive oil, avocado oil, and nuts. Canola oil has some but because of the chemical hexane and high heat used in the refining process it is a poor choice. They are also found in animal fat and are the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet.
- Polyunsaturated fats are easily broken down and oxidized (meaning they produce harmful free radicals). These fats are liquid at room temperature and need to be in a dark and cool place to prevent them from oxidizing. These include all plant oils- i.e. corn, soy, flaxseed, sunflower, safflower. They are found ubiquitously in processed foods and in high concentration in the Standard American Diet (SAD).
These fats are categorized as Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9. Omega 6 fats are proinflammatory while Omega 3 fats have been found to reduce inflammation, improve cardiovascular health, protect our brain and prevent metabolic syndrome so are the better choice. There are only two fatty acids the body cannot make, both polyunsaturated- Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) which is used to make Omega 3 fats and Linoleic Acid (LA) which is used to make Omega 6 fats. That is why they are called Essential Fatty Acids. The ideal ratio of dietary Omega 6: Omega 3 is 1:1- 4:1. Unfortunately, SAD is closer to 10:1- 25:1 due to high consumption of processed seed oils and meat and fish from grain fed animals and farmed fish.
So, What Should I Eat?
We absolutely need all three types of fats in our diet. It is the ratio and source of these fats that is critical. It is best to get them from eating WHOLE FOODS- plant foods grown organically without pesticides, grass fed and finished animals and wild fish.
Oils- Olive, avocado, coconut, palm (not palm kernel) are best. It is best to find ones that are cold-pressed and unrefined. Refined coconut oil can be used in cooking for a milder flavor. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so it is best to use raw or use the refined oil which has higher smoke point. You also need to know the source of the olive oil. Most low-cost olive oils have been adulterated with lesser quality olive oil or other oil such as soy. If the price is too good to be true, it is probably not 100% olive oil. AVOID margarine, Crisco, and fake butter spreads as they contain trans fats. Even the ones that say trans-fat free will have some and since most people eat more than the recommended amount it is likely they will be consumed.
Animal Meat- Wild game (i.e. venison, bison, elk, moose, rabbit), grass fed- grass finished beef, pasture raised chicken, eggs and pork as these eat their natural diet and have a higher ratio of Omega 3 to 6 fats. Most pastured chicken and pork are fed some feed, but if the meat is bought during their natural growing season it will be minimal. It is always good to check with your farmer to see what else they ate. If you choose to eat bacon or other cured meat, be sure it is naturally cured and nitrate free. AVOID- conventionally raised animals as they are fed a GMO corn and soy filled diet which tilts the fat ratio toward more Omega 6.
FISH- Fresh or frozen wild caught fatty fish such as Sockeye and Coho salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies and mackerel are high sources of Omega 3 fats. Other wild caught fish and shellfish can be a reasonable source. AVOID- farmed fish as they are fed corn and other foods not normally part of a fish diet. Some Scandinavian and other Northern European countries use more sustainable farming so is a better choice if you can’t get wild caught.
NUTS and SEEDS: All nuts and seeds contain a combination of Omega 3 and 6 fats. Those with the highest Omega 3 content are walnuts, almonds, flax, chia and hemp seeds. Macademia nuts are high in monounsaturated fats and are a good choice. AVOID- Peanuts are not nuts and contain NO Omega 3 and a lot of Omega 6. They also are high in the mold aflatoxin which can affect gut permeability.
EGGS- They are now on the beneficial list and can be eaten several times a week. Studies have debunked the theory that eating them raises cholesterol or contributes to heart disease. Best to get eggs from pasture raised chicken, second best is organic. Duck eggs are also a good alternative.
DAIRY- If you choose to eat dairy, full fat dairy from grass fed and finished animals is best. If not available, organic is a good second choice. There is no need to eat non-fat or low fat as you need the good quality omega 3 fats. Goat and sheep milk are closer to human milk than cow, so try adding these foods or eating yogurt made from this milk.
Fish Oil Supplements- It is nearly impossible to get enough Omega 3 fats to attain the optimal ratio by eating food alone. A good quality fish oil supplement daily will move you toward that optimal ratio, if you follow the guidelines above. Nordic Naturals is a reasonable over the counter source that doesn’t tend to cause the burping that can sometimes occur.
Bottom Line: It is important to get good quality fats at every meal. It helps with satiety and supports important functions to keep your body healthy. Ideally, fat should be 30% of your daily diet, with most of it from good quality monounsaturated and saturated sources as part of a whole foods diet. Living Fit meals provide a good foundation for adding healthy fats in a healthy ratio to your diet, and can be a great partner for helping develop your own custom nutrition plan to ensure you are receiving what you need for optimum health!
About the Contributor
Donna Bacchi, MD, MPH has over 30 years of clinical experience improving patient health and wellbeing using a broad- based approach that focuses on the four pillars of wellness- nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction and mindfulness. Dr. Bacchi received her bachelor’s degree in nutritional science from Cornell University, a medical degree from University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University. She has lectured across the country on a variety of nutrition and public health related topics. She currently resides in Southport, NC where she is on the Brunswick County Health Advisory Board, is a co-chair of the Way to Wellness Initiative, and sees clients looking to improve their health by addressing the root causes using the four pillars of wellness.