The Skinny on Fat
By Christina Pasternak More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the FOOD-A-MINS Blog Series
Despite fat-free food crazes of the past, most of us now know that healthy fats are an important component of our diet. At least a minimum consumption of this vital macronutrient is essential for energy storage, the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (including vitamins A, D, E, and K), protection of our cell membranes from damage, and the insulation of our organs from trauma and cold.
Not only that, fats lubricate our body and help make our skin soft, supple, and beautiful. Have you ever seen someone on a strict fat-free diet? Their face looks gaunt, lifeless, and haggard. If someone cares enough about their physical appearance to deprive themselves of fat, usually to lose weight, what a bummer it must be to look like they’ve significantly aged in the process. Without a moderate amount of fat in our diet, we cannot function optimally, which ultimately means we cannot possibly look and feel our healthiest -- or most beautiful.
It’s important to know that there are two primary essential fatty acids (EFAs) the body needs -- omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. EFAs are required for growth and development, as well as the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. Our overall health depends on a proper balance of these two EFAs; however, eating the SAD way leads to excessive amounts of omega-6 fat and not enough omega-3 fat. Too much omega-6 fat, which is predominantly found in vegetable oils and animal products, has been found to contribute to heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases, skin diseases, depression, and a higher susceptibility to cancer. To make matters worse, when we do not have sufficient amounts of omega-3 fat, our body cannot produce enough docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects on the body. This dangerous combination inevitably leads to long-term health consequences, which can be completely prevented with the food we eat.
Though all fats really are potentially fattening, they are far from equal when it comes to our health. It’s important to become familiar with some of the lingo regarding fat because it can get very confusing. The best defense against aging and disease is being informed and educated about your food. Being a nutritional dum-dum won’t do you any favors! It’s one thing to knowingly indulge in fatty foods at times, but when our diet is unknowingly high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fats, we not only gain weight, but we become highly susceptible to long-term health problems.
It’s crucial that you get to know the different types of fats. Some will be your friends for life. The others, you’ll learn, are more like that toxic frenemy that makes you feel bad about yourself, yet you keep wasting your time (and health) on them out of habit. Once you see their true colors, though, you might re-prioritize your fatty friends.
Hydrogenated Fat (Trans Fats): Considered the worst kind of fat, these unsaturated fats have been processed into harder, more saturated substances to extend the shelf life of products such as margarine and processed foods. Evidence suggests that these man-made fats have extremely harmful health implications, including cancer and heart disease. All foods that contain partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils should be completely avoided.
Saturated Fat: These fats are solid at room temperature and are found mostly in meat, fowl, eggs, and dairy. They are generally known to significantly contribute to heart disease and cancer. Foods with the most saturated fat are butter, cream, and cheese. Coconut and palm oil are also largely saturated and should be consumed in limited quantities. (More about coconut oil to follow.)
Cholesterol: A waxy fat produced by the body and predominantly found in meat, fowl, dairy, and eggs. Though eating cholesterol raises blood cholesterol, its effect isn’t as significant as saturated and trans fats. Cholesterol can also be found in plant foods, but the amount is so insignificant, they are virtually cholesterol-free.
Polyunsaturated Fat: These vegetable oils are soft at room temperature and include canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. Buttery spreads and mayonnaise products are composed of mostly vegetable oils, even the vegan varieties that are often advertised as healthier choices. Polyunsaturated fats, when consumed in excessive amounts, have been linked to liver damage, cancer, heart disease, and digestive disorders. Vegetable oils are also highly reactive to heat, light, and air. When exposed to one or more of these elements, they react and create free radicals, which lead to aging and disease. Because of this, these oils are not good for cooking, despite the fact that many have high smoke points.
Monounsaturated Fat: Found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish, as well as olive, canola, and peanut oils. When used in place of more dangerous saturated fats, monounsaturated fats help lower cholesterol and are a healthier source of fat in our diet.
The Truth About Oil
On average, Americans consume large quantities of oil, which is often processed at high temperatures. When oils are heated, it changes the chemical structure of the essential fatty acids and creates toxic by-products. Even when an oil is extracted from a healthy raw food source, such as sunflower seeds, it becomes less nutritious because it’s no longer whole. Through this process, a nutrient-rich food becomes a calorie-rich substance.
Fried foods should be completely eliminated from our diet, and cooking with oil should be limited. Oil should be consumed in very small amounts, preferably in uncooked meals. When cooking with oil is a must for a specific recipe, coconut oil, at higher temperatures, and olive oil, at lower temperatures, are the best choices.
Although coconut oil is a saturated fat, it is cholesterol- and trans fat-free. It has actually been shown to lower cholesterol levels due to its high lauric acid content, which can stimulate and support thyroid function. Unrefined, virgin coconut oil is an excellent natural source of medium-chain fatty acids, which stimulates our metabolism and has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. As mentioned above, coconut oil is an excellent choice for cooking and baking because it’s a saturated fat and remains stable at higher temperatures.
Putting It All Together
Now that you are more familiar with the different types of fat and its food sources, consider the following when it comes to incorporating this important nutrient into your diet:
- Your diet should not be fat-free. Focus on significantly reducing and/or eliminating processed fats and consuming healthy fats that are found in nature.
- Avocados are an excellent whole food source of fat. They are a good replacement for dairy products with their creamy texture. I personally enjoy half of a small avocado in my green smoothies daily.
- Raw nuts and seeds are loaded with nutrients, lower cholesterol, and protect against heart disease. Because they are dense in both protein and fat, they should not be combined with other fats in the same meal, such as avocados or any animal products.
- Oils are not a whole food and contain no fiber, so they should be a very small part of your diet. When purchasing, look for completely unrefined varieties, which do not use processes such as bleaching and deodorizing, or preservatives. Because they do not contain preservatives, they should be in dark glass bottles to ensure exposure to light and air have not caused oxidation. I prefer coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil, but some other choices are flaxseed, pumpkin seed, hemp seed, and borage seed.
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the building blocks of fat. Just like the nine essential amino acids that can only come from food, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids must also come from our diet. We often get too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3, which are required for proper brain and nerve functioning. One to two tablespoons of ground flax seeds, hemp seeds, or chia seeds, or four tablespoons of walnuts, will provide us with us with our daily omega-3 needs.
- The most dangerous fats for heart disease and cancer are hydrogenated/trans fats and saturated fats. If you are unsure about a food containing trans fats, check the food label and look for “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Foods with trans fats should be completely avoided.
- Cheese has about ten times as much saturated fat as a chicken breast, and is the food that contributes the most saturated fat to the standard American’s diet. Cheese should be eliminated or significantly reduced, no more than a couple servings a week.
- Unless you are moderately active and slim, too much consumption of avocados, nuts, and seeds can interfere with your weight-loss goals. If you are currently overweight, you do not need to worry as much about incorporating enough fat into your diet. As you lose weight, you will be utilizing the fat stores in your body for energy. In order to maintain a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 acids, though, one tablespoon of ground flax seeds, chia seeds, or hemp seeds should be eaten daily.
- If you are at a healthy weight and exercise regularly, you can consume three to four ounces of raw nuts or seeds, an avocado, or 1-2 tablespoons of unrefined coconut oil or olive oil a day.
Fuhrman, J. (2011). Eat to live: The amazing nutrient-rich program for fast and sustained weight loss. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Snyder, K. (2013). The beauty detox foods. Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.