There’s a big difference between the fat in a doughnut and the fat in an avocado. One harms while the other heals. Read on to learn which fats are good fats, and how they help your body function better.
Our bodies need dietary fat, which is why many fats are called “essential fatty acids”. They are essential for our bodies to function properly and to lose weight.
Wait, what? Eating fats helps you lose fat? Yep, that’s right! It’s not the fat that makes you fat! (Well, as long as you’re eating the right fat.) Keep reading!
The right fats increase the feeling of fullness, maximize your metabolism, protect against heart disease, speed nutrients through the body, and improve fat-soluble vitamin uptake. Many unprocessed high-fat foods are also rich in other nutrients as well.
But the wrong fats? They can wreak havoc throughout the body. They increase the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, and raise the risk of diabetes. They clog arteries and change insulin sensitivity. They induce abdominal obesity … in other words, they make you fat. Humans were never meant to digest and process these kinds of laboratory-designed fats.
The worst fats out there by far are trans fats. They are a by-product of the laboratory process of hydrogenation which turns liquid oils into solid fats to prevent them from going rancid. They can be found in margarine and shortening. They have no health benefits and there is no safe level of consumption.
Even other species know better than humans … leave a tub of Crisco shortening (trans fat extraordinaire) out in the yard for weeks and nothing will touch it. No bugs, no mold, nothing. No one wants to eat this stuff … except for humans. *smack my head*
Thankfully, in the US, manufacturers were required to phase out trans fats a year ago, June 2018. However, some products with partially hydrogenated fats still remain on store shelves, so make sure to check your labels. The grocery chain Aldi has been very proactive, removing items with trans fats and hydrogenated oils since 2014.
Also problematic was the fat-free boom during the 1990s. All of a sudden we were told that fat is bad for you, and a slew of fat-free products appeared on the shelves. And what replaced those now-missing fats? Carbs, sugar, and salt. Pasta, potatoes, and rice. And this is right about the time Americans ironically started getting even fatter and more diabetic.
Today, we’re back to understanding that fats are necessary to some extent, but which fats and how much? The information out there is confusing, to say the least.
The US dietary guidelines say to reduce saturated fat and replace it with polyunsaturated fat. The problem is, this category includes both heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fats as well as inflammation-inducing, fat-storing omega-6s.
We are supposed to maintain about a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, but the standard American diet, replete with processed foods and oils, has us at about 1:20. At the onset of the industrial revolution, consumption of omega-6 oils increased, due to the advent of the modern oil industry as well as the use of cereal grains to feed livestock, which then changed the chemical composition of the meat and dairy humans consumed.
Oils and fats that contain only omega-6 and no (or very little) omega-3 and should be avoided, include:
- safflower oil
- sunflower oil
- corn oil
- cottonseed oil (last time I checked, humans don’t eat cotton!!)
- sesame oil
- peanut oil
- soybean oil
- canola oil
- “vegetable oil”
Too many omega-6 fats promote inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the root cause of many degenerative diseases in our culture today. However, remember that omega-6 fats are not bad in and of themselves, and are necessary, but only in that 1:1 ratio with omega-3s. But because we already get sooooo many omega-6 fats in the standard American diet, we may as well avoid any extras.
Elevated omega-6 intake is linked to the following diseases:
- cardiovascular disease
- type 2 diabetes
- metabolic syndrom
- IBS and IBD
- macular degeneration
- rheumatoid arthritis
- psychiatric disorders
- autoimmune disorders
Omega-3s, on the other hand, are fat heroes that reduce inflammation and support the healthy function of many different organs and systems in the body. Our most important organ, the brain, is made of about 60% fat and needs fat to function properly. Omega-3s are brain food; even pregnant women are encouraged to take a DHA supplement, rich in omega-3s, to support baby’s brain development in utero.
So back to the US dietary guidelines. They also tell us that saturated fats are bad for you. But now we know not all saturated fats. Coconut oil, for example, contains the medium-chain fatty acid lauric acid which is, in fact, great for our health.
So what are some foods with the best fats you can add to your diet? Here’s a list of my favorites:
Coconut oil boosts fat-burning and raises HDL (good) cholesterol, which is linked to reduced heart disease risk. It provides your body and brain with quick energy. Lauric acid boosts brain function, reduces seizures, and can also kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It’s somewhat of a miracle fat!
And if you look at populations that eat large quantities of coconut oil, like in the South Pacific, they are extremely healthy and have very low rates of heart disease.
Avocados are full of healthy monounsaturated fat. Rich and creamy, they are the plant-world’s version of butter, but with the added benefit of fiber. They contain oleic acid which helps you feel full, some protein, and more potassium than bananas.
Grass-fed beef contains CLA, a healthy fat that improves heart health and reduces belly fat. It also contains stearic acid, a beneficial saturated fat which reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol. Grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fats than conventionally raised beef because grass contains ALA, another healthy fat, which corn and other grains do not. Conventionally raised beef is also higher in unhealthy palmitic acid, so if you’re going to choose beef, make sure it’s been pasture raised, eating only grass.
Dark chocolate contains a high percentage of pure cocoa butter which contains the healthy saturated fat stearic acid. Stearic acid slows digestion; since it takes more time to process, it staves off hunger and helps you lose weight. It’s also packed with antioxidants, helping fight off free-radicals and increases blood flow to the brain.
Nuts are full of polyunsaturated fats that activate genes that reduce fat storage and improve insulin metabolism. Walnuts are one of the best sources of omega-3 fats, containing more than any other nut out there. (Note: I always thought it was interesting that walnuts are so good for the brain, and they are shaped like little brains!). Not only can they help the body respond better to stress and keep blood pressure levels down, but they also help you lose weight.
Natural nut butter is also a good source of fat, but be careful of the reduced-fat versions which contain more sugar and salt. Also, non-natural nut butter may contain harmful partially hydrogenated oils, so read your labels and make the most natural choices you can.
Pastured eggs with the yolk contain mostly monounsaturated fat, which helps reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. They also contain choline which helps reduce fat around the liver. Conventionally raised chickens are very different than those who are free range and pasture-raised, as their meat and eggs are also higher in healthy vitamin D from walking around in the sun.
Wild salmon is very high in omega-3 fats, but farmed salmon is definitely not as good a choice. Farmed salmon are given an unnatural diet which ends up increasing omega-6 fats, and also have a higher level of contaminants due to the water they swim in and the food they eat. Make sure to be wild when choosing salmon!
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, including oleic acid. It’s also high in adiponectin, which breaks down fats in the body. The more you have, the lower the BMI. It also increases serotonin levels in the brain, associated with contentment and satiety.
Flax and chia seeds are very rich in omega-3s, reducing inflammation and promoting blood vessel help. They enhance fat burning and decrease hunger levels. For best absorption, flax seeds should be ground before eating. Both flax and chia seeds hold many times their weight in water, and when mixed with water, make a great egg replacement for baked goods.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green freshwater algae that is full of omega-3s and also rich in protein. One study showed that runners who added spirulina to their diets were able to run 30% longer. It comes in a powder and is easy to add to smoothies or baked goods.
Feel a little better about eating enough of the right kind of fats now? Just remember: all this said, even the good fats, like most other things, should be eaten in moderation. Too much of a good thing just isn’t!