If there’s one idea that most people have it is: “fat is bad for you”. Throughout the years fat has been constantly linked to weight gain, cardiovascular disease and cancer. We have been told over and over to stay away from fats and our society has become obsessed with fat free products, thinking they are much healthier. What most people are not aware of is that fats are healing and essential for our bodies and they are necessary for many physiological functions.
Fat is now being recognized for the benefits it provides. They have been popping up in our hair and face products, and grass fed butter or coconut oil is being blended into coffee. Of course not all fats are equal, there are some that should be avoided like: trans fats and some that should be limited like: saturated fats. So here are the basic types of fats we find in our diet:
Saturated Fat: solid at room temperature, found in animal products such as: milk, cheese and grass-fed beef, pastured butter, tallow, ghee, and free-range eggs. It is also found in tropical oils such as: coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter. This fat has been linked to heart disease but recent research has provided results that show otherwise. This fat is broken down into 3 types of chains: short, medium and long and some are linked to promoting gut health and productivity.
Unsaturated Fat: liquid at room temperature and it is mostly found in plant sources such as vegetable oils, seeds and nuts. Unsaturated fat helps improve cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation and it is involved in many other physiological functions. There are two types of unsaturated fat:
- Monounsaturated Fat- found in olive oil, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds. It may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and maintain HDL (good) cholesterol levels
- Polyunsaturated Fat- found in sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, walnuts, flax seeds, and fish. Polyunsaturated fat helps reduce heart disease and risk for type II diabetes.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids- these are some of the most crucial molecules necessary for our bodies. The 2 main types of omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA and they are found in salmon, herring, trout and Pacific mackerel. Another omega-3 fatty acid is ALA and it is is found in nuts and seeds. These fatty acids lower triglyceride levels and lower the risk for heart disease. In addition, they reduce joint pain and stiffness by easing inflammation.
Trans Fat: this fat is processed by hydrogenation in order to increase shelf life and it is harder at room temperature. It is found in baked goods, junk food, fried foods and margarine. This is the type of fat that increases LDL cholesterol and leads to heart disease. This artificial form of fat is the one that should be avoided.
So why embrace healthy fats?
- They are essential for absorption of fat soluble vitamins, such as : A, D, E and K
- They help sustain normal core body temperature
- Fats are an essential part of developing cell membranes in the body and are necessary for healthy cells
- 60% of our brains are composed of fat, essential fatty acids like Omega-3 are crucial molecules that are involved in brain structure and optimal performance
- They are some of the main components of hormones that regulate many important functions of the body, such as: blood clotting and immune system responses
- They are a key source in energy that is used when the body does not have access to glucose from carbs
- They provide 9 calories per gram, compared to protein:4 calories and carbs: 4 calories.
- Since fat is such a concentrated source of energy it is important to be mindful of how much is energy is consumed vs. how much is used in order to avoid weight gain.
- Omega-3 Fatty acids reduce inflammation linked to joint pain and asthma and improve lung function
- Research has linked omega-3’s to helping protect against Alzheimer’s disease and gradual memory loss.
By avoiding fats and switching to processed low fat or fat free foods, the intake of refined carbs, sugars and chemicals (all added in greater amounts to compensate for lack of flavor) may increase depending on the choice of foods. And in the end the idea of being healthy by avoiding fats backfires because healthy fats become replaced with sugars. Processed foods and sugars become the real culprits of the causes of chronic diseases, obesity, diabetes and cancer.
Although there are healthy fats that need to be a part of our diets, it is still important to remember that moderation and balance is key. For healthy Americans, the American Heart Association recommends eating 25-35% of the total daily calories as fats from foods like fish, nuts, and vegetable oils; and limiting the intake of saturated fats to less than 7% of total daily calories (which would be about 140 calories (16 grams) based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
Additionally, saturated fats have been banned from our diets due to their link to heart disease for decades but recent research has been showing that they do not cause heart disease. Nutrition science and recommendations change on a daily basis and can easily confuse many of us. The easiest thing to do is to have a balanced diet. Whether you live on a paleo diet or a vegetarian diet; as long as they both provide your body with a balance of the essential nutrients, they will both accomplish good health and well being at the end of the day.