Fat is one of the three primary food groups. The other two are carbohydrate and protein. All foods contain one of these or a combination. All three have benefits for our health.
We need fat to stay healthy. Unlike carbohydrates, fat is used as a source of energy that does not stimulate insulin. It’s good for cell and tissue metabolism, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, hormone regulation and nerve function. And of course, fat adds flavor to food as well!
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS
Historically, major health recommendations deemed fat to be the evil food group for a long time. Behind the scenes, however, there has been a fundamental debate brewing over what foods increase the risk of today’s major chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As you might guess, the big debate has been whether the culprit is “carbohydrates/sugars” or “fats/saturated fat/cholesterol”.
So why is fat deemed healthy now? More studies have been published about the link between chronic illness and diet, giving us much more information about specific foods and their effect on our health. The most recent studies are showing that sugar and processed foods increase the risk of chronic illness, with very little evidence that fat causes heart disease or increases risk of the chronic illnesses.
And doubt is being cast on the integrity of the research that was published previously on fat being the bad guy. Just this month, there was a New York Times expose revealing how the sugar industry influenced previous research on the effects of sugar and fat on our health. Specifically, a sugar trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation paid 3 Harvard scientists to favor sugar in a 1967 review of the research on sugar, fat and heart disease. It turns out that this review was biased. Many of the dietary recommendations since the 1960’s have been based on some of this literature.
Why should we believe health information being published now? It is true that the major food industries continue to influence dietary recommendations today, but starting in the 1980’s, and even more so now, more accountability and disclosure about special interests have been part of the regulations. The research is likely to be less biased.
SO WHAT SHOULD I EAT?
So should you go out and eat fat with abandon and indiscriminately? No!
Even though fat is considered to be healthy, some fat is still healthier than others. Some of this information is new and may surprise you.
Healthy food sources of fat include meat, fish, chicken, cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds, oils, butter and avocado.
Saturated fat found in animal and dairy products and coconut and palm oils is now deemed healthy. It may raise LDL, bad cholesterol, but it also raises HDL, good cholesterol, so the important LDL to HDL ratio is maintained. Coconut oil is a source of medium chain saturated fats that are healthier for your heart and for weight loss than other sources of saturated fats.
Vegetable oil is healthy but with some caveats. Vegetable oils like soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn, canola, peanut, safflower are high in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids that have health benefits but are harmful in excess and harmful if heated to high temperatures. Finding the right balance of Omega-6, Omega-3 and Omega-9 foods is the key. You can read more about my favorite fats for cooking in our previous blogpost.
The only fat considered to be truly 100% unhealthy is “trans-fat”, fat that has been hydrogenated (liquid oil made solid at room temperature). Trans-fat is found in processed foods and commercial baked goods.
WHAT IF I’M TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT?
Recently, many studies have shown that a weight loss diet of high fat and low carbs is more effective than one with high carbs and low fat. This is related to the fact that eating fat does not stimulate insulin production. Even though some of the diets contain 75% fat, it is in the context of very low carb intake.
WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
Eating too much of any type of food, even “healthy” food, is never a good idea. Problems can arise if we eat too much fat, even healthy fat. Fat is calorie dense. The worst for your health is coupling fat with sugars and processed carbs (i.e. junk foods). It is not the fat itself but this combination that could be the root of many of the chronic western illnesses today by increasing inflammation that contributes to weight gain, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.
Here are my main take-home messages:
- Don’t be afraid to include fat in your daily diet.
- Focus on limiting sugars and processed carbs instead
- Increase the Omega-3 sources like fish, particularly fatty fish, walnuts, flax seed and oil as well as grass-fed beef and dairy (instead of grain-fed)
- Include monounsaturated sources-avocados, avocado oil, olive oil, nuts and nut butters with higher amounts of monounsaturated fats – almonds, cashew, hazelnuts and macadamia nuts
- Avoid trans-fat
- Don’t eat too many fats high in Omega-6
- Because fats readily absorb pesticides, choose pesticide free plants, oils and seeds
- Cook with butter, ghee, coconut oil or avocado oil if using high temperatures