Fat! It’s kind of a scary word isn’t it? Over the years we’ve been told that dietary fat causes weight gain, heart disease, cancer and more. We’ve been told to reduce all fats, to reduce saturated fats, that margarine is good for us, that margarine is bad for us, that we should eat more vegetable oil, that we should eat less vegetable oil, that we should be watchful for “trans-fats” (whatever those are) lurking in our food, etc., etc., etc.
Honestly, it’s enough to make your head spin.
The fact is that the media, some scientists and the medical establishment haven’t handled the topic of fat and nutrition very well. The reality is that fat is an essential part of our diet, and the types of fats we consume, and the types and balance of fats that exist in our bodies play a hugely important role in whether we are healthy or sick.
Here are two simple facts that will help you to understand this better:
1) Virtually all chronic illnesses begin with, or get worse in the presence of inflammation, and the balance of certain dietary fats in our bodies is key to whether the fire of inflammation is fanned or quenched.
2) Every cell in your body performs virtually all of its vital functions via the membrane that surrounds it. Cell membranes require a kind of fluidity or flexibility to perform their functions properly and this fluidity is determined by the types and ratios of fatty compounds that make up the membrane. It’s not hard to see how fats can have a profound impact on our health!
(By the way, the word “fat” describes all types of fats including oils, but fats that are solid at room temperature are usually referred to as fats whereas fats that are liquid at room temperature are usually referred to as oils.)
Here are some specifics that will help you to understand the significance of fats in your diet and give you some tips on how to steer your diet towards healthy types and a healthy balance of fats and oils.
Concept number 1: Balance your essential fatty acids
Most people have heard of essential fatty acids or Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats. These types of fats are called essential because they are required for life and health, but our bodies cannot make them. We need to get them from our diets. As I said previously, certain fats are intimately involved in either promoting the process of inflammation or in quenching it. The Omega 3 and 6 fats are central to this. Omega 3 fats are used by the body exclusively to make compounds that reduce inflammation, whereas Omega 6 fats can go either way, but because of certain factors of modern life, they often end up making pro-inflammatory compounds.
While Omega 6 fats are quite abundant in our modern diets, Omega 3’s have become relatively rare. Obviously, this means that our diets tend to be pro-inflammatory and thus promoting to chronic disease! Not a good thing. Here’s how to shift the balance.
To increase levels of Omega 3 fats in your diet:
- Eat 100% grass fed meat. (beef, buffalo, lamb or goat) This means the animals have never been fed corn or grain.
- Eat high Omega 3 seeds and their oils (flax, chia, hemp).
- Take a high quality fish oil supplement daily (talk to your naturopathic doctor).
- Eat low mercury fish (Kind of tricky these days due to extensive contamination of fish. Talk to your naturopathic doctor or visit www.gotmercury.org for more information. For starters, wild pacific salmon is still one of the best).
To decrease levels of Omega 6 fats in your diet:
- Use a high quality extra virgin olive oil for most uses except high heat cooking (one of the few vegetable oils with very little Omega 3 or 6).
- Use butter or coconut oil for higher heat cooking.
- Limit your intake of most vegetable oils (corn, cottonseed, soy, safflower, sunflower, grape seed, canola and virtually all oils labeled “vegetable oil”) – all are high in Omega 6 with little or no Omega 3
- Maintain a moderate intake of nuts and seeds (1/4 to 1/2 cup per day). Most nuts and seeds are high in Omega 6 with little or no Omega 3.
Concept number 2: Saturated fat is fine in moderation
Saturated fats were vilified for years by the conventional medical establishment and in the press. Much of the early research was deeply flawed and the conclusions drawn are not reliable. We don’t see any evidence that eating a moderate amount of saturated fat as part of a balanced healthy diet has adverse health consequences for most people. Eating high levels of saturated fat can cause problems, however, particularly when eating a lot at one sitting (think cheesecake, large bowl of ice cream). Most people will notice that they don’t feel very well after eating such a meal.
Some guiding principles with regards to saturated fats:
- Emphasize leaner meats (100% grass fed).
- If you eat dairy foods, don’t eat them every day (with the exception of moderate amounts of butter).
- Consider coconut oil for high heat cooking and as a shortening. (Coconut oil is a unique saturated fat that has antimicrobial properties, seems to enhance brain function in some cases and is more readily used for fuel rather than converted to body fat.)
Concept number 3: Humans do bad things to fats and oils
As I mentioned earlier, much of the trouble that comes from fats has to do with the ways that they are manipulated and processed. With the exception of Omega 3 to 6 imbalances and overall excessive fat (or calorie) consumption, all fats and oils, as they exist in nature, are essentially health promoting. Please note that I am not saying that all high fat foods are good for all people, but that naturally occurring fats in and of themselves do not appear to be disease causing. Many fats (I’m talking primarily about Omega 3 and 6 oils and vegetable oils here) are particularly sensitive to heat, light and oxygen. In nature fats are protected from exposure to these things, but modern processing techniques and cooking expose them to all three in abundance. The dreaded trans-fats that you have undoubtedly heard of do not occur in nature but are formed when most vegetable oils are exposed to high heat and pressure (as is done in the manufacture of partially hydrogenated oils and margarine).
Pressing oils from seeds generally exposes them to high levels of heat, light and oxygen (not to mention solvents in many cases) and even cooking at high heat can cause the same damage. The result of this exposure causes oils to form trans-fats or to become oxidized. Oxidized oils cause inflammation and damage body tissues. Oils begin to oxidize and form trans-fats above about 320°. Most frying and even sautéing occurs at temperatures above 320°.
Limiting damage to fats and oils:
- Avoid frying and particularly deep frying
- Use a high quality extra virgin olive oil for most uses except high heat cooking
- Use butter or coconut oil for higher heat cooking (these are mostly saturated fats which are less prone to oxidation and do not form trans-fats)
- To keep sautéing temperatures low: place just enough water in your sauté pan to cover the bottom. Then add a little olive oil to that. When the water boils add your food and sauté as usual adding small amounts of water if it boils dry. This will keep the cooking surface of the pan well below 320°.
- Avoid oils made from hard seeds (corn, cottonseed, soy, safflower, sunflower, grape seed, canola and virtually all oils labeled “vegetable oil”. Sound familiar?)
- Avoid all partially hydrogenated oils and margarine.
As you can see, the subject of dietary fats and health is both important and a little complex. If you feel this information has been useful and would like to apply these principles in your life, I recommend that you re-read this post a few more times. By doing so I suspect that you will retain and be able to apply most of the important concepts I’ve presented here. By the way, if you have a question or comment, feel free to write it in the space provided below. I will try to respond to questions as soon as I can.
To continue: Universal Diet Principle No. 4