Fat is a staple in a balanced nutrient dense diet. Unfortunately, for most of us, our understanding of what is a healthy fat is completely skewed by decades of propaganda and flawed research. If you are new to an ancestral based lifestyle such as paleo, primal, the Whole30, or AIP, your head may be spinning by the amount of fat in the recipes you’re finding. Let’s fix that.
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What is fat?
Fat is a macronutrient, along with carbohydrates and protein. In the body, fat is present in two ways; free fatty acids and triglycerides. Free fatty acids can serve as fuel and are found flowing through the bloodstream. Triglycerides are too large to flow in the blood, so they make up our fat stores. In order to be used as fuel, triglycerides have to be broken down into their component parts, freeing them up to flow in the bloodstream as fatty acids (because they are too large otherwise). It’s also beyond delicious and brings a depth of flavor to any dish.
Types of Dietary Fat
- Saturated: Saturated fats have been misconstrued as unhealthy fats, but in fact they tout multiple health benefits. They are also stable fats, which means that they are highly temperature stable and will not oxidize when exposed to heat, light, or oxygen. Saturated fats are found in animal foods (meat, eggs, butter, lard, etc.) and coconut oil. These fats are solid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated: Monounsaturated fats are generally regarded as healthy, but are at higher risk of oxidization than saturated fats when exposed to heat. Quality sources include macadamia nuts/oil, avocado/avocado oil, and olives/extra virgin olive oil. These fats are liquid at room temperature, but will generally harden upon refrigeration.
- Polyunsaturated: Also known as PUFAs, Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and under refrigeration. They are highly susceptible to oxidative damage from everyday elements – heat, light, and oxygen, let alone the heat of cooking. These are the most common fats in today’s diet, including highly refined seed oils like canola, corn, soy, safflower, and sunflower. They are also found in margarine spreads, dressings, and almost anything that comes in a package. These oxidized oils disrupt immune and endocrine function and add to unhealthy inflammation in the body.
- Trans and Partially Hydrogenated Fats: While trans fats occur in trace amounts in certain healthy foods, for the purposes of this article I will be discussing the man made highly processed version of trans fat, which is what most of us are familiar with. These are fats that are chemically altered during the food manufacturing process in order to produce certain types of products and goods. These chemically altered trans fats are easily damaged, leading to systemic and chronic inflammation, multiple ill health effects, and premature death. The world has caught on to the danger of these fats, with some areas even banning their use.
Why is Insulin Important for Understanding Fat?
Insulin, a hormone, is the driving force behind fat. It determines if fatty acids are available in blood stream are to be used as fuel, or if they are kept in our fat stores as triglycerides. A diet high in carbohydrates encourages excess insulin production. This excess production causes those extra carbs, as well as any other ingested fats (even healthy ones) to be stored as triglycerides. Ever eat a high refined carbohydrate meal, only to be starving a short while after? Calories wise you ate enough, but instead of those calories being used for fuel, they are pushed out of the bloodstream by insulin and tucked into fat cells as triglycerides. It’s not just calories in, calories out.
Omega-6 vs Omega-3 Content
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids, which mean they must be consumed as part of our diet because we cannot produce them internally. Research shows that both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, but omega-3’s pack more of an anti-inflammatory punch. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
I’m going to get a little sciencey for a moment, hang with me.
Linoic acid, the primary fatty acid in omega-6 fats, converts into a precursor for inflammatory cytokines in the body. By contrast, Alpha-linoleic acid (plant form of omega 3), converts to EPA and DHA, both which are anti-inflammatory precursors. These conversions happen on the same pathways, so in essence they are in competition with each other. If your diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids, the linoic acid wins out, and blocks the availability of ALA to convert into EPA and DHA. Even though omega-6’s tout anti-inflammatory properties, this imbalance creates a pro-inflammatory environment as linoic acid converts in the body.
Evolutionary biology and emerging research suggests that aiming for a balance of 1:1 or at least 2:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 is ideal, which is a far cry from the typical 20:1 (or higher balance in the average american). This unhealthy balance is in large part due to processed foods, refined carbohydrates, grain fed CAFO meat, sugars, poor omega-3 intake, and the rampant use of industrial vegetable and seed oils. Tackle this balance by increasing your omega-3 intake (think oily & cold water fish, grass fed/pasture raised meats, and leafy greens) and eliminating your intake of vegetable oils, refined carbs, and other processed foods.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what fat is and how it works, lets bust some common fat myths.
Our bodies prefer to burn fat, not glucose.
The glucose requirements of our muscles and organs can be easily met through vegetables, nuts, and seeds. We don’t need grains or sugar. Prior to the agricultural revolution and the introduction of grains into our diet, fat was the primary fuel source for humans. This means for 2.5 million years, compared to 10,000 or so, our ancestors lived from the energy rich fats of animals. These omega 3 rich fats helped the human brain develop into the complex wonder that it is today, helped maintain hormonal balance (which promotes a healthy weight), and encouraged a strong immune system.
Saturated fat does not make you fat, nor does it raise cholesterol.
Decades of poor science and food industry backed propaganda has led us to believe that the consumption of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease. But in reality, there is no direct correlation between the consumption of foods rich in saturated fat and heart disease. In fact, there is not one scientific study that shows saturated fat is unhealthy by itself. Oxidization and inflammation in the bloodstream are the true risk factors, both of which result from poor dietary and lifestyle habits – including eating PUFA’s like canola oil, loading up on refined carbohydrates, and excess stress. Let me explain.
We already discussed how diets made up of refined, processed carbohydrates like grains and sugar lead to excess insulin production and high levels of triglycerides in the blood. When you combine this excess insulin and high trigylcerdies with intake of PUFA’s, and the stress of the modern lifestyle (day to day demands, poor sleep, not enough sun, chronic exercise, etc.), you have the perfect storm of factors promoting a state of oxidation and inflammation in the bloodstream. When blood cholesterol is exposed to oxidation and inflammation, small dense (and sticky) LDL particles start building up on your artery walls and are subjected to oxidative damage. This damage alerts the immune system, which leads to a cycle of more inflammation and more plaque buildup. This buildup increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.
In the absence of excess carbohydrates, saturated fats are a wonderful source of energy, supports nutrient absorption, enhances immune function, and protects against the very oxidative damage that causes heart disease.
Why the Focus on Fat?
When we avoid the high carbohydrate diet in favor of healthy fats, we’re also avoiding the blood sugar roller coaster that comes with it. There is nothing more freeing than getting a handle on insulin regulation. Affecting everything from focus, to weight, to muscle loss, to mood, to chronic disease; insulin can put a stranglehold on our lives, often without our knowledge. In the presence of excess insulin and glucose, fat is locked in and inaccessible. No matter how much you control your portions, or how many calories you count, your body will convert those carbs to the fat stores, making it very difficult to lose weight. You’ll also find yourself hungry, since that energy is locked away and not available for use.
In the presence of a proper diet and lifestyle (based on healthy fats, vegetables, & protein), our bodies can go back to the the fat burning beasts we are meant to be. For many, this metabolic reset will result in almost effortless weight loss, hormone regulation, and feelings of focus and clarity. Aside from these benefits, healthy fats pack a nutritional punch. They are also the most caloric dense source of nutrition, clocking in at 9 calories per gram compared to the 4 received from carbohydrates and protein. Fatty acids help create the structure of our cells; the very fabric of our being. I don’t know about you, but I rather be made from a natural healthy fat and not a man made highly processed PUFA!
What Fats Should I Eat?
High quality fats should be a priority in your food budget and are one of the easiest changes to implement. They also will bring a new depth and flavor to your cooking, and who doesn’t love tastier food?
My Favorite Fats
Primal Kitchen Avocado Oil (high heat use)
Primal Kitchen Extra Virgin Avocado Oil (avoid high heat)
Kerrygold Grass-Fed Butter
The Definitive Guide to Cholesterol – Mark’s Daily Apple
Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe
Eat Fat, Get Thin by Dr. Mark Hyman