The Skinny on Fats

When some people hear the word fat they still get nervous — while others welcome it with open arms.

When low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets were all the rage in the 80’s, fat was pure evil, and high-carb, low-fat and low-protein diets were in.

I remember getting together with my girlfriends in high school, munching on bags of fat-free cookies, unaware of the build-up of calories and sugar we were getting each day. Still, to this day I have trouble convincing my dad, who very gradually lost weight on the high-carb model (but often gains it back), that he should slow down on his carb consumption and focus on high vegetables intake, high quality fats and good quality proteins.

To be sure, we need fat in our diet, plain and simple.

Fats are a necessary source of energy for the body and eating the right amount of good quality fats daily can help you to feel full and satisfied. They help the body absorb certain vitamins, keep the skin healthy and elastic, and are a necessary nutrient for your brain. They also serve as energy stores for the body.

Did you know that fat is crucial for a baby’s brain during the developmental age? Current research shows that most sources of plant-based dietary fat, including mono- and polyunsaturated ones are good for you — as long as they come from minimally processed sources, like nuts, seeds, and vegetable or fruit sources like avocados and coconuts.

The Skinny on Trans-Fats

trans-fatTrans-fats on the other hand are fats that we don’t need or want. They are harmful for your body in two ways: they decrease the “good” cholesterol (or HDL) while increasing the “bad” cholesterol (or LDL). They also do something dangerous that a lot of health professionals don’t talk about: they create excessive inflammation in the body, a condition that aggravates serious illnesses like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Trans-fats are a macronutrient, meaning they are just crude calories, 9 calories a gram, but they don’t contain any micronutrients that we need to feel our best (like vitamins or minerals).

So why do we still have trans-fats in our food system?

During the early 1900′s, food manufacturers were looking for a type of fat that would store better and would be cheaper than butter and lard. Their idea was to turn oil into a fat that would be solid at room temperature. Why? Because baking requires a soft yet solid fat. It’s the only way to produce light, crispy, or flaky textures that make cookies, cakes, and pies so popular with consumers.

Sounds sweet right? And so shortening was created by treating liquid vegetable oils with hydrogen. Yet it was soon discovered that this process not only solidified the oils, but also generated some quantities of trans fat.

Americans get around 40% of their trans-fat intake from baked goods alone. This artificial fat has become so popular with food manufacturers and restaurants because trans-fats are super cheap, especially compared to butter and animal fat. They store extremely well, don’t need to be refrigerated and don’t smoke when heated. So they became the fat of choice for both companies who wanted to extend the shelf-life of their baked goods and food chains that rely on cheaply produced, deep-fried foods.

The best way to avoid trans-fats? Stick to cooking meals at home with whole ingredients and with condiments that are safe like good quality marinara and hot sauces.

Fats Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Fats come in two basic structures: saturated and unsaturated ones because of their different molecular shapes. In terms of their physical properties, I like to think of saturated ones as a thick, heavy paste (like butter) and unsaturated ones as liquid at room temperature (like olive oil).

Until recently, health experts believed that all saturated fats were bad for you, no matter the source, because some studies showed that these types of fat raise LDL or the “bad cholesterol”, especially in the case of grain-fed dairy and meats. But now, scientists and doctors are taking a second look — a long look at the actual make-up of these fats, particularly if they originated from grain sources vs grass sources.

Grass-fed Dairy and Meats

oldbessyRed meat has been on the “no-no” list for mainly years due to its high level of saturated fat and the fact that it takes a lot of resources to raise cattle. Granted, it still takes resources to raise cattle, but now we’re understanding that there is an enormous difference between grain and grass-fed meats.

For one, cows aren’t meant to eat grain — it upsets their stomachs (yes they have several) because they aren’t meant to eat it, but are fed corn to rush their growth. Grass-fed cattle take a lot longer to mature, but the quality of their meat and flavor is world’s apart.

“Depending on the breed of cow, grass-fed beef contains between 2 and 5 times more omega-3s than grain-fed beef” according to this Chris Kresser. Grass-fed red meat also has 4 times less omega-6, which most people get in excess. A small amount of omega-6 is necessary for health, but the average American has 10 times the amount they need, and excess builds inflammation (while omega-3s decreases it).

Finding Healthy Fats to Fit Your Eating Style

walnut-oilPolyunsaturated oils — like safflower, sesame, soy, sunflower-seed oils, nut oils and seeds — are liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator. They can easily spoil because of their molecular make-up so they better store in the fridge. You’ll also find PUFAs in flax, hemp, peanut, rice bran, aheat germ oils, and tree nuts — making them ideal for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

Monounsaturated oils — like olive, canola and peanut oils — are liquid at room temperature but start to solidify at refrigerator temperatures. You’ll also find MUFA’s in avocados, nuts (such as almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias) and in nut butters of course. Like PUFAs, MUFAs are also great for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. If you follow the raw diet, cold pressed oil, raw nuts, raw chocolate and raw seeds are your best sources of healthy fats.

Grass-fed Saturated Fats — If don’t eat beef, don’t start — but if you’re a red meat lover, then go grass-fed. Yes, sounds easy, but here’s the catch: Grass-fed meat is typically twice the price but more than twice the nutrition, due to the omega ratio and plenty of added anti-oxidants. Aim for 4 ounces to keep the portion small and load up on greens to make it more budget-friendly. Even if you’re getting a good portion of your fats from meat sources, you’ll want to balance it out with plenty of low-fat vegetables, and also incorporate healthy foods from the MUFA and PUFA list.

I find superfood greens like kale, spinach, and watercress fit the bill and make a lovely bed for your beef. There are plenty of delicious ways to make a “veggie” match with meat: perhaps a mini-steak with a big plate of broccoli rabe? Roasted kale with flank steak? Sweet potato fries with a filet for healthy steak frites? The options are juicy.

Other sources of sat-fat? Eggs also fall into this category, and no, they don’t raise your cholesterol. But just like grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs are better. Eggs have a whopping amount of nutrients, every essential amino acids you need, B vitamins, choline, and the list goes on.

My “stranded deserted island meal” to keep me healthy? It would be kale and eggs!

Minimally Processed Coconut Oil
Spectrum-Coconut-OilIn the past, coconut oil (much like other foods extremely high in saturated fat like bacon, certain cuts of beef, cheese and butter) where definitely on the “no” list when it came to heart health (grain-fed dairy and beef still are) because they raise LDL, the bad cholesterol.

But now health experts are saying that “some types of saturated fat may be less harmful than others, and it appears that coconut oil may contain one of the better ones as some studies show that coconut oil does not have a significant effect on cholesterol levels.”

Coconut oil is a tasty oil to cook with, great for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. For raw foodists, raw coconut oil makes lovely desserts and adds richness to shakes and slaws. But coconut is still a calorie-dense fat, so be sure to start with low-calorie, nutrient-dense veggies and add only small amounts of coconut oil (about 2 teaspoons of coconut oil per serving per person).

Americans Still have Issues with Fat

Most Americans are very confused about fat and have no idea how much or what kind they are eating. And it’s no wonder, the news and health studies can be conflicting. In most cases, people who eat a lot of packaged foods, eat out at chain restaurants, and don’t cook at home, eat too much fat — mostly the bad kind in the form of trans-fat and corn-fed meats and dairy — about double the amount they should (about 150 grams a day).

40-60 grams of fat a day for a calorie intake of 1200-2000 is recommended, so how does that look in terms of food? Let’s take a plate of cheesy nachos for example. Your standard “chili cheese” nachos platter has around 110 grams of fat, double the amount you should have in one day if you don’t share! Instead of eating a tiny portion of cheesy chili nachos (at 20 fat grams consisting of both trans-fat and low quality saturated fat), share guacamole made with 2 Hass avocados — at around 52 grams of fat, it is incredibly rich tasting and a great treat to share between two people (26 grams). You’ll be also getting a big hit of fiber to boot, something no plain cheese nachos can deliver, plus other vitamins and minerals that avocados contain.

Omnivores: Enjoy Fats the Healthy Way

  • Balance fat intake by making vegetables with healthy cooking sauces that are trans-fat free, low in sodium and low in sugar. Add in fruits as snacks
  • Eat small quantities of actual whole grains (in place of highly processed breads, crackers, cakes, and pastas) like quinoa, short grain brown rice, farro, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth. Ditch the processed grain products since they often contain trans-fat, HFCS, white flour, artificial colors and preservative.
  • Eat fish rich in Omega-3s, enjoy it twice a week and choose low mercury sources.
  • Include grass-fed dairy products, add legumes (beans), lean meats like skinless poultry and lean pork loin, lean beef, or add firm tofu, kefir, and nuts or seeds with your veggies

Related Article on Carbohydrates

We often call starchy and fibrous foods carbs but carbohydrates are found in many different foods. Learn more about carbs »

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