We all know a few fat phobics. Holdovers from a past era of dietary fads. They’re constantly referring to things as “fattening” (a word I’ve come to hate as a nutritionist). Their refrigerators are full of “lite” and “non-fat” versions of name-brand processed foods, things like non-fat salad dressing, which is nothing short of a food science miracle, or fat-free ice cream bars rife with additives you’ve never heard of. All this dietary effort, they’ll say, is to prevent the intake of excess fat, and thus the storage of fat in the body. I only wish things were that simple – eat fat, get fat! That would make my job a lot easier. (Or maybe I wouldn’t have a job.) Truth is, despite their hyper-lean methods, fat phobic eaters are almost always struggling with their body weight in one way or another.
As we’ve moved on to the low-carb era, why have we still not mended fences with dietary fats? Why have we not let go of the rumors and slander slung for so long about this quintessential dietary compound?
If we haven’t, we should! Fats and oils (just as protein and carbohydrates) are an essential part of our intake; specifically omega-3 and omega-6 fats (think EPA/DHA, cold water fish, flax, nuts and seeds), which cannot be manufactured in the body like other forms. The cells walls of the 100 trillion+ cells in our bodies are made of fat. The flexibility and integrity of those cell walls is crucial to almost every metabolic process, from nutrient absorption to muscle contraction. The brain is 60% fat, linking memory, learning, cognition, depression, mood and happiness to our dietary intake. Further, omega-3 fats are used to synthesize compounds that reduce inflammation in the body, the underlying factor for all chronic disease – cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and so many more.
When it comes to weight management, fatty foods get written off immediately for being the most calorie dense options available. This is a fact, as fat provides more than twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbohydrate. But healthy fat intake can actually help to promote weight loss! How else could avocados end up on a list of foods skinny people eat? (Side note, avocados are also extremely high in fiber – about 13g per fruit.) One of those metabolic processes affected by the health of our cell walls is insulin metabolism, a crucial component for managing blood sugar, maintaining a healthy weight and preventing type 2 diabetes. Also, fat in foods helps to slow the digestive process, holding food in the stomach longer, which prolongs a feeling of fullness and tempers the blood sugar/insulin response following meals.
So with all these positives, how does fat remain a villain in the world of nutrition? It comes down to eating the right fats vs the wrong fats. The wrong fats come from refined vegetable oils (corn, cottonseed, soy, and safflower) found in packaged, processed foods, as well as omega-6 and saturated fats from most of the land-based animal products in our food supply (feedlot beef, pork, processed meats, cheese and dairy). Too much of these fats WILL promote weight gain, stoke inflammation in the body, and cause disease. The right fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fats coming from whole food sources like small cold water fish (wild salmon, sardines and mackerel), flax, walnuts, tree nuts and seeds. Wild game, 100% grass-fed beef and omega-3 fortified eggs can also be good sources.
Moral of the story: let go of your fat phobia! There is nothing to fear from having the right types of fats in your diet. Focus on whole food sources (described above) and getting adequate omega-3’s, which tend to be hardest to come by in our food supply. If you’re not sure you’re getting enough, talk to your healthcare provider about tests like the Omega-3 Index and consider supporting your intake with a supplement. Village Green Apothecary carries all the best brands for lipid supplements, including Nordic Naturals, a long-time practitioner favorite that focuses solely on omega oil supplements.
Read more about the importance of fats in the diet from Dr Mark Hyman’s recent blog, Are You Fat Enough.