Most of us have grown up surrounded by messages that fat is bad, and, in a quest to manage our weight and heart health, have reduced or eliminated it from our diets.
We now know better. “Fats are essential for our physical and emotional health,” says Nature’s Fare Markets’ nutritionist Lisa Kilgour, “as important as carbohydrates and protein-and the type of fat we eat is the most important of all.” Here is a primer on what fat does for us and some easy tips on how to make the healthiest choices.
The Function of Fat
Fat is one of three primary macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrates.
While our bodies do make some, we need to get other ‘essential’ fats known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) from our food. These provide us with energy and the materials to build cell membranes, lubricate our skin and digestive system, support brain and nervous system development, and regulate hormones and metabolism. Each EFA plays a different role in managing inflammation, which is essential to our immune system. Omega-6 helps to create inflammation, and triggers a healing response in our bodies, which is then balanced with anti-inflammatory Omega-3.
But we now consume one-sixth of the Omega-3 in our diet that we did 150 years ago because of how our food is grown, manufactured, and stored. And our consumption of Omega-6 has doubled because of our increased intake of prepared and fast foods. This imbalance causes too much inflammation in our bodies, and has contributed to the rise in degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Essential Fat Can’t Make You Fat
During digestion, essential (healthy) fat is fully broken down into single fatty acids. These are absorbed and sent to your liver, which then decides where they are needed most-to make more cells, or balance hormones, for example. Unless your body is completely depleted, the last thing it will do is use it for energy, or store it as fat.
“It’s almost physiologically impossible for fat to make you fat,” explains Lisa. “Because it has so many jobs-so many uses-it rarely gets stored in your body. Fat is blamed for weight gain but it’s usually something else, like sugary drinks or carb-binging. Fat actually slows down the absorption of carbs and sugar from hitting your blood stream, versus a low fat food that goes into your bloodstream much faster and contributes to weight gain.”
One of the simplest ways to know if a fat is good or bad is to ask, How close to nature is it? Is it in the food like an avocado? That’s the best. Is it almost in a food like cold-pressed olive oil? That’s second best. Has it been dramatically changed, or does it look and smell completely different from its origin, like margarine? That’s not a good choice. All fats in their natural form are essential, so choose those first.
Heat changes fat, and destroys its beneficial properties. Try drizzling organic, cold-pressed oils over your cooked foods for maximum benefit. If you are cooking, never heat any oil to its smoke point.
Experiment! Here are some simple natural or close-to-natural ideas:
- add avocado to salads, on a sandwich, in a dip, or on the side
- drizzle sesame oil over stir-fried veggies
- pour coconut oil on your baked potato, steamed veggies, or spread on toast
- try sesame, walnut, or almond oil (food grade) in soups, sauces, or bean dishes
- use camelina oil in your salad dressing
Consider the Source
If you see a commercial for a manufactured food, it’s a signal to limit it in your diet-even if it promises to be trans fat free. Because of Canadian labelling laws, a product can have a half gram of trans fat per serving, and still say ‘0’ on the label.
“No manufacturing is needed for healthy fats. There’s no processing, and therefore no profit to advertise. But when a food is highly processed, there’s a lot of money left over for marketing. If there’s a commercial on TV, stay far away from the food!”
And think about how any fat source is raised or produced. A cow’s diet, for example, determines the quality of its fat. If it’s raised on a conventional farm and fattened with grains, it will be inflammatory. If grass-fed, it will be anti-inflammatory, with higher levels of Omega-3, as well as Omega-6 poly-unsaturated fats and some mono-unsaturated fats. Whatever they eat, we eat.
Home Cooked is Healthier
Michael Pollan (award-winning food and agriculture expert, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) notes that the best tasting foods are often the most labour intensive-like French fries and potato chips.
And because manufacturers make them cheap and easy to get, over-consumption becomes our biggest problem. Made with highly refined fats, they are inflammatory to the body.
So, if you want fries with that-or dip or salad dressing-make them at home with the best ingredients you can find.
Listen to Your Body
How much fat we need varies from person to person, and depends on your age, calorie intake, and activity level. Most of us, says Lisa, need more, and are, in fact, fat deficient.
“Your body will tell you-if you’re ready to listen to it,” says Lisa. “Do you have good digestion, and is your skin soft? Or, are you constipated? Do you have dry skin, eyes, or sinuses? Are your joints popping? When your fat intake is at the right level, you will feel fantastic.
“If you feel fine and your skin is glowing and lovely, add a teaspoon of healthy fat per meal-or one tablespoon per day, in total. If you experience a lot of dryness, increase that slowly to three to four tablespoons per day.”
Supplements Make it Easy
Taking supplements can ensure you get all the essential anti-inflammatory fats your body needs. Look for organic brands in dark green or brown glass jars to filter out light and maximize freshness. Choose fish oil or vegan-friendly, algae-based DHA supplements for an Omega-3 boost; try borage, flax, or hemp oil for Omega-6. Or try a blended oil to make sure you get the right balance of both.
Types of Fat
Considered good fats, sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6 EFAs come in two types:
Improves blood cholesterol levels, lowers the risk of heart disease, and controls blood sugar.
Sources: Avocados, almonds, peanuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, grains, and olive and nut oils.
Helps cognitive and emotional well-being, inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and supports a healthy pregnancy.
Sources: Wild salmon, herring, mackerel, oysters, sardines, tuna, and trout; algae (seaweed); walnuts, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and flax seeds; Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and parsley; and non-GMO sources of soy milk and tofu.
Good sources of quick energy and heart-protecting ‘good’ cholesterol, and carriers of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Plant sources (e.g., coconut oil) fast-track to the liver better than meat which takes longer to digest, and may be stored as body fat.
Sources: Plant, animal, and dairy products. Coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, and cocoa butter.
Create inflammation, and are linked to heart and other degenerative diseases.
Fat Facts: Did You Know?
- The half-life of fats in the body – the amount of time it takes for an oil to change in the body – is 1.5 years. The bad fats you eat today will clog your system, lower your metabolic rate, and drag down your cellular transactions for three years.
- The quality of the saturated fats is important, as fats store toxins. Choose good quality, organic sources to help the body to work more efficiently, process smoothly, and boost its base metabolic rate.
- Because most cows are not grass-fed, and we lack wild and cold water fish in our diets, we are most missing Omega-3 in our diets.
- At Nature’s Fare Markets, all our cheeses, dairy, and meat are made from grass-fed animals, raised on a proper diet. Our cheese is generally processed with natural, traditional methods, unlike mainstream cheeses, which use highly processed, modified milk ingredients.
- Fat in dairy is important to balance out its natural sugars. Low fat dairy tends to spike blood sugar instability, and make you hungry in an hour. Choose 2% or better yet 5% over 0% fat products.
- Although margarine has been seen as heart healthier, organic butter is much better for you…in fact, it contains anti-cancer properties.
- Heat, light, and oxygen easily damage oils. Keep them in a cool, dark place, and never use any that smell or taste bitter or rank.
- Digestion is so complex it has its own dedicated nervous system to control it.