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Fat is Not Evil

4 Pillars Functional Medicine – Food Pillar IconOne of the first things I like to make clear to anyone starting to pay attention to what they eat is that fat is not evil. Let that sink in for a minute because if you were listening to the so called “expects” for the past 50 years, you’ve heard repeatedly that fat was the cause of all health problems, and was a direct link to having heart disease.

Unfortunately, that information and the dogma that has both been taught to health professionals and told to the public was flat out wrong. Thankfully, there have been forward thinking researchers and physicians working to counter that argument throughout this time and finally, the truth is starting to make it back to the public.

The fat is bad craze primarily started in 1970 with the publication of the “The Seven Countries Study.” This research looked at the incidence of heart disease amongst men from seven countries and determined that increased intake of saturated fat correlated with higher incidence of heart disease. Unfortunately, this study was deeply flawed in several aspects, most notably that it originally researched 22 countries and didn’t include the data from such countries where there was no correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. While there are always studies that have controversy and differing interpretations, this one unfortunately triggered a major shift in dietary recommendations. Because of this, the low fat craze began, and still remains embedded in medical guidelines as well as the public mindset. Sadly, this fear of fat, and the resultant increase in flour and sugar in our diets over the past 40 years has likely been one of the major contributors to the obesity epidemic and the marked increase in chronic diseases.

Taking a step back, what is fat and what does it do. Fat is basically various combinations of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Fats can exist in straight chains of these molecules or form ring-like structures. In the body fats serve a variety of crucial functions. Foremost is that cell membranes (the wall/boundary around cells) are primarily composed of fat and normal cell function requires a healthy cell membrane. Fats also serve at a vital energy source. Additionally, fats can regulate how various genes are expressed and thus affect a variety of body functions. Finally, fats are necessary to make a variety of important compounds in the body, including hormones and a variety of others that help to reduce inflammation (a good thing).

What do you likely care about? It’s probably dietary fats, meaning the fats that you eat. Most dietary fat is in the form of long-chains, though cholesterol (a ring-like fat) is also taken in through the diet in smaller amounts. Long-chain fats can be classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. These different fat types refer to how the chemical structure of the chains occur. Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and saturated fats are solid. An industrial created fat, called trans-fat, is another type. At this point, there is literally no debate in the nutrition world about trans-fats; they are toxic substances that no one should eat in any amounts. Thankfully, companies are removing them from a lot of foods but you will still find them in fast food and processed grocery store items. You can avoid them by reading ingredient lists and avoid any foods with partially hydrogenated oils/fats.

4 Pillars Functional Medicine – Fat Is Not Evil

Each type of fat (saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) each have their own benefits in the body and all should be eaten as part of a regular healthy diet. It is important to note that fat contains more than twice as many calories per weight as carbs and proteins so knowing portion sizes are very important when eating fats. Eating modest amounts with every meal and snack is optimal as fat increases feeling full and generally helps limit over-eating.

Note that highly processed foods containing fats like most mass produced hots dogs, sausages and bacon are not ideal; we want to ensure fat exists are much as possible in its natural state with limited processing.

Thus, the fats we want to consider as part of our every-day routine include…

  • Avocado / Avocado oil (mostly mono)
  • Nuts / nut oils (mostly mono)
  • Seeds (mostly poly)
  • Fatty fish (mostly poly)
  • Extra virgin olive oil (mostly mono)
  • Coconut / coconut oil / grass-fed butter or ghee (mostly saturated)
  • Chocolate (80% or higher, mostly saturated)
  • High-quality animal products (saturated and poly)

There are lots of ways to incorporate them. Below are 4 quick things that I do regularly.

  1. Olive oil on vegetables – Almost anytime I eat vegetables, I’m drizzling some extra virgin olive oil on them. Go visit a farmers market or olive oil store and sample different ones to find something you like. I do this with steamed or roasted vegetables and do olive oil with some sea salt on all my salads.
  2. Nuts or seeds in salads – I eat a lot of salads and I make sure toss a handful of nuts or seeds in each one. A handful is a nice serving size and it adds crunch, flavor, and tons of nutrients. Ever feel hungry a couple hours after eating “just a salad?” Add some nuts or seeds (and the olive oil) and I think you’ll see a big difference.
  3. Dark chocolate – I’m one of the rare people that don’t have an built-in chocolate addiction from birth. That being said, dark chocolate (80% or higher, I do 88%) is great for a quick snack, a dessert, or simply the chocolate fix people sometimes need. 3-4 squares of a bar (usually 1/5-1/4 a bar) is all that is needed. If I’m a little hungrier, I might spread a little coconut oil or nut butter on top and sprinkle some sea salt. Delicious!
  4. Coconut oil – Coconut oil is an extremely useful food. It has a high smoke point, so it’s a good fat to cook with if you need high heat. I really like using coconut oil to cook popcorn. From a nutritional standpoint, coconut oil is composed primarily of “medium-chain-triglycerides.” What this means is that the body can absorb and use the energy in coconut oil without activating the normal digestive processes required for most fats. Thus, coconut oil can be a great option in a quick snack. I use a little spread on rice cakes or dark chocolate, sprinkled with sea salt. Also, you might try blending 1-2 tablespoons in your morning coffee or tea instead of milk, cream, or sweeteners.

How do you use healthy fats in your day? Let us know below!

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David Gordon

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