Since the 1970’s, we’ve all been taught that fats are bad. “Lower your dietary fat and cholesterol.” “Don’t eat red meat.” “Switch to heart healthy margarine.” Well, at least this last point is finally on the chopping block from the FDA, who have taken a stand against trans-fats and may one day outlaw them. Hooray for that! But red meat and cholesterol are still being touted as big killers. While I’d love to launch into the politics of carbohydrate promotion at the expense of fats, I’ll leave that for another time. My point here is to provide basics on which fats you and your family should be eating to help you stay healthy.
Why eat fats? For starters, they are one of the 3 main nutritional categories (the others being protein and carbohydrates) so they are essential to life. Fats are what make our skin water repellant, what most of our brains are made of, and make cellular life possible. Without fats, we’d be puddles of ooze on the ground.
Fats are also a great source of fuel. While it’s terrifying to many that a gram of fat has more than twice the calories as a gram of carbohydrates or protein, those extra calories are a good slow-burn type of fuel. Carbohydrates (sugars) are also sources of cellular fuel (ATP), but simple carbs like bread/pasta/baked goods completely destabilize your blood sugar. This makes you hungry soon after eating when your blood sugar drops, which consequently makes you crave more carbs. Fats help keep you full. All you have to do is have a veggie omelets for breakfast one day and a bowl or two of cereal the next to experience that. And along with keeping us full, fats and proteins help us maintain mental focus.
Here’s more reasons: Our hormones are made from fat. Our nerves are insulated in fat. And for that matter, our bodies are insulated by fat. I can tell you as a tall thin guy that not having fat on your rump makes sitting on wooden surfaces less than cozy. And lastly, fats taste good. We are all genetically programmed to crave fats and carbohydrates for living in “the wild”. Supermarkets have just made our “hunting” a little too easy.
So what fats should you eat? Healthy fats of course. And these healthy fats come from two different basic camps: vegetable and animal. I’ll cover the vegetable kind first because these are easier. Good non-animal fats should be from nuts, seeds, avocado or olive (fruits or oils), or coconut oil. Olive oil and coconut oil are in superfood classes by themselves in their respective unsaturated and saturated selves and should be eaten regularly. I have come to stop recommending seed oils. Once thought incredible in terms of health, for reasons beyond the scope of this article lets just say it’s time to drop all besides Flax (still great). Canola, safflower, peanut and sesame oil should all be eaten minimally or in moderation. Avoid “vegetable oils” entirely. I used to recommend canola oil for high heat cooking, but now I recommend coconut and butter. That’s right, I recommend grass-fed butter. Naturally saturated fats (solid at room temperature) like coconut oil, butter, or even tallow or lard are more heat stable than all liquid oils, and so don’t turn into “bad” fats when heated. But of course the source of the animal fats makes a big difference.
And this is a big point with all animal fats – know your source! Butter (or meat) from a grass-fed cow is better than either from a feedlot corn-fed cow. And the fat from a pig or the yolk from a chicken that have eaten their normal diet of seeds, bugs, and such and getting regular activity actually have a better fatty acid ratio than the factory-farmed counterparts. When patients “confess” to me that they eat red meat once in a while, I say “great! As long as it’s 100% grass-fed. That’s even got the same Omega 3 fats we all eat salmon for!” It’s time again to know our livestock farms, what they feed their animals, and how their animals live. And if you are eating high quality meats, low carbohydrates, and getting plenty of antioxidants from vegetables and dark green leafies like Kale, you are going to be ok.
You might even improve your cholesterol! Once again this is another topic that I will have to cover elsewhere, but some of the healthiest cholesterol levels I have seen are from patients who eat tons of vegetables with relatively high fat and protein diets, complete with daily eggs and red meat! But once again, for the record, they’re never eating much in the way of carbohydrates, and most of these folks have lost weight! That's a paradox most people would be glad to be part of.