One of the greatest lies ever sold to Western culture is the idea that fat is bad for you.
If you have been sold this lie—to no fault of your own—what I’m going to share with you today is going to challenge your beliefs about food.
Here’s the thing about fat: It does contain more calories per gram than carbs or protein—9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram—but beyond that, it has a few things going for it that makes it an amazing and essential nutrient that humans need to eat to stay alive.
Yes… if you don’t eat fat you’ll die.
Hmm… It’s quite curious how something we need to live is so often demonized by pop culture…
Fist of all, fat doesn’t spike hormones the way carbs and protein do
Without going down the rabbit hole of hormones right now, just know that glucose and insulin are two of the big players in the fat gain and fat loss game, and the fact that carbs, and to a lesser extent protein, trigger their release while fat does not, is a very big WIN for fat.
The second thing that fat has going for it is its vital role in a ton of processes in the body.
Back to that whole “eat it or you’ll die” thing.
Here are a couple of these body processes that fat is necessary for: regulates fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; converts to energy more efficiently than any other form of calorie, making it our body’s preferred fuel source; provides a source of essential fatty acids (ones you need or you’ll die); provides insulation and protection of your vital organs; is needed to manufacture adrenal and sex hormones; and so on.
On top of all that, fat helps regulate hormones, especially insulin.
Have you ever heard how an insulin spike is bad and can make you fat? While that’s a little simplistic for my taste, in general, chronically elevated insulin levels (and cortisol levels) are one of the primary causes of modern western disease, namely Diabetes.
And since insulin is the body’s primary storage hormone, spiking insulin signals your body to store calories as body fat to be used later. Since most of us don’t need to store body fat for later—because we have a fridge and restaurants and our modern food system—controlling our hormones is almost always ideal.
The Typical Journey With Fat
Over the years I’ve done my best to convert as many people as possible to Real Food nutrition. In my past life, I owned a Crossfit gym and a juice bar in Florida and served customers and clients on the regular.
During this process, there are usually two milestones on the path to, what I call, food enlightenment.
The first milestone is when one successfully implements a lower-carb, lower-sugar Real Food style diet.
This is always the highest ROI because it eliminates all processed junk food, which lowers total carb intake and seed and nut oils.
And people understand this. It’s almost universally understood that sugar and carbs are unhealthy and contribute to fat gain (although there is still a lot of confusion on carbs, people still know to eat less of it if they want to lose weight).
The second major milestone when moving to a Real Food diet is eating more fat.
This one isn’t as easy because most have been told “fat is bad” by media and culture for a long time now.
Lipids have gotten a bad rap over the years as a result of big food corporation lobbying and faulty research done in the 60s. If you are interested in this subject, read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.
The thing about fat is, it’s essential to life.
Fat is an essential nutrient, which means that if you don’t eat it, you’ll die.
(The same can be said of protein yet not carbohydrates.)
It’s pretty wild that something we need to survive has been so demonized by popular media.
The fact is, fat is a miracle nutrient and is integral to dozens of processes in your body. Fat is to your body like oil is to a car—you need it if you want to perform, and the better fat you consume the better your engine runs.
In today’s piece, I’m going to cover dietary fat also known as lipids or fatty acids, their relative cooking temperatures (to prevent oxidization), and which fats/oils are better to eat than others.
When you think of fat, remember this:
1. Fat is not bad for you and almost everyone will do better eating more of it than they currently do.
2. Some fats are bad for you and you shouldn’t eat them at all if you can help it.
You’ll learn this today:
1. How to properly heat the good fats so they stay good for you
2. How to incorporate more good fat into your diet
3. Which fats to avoid
Types Of Fat
All fats are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. This is where it can get pretty complicated, and a lot to remember. For simplicity sake, the two primary factors for determining good fat versus bad fat are:
1) The make-up of the fatty acids—most specifically omega-3 and omega-6—and making sure to consume enough of the “good” stuff and not too much of the “bad” stuff.
2) Make sure you aren’t oxidizing—turning rancid—the fatty acids (rancid fat consumption has been shown to increase disease).
To be able to make smart fat decisions, we now need to look at the specific fatty acids and their makeup.
The Three Main Types Of Fat Are
Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFAS): Easily oxidized by oxygen, light, and heat; Omega-3 and Omega-6. Lower melting point than saturated fat. Read more on Mark Sisson’s wonderful website.
Monounsaturated Fat (MUFAS): Lower melting point than saturated fat but moderately stable compared to polyunsaturated fats. The most common form of monounsaturated fat found in our diet is oleic acid, which is common in olive oil, almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamias, and avocados.
Saturated Fat: Found mostly in animals and some tropical oils, saturated fats play many critical roles in the human body. More stable and less likely to breakdown with high-heat cooking than unsaturated fats. When eating saturated fats from animals, the health, diet, and living environment of the animal plays a primal role in determining how good the fat is for you.
The Make-up of The Three Types of Fat
Essential fatty acids: “Essential” means our body does not produce them and needs them to survive. Essential fatty acids come in the form of Omega-3 and Omega-6 and are essential to life.
Omega-3s: Found primarily in fish, algae, pastured red meats, flax, and nuts (each containing different amounts)
Omega-6s: Found primarily in fish, grain, soybeans, vegetable oils, nut and seed oils, and most processed food.
EPA/DHA: Essential fatty acids found primarily in fish and some nuts and seeds. Important information on brain tissue, especially for babies in fetal development. Low levels of EPA/DHA have been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Promote heart health, reduce inflammation, and protect against disease. (Hint: eat as much of this as you can.)
ALA: The other essential fatty acids commonly found in nuts, seeds, and flax. Typically most of us don’t need to worry about ALA because of its prevalence in many plants and animals. Furthermore, the human body is not good at converting ALA into EPA/DHA, which makes it a poor substitute for eating sources high in EPA/DHA (like fatty fish).
General Fat Principles
- Vegetable and seed oils contain more unsaturated fatty acids, making them more susceptible to oxidization. They also tend to have high levels of omega-6 compared to omega-3.
- Animal fat contains more saturated fat. (So does coconut.)
- Saturated fat is less susceptible to oxidization and more suited for cooking at higher temperatures.
- Because our Western diet and food supply is so lacking in omega-3s—specifically EPA and DHA found in fish and fish oils—always try to eat more omega-3 and less omega-6. Here’s a nifty chart by Mark Sisson: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/omega-3-fish-oil-food-quantities/#axzz3unluOsbc
- Don’t eat any food with the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the label. Research on why you should follow this advice can be found here.
Cattle raised on antibiotics and large factory farms have a less healthy omega-3 to omega-6 balance. Plus, you shouldn’t buy this meat because it supports unsafe, unsanitary, and inhumane practices.
The Thing About Animal Fat
Fat from healthy animals is an integral part of the human diet. This is irrefutable and is easily shown by looking at all the essential nutrients—fats/protein—that the human body needs to ingest and looking at nature to find where we find these nutrients. (Hint: some essentials nutrients are only found in animals.)
Of course, not all animals are the same. Certain animals have a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than others.
Then, when you factor in the industrialized factors of raising animals for food, you get even more problems—further skewing of omega-3 to 6, toxins and antibiotics in the animal, and so on.
For example, grain-fed beef—which is not beef’s natural diet—has shown to have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:20. Compare this to grass-fed beef, which has around a 1:3 ratio!
How the animals were raised, e.g. what they ate and how they lived, play the primary role in how healthy the animal is to eat.
Keywords to look for when shopping for animal products:
- humanely treated
- Friends of the sea
(You also find better nutritional makeup in ingredients such as chocolate and coffee beans that are grown in their natural conditions—among forest canopy—compared to mass-produced on factory farms.)
Here’s a list of omega-3 to omega-6 ratios in animals and nuts and seeds. Remember, the goal is to get an even ratio of O3 to O6 in your diet. O6 is not bad, per se, it’s just over consumed. So that’s why, as a general rule, you are trying to reduce O6 consumption while increasing O3 consumption.
Heating Fats And Oils
The main thing you are trying to avoid when heating fats or oils is oxidation, which can lead to rancidity. When fats oxidize, the nutrients degrade and the unsaturated fats turn rancid. Studies have proven that rancidification can produce toxic compounds shown to have adverse long-term health effects.
The most common way fats oxidize is through the cooking process. Keeping the heat to levels below the “smoke point” of respective fats and oils will help prevent oxidization.
Below is a list of oils and their smoke points. (Hint: If the oil is literally smoking in a pan, take it off the heat.)
Cooking Temperatures of Oils
Oils and Fats to Avoid
Fats to avoid are often highly refined and contain larger amounts of omega-6s. They are usually not easily found in nature in large amounts—which is a sign you shouldn’t be eating them—and require large mechanical methods of producing.
- Canola Oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
- Any kind of butter substitute: Margarine, Shortening, Crisco, etc
- Peanut oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Any trans fat
The justification for the anti-saturated fat campaign that has raged on for half a century is largely baseless.
Even if saturated fat does increase (large, fluffy) LDL, it increases protective HDL right along with it, and cardiovascular mortality has never been explicitly demonstrated to increase with saturated fat intake.
Simply put, saturated fat or dietary cholesterol is not what causes heart disease and modern disease. Read more about these topics here and here.
There is a learning curve when it comes to understanding the many nuances of fat and oils.
A couple of things to remember:
- Eat healthy animals that ate their natural diet—e.g. cows that eat grass, fish that are wild.
- Stay away from highly processed oils, especially seed oils.
- Coconut in its many forms is wildly good for you.
- Fat is not bad for you, although some fats are.
- Saturated fat is an essential nutrient and has been wrongfully demonized (the same goes for cholesterol).
- Pastured butter (try Kerrygold brand) is a miracle food while margarine and shortening-like products are poison.
- Avoid cooking most oils and fats at too high temperatures, and if it smokes, remove it from the heat because it’s too hot.