I remember walking up and down the aisles in the grocery store as a kid in the 1980’s and 90’s, and almost every product on the shelf showcased “Low Fat” or “Fat Free” in BIG BOLD letters on the packaging. Food companies did a fantastic job convincing America that dietary fat was making us obese, and fat was giving us heart disease. Saturated fat was the enemy, and so instead of eating butter we were encouraged to eat margarine instead. Where did this idea originate? Popularized sometime in the 1950s, this thing called the Lipid Hypothesis, proposed by a physiologist named Ancel Keys, gained a lot of momentum, which postulated that there is a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease. In actuality, there is little evidence to support that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol decrease heart disease and/or increase lifespan, and yet for some reason vegetable oil and food processing companies propped up this hypothesis like it was absolute truth. Hmm, what reason could this be?
Check this out: Before 1920, heart disease was actually rare in America, but then dramatically rose until it was the lead cause of death in Americans by the 1950s. Between the years of 1910-1950, consumption of traditional animal fats in the American diet plummeted. Butter consumption dropped from about 18 lbs per year to just 4 lbs a year. During this same period, Americans began to eat other types of fats instead, with a sharp increase in the use of margarine, shortening, and refined oils rising by 400%! Additionally, Americans increased consumption of foods with sugars and processed foods by 60%! While American deaths were rapidly increasing, vegetable oil and food processing profits were skyrocketing off this faulty lipid hypothesis. While it is true that an increase in fats in the blood have been positively linked to an increase in heart disease, there is much more evidence now to support that this increase in blood fat has much more to do with excess sugars being converted to fats in the liver from foods high in refined sugar and white flour than from good dietary fats such as butter.
Today, much of our country is still convinced that fat is the enemy, yet slowly, we are starting to realize that dietary fats actually play vitally important roles in keeping our bodies healthy. Thanks to contemporary nutritional science, which has led to a much better understanding of fat consumption, fat has gone from foe to friend, especially when dietary fats are consumed from organic, minimally processed sources. Fats from both animal and vegetable sources provide concentrated sources of energy to keep us going strong all day. Fats also slow down nutrient absorption so we can go longer without feeling hungry. Fat is vitally important in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats also play an important role in stabilizing blood sugar as well as regulating hormones. Fats can contribute to the health of your gut, they help fight off inflammation, and can even boost metabolism. Dietary fats provide the critical building blocks for the cell membranes of the body’s 37+ trillion cells. Specifically, the majority of the brain is composed of fat and cholesterol, the majority of which is saturated fat. Additionally, saturated fats are used as building blocks to create the insulation (myelin) around the neurons in our spinal cords and nerves. Including saturated fats in our diets is vitally important for the brain and nerves to grow, regenerate, and stay healthy.
Now that you know that fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, you may still be confused about which fats you should eat and which fats you shouldn’t eat. You may be thinking:
Can’t you just tell me which cooking fats I should be eating on the regular?
Ok, so you want the nitty gritty. If your eyes can read no further, then the seven oils listed below are your cheat sheet for both animal and non-animal fats. Remember though, you should ALWAYS consume fats from the healthiest and least processed sources possible. Properly sourced means this: if you can find and afford organic, buy organic! Dairy fats (like butter or ghee) should be obtained from pasture-raised sources whenever possible, and vegetable/fruit fats like olive oil and coconut oil should be virgin, unrefined, and first-pressed for highest quality. Flax seed oil should be expeller-pressed and refrigerated at all times! Good fats may run you a little more money, but their health benefits far outweigh their cost in the long run. This all being said, IF you are ok with animal fats, then some great examples are:
Ghee is made from butter, but in addition it is free of the substances that usually irritate those with dairy sensitivities (like lactose and casein), and therefore generally safe for people who have dairy allergies or lactose intolerance (Note: If you have a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance, try ghee in small amounts first to ensure your body doesn’t have an adverse reaction). Ghee is our personal favorite, and if you are interested, check out our blog on how to make your own ghee from butter. Tallow is rendered beef fat and is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and also provides lots of energy. Fish oils are also very healthy, but these will be discussed a little later in this blog.
If you are NOT ok with animal fats (and even if you do like animal fats, you should ALSO include these in your diet), then some great examples are:
1) Coconut Oil (for cooking, especially at higher temperatures)
2) Avocado Oil (for cooking, especially at higher temperatures)
3) Olive Oil (generally for non-cooking, or only at low/moderate temperature if cooking)
4) Flax Seed Oil (non-cooking only)
These are just a few of the common oils out there that are healthy and easy to obtain in most markets. There are other oils that are not included here that may also be very good for you, and we encourage you to research and include others in your diet as you see fit.
What are Bad Fats Anyways?
Bad fats tend to come from unsaturated sources such as fruits, nuts, and seeds. This doesn’t mean that all fruit, nut, and seed oils are “bad”, but that mainstream manufacturing processes used to produce these oils render them “bad”. Extracting the oils from these food sources usually involves processes which require high amounts of pressure, temperature, and light exposure, and also toxic solvents. These manufacturing extremes tend to damage the structure of the fat, which creates dangerous free radicals while destroying any antioxidants which were previously present before processing. Oils that come from highly manufactured sources should be avoided at all costs, even if the cost is much less, which they usually tend to be. So then, what fruit, nut, and seed oils can you buy that are actually healthy? To be safe, when looking for fruit, nut and seed oils, check for keywords like organic, expeller-pressed, unrefined. They should generally be stored in dark bottles, and some oils even refrigerated (especially flax seed oil). If fruit, nut, and seed oils do not have these characteristics, you are better off leaving them on the shelf at the grocery store.
Hydrogenated fats are the worst of all fats and are made with the cheapest unsaturated oils such as soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola. You may have heard the term trans-fat before, and this is a nearly synonymous term with hydrogenated.
The manufacturing process of hydrogenated fats alters the shape of the fatty acid chain (making it a trans-fat), which is toxic to the body, however, the body doesn’t recognize it as toxic and will try to process it like a normal fat. The long-term effects of trans-fat consumption may include sexual dysfunction, increase in blood cholesterol, immune system dysfunction and/or paralysis, cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, low birth weight, birth defects, decreased vision, sterility, lactation problems, and bone and joint complications. Avoid oils obtained from soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola, period (they tend to be heavily processed).
What about saturated fats versus unsaturated fats?
Saturated fats tend to come from animal sources (coconut oil is a noteworthy exception) and tend to be solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats tend to come from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts, and tend to be liquid at room temperature. Ancel Keys’ Lipid Hypothesis of the 1950s set deep fearful roots in our culture with regard to saturated fats, and the belief that saturated fats increase bad cholesterol as well as risk for heart disease persists among the masses today. As discussed earlier, there is actually little evidence to suggest that consumption of saturated fats are bad for you. Instead, it is the increased consumption of sugar and white flour that actually cause a conversion in the liver which leads to higher blood fat/cholesterol. Additionally, hydrogenated (i.e. trans fats) increase blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis as mentioned just above. What we DO know is that saturated fats provide critical benefits with regard to brain health, cardiovascular health, bone health, immune health, and nervous system health, so excluding them from your diet seems rather absurd. Additionally, saturated fats have higher smoke points than unsaturated fats, which means they remain stable at high temperatures, making them a healthier option to cook with than unsaturated fats. When fats are heated beyond their smoke point, they become rancid and when consumed, release free radicals into the body that can cause all sorts of damage, cancer being the most well known. Generally speaking, unsaturated oils are best consumed at room temperature, and should be used to cook with less than saturated oils, if used for cooking at all.
This all being said, a diet that is well-rounded in both properly sourced saturated and unsaturated fats makes for the healthiest outcomes.
What’s the deal with omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats?
Both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats are two of what are called essential fatty acids, which are fatty acids that our bodies need, but that must be obtained from fats in our diet. We need omega-6 fats, as they are essential for energy, growth, and development. As for omega-3 fats, they provide a myriad of health benefits, such as being crucial building blocks for cell membranes, increasing heart health by increasing “good” (HDL) cholesterol, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing the formation of arterial plaques, decreasing inflammation in the body, and improving memory, to name just a few. The problem with the contemporary American diet is the consumption of dietary fats that have way too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats. Research says that an ideal omega-6:omega-3 ratio is 4:1 (some people say that ratio should actually be 2:1 or 1:1), however, in the typical American diet, that ratio is somewhere between 10:1 and 50:1 on average! This grossly over-proportionate amount of omega-6 fat consumption results in the body triggering pro-inflammatory chemicals. With so many people dealing with internal chronic inflammation, it’s no wonder there is so much sickness and disease in our culture today! If you are looking to increase your omega-3 fatty acid profile and even out your omega-6:omega-3 ratio, increase your consumption of fish oils, sardines, and salmon if you are ok with animal fats.
Flax seed oil and walnuts are great non-animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
In conclusion, I will re-iterate that you should ALWAYS consume fats from the healthiest and least processed sources possible. Fats are a very interesting and yet very detailed topic. While I have tried to include the main points here to give you a better understanding of good fats, there is still much detail that has not been included, otherwise this blog would be a much longer read. If you have any further questions regarding fats, feel free to comment or contact us at email@example.com.