Food trends are like a rocky romance: depending on new research, new fad, celebrity endorsement, or food industry lobby, they're on, then they're off again, and then back on again. And there are few things more polarizing in my professional experience than debating dietary fats with my patients. I seldom see an in-between, from complete avoidance and even disgust to a total love affair with something fat-related. Why is it so difficult to establish a balanced relationship with fat?
Many of us have grown up fearing both eating fat and becoming fat, having been indelibly connected to the two, and seeing them as different entities can be a challenge. Remember all those diets of low-fat/no-fat?! It was not so long ago that, in an attempt to avoid weight gain, we would look for nonfat versions of our favorite foods.
But research has shown us that not all fat is created equally. In fact, different fats behave differently in the body, and rather than causing weight gain, healthy fats, like polyunsaturated omega-3s, can actually help contribute to weight loss. Fat is one of three macronutrients essential to overall health and nutrition, and just like carbohydrates and proteins, fat is not just an absolute requirement for our bodies to function well, it’s actually necessary for survival!
We are now starting to better understand that weight gain is strongly associated with simple carbohydrate consumption and insulin disturbances, rather than the obsolete idea that "fat makes you fat," and that elevated blood cholesterol might have less to do with consuming cholesterol than commonly thought. We are discovering that obesity and diseases associated with elevated fat levels are far more complex images of risk factors including inflammation and vessel destruction, and not just dietary consumption of foods high in cholesterol, as we continue to discover how our bodies function.
Not just a rich energy source, fat stores calories as fuel for future use, more than twice the energy per gram compared to protein and carbs! For the digestion, absorption, and transport of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K, which support our immune function, skin health, blood coagulation, and much more, fat is essential. And other fats, such as omega-3s, are essential to reducing inflammation, which is at the root of virtually all disease processes.
In order to strengthen the exterior skin of all our cells, fats are required. In order to give these membranes integrity while keeping them flexible, we need both saturated and unsaturated fats. Fats are also the chemical backbone of many significant hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and cortisol, and we risk hormone imbalances when we deprive our bodies of fat.
And from a taste point of view, it's no wonder that fats enhance the flavor of foods! It becomes less flavorful when fat is stripped out, and in the case of low-fat/no-fat products, more sugar, sodium, and additives are integrated to accommodate the loss. In exchange, this leads to blood sugar spikes and increased portion sizes, as fat also helps with satiation.
I am a long-term balance advocate, and that means recommending a diverse and healthy diet that includes protein, fiber, and vegetables at each meal for many of my patients, with the addition of fats, you guessed it.
Choose healthy fats such as raw nuts, seeds, and butter; olives and olive oil; coconut and coconut milk; avocado and avocado oil; cold water fish and supplements of high-quality fish or flax oil; and dairy, eggs, or ghee fed with full-fat grass. Because toxins and added hormones may be concentrated in fats, wild/organic varieties are recommended if possible (especially fats from animal sources).
Not sure how to begin fixing your fat relationship? Small steps will spice up things for real!
To stay long-term, invite fat in, but don't make it your only friend either. You need to be careful and make space for variation, as in all relationships. Spend time getting to know this misunderstood nutrient and making peace and you will soon enjoy its many good (and delicious!) virtues. If you're vegan, nut-sensitive, or don't digest dairy, adapt your options to your lifestyle, experiment, and soon you'll find that you can live happily-ever-after with fat!