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Dietary Fats: Good, Bad, Ugly

I think that when it comes to nutrition, the topic of fat is still the most misunderstood. We have been taught that certain fats should be avoided all together due to health risks, others should be used but only in small amounts, oh and a whole other group of fats is so important everyone should be getting them. No wonder we are confused!

Most of these views were born from a study called “The Lipid Hypothesis” that was performed in the 1950’s. The findings linked significant amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol in an individuals diet to higher incidence of heart disease. This meant that the butter, cream, cheese, and meat that traditionally donned the tables of most Americans was vilified. It was recommended that we greatly reduce our fat intake in general, and that we bring our focus to vegetable oils such as corn and soy because they are lower in saturated fat.

While the Lipid Hypothesis seemed profound, it was largely taken out of context. In fact, the rate of heart disease was relatively low when American diets included many of these natural sources of saturated fat. As a nation we have been on a low fat diet (with an emphasis on vegetable oils) for the past 60 years, but our heart disease rate has skyrocketed! The Lipid Hypothesis obviously missed something.

What these researchers failed to recognize is that fat is a very important part of our diets:

  • Satiety
    • When we eat fat we produce a hormone called CCK (cholecystokinin). CCK not only helps us to digest fat, but it tells our brain that we are full. It has been shown that by eating a diet that is too low in fat, we don’t produce as much CCK and therefore we don’t feel satisfied so we eat more.
  • Energy Production
    • We all know that carbohydrates are a source of energy production. What most of us don’t realize is that fat plays a big role too. Imagine our energy is a fire: carbohydrates are the newspaper and fat is the log: far more sustaining!
  • Nutrient Absorption
    • Without fat present in the digestive tract, we experience greatly reduced absorption of our fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K) and all of our minerals.
  • Hormone Synthesis
    • All of our steroid hormones are made from cholesterol! This includes estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA. People who have greatly reduced their saturated fat intake, or have lowered their cholesterol levels too far through the use of pharmaceutical drugs, often start to experience symptoms of hormone imbalance.
  • Cellular Integrity
    • Our cells are protected by a phospholipid layer that allows the “good” things in (like nutrients) and the “bad” things out (like toxins and waste). Our dietary fat contributes to the integrity of this layer.
  • Proper Inflammatory Response
    • Without the right balance of fats, our body can’t inflame and anti-inflame as it needs to.

 

The most important thing to remember when it comes to fat is that we need a balance of all naturally occurring fats in order to be healthy. Eating too many vegetable oils has proven to come with it’s own list of health problems, and yes, even saturated fat is important!

  • Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of the cell membranes.
  • They are necessary for calcium to make it into the structure of our bones.
  • They enhance our immune system.
  • They are needed for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids like omega-3’s.
  • They have antimicrobial effects that protect us from bacteria in our digestive tracts.
  • Saturated fat intake is not directly correlated with higher cholesterol levels. Stearic acid, a type of saturated fat found naturally in cocoa, dairy products, meats, and poultry, as well as palm and coconut oils, does not raise LDL cholesterol but boosts beneficial HDL cholesterol levels.

 

So, by now I’m sure you’re wondering “Why haven’t we heard more about this?” The truth is finally coming to the surface thanks to researchers like Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) who’s message has even reached Oprah’s audience. Educating people and changing our food system is like trying to stop a speeding train. Once the food industry got hold of the “low fat” craze, you could barely even find natural, whole fat products on our grocery store shelves.

Below I have outlined the main classifications of dietary fats. You will see that there are times when using each type is appropriate, making it easier to get a good balance.

Monounsaturated Fats

  • Examples: olive oil and oils from almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts and avocados
  • Cooking: These fats are relatively stable for low temperature cooking and tossing with warm food. They are not safe for cooking with high heat because they will oxidize or go rancid causing cellular damage when we ingest them. If your oil ever smokes, you know it has oxidized.

Polyunsaturated Fats

  • Examples:
    • Isolated omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil and oils from flax, hemp, or chia seeds
      • These oils should never be heated! They are meant to be used cold.
    • Vegetable oils derived from soy, corn, safflower and canola, and blends like Country Crock, Smart Balance, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
  • Cooking: Polyunsaturated oils are not good choices for cooking! They are highly reactive meaning that they go rancid easily and must be treated with care. Even being in a clear plastic bottle under the bright grocery store lights can be enough to do the damage.
    • Grape seed oil might be the one exception. It has a higher heat tolerance.

Saturated Fats

  • Examples: butter, lard, tallow, coconut, and palm oils
  • Cooking: These fats are very stable making them the healthiest fats to cook with if high temperatures are needed such as when stir frying or pan searing.

The Ugly

  • Hydrogenated oils and trans fats
    • An invention of the food industry, these fats are produced in order to prolong the shelf life and mouth feel of processed foods.
    • These fats have been shown to block utilization of essential fatty acids, causing many deleterious effects including sexual dysfunction, increased blood cholesterol and paralysis of the immune system. Consumption is associated with cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, immune system dysfunction, low-birth-weight babies, birth defects, decreased visual acuity, sterility, difficulty in lactation and problems with bones and tendons.
    • To avoid these fats, look for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on the label.

 

One of the main things we do is to help clients make sure that they are getting the balance of nutrients that they need from their food choices. Due to the fact that there has been so much confusion about fats, this is an area that we bring a lot of focus to. Contact us if we can help you create balance in your diet : )

 

Resources
You don’t have to take my work for it. Check out the sources below for more information.

 

 

 

China Rose Zamora is a functional nutritional therapist, clinical herbalist, and yoga teacher who has worked in the holistic health field since 1998 and has proudly served her community as China Rose Wellness since 2009. When she’s not coaching women to rise to their health potential, practicing herbal alchemy, traveling the country via mobile tiny house teaching inspirational workshops to demystify wellness, or co-facilitating transformational retreats with AJ, her-eco warrior partner in adventure, you can find her meandering on the nearest hiking trail or jammin’ at a local, live music venue. China Rose is a firm believer that wellness encompasses everything that nourishes us, body & soul!

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