I said it. You need to eat fat! The media has finally caught up to the science which has been trickling in over the past few years that busts the myth that fat makes you fat. It doesn’t. In fact, eating more fat is likely to help you lean out. Healthy fat, that is. Trans fats are still bad. Very bad. Trans fats are the processed, solidified oils that will have the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredient label. Margarine and fake buttery spreads fall into this category. Avoid these. They are definitely implicated in cardiovascular diseases, high triglycerides and artery clogging problems. But the other categories of fats are OK, even saturated ones.
Fats are great because they actually help us feel satisfied. If you feel satiated after a meal, you’re not likely to look for the next snack 10 minutes later, and another one 10 minutes after that. This may mean you actually eat less food when you eat more fat. Especially less processed carbs and sugar, which is what people will typically crave when they are not satiated. It is these carbs and sugar that lead to the Bad Things. Like diabetes and heart attacks, among a thousand others. But fats are also a dietary necessity. They help us assimilate certain vitamins (known as fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K), are required for certain hormone syntheses, and help with the formation of the critical myelin that surrounds our nerve cells. Our brains are almost all fat, and desperately need fatty acids to develop and function at peak levels. There is also now a lot of evidence that derails the previously held attitude that the brain only runs on glucose. It needs a little, but not a lot. It likes fat best.
There are many categories of healthy fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, omega 3, 6, 9’s; it can be overwhelming, I know. But if you eat a variety of healthy fat containing foods, you should hit all the right marks. My personal favorites of go-to healthy fats include avocados, coconut milk and oil, a variety of nuts and seeds (preferably raw), salmon and an Omega 3 supplement.
I really like to emphasize the importance of the coconut these days because it is one of the very few sources of medium chain fatty acids (lauric acid) available to us in food form. Lauric acid is a big metabolism booster and is very important in the development of the immune system. Not easily found in foods, its most notable other source is human breast milk- why nursing is one of the best ways to build your baby’s brain and immune health. I use full-fat coconut milk in many recipes, both savory and sweet, and cook with coconut oil. It’s one of the better choices for sautéing as it has a high smoke point, unlike other oils that become damaged with heat, creating free-radicals. The other high heat oil I use (even more than coconut oil, for its more neutral taste) is avocado oil. Some coconut oils are more “coconutty” in flavor than others. You may want to try a different brand if you’ve tried it before, but thought your dish tasted a little too tropical. “But I was told coconuts are a saturated fat and should be avoided!” You were, because that’s what used to be assumed. And if you were told that recently, it was by a person who is not staying up to date. Saturated fat has officially been vindicated in its role in clogging arteries. It doesn’t. Trans fats, sugar, and refined carbs do.
But when it comes to healthy fat, if there is one category that I feel you should make a conscious effort to eat more of, it is the Omega 3 group. The body really needs a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3 to 6, and this just doesn’t happen these days with the abundance of Omega 6s available to us and very few Omega 3 sources. Most vegetable, nut, and seed oils are Omega 6 forms. And any processed snack foods or fried snacks like chips are high in Omega 6.
Most people know fish is a good source of Omega 3, and it is, but it is much more complex than “eat more fish.” It is near impossible to figure out what fish are the safest to eat these days. Most farm raised fish are raised poorly on low quality feed and in some cases even dyed to look like its wild counterpart (like many salmon farms). Antibiotics may be administered, much the way factory farmed cattle and hogs are raised. These fish will not have the levels of Omega 3 that they would have in the wild, and are full of undesirable substances. “Atlantic salmon” on any menu always means farm-raised, and for this reason the only salmon I eat I make sure comes from the northern Pacific regions and is wild caught. However, there is some concern over leaking radiation from Fukushima that may be making its way into Pacific caught sea-foods. It doesn’t seem to be affecting salmon population yet, but it’s been detected in other Pacific fish, so I try and find updates on that situation regularly. Then of course there are concerns over mercury levels and general ocean pollution that make fish who swim in those waters full of environmental toxins. These problems are real, and should be a concern. PCB’s are one example of toxic chemicals that are finding their way into many varieties of fish, both farmed and wild.
Overfishing is also a big problem and many varieties of fish are on the verge of extinction. For all of these reasons, I actually recommend taking an Omega 3 supplement from a reputable company that screens for ocean chemicals, “cleans” the fish oil, and is conscientious of the population of the fish it is using for the oil. Of course there are considerations for taking fish oil supplements as well. Fish oil oxidizes easily, and when that happens free radicals form. Free radicals are exactly what we’re trying to prevent by eating anti-inflammatory promoting fish oil and antioxidant rich foods. Krill oil may be a way to circumvent this supplement concern, as krill contains a natural antioxidant called astaxanthin that keeps the oil from oxidizing. If you want to find the best sources of fish to eat, I suggest checking out this Sustainable Seafood Guide, and cross-referencing it with the Mercury in Fish Guide. I can tell you that for me, the only fish I am really comfortable eating on a regular basis is wild Pacific caught salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
Other ways to get more Omega 3s into your diet include eating flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Of course this suggestion comes with its own set of confusing caveats. Flax seeds need to be consumed freshly ground, in order to absorb their beneficial nutrients and to prevent the negative effects of oxidation, which occur soon after the shell is cracked. I keep a small coffee grinder for grinding whole seeds at the time I’m going to use them. Hemp or chia seeds do not need to be ground to absorb their nutrients. Vegetarian sources of Omega 3 fat are critical because our body cannot make this kind of fatty acid, ALA. However, the kind of Omega 3 the body needs MOST is DHA and EPA fat (the kind found in the fish and animal sources). Now, our bodies are designed to convert ALA to DHA, but it’s not a very efficient process and is dependent on optimized levels of other vitamins, which you may not have adequate amounts of if you have a limited, not so nutritious diet. Our bodies soak up the DHA from animal sources like a sponge, but it’s unclear just how much ALA sources we need to convert it to adequate amounts of DHA. Again, this is why I put high quality Omega DHA/EPA supplements in my “if you’re only gonna use these vitamins” category.
Another animal way of getting Omega 3 without eating fish is by eating grass-fed beef, and using grass-fed butter or ghee. Cows that eat grass exclusively have naturally optimized levels of Omega 3. Cows that eat factory farm grains have high levels of Omega 6 and low levels of Omega 3. The very ratio that leads to inflammatory problems. There are even chicken eggs that come from chickens whose feed is Omega 3 supplemented, but I’m not entirely convinced this is the best option depending on the oxidation issues and what kind of omega 3 sources these chickens are being fed. Grass-fed milk, cheese, and yogurt may also be an option for those who tolerate dairy products well.
For a much more in depth look at Omega 3 fats, I suggest reading this and taking notes, if that’s how you’ll remember the importance of it all.
Confused enough yet? The bottom line is this: eat a well rounded diet with a variety of high quality fat sources like grass-fed, pastured meats, clean fish, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, coconuts, and high quality olive oil (a future blog post, right there!) There are only so many things we can control in today’s world, and what you put into your body is one of them. Choose wisely. Choose fat!