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Fat Isn’t the Enemy

In this blog post, we'll challenge the misconceptions surrounding dietary fat and explore the essential role it plays in your well-being.

A Friend to Your Health

For decades, fat has borne the brunt of the blame in the world of nutrition. We’ve been conditioned to fear it, thinking that fat is the villain behind weight gain and health problems. However, it’s about time to set the record straight: fat is not the enemy; in fact, it’s a friend to your health. In this blog post, we’ll challenge the misconceptions surrounding dietary fat and explore the essential role it plays in your well-being.

The Low-Fat Myth

The ‘low-fat’ craze of the late 20th century led to a boom in fat-reduced and fat-free products. But instead of a healthier population, we saw an increase in obesity and cardiovascular disease. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, roughly 23% of people were considered obese by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Data from 2017 – 2018 shows that the national obesity grew closer to 43%. In addition, nearly 10% of all Americans were morbidly obese during the 2017–2018 survey, compared to less than 3% in 1988–1994. Even worse, childhood obesity rates had tripled from 5% in the early 1970s to more than 19% by March 2020.

The Importance of Healthy Fats

The truth is not all fats are equal and some are vital for good health.  Monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids play a crucial role in your well-being. The special long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, aka PUFAs, are amazing brain boosters. As stated by Dr. Drew Ramsey in his excellent book Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. Besides supporting heart health PUFAs stimulate the brain to promote neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to grow and change. They also help reduce inflammation levels in the brain and body.

Vitamins and Weight Management

Fat-soluble vitamins composed of vitamins A, D, E, and K require dietary fat for absorption. This means without fat in your diet, your body may struggle to utilize these essential nutrients. Another less-known information about healthy fats is that they help you feel fuller for longer, potentially reducing your overall calorie intake. They can also help stabilize blood sugar levels, making it easier to manage your weight.

Saturated Fats

On the other hand, saturated fats are downright impossible to defend. Which is why the FDA required food manufacturers to eliminate them by 2020. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean they’re totally gone. Saturated fats are still present in fried foods and baked goods like cookies, crackers, and pies. Know that labeling can be misleading – a product that states “0 grams of trans fats” can have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients lists, that’s a red flag.

Healthy Saturated Fats

However, a few saturated fats are harmless. Whole foods like coconut and dark chocolate contain these ‘friendlier’ forms of saturated fat. Yes, coconut does have a high saturated fat content, but due to its medium-chain fatty acids, it can be digested and absorbed immediately by the body. 

Coconut oil, for instance, may help reduce heart disease risk, speed up metabolism, and offer antiviral and antifungal properties. Note that you do want to avoid hydrogenated coconut oil, mostly used in junk food. But organic, extra-virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil is a great choice for cooking.

Damaging Fats

According to Dr. Daniel Amen in his Amen Clinics Blog, besides saturated there are other types of fats that we should limit or skip for optimal health:

Canola, corn, sunflower, soy, and other processed vegetable oils are the first group on the list. Their high omega-6 fatty acids content is associated with an increase in inflammation. Research has suggested a link between high omega-6 fat intake and chronic inflammatory diseases like nonalcoholic fatty liver, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s.

Factory farm-raised meat as well as processed meats are the second group on the list of damaging fats. Processed meats contain neurotoxins and preservatives. They often harbor large amounts of fat, salt, sugar, and fillers. Industrially raised meat is associated with cardiovascular disease since it’s 30% higher in palmitic acid – a harmful type of saturated fat, than grass-fed meat.

Factory farm-raised Dairy is in the third group. Like meat, dairy from conventionally raised cattle has palmitic and myristic acid – harmful types of saturated fat. Yet another unhealthy fact about dairy is that casein, a protein in milk, is an excitotoxin in the brain, which can lead to inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Processed Trans Fats

It’s also crucial to steer clear of trans fats found in many processed foods. These are indeed harmful and have a well-established link to heart disease. They have also been associated with an increase in depression and other mental health disorders like ADD/ADHD, according to research

Brain Healthy Fat Foods

We already know that food can be medicine or poison. Choosing high-quality fats, in moderate amounts, will promote your health and longevity.

Avocados have been found in numerous studies to be a powerful source of fat and nutrients. A 2022 study stated that higher avocado intake was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease in both men and women. 

Animal protein contains healthy fats but, you must choose the right varieties. Grass-fed beef, bison, or lamb can be safe choices, as can organic free-range poultry and eggs. For seafood, reach for wild salmon, sardines, tuna, clams, mussels, and oysters. 

Nuts, seeds, and olives are great sources of unsaturated fats, which contribute to heart and brain health. Nuts have surprising mental health benefits – one study has established a link between walnut consumption and a lower risk for depression.

Oils for cooking or dressing are best sourced from some of the ingredients above, such as avocado, coconut, macadamia, sesame, walnut, and olive oils.

Fat Isn’t the Enemy

It’s time to rethink our perspective on fat. The idea that dietary fat is the enemy has been debunked, and we now understand that it’s an essential nutrient with numerous health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids especially as they have been found to reduce symptoms of depression. Another study, from the Mayo Clinic, found that a fat-rich diet lowered Alzheimer’s disease risk by 42%.

As for all the macronutrients, we should be mindful of the quality of the fats we eat. So, don’t shy away from that slice of avocado toast or the handful of nuts – embrace the healthy fats that can be your true friends in the journey to a healthier, more balanced you.

Remember: Good is what makes you feel well!

Anna.

Read more about how to use food as medicine in Inflammation.

Anna Resende

Anna Resende

Integrative Nutrition Health Coach
Certified by IIN - Institute for Integrative Nutrition

Every week I send out my newsletter called Mamma’s Tips where I share health and wellness topics, good books, recipes, and more. 

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