Skimming the Fat: What You Need to Know
Recently I did a 3-part series on fat in my weekly Friday FOUR e-blast, and I consolidated each part into the following blog post for Functionize Health and Physical Therapy.
Let’s talk about fat!
Part 1: An Overview
Fat is complicated, and despite its villainous reputation as a leading factor in heart disease, low fat diets that started to surge in the '80s and '90s and still clog the minds of many have proven to do no service in solving the heart health problem. In fact, they have done quite the opposite, as packaged foods were altered to trade fat for refined sugar, flour and salt in order for them to taste good. As people consumed more and more of these foods with a misconception that they were eating healthfully, the rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes began to climb, and are now higher than ever. The harsh reality is that the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States is heart disease. So clearly, a low-fat diet that swaps sugar and carbs for fat isn't the answer. To this day, our grocery stores are loaded with processed low-fat food options that will never be beneficial to our health.
In the next section I'll get a little more specific in breaking down different fat sources and their health benefits or detriments, but for now, the main take away is this.
1. Fat is not the enemy, and in fact the right type of fat provides a lot of good for our bodies as an energy source that also satiates us (keeps us fuller longer), contributes to brain function, heart and mental health, and supports our nervous system.
2. Processed foods, whether they are high fat, low fat or fat free should always raise a red flag as foods to limit. Instead, we should focus on foods found in their more natural state like nuts, seeds, fatty fish and avocados.
3. The ideal way to incorporate fat into your diet is in conjunction with lean protein and a plentiful amount of vegetables, fruits and high fiber grains. A snack of an apple served with a Tbsp. of peanut butter or even a little bit of cheese is metabolized differently than an apple by itself. The latter, while healthy in and of itself, is comprised mostly of natural sugar, which quickly raises blood sugar levels contributing to a significant peak and valley effect, often resulting in increased hunger and cravings. Adding fat/protein provides a more gradual impact on blood sugar levels, resulting in a more satisfied feeling.
Part 2: Sources of Dietary Fat
Next let’s break down some of the sources of dietary fat along with benefits/risks and some examples of each. In the interest of brevity, I am just skimming the surface to give you the basics.
Trans fats: These man-made fats are the ones to avoid as much as possible, as they are universally agreed upon as being unsafe. Sources include fried foods, processed pastries and some processed snacks like chips, crackers, and cookies, as well as margarine. This certainly doesn't mean you can never have them (I could never omit French fries completely), but definitely use caution and awareness when occasionally including them in your diet. Thankfully, trans fats are now required to be listed on nutrition labels, so they are fairly easy to detect, and many food companies have worked hard to eliminate them from their products.
Saturated fats: This mostly animal based fat has been a source of controversy in the debate about heart health. It's found in red meat, whole milk dairy, and butter, as well as tropical oils like coconut oil. Recent reviews of multiple clinical trials suggest that there's not enough evidence to target saturated fat as major factor in directly increasing heart disease risk, though it does impact the way our body produces cholesterol. Despite the back and forth over how exaggerated past recommendations may be about the dangers of saturated fat for cardiovascular disease, it is clear that too much of it is not good for our health, so we should still be cautious when including this type of fat.
That said, "fat-free" and "low-fat" alternatives to ice cream, yogurt and milk, for example, are not ideal either, as they are typically altered with added sugar, salt or other processed ingredients to compensate for the lower fat content. I find 2% milk and yogurt to be a good compromise. I prefer to use full fat cheese but tend to use the less is more concept, as most recipes can be adjusted to use less without compromising taste. Same goes for ice cream; a reasonable portion of the real deal on occasion is better than a daily dose of a lower fat version that comes with comparable calories and an extra dose of sugar. Along the same lines, enjoying a high quality steak in conjunction with a healthy dose of vegetables and whole grains from time to time is perfectly healthy.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats (MUFAs and PUFAs): Finally, we're onto the MVPs of fat; the ones we want to deliberately include and that offer multiple healthy benefits. These mostly plant-based fats from foods like olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds (MIUFAs) and walnuts, flax, salmon and soybeans (PUFAs) are essential for normal body function and have also been proven to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems. Replacing saturated and trans fats with these unsaturated fats will greatly magnify health benefits including heart health, brain function and mental health among other things. If you tend to cook mostly with butter, try using a combination of butter with olive or avocado oil as an initial shift, and then perhaps switch completely over to the oil. Add a sprinkle of nuts and seeds to a green salad to enhance the nutritional quality and add flavor and texture. Try using an avocado oil based mayonnaise instead of a conventional one.
There are endless ways to make small changes to shift the fat profile of your diet. Fat is not the enemy, but focusing on where your dietary fat is coming from can be a game changer for your health.
Part 3: Cooking with Fat
Let's wrap up with some practical tips for which types of fats are best to use in cooking and baking. There are a lot of misconceptions about this, even when it comes to those healthy unsaturated plant fats we talked about last week. What you're cooking, and how you're cooking it makes all the difference.
Here are my top 3 go-tos.
Avocado Oil: This anti-inflammatory oil has replaced olive oil in much of my cooking and baking. It has a higher smoke point (500 degrees) than olive oil, so it won't break down and oxidize as easily. It also has a super mild flavor that works well in a variety of dishes, including baked goods! Loaded with monounsaturated oleic acid, lutein and Vitamin E, it provides many health benefits for heart health, blood pressure and vision. This is the perfect oil for anything and everything. I like to drizzle on salads, use for roasting vegetables and stir-frys and even in brownies.
Olive Oil: With a lower smoke point of 300-400 degrees, it's better to use olive oil for sautéing at lower temps and as a dressing for salads, or to "finish" a dish with a drizzle. This has been a relatively recent change in my cooking, as EVOO was my go-to cooking fat for all things, including roasting. While it's possible to roast veggies at 400 degrees, I find that I prefer a higher temp to achieve a more browned result, which makes avocado oil a better choice.
Ghee: Oh how I love ghee! This clarified butter is well tolerated by individuals who have trouble digesting lactose or dairy, because the milk solids are discarded in the production process, which does result in a slightly higher concentration of fat and calories compared to butter. Also with a high smoke point of 480 degrees, it's perfect for a variety of things like sauteing and roasting. It has a distinctive flavor, unlike avocado oil which tends to be much more milld. Ghee is a good source of Vitamins A, K and E.
Here's the bottom line: Fat is not the enemy and is a vital part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. It’s important to choose the right types of fats than provide added health benefits rather than a detrimental impact, but in reality sometimes those types of fats CAN be included as part of a reasonable approach to eating. Steering clear from any type of processed food as much as possible will inevitable get you on the road to a sound eating plan!