Butter Up: Healthy Fats in Food
Trends in nutrition are like a rocky romance: they’re on, then they’re off again, and then back on again depending on a new study, recent fad, celebrity endorsement, or food industry lobby. In my clinical experience, there are few things more polarizing than discussing dietary fats with my patients. From utter avoidance and even disgust, to the total love affair with everything fat-related, I rarely see an in-between. Why is it so hard to maintain a healthy friendship with fats?
How healthy fats function
Many of us have grown up fearing both eating fat and getting fat - the two having been indelibly linked - and it can be a struggle to see them as separate entities. Remember all those low-fat/no-fat diets?! It wasn’t so long ago that we’d reach for nonfat versions of our favourite foods in an effort to prevent weight gain.
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!
Rather than the outdated concept that “fat makes you fat,” we are now beginning to better understand that weight gain is highly correlated with simple carbohydrate intake and disruptions in insulin, and that elevated blood cholesterol may have less to do with eating cholesterol than previously believed. As we continue to explore how our bodies work, we are learning that obesity and diseases related to elevated fat levels are much more complex pictures of risk factors involving inflammation and vessel damage, and not simply the dietary intake of cholesterol-rich foods.
Why fats are good for you
Not only a rich source of energy, fat stores calories for future use as fuel - more than double the energy per gram compared to protein and carbs! Fat is necessary for the digestion, absorption, and transport of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, which benefit our immune function, skin health, blood clotting, and much more. And certain fats, like omega-3s, are key in decreasing inflammation, which is at the root of almost all disease processes.
Fats are needed to reinforce the outer skin of all our cells. We need both saturated and unsaturated fats to give these membranes integrity while keeping them flexible. Furthermore, fats are the chemical backbone of many important hormones including estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and cortisol, and when we deprive our bodies of fat, we risk hormone imbalances.
From a taste standpoint, it’s no secret that fats improve the taste of food! When fat is taken out, it becomes less flavourful, and in the case of low-fat/no-fat products, more sugar, sodium, and additives are incorporated to accommodate for that loss. This in turn leads to spikes in blood sugar and increased portion sizes as fat also helps with satiation.
Sources of Healthy Fats
Here are some basics to consider when starting out with healthy fats:
Unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are beneficial for heart health and act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories in the body. Commonly found in fish, algae, and plant oils (like olive, sunflower, and flax), these fats are liquid and are best consumed at room temperature or colder as they break down easily at high temperatures and can cause toxic by-products.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are mostly found in animal sources like meat, dairy, and eggs, but also in coconut, palm, and peanut oils. Because saturated fats are typically stable at higher temperatures, they’re good options to use when cooking. While often negatively linked to our health (especially cardiac health), saturated fats play a role in helping to stabilize our cell membranes, contribute to fat-soluble nutrient absorption, and contain antimicrobial properties.
Essential fats, also known as omega fats, are unsaturated fats our bodies require and must be ingested via food or supplements. Omega-3's act as anti-inflammatories, promote brain, eye, cardiac, and mental health, and help optimize weight, to name a few benefits. Food sources include fish and flax. While omega-6 fats are not as universally healthy as omega-3s, they share some of the above health benefits when moderated in a specific ratio to omega-3s. If in excess, omega-6 may worsen inflammation, making balance key. Food sources of omega-6 include hemp seeds and walnuts. Keep these fats cold for optimal results.
Short, medium, and long chain fatty acids are so named based on the description of the length of their chains, with each behaving uniquely depending on their grouping. Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) from butter have antimicrobial properties and are quickly absorbed for energy. Medium chain fatty acids, such as in coconut, have similar properties to SCFA and are very popular as a component in medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oils, which are used for efficient energy delivery and weight management strategies. Most fats we consume are long chain fatty acids (including omega-3s and 6s).
Cholesterol is both produced by our liver and obtained from external sources including meats, egg yolk, and dairy. Like saturated fats, dietary cholesterol has received a bad rap, but we are now beginning to understand that cholesterol’s link to high blood pressure isn’t as straightforward as we once believed. Cholesterol is important for building healthy hormones, cell membranes, and has a role in metabolism and digestion of fats.
Not all fats are equal, and it’s important to note that for the most part, whole foods contain a combination of different fats (like butter which is predominantly a saturated fat, but also contains some unsaturated fat and cholesterol), further dictating the complexities of their health qualities. Focus on getting more good fats in your diet and excluding those that don’t serve your health.
Note: It would be remiss in a discussion on fats if we didn’t touch on the recently popular notion that large quantities of fat with very low carbohydrates is an ideal diet. Believed to help with brain clarity and weight management (such as in the ketogenic diet), and with some good research on its benefits for decreasing seizures and improving blood sugar control in diabetics, it is not for everyone. Although many who follow it do lose weight and report improved mental clarity, it can be difficult to maintain long-term, is often linked with constipation, and there is concern that it can be hard on the kidneys and disrupt hormone balance.
HEALTHY FATS, HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
I am an advocate for long-term balance, and for many of my patients that means recommending a varied and balanced diet that includes protein, fibre, and vegetables at each meal, with an inclusion of, you guessed it, fats.
Choose healthy fats like raw nuts, seeds, and their butters; olives and olive oil; coconut and coconut milk; avocados and avocado oil; cold water fish, and good quality fish or flax oil supplements; and full-fat grass-fed dairy, eggs, or ghee. Because toxins and added hormones can concentrate in fats, I do recommend wild/organic varieties, if possible (especially fats from animal sources).
Not sure how to start to repair your relationship with fat? Small steps can really spice things up!
Try these smart fat treats!
- Drizzle homemade popcorn with melted coconut oil
- Dress your salad with extra virgin olive oil
- Sprinkle raw nuts and seeds on your oatmeal
- Cook eggs in grass-fed butter
- Take a molecular-distilled fish oil supplement
- Eat wild salmon
- Add whipped coconut cream to berries
- Have avocado toast for breakfast
- Make a smoothie with your favourite nut butter
- Garnish your soup with a dash of olive oil
Invite fat in to stay long-term, but don’t make it your only friend either. As with all relationships, you need to be selective and find room for variety. Spend time getting to know and making peace with this misunderstood nutrient and you’ll soon be enjoying its many fine (and delicious!) virtues. Whether you’re vegan, sensitive to nuts, or you don’t digest dairy, tailor your choices to your lifestyle, experiment, and you’ll soon find that you and fat can live happily-ever-after!