Use fats to get thin and healthy

I understand that it can be difficult to dump all the principles we learned growing up about how fat can make us fat and unhealthy. This concept has actually led to a period of several decades where we are bombarded with low-fat and no-fat options and health claims about them.


What we are not told?

Does it make sense that a low-fat product is healthier than its whole food, unprocessed counterpart? How are fat-soluble nutrients, like calcium and vitamin D absorbed in low-fat products? What do they replace the fat with to make the product tasty? The answer is sugar and carbs, which with certainty are more harmful than fat.

It’s about time to abandon the latest notion that low and zero fat are good for our health and our waistline. There is, of course, a huge difference between healthy and unhealthy fats.

The war on fat

In the late 1940s, scientists started blaming saturated fats (like eggs, butter and red meat). Saturated fats were linked to cardiovascular disease.

In the 1960s, the American Heart Association started recommending a reduction in overall fat intake. The food industry started producing more processed foods, with lower fats and higher carbs. While the guidelines were specific in the type of fat to avoid (i.e. saturated) and the types of carbs to consume more of (i.e. fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), the general message was: all fat is bad, and all carbs are good.

At the base of the food pyramid, we started seeing carbs (like bread, rice and pasta). If you have a look at the Mediterranean pyramid today, things have thankfully changed a lot!

Why low or no-fat foods are a really bad idea

In order to replace fats, the average consumer gets processed low-fat products, filled with refined carbohydrates, with no nutrients left by the time they wound up on a plate. As mentioned above, removing fat decreases flavour, and so, such foods most often contain added sugars, too which is definitely more damaging to our health than natural fats.

If you think about it, it’s no coincidence that since we jumped on a high-carb, low-fat diet, the population's health is becoming worse and worse. Obesity rates are becoming higher and higher, adult-onset diabetes is not called “adult” anymore and we now have diabetes type 3 and diabesity.

What are the scientific facts about fat consumption?

The truth is, there is no link between high-fat diets and high cholesterol or high-fat diets and cardiovascular disease. There is certainly a link between processed carbohydrates and sugar and high LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and heart risk. Of course, modern studies discern between unhealthy fats and healthy fats in improving health status.

Healthy vs unhealthy fats

So, how can you distinguish between good and bad fats?

There is a difference between “fatty” foods and “high-fat” foods. With the term fatty foods, I refer to over-processed and packaged foods that contain highly processed fats and oils (margarine, hydrogenated fats, fried, vegetable oils like sunflower, safflower, soy, peanut oil, rapeseed oil, cottonseed). There is no doubt that fatty foods are bad for you!

High-fat foods, on the other hand, are foods that naturally contain larger amounts of fat per serving, and are absolutely essential for good health. Without cholesterol, cells are stiff and can't communicate well between them, leading to cognitive decline and poor memory, among others. Without cholesterol, you can't make important hormones, such as vitamin D, oestrogen and testosterone.

Some examples of trans fats are margarine, refined vegetable oils, baked products such as cookies, pies and cakes, and processed foods like doughnuts, fried chicken, microwave popcorn, crips, shortening, frozen pizza, mozzarella sticks and French fries. Artificial trans fats are very harmful to your health and are linked to increased risk of heart disease, blood clot formation, insulin resistance and cancer. Trans fats make our cell membranes stiff and rigid, making them prone to damage and permeability, allowing toxins to get into cells easily!

Healthy fats are further divided into two categories: saturated and unsaturated fats. (The term “saturated” refers to how many hydrogen atoms are connected to the carbon atoms in the fat’s molecules — in other words, how stable the fat is). Solid fats (e.g. butter, ghee, coconut oil, cocoa butter), are saturated fats. Liquid fats (e.g. olive oil, flaxseed oil) are mostly unsaturated fat.

A rule of thumb we can use is to remember the following:

  • Naturally unsaturated fats (see below) are good fats and absolutely essential.
  • Overly processed fats, like those generally found in highly processed or fried foods (even if marketed as healthy such as olive oil butter and margarine), are absolutely bad fats.
  • Naturally saturated fats are healthy and should be enjoyed in moderation.

What fats should I eat to be fit and healthy?

As mentioned above, according to scientific data, the healthiest approach to fat consumption is to avoid highly processed.

The amount of saturated fats one can enjoy and still have optimal blood tests differ from person to person. Your nutritional therapist will help you determine the right fat portions for you (according to your genetic predisposition, blood tests, metabolic typing and family history). A nutritional therapist who uses the principles of functional medicine can further help you with running a fatty acid profile, to look at your fatty acid levels and ratios (omega 3, 6, 9, inflammatory fats, etc).

These are the fats that are healthy for everyone (if tolerated):

  • Avocadoes. Full of mono-unsaturated anti-inflammatories fats. Probably the healthiest fruit!
  • Olive oil and olives. Mono-unsaturated fats with lots of cardiometabolic benefits. Should be used mainly raw over vegetables, salads, eggs and so on. Olive oil should be cold-pressed. I teach my clients how to discern between a good and bad olive oil in the store. Olive oil should better be stored in the fridge to prevent going rancid, in non-winter months.
  • Fatty fish. The omega-3 found in cold-water, wild-caught fatty fish, like sardines, anchovies, and mackerel are very beneficial fats. You should eat them at least two to three times per week if you don’t want to get an omega-3 supplement! Vegan alternative: algae oils.
  • Pasture-raised eggs. You will be surprised to learn that free-range eggs are high in omega-3 fats!
  • Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds (chia, for example) are often high in good fats and ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid.

It’s time to declare a ceasefire in the war on fats. It’s true some fats are bad for you, and eating too much fat — like anything else — can contribute to negative health outcomes, but the truth is a balanced diet with the right kinds and amounts of healthy fats can contribute to your overall health and wellness.

Flaxseed oil, walnuts, freshly ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are the plant foods with the highest amount of omega-3 fats. Flaxseed oil should be stored in the deep freezer as is poly-unsaturated, which means less stable.

Grass-fed meats. Grass-fed organic meats and meat organs contain not only saturated fats but also anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and less pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.

Leafy greens: Again to your surprise, dark green leafy vegetables contribute to our daily omega-3 intake.

When you work with me, I give you the exact amount of each you need to have in a day to get all the benefits from fats (a healthy and speedy metabolism, healthy hormones and a healthy brain). I also give you plenty of recipes to help you include them easily in your busy daily lives. 

Other saturated fats that can be used in moderation (including in cooking) are full-fat dairy, lard, and meats. 

What oil should I cook with to get more benefit from healthy fats?

Olive oil is mono-unsaturated which means it’s not stable in very high temperatures. It can also be used when cooking with water e.g. in soups.

Some better alternatives for cooking in higher temperatures (>180C) like sautéing and frying are deodorised extra-virgin coconut oil, ghee (which is naturally free from casein and lactose), and avocado oil. Frying with ghee is the best option (plus ghee promotes gut health). Saturated are more stable and hence less prone to oxidation when cooking.

Best oils for dressings or drizzling (flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil and walnut oil)
Nut and seed oils, like walnut, hazelnut and sesame, are ok to be used for flavour, in their raw state.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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