Fat is finally getting its reputation back! After decades of being touted as unhealthy for allegedly causing heart disease, fat is making a much-deserved comeback. This is the first post in a series of posts on fat that we’re calling “The Ultimate Guide to Fats”. We’ll talk about why fat is making a comeback and why it’s much-deserved, what fat does in your body and why it’s important, how much fat you need for optimal health, the importance of omega 6 and omega 3 fat ratios, and we’ll go into detail about what fats and oils to use, how to use them, and when to use them. We’ll cover the first three (why fat is making a comeback, why it’s important in your body, and how much you need) in this blog, and then we’ll continue with the other subjects in the next couple of weeks.
It’s important to realize that not all fats are created equal, and the exoneration of fat is not a license to eat any and all types of fat in any quantity. This series of blogs will give you the “skinny” on fats in the diet and how you can do a better job of using this powerful macronutrient to your advantage while avoiding the many pitfalls of our modern food supply.
How Did Fat Get Blamed?
I’m not going to a write a detailed rant on how we got to the point that fat was blamed for obesity and heart disease because others have done that already. If you want to read the detailed history behind the low-fat diet and the man credited with making it popular (Ancel Keys), I recommend you read “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Teicholz. The book is a real eye-opener and brings into question everything we thought we knew about nutrition for the past 60 years.
Here’s a quick summary: Heart disease in America began to rise rapidly in the 30s and 40s. There were many theories for the increased incidence of heart disease but the two most common were saturated fat in the diet or sugar and processed carbohydrates in the diet. Ancel Keys’ theory of saturated fat won the argument based on shaky epidemiological science and his convincing and prolific personality. The result was in an increase in consumption of low-fat foods, an increase in manufacturing of low-fat versions of popular foods, and an increase in consumption (and manufacture) of oils low in saturated fat. The removal of saturated fats from many foods resulted in food that didn’t taste good! So, in some cases, the food industry replaced fat with sugar and, in other cases, replaced saturated fat with a newly invented fat we now know as “trans fat”. 60+ years later we still haven’t been able to overcome the damage that has been done by the changes in our food supply. In fact, the USDA food pyramid still reflects much of the work done by Keys in the 50s despite mounting evidence that the recommendations are not working. It seems that changing the entire country’s diet to remove saturated fat hasn’t made us any healthier. Our obesity rate is higher and it seems the only reason our death rate from heart disease is lower is because we’re better at saving people with medicine once they do have heart disease.
Why Is Fat Making A Comeback?
One of the biggest reasons that fat is making a comeback is simply that people are realizing that lowering our fat intake, in exchange for more sugar and processed food, hasn’t made us healthier in general. I think, after many years, we’re finally conceding that we’re not feeling better by lowering saturated fats and eating more canola oil. We’re continually searching for something that works, and when something doesn’t work over and over again, we try something else.
I must also give a lot of credit to movements like the Paleo movement and the Primal movement (Mark Sisson) for helping to move us away from the idea that fat is bad. It’s been an uphill battle for anyone trying to go against the low-fat diet paradigm and it’s been that way for a long time. Just think about the mire of controversy that Dr. Atkins lived in for years. Thankfully, many have taken on that challenge and the evidence continues to mount and the movement continues to grow.
Getting The Right Fats Is A Problem
The problem we still face is that, although the science and public opinion of fat in the diet has shifted significantly in recent years, the food supply necessarily lags the public opinion and the science. So, while many have left behind the idea that saturated fat is bad, the products on the shelves are still filled with the results of that belief. Even trans fat has taken years to remove from the food supply and it’s still not completely gone.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the idea that fat isn’t as bad as we once thought is NOT a license to go eat fat in any type, ratio, and amount. It’s possible that it was once easy and natural to get the right fats in our diet, but that just isn’t the case anymore. Now we have to look at all of the information and “trim the fat” so to speak…an ironic expression to use in this case.
In a second, we’ll dive into the types of fats and what we need in our diet. This will get slightly “sciency” but I believe it’s helpful to understand the terms. Education is powerful! But, first, let’s talk about what fat does in your body and why it is so important.
The Roles Of Fat In The Body
Fats play numerous important roles in the body, including:
👉 Provide a source of energy – Fat is a slow-burning, concentrated source of energy for our bodies! Another reason that the low-fat paradigm gained so much traction is that fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates and proteins. It seemed to make sense that lowering fat intake would lower calorie intake and therefore make us lose weight. It’s just not true. The idea that optimal weight is simply a function of “calories in vs. calories out” is wrong.
👉 Act as building blocks for cell membranes and hormones – Fats (specifically cholesterol) make up our cell membranes. It’s quite fascinating how that works.
👉 Aid in absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K – Interestingly, when you decrease fat intake significantly, you also get rid of many of the sources of fat soluble vitamins (they’re often found along with fats in nature…curious). Even if you were to supplement those fat soluble vitamins, without the fats in your diet, you would not be able to absorb them!
👉 Allow for the proper use of proteins – Without the proper fats in the diet you can’t properly digest and uptake proteins.
👉 Serve as a protective lining for the organs of the body – We need a certain amount of fat to protect our organs.
👉 Slow absorption of food for energy regulation – If you eat a carbohydrate without any fat, they can be absorbed more quickly and can spike blood sugar. Fat helps to slow the absorption and provide a more even energy profile.
👉 Increase satiety – Fat helps to make us feel full and stay satisfied for longer periods of time.
👉 Make food taste good – Yea, this is why food manufacturers had to add sugar and other chemicals to low-fat foods.
Types Of Fat
Fat is usually broken into two broad categories: Saturated and Unsaturated. Within unsaturated fats, there are monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). Although all fats and oils are made up of some combination of the three main categories, they are typically placed in a category based on the degree to which they are saturated. That doesn’t mean that they are 100% of that type of fat and that becomes very important later on. For example, olive oil is about 75% monounsaturated, 14% saturated, and 11% polyunsaturated and it is listed under the monounsaturated category.
The chart below gives a quick breakdown of saturated and unsaturated fats.
NOTE: Trans fats would be a completely different category. We don’t cover it here because it’s widely accepted that these are very bad and they are being banned pretty much everywhere. All you need to know is that if it says “hydrogenated” in it, run far away.
How Much Fat You Need
We need all three types of fats for a healthy body. The percentage of saturated fats, MUFAs and PUFAs that we need to maintain health is a controversial subject. A good starting point is to aim for 30% of total calories from fat and approximately 30% of that as saturated fat (animal and tropical oils), 60% monounsaturated (such as olive oil), and 10% polyunsaturated fats (the omega 3/6 oils). You’ll find various recommendations for this and it does vary based on the individual.
In the next blog, we’ll go into the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 oils. This is one of the places that the standard American diet is way out of control. Our Omega-6 consumption is significantly higher than our Omega-3 consumption and there is a lot to that subject.
If you’re getting overwhelmed, you are not alone. It seems to get complicated very quickly and it’s made worse by our food supply. Hopefully, by the end of this blog series, you’ll have a good handle on how you can make small changes to get the right kind of fats into your diet without being overwhelmed, but for now, let’s summarize what you need:
👉 Total Fat %: Approximately 30% of total calories should come from fat. This is not a hard and fast number but a starting point. I find that most people eating a 90/10 diet from our simple guidelines are right in the range of 25-35% unless they are purposefully tending toward too many grains.
👉 Saturated Fat: Approximately 30% of your fat should be of the saturated fat variety. This will come from animal fats and tropical oils like coconut oil.
👉 MUFAs: Approximately 60% of your fat should be of the monounsaturated fat variety. Many people who are eating a 90/10 diet will get a good amount of this from olive oil.
👉 PUFAs: Approximately 10% of your fat should be of the polyunsaturated fat variety. You’ll get much of this from eating fish and possibly some from nuts and flax.
In the third blog in this series, we’ll go into detail on what fats to use and how to use them. This should get you started on the right path though.