I know this may be shocking, but eating fat does not necessarily make you fat. Furthermore, dropping fat from your diet doesn’t necessarily make you lose weight. In fact, it can even have the opposite effect! As many people know, there are healthy fats and unhealthy fats. But since “fat” is too often regarded as a cause of our obesity problem, we don’t differentiate between the two in the way that is absolutely vital. All fat is inherently seen as bad by many of us.
But fat is essential to health! And the good news is for maintaining a healthy weight (and many other pluses) it’s only a matter of understanding how to get it right.
Like carbohydrates, fat is fuel. And many vitamins and minerals are fat soluble which means that fat is required as the catalyst to break these nutrients down for the body to absorb. If you’re on a low-fat diet for even just a couple weeks, you’re likely to feel some negative effects, ironically including weight-gain. And you can eat all the right nutrients, but if you don’t have the right amount of fat to act as the catalyst to absorb the nutrients, you can actually become deficient in them.
Fats are also needed for healthy joints and connective tissues. And here’s another plus: fats satisfy an appetite quickly to help prevent overeating. Ever sit down with a bag of low-fat chips and, before you know it, you’ve polished off the whole bag? You keep eating them because the body never feels satisfied. It’s the same with all “low-fat” foods like crackers, bread, cereal, pasta, and other starchy foods. It’s easy to overeat them. And then what does your body do with the overflow of the starchy calories? It stores them as…fat!
One-hundred calories of the healthy fats (what you might find in an avocado, for instance), tend to be more satisfying to the body than one-hundred calories of carbohydrates, like found in grains. Same amount of calories, much different level of satiation.
Finally, did you know that the human brain is eighty percent fat? Not only have we become a nation of people getting fatter with our low-fat diets, we’re potentially compromising our neurological health.
The answer is not to remove fat from your diet. The answer is to eat more healthy fats while avoiding the unhealthy ones. It’s the unhealthy fats that are responsible, to a large degree, for obesity and its attendant diseases. Heart disease and diabetes are on the rise and unhealthy fat is a big culprit.
Unhealthy fats are everywhere. A little history lesson: back in the 1980s, food manufacturers came out with cheap ways to cook things. Suddenly we were all eating foods cooked in inexpensive oils like corn, canola, or safflower oil. These are expeller-pressed oils that become rancid even before you buy them, and they are guaranteed to make the thyroid, which governs your metabolism, weaker. These oils are what you find in common snack foods, bread, cereal, and similar processed foods.
Even worse is hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is produced by heating vegetable oil to 700 degrees and then filtering hydrogen gas through it. The oil becomes unstable at such high temperatures, thus allowing the hydrogen atoms to bond with the oil. The oil then cools to become a solid at room temperature, like butter. The process has a dangerous side effect: free radicals. What are free radicals? These are unstable molecules that roam around the body chipping particles from cell walls, which then create more free radicals.
As you may know, eliminating free radicals is a vital role of antioxidants, found primarily in raw fruits and vegetables.
Most people consume too many unhealthy fats that contain these free radicals. And an excess amount of them can be costly to one’s health in several ways. The deteriorating nature of free radicals is among the primary causes of aging. And they can also be a cause of mutated cell growth and a weakened immune system making the body vulnerable to cancer.
Free radicals almost always suppress the body’s thyroid function and that, right there, is a big cause of obesity. You zap your thyroid and you zap your metabolism. Slow metabolism = weight gain.
To offset this, once oils like hydrogenated vegetable oil hit the market, we started reducing our intake of all fats. We started looking for low-fat alternatives and starving ourselves of the needed healthy fats and buying into the calorie-counting protocol as a discipline. That’s a recipe tailor-made for failure.
Fats come in two categories: saturated and unsaturated and it’s easy to tell the difference. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature, unsaturated is liquid at room temperature. You need both. Yes, contrary to what you might have heard, you need even the saturated kind, as we’ll discuss.
Unsaturated fats can be found in avocados, raw nuts and seeds, and oils that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil. All processed oils should be cold-pressed. Cold-pressing means what the name implies: the oil is extracted under cool temperatures, thus protecting the potential health-creating qualities of the oil. But these are oils you don’t want to cook with. Unsaturated fats break down when cooked. (This is why fried foods aren’t good for us even if they’re cooked in olive or similar quality oils.)
Since unsaturated oils like olive oil break down eventually, even at room temperature, no oil has a shelf life longer than a few months once it’s opened. After such time the oil will be rancid, although undetectable by smell.
The omega-3 essential fatty acids are worthy of extra attention. These are oils found in nuts and seeds like flax and chia, as well as fish. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider these fatty acids “essential,” they do have great nutritive value. Omega-3 oils can lower cholesterol and are also blood thinning which naturally can be good for many of us. But again, like all other unsaturated fats, heating these oils destroys the health-producing effects. This is part of why you don’t want to overcook fish. It’s also why roasted nuts and seeds—as opposed to raw—aren’t exactly healthy.
Flaxseed oil can be a good product, but the raw seed as a whole food is how you get those omega-3s as fresh as possible. With fish oil products, there is a lot of debate as to whether they truly retain any beneficial value since the processing involves heat and oxygen. The data pertaining to the fatty acids being preserved for the sake of a long shelf-life is weak, and I believe the whole fish to be the superior option.
If you want to cook with oil, then it’s important to use oils that are saturated fats which are more heat stable: butter or ghee (oil extracted from butter that is less likely to burn) or coconut oil for example. Ghee made from butter is completely heat stable making it perfect for any high-heat cooking. Ghee has been in the Ayurvedic diet of India for many years and is generally available at any natural food store. Coconut oil deserves special attention as well as a place in every kitchen pantry. In addition to being very heat stable, it has a healing effect on the thyroid. If you suspect that you’re overweight due in part to a suppressed thyroid, then try taking raw, cold pressed, organic coconut oil (not palm oil which is unhealthy). It may sound counterintuitive that a saturated fat such as coconut can help with weight loss, but it can. Try it for yourself. Take one tablespoon daily in a smoothie or melt it into warm foods.
Another benefit is that saturated fat like coconut lubricates the joints and bowels, helping them both to move a little better. Also the brain is made of saturated fat, making a supply of it important for the maintenance and regeneration of vital brain tissues.
Okay, I know what you must be thinking. Saturated fat? Butter? Really? Sure, it might be eyebrow-raising, but trust me. The key with saturated fats is moderation. Too much saturated fat will raise your cholesterol (even cholesterol-free oil like coconut oil). But is a tablespoon a day of these oils going to raise your cholesterol? Most likely not.
A lot of questions that people seem to have about fats center on animal fats in particular. So let’s consider a few of these.
Meats. Meats such as beef and chicken should represent only a small part of one’s diet, if any part at all. These saturated fats can increase cholesterol and set a chain reaction towards heart disease and weight gain. The leaner (and less frequent) of these products the better.
Eggs. Bad for you, right? Actually, no. Eggs can be an excellent food. Sure, they’re high in cholesterol, but it’s not a cholesterol that raises yours. There is saturated fat in eggs, but only to the tune of less than one gram per egg.
Dairy. This is a tradeoff. For protein and fat, milk isn’t bad in moderation, but its main drawback is the presence of lactose (milk sugar) which is mucous-forming, making milk a little bit of a challenge for the body to digest. Yogurt’s a little better than milk in this regard because the friendly bacteria partially break down the lactose making it more digestible.
Note: stay away from pre-sweetened yogurt, which unfortunately represents ninety-percent of yogurts on the market. Most of them use processed sugar. Even the ones that brag about having real fruit still add extra sugar. Go with unsweetened yogurt, and then add the elite sweetener, such as honey or fruit. Raw, unpasteurized dairy is growing in popularity because the idea is that it’s less mucous-forming from maintaining the original enzymes which help digest the lactose.
If you do drink milk, it’s best to go with skim milk, right? Wrong. The whole low-fat dairy thing has been problematic. Two-percent and skim milk should just be called what they are: lactose concentrate. They’re hard to digest and a big part of why lactose sensitivity is becoming more common. Our bodies are rebelling. If you wish to have milk, then drink whole milk—just less of it. And you’ll drink less of it because it’ll satisfy much quicker than the milk sugar stuff.
Better still, make your own milk! If you have a high-powered blender (a fantastic investment), here’s an easy alternative for milk: blend raw hemp seeds with water. Voila! No straining necessary. Add in a sprinkle of coconut sugar and cinnamon. Homemade almond milk, while more labor intensive, is terrific, too. Boxed almond or soy or other nut milks in the store are less than ideal. Like all nuts and seeds, these are unsaturated oils that go rancid once heated and then packaged. Plus, these milks are often augmented with binders and thickeners to keep the water and oils from separating. Just more food processing that you don’t need.
Bottom line: integrate healthy fats into your diet with primarily plant foods. As you can probably guess I am quite partial to sprouted almonds and pumpkin seeds because of their awesome nutritive value. Other raw nuts and seeds such as walnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and brazil nuts are great too. I recommend steering clear of peanuts that have no nutritive value. Remember that the right fats can satisfy your appetite, thus helping to avoid overdoing carbs and sugars that everybody’s been doing due to the lack of satiation from the low-fat diet. (For ways to include healthy fats in your diet check out my recipes here, which in my humble opinion are extraordinary.
This article was written by Billy Merritt.