Our complex relationship with dietary fats has been receiving a lot of attention lately, especially since researchers and medical professionals have begun shifting their views on the risks and benefits of certain types of fats. For example, earlier this year scientists reported that saturated fat doesn’t increase risks of heart disease, validating what traditional foods advocates have been saying for decades: that organic butter, grass-fed and organic meats, coconut oil, and other saturated fat products can play an important role in health. Trans fats, on the other hand, are beginning to get the infamy they deserve as unhealthy, processed ingredients that can wreak havoc on cellular and overall health.
In general, we need a moderate supply of healthy, dietary fats for optimal brain and immune health, hormone balance, skin health and more. In fact, we are biologically programmed to detect fats in our environment. A recent study conducted in the U.S. and the Netherlands found that many people can figure out the fat content in milk simply by smelling it.
This makes perfect sense. For most of human existence, we had trouble getting enough to eat, and fats are calorie-dense. Now, of course, we have a different problem. Many of us take in too many calories, leading to obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and other conditions related to our poor diets.
For many years, the food industrial complex has advertised low-fat and no-fat foods as a way to eat healthier. But this contradicts some pretty fundamental facts about our biology. We need fat. Every cell in our body contains fat. The cell membrane, largely composed of fats, is vital to the life of the cell. It even functions as the “brain” of the cell, receiving and processing messages from the environment as well as sending messages. Healthy fats mean healthy cell membranes that function as they were designed to.
So the issue is not whether we should banish fat from our diets. The issue is what kinds of fats we should consume.
The Right Fat
Healthy fats support immunity, cognitive function, healthy immune response, hormone balance, the cardiovascular system and numerous other areas of health. Bad fats, quite often, do just the opposite.
So let’s start with the good kinds of fat. First, we have monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, avocados, high oleic sunflower oil, sesame seed oil, hemp seed oil, cashews and other sources. In moderation, these foods support healthy cholesterol levels and can help moderate inflammation.
The other recommended fats are called polyunsaturated. Think salmon, other fatty fish, nuts and seeds. These foods contain the polyunsaturated fats, omega-6 and omega-3, in varying ratios. Our American diets contain a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. What we want is a better balance with equal or higher omega-3s such as the ratio found in flax and chia seeds as well as salmon and other fatty fish. Omega-3s reduce inflammation, are excellent antioxidants and have been shown to help people lose weight, as they can enhance both fat and glucose metabolism.
Saturated fats, common in meats, whole milk, butter, coconut and other sources, were once thought to be associated with heart disease and weight gain; however, new research is showing that these fats can play an important role in nourishing the body and brain. Recently, large-scale studies reported that saturated fat does not increase the risks of heart disease, contrary to what we’ve been hearing for decades. Experts assert that these findings are not conclusive, as there isn’t a large body of clinical data on the effects of certain fats. However, preliminary studies have demonstrated that the right kinds of fats can support immunity, reduce inflammation, balance cholesterol levels, enhance neurological and cognitive function, regulate hormones and more.
The Wrong Fat
There is another class of fat that’s been getting a lot of press lately — trans fats. Trans fats are typically made when hydrogen is forcibly added to vegetable oil, and are found in margarine and countless processed foods. Manufacturers like hydrogenated oils because they act like traditional shortening and increase a product’s shelf life. Ironically, the scientists who discovered the hydrogenation process won the Nobel Prize.
According to the American Heart Association, trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and reduce good cholesterol (HDL). They also increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes. They boost inflammation, and they have been associated with cancer. Trans fats have even been linked to aggressive behavior. By comparison, saturated fats are superfoods!
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced a ban on trans fats, noting that simply removing this harmful ingredient from our diets could prevent 20,000 heart attacks a year. Other research has found that eliminating trans fats could prevent as many as 20 percent of deaths from cardiovascular disease.
Nitro Fatty Acids Support Heart Health
Keep in mind, trans fats aren’t exiled from foods yet, so we still need to be careful consumers. That means avoiding any product with hydrogenated oils. The easy way to do this is to simply stop eating processed foods. French fries, donuts, chips, crackers — these are generally loaded with trans fats.
Fortunately, there are a lot of healthy fats to choose from, and studies showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet demonstrate how the right kinds of fats can be beneficial for heart health. A compelling new study published in the journal PNASshows us that when we add olive oil, nuts and/or avocado to a meal with lots of vegetables high in nitrites and nitrates, such as spinach, celery and carrots, a synergistic action occurs. The fats react with the nitrogen compounds in the vegetables, to produce what are called nitro fatty acids that can have significant benefits for cardiovascular and overall health — particularly for healthy blood pressure. Researchers say these new findings help explain previous studies showing that a Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes these food combinations — can reduce risk of stroke, heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
There are two ways we can get in trouble with fats: Either we eat everything that looks good and don’t worry about it, or we go to great lengths to eliminate all fats. The best path is the middle one: Understand what fats are, carefully choose the healthiest varieties and reduce or eliminate the fats that we know are bad for us. These good choices will be rewarded with better weight control, better cardiovascular health and a multitude of long-term benefits on the cellular level.