We all remember the eggs and bacon frowny-face TIME magazine cover from 1984 demonizing cholesterol.
Well, actually I don’t because I was 1, but I’ve certainly seen it numerous times. It took 30 years for TIME to rescind its position on fats, but the struggle to vindicate fat continues. Anything that has been such an ingrained part of our culture for so long is impossible to just cast aside one day. Even though I know that the common knowledge that “fat = unhealthy” is dead wrong, I occasionally feel that old shadow creep up behind me, suggesting that I might skip the butter tonight. So what to do? One option is to look at the facts. In general, all fats perform many functions in the body. Every cell in the body is enclosed by a double layer of fat molecules. This membrane helps protect the cell and monitor which materials go in and which come out. Fats are also converted to prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that control inflammation in the body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K, the fat-soluble vitamins, require fats to be absorbed by the body. Additionally, fats slow the digestion of food, preventing blood sugar spikes and can serve as a source of energy for the body. The best part of our day-to-day lives is that fat makes food taste good! The biggest problem with the low-fat craze of the 80’s and 90’s was that foods with fat removed tasted awful. To increase the palatability, what was added in? Sugar. And I think we can all agree that that is a very poor trade-off.
Another option to overcome fats-phobia is through self-experimentation.
Add fats back in, and plenty of them, and find out if you don’t just feel a whole lot better. Living more vigorously and robustly with fats than without them seems like pretty good reinforcement to maintain the higher levels. So then the question is, which fats should be eaten? They are not all created equal, they are not needed in equal amounts, and they don’t have equal effects on the body. Here, I’ll provide an overview of fat categories, how that type of fat benefits you, and where to find them.
What it is: Fats are chains of carbon atoms with a varying number of hydrogen atoms attached. Saturated fats have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms, making them “saturated” with hydrogen. These fats are straight molecules that stack easily together and become solid at room temperature. They are highly stable.
What it does: Saturated fats make up about 50% of the fat molecules in your cell membranes. Saturated fat is also essential for bone strength and liver and immune health. The brain requires good amounts of saturated fat, and the heart prefers to use this fat for energy. And counter to what we’ve heard for so long, studies show that higher levels of saturated fat allow greater weight loss and actually lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats become pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, but this is essential for healing and fighting infections.
How much is needed: About 30% of your daily calories from fat should come from saturated fats.
Where to use it: Animal fats, eggs, butter, raw dairy, and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil. Because saturated fats are stable at higher heats, these are your best choices for cooking.
What it is: These fats are missing one hydrogen atom (mono = one) from their molecular structure, and so have a “kink”. Oils are usually liquid at room temperature but will solidify in the fridge.
What it does: This fat is “non-essential”. That means if you don’t eat it directly, your body can manufacture it; however, you must have the correct building blocks, like adequate levels of other types of fats. These fats lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and improve mood. They may help prevent Alzheimer’s.
How much is needed: Your daily fats should be approximately 60% monounsaturates.
Where to use it: Olives, avocados, nuts and their oils. Because these fats are relatively stable, they can be used with some heat and maintain their integrity, but proceed with caution. Long exposure to high heat, think frying and roasting, can damage these fats and not only destroy their benefits but render them toxic. These are best used as a topping or in salad dressings.
What it is: Polyunsaturated fats are missing two or more hydrogen atoms, so they have multiple kinks in their structure. This makes them very unstable and likely to become rancid if exposed to just sunlight, let alone high heat.
What it does: This is a diverse group of both non-essential and essential fats. Omega-6 and omega-3 fats are in this group, and both are essential. These fats are converted to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.
How much is needed: About 10% of your daily fat calories should come from polyunsaturated fats, with a focus on the essential omega-6 and omega-3 fats.
Where to use it: The best choices are flax, raw nuts and seeds, and fish. Any kind of heat destroys them, so they should be used raw. The oils, nuts, and seeds make great additions to salads. Always try to serve your salmon uncooked (recipe below) or medium-rare (freeze first to kill pathogens and worms).
What it is: Chemically altered unsaturated fats that have had hydrogen atoms added to the molecular structure to eliminate the kinks. This artificially straight molecule then can more easily become solid and has a higher smoking point than natural mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
What it does: These fats are also incorporated into cell membranes, however, since they are molecularly different than natural fats, they do not function the same way. Cells are less able to regulate which nutrients flow in and out of the cell. This can lead to disease.
How much is needed: None. Avoid at all times. This is never a good choice.
Where to find it: Margarines, shortenings, processed foods, and all restaurant fried foods. Look for labels that state “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” and then put the item back on the shelf.
One important thing to also keep in mind is that fat-containing foods almost never contain a single fat type. There is usually a blend of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated in every food, including vegetables! Trans fats are even found in nature, albeit in very time amounts. Eating a diet made up of a variety of whole foods, and low or devoid of processed foods is a great start to ensuring adequate intake of good fats. Unless you are regularly eating salmon or another cold-water fatty fish, a fish-oil supplement is a good idea.
Marinated Wild Salmon
from “Put Your Heart in Your Mouth”
by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride
6 boneless wild salmon fillets with skin
3-4 large lemons
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. grainy mustard
2 tsp. finely chopped dill
1/2 tsp. black pepper
For the marinade:
- cut lemons in half and squeeze out all the juice, and use a knife to scoop all the flesh out of the lemons.
- Mix in salt, pepper, mustard and dill.
- Wash the fish. Find a glass dish, that will just fit the fillets. Lay three fillets of fish close together, skins down.
- Pour the marinade over them and lay the other three fillets on top, skins up. Press down well and lay a heavy weight on top of the fish, so the marinade almost covers it. The fish needs to be submerged in the marinade, because if any of it is left dry it may spoil. If any parts of the fish are not covered by the marinade, just add a little bit of water or more lemon juice.
- Cover with a towel and leave in the refrigerator to marinate for 24 hours.
- When ready, peel the skin off the fish and cut into bite-sized pieces. Serve with avocado and drizzle with lemon juice.