Jamie Sculley, ND
Dietary Fats - Healthy or Unhealthy?
Fats have gotten a bad reputation in the past that still lingers. When we think of fat, most people think that it's something to be avoided. When it comes to fat, the type of fat matters most.
Why We Need Fat in Our Diet
Fat is essential for health. It's necessary for many body functions from nutrient absorption to nerve function. The term "fat" is a pretty broad term because there are many types of fats, they do different things in our bodies and some are healthier than others.
Fats are made up of chains of carbon and hydrogen. When a fat molecule is "full" of hydrogen, it's called a saturated fat. When it's "full" except for one spot, it's a monounsaturated fat and when it's only partially "full," it's called a polyunsaturated fat.
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature because they are made up of uniform, organized fat chains that can get really close and line up with each other. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature because their structure doesn't allow them to line up neatly next to each other.
We need fat for these body functions:
On a very basic level, fats make up the outer later of all cells in our body
Absorption of fat soluble vitamins A,D,E, and K
Making hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
Our brain and nerves contain a lot of fat. It's needed to coat the outer part of the nerves so that they can transmit electrical impulses
For energy storage
This type of fat is found in animal products, dairy and oils. Foods like meat, cheese, dairy and coconut oil contain saturated fat. This fat should be eaten sparingly although it's not as unhealthy as previously thought.
Saturated fat got an unhealthy label from some flawed observations. There is a medical hypothesis called the "diet-heart hypothesis" that concluded that saturated fat raises cholesterol and therefore is bad for the heart. Cholesterol isn't inherently unhealthy and one of its most important roles is to be a building block for hormones.
When it comes to heart health, a key type of cholesterol to pay attention to is the "bad" LDL cholesterol. LDL is really just a carrier for cholesterol. When it's carrying it around it's large and "fluffy" and when it isn't carrying cholesterol it's small and "dense." The smaller, denser type is more likely to become stuck in the walls of the arteries and form plaques that lead to heart disease. While studies show that saturated fat can increase LDL cholesterol and other blood markers of this disease, they don't show a link between saturated fat causing more heart disease or dying from this disease.
There are many things that need to happen for blockages to form in the arteries such as damage to the artery wall from diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes, LDL cholesterol getting stuck in the artery wall, and immune cells coming to take care of it and then forming layers that eventually form a blockage. Saturated fat is just one of many parts of this whole process and not even a direct player in the development of the disease.
This type of fat truly is best avoided altogether. Foods may say they are free of trans fat, but food companies can put this on their label even if there is a small amount of trans fat in the product. It's important to read labels on this one. When you read labels you'll see it as "partially hydrogenated vegetable oils." It's found in processed snack foods, baked goods, margarine, shortening and fried foods.
Trans fats can raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol, lower heart-protective HDL cholesterol and increase inflammation in the body causing chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Many of these types of fats are plant based such as olive, peanut and sesame oils, avocados, and nuts. These tend to have the most benefit for heart health because they lower LDL cholesterol, increase the healthy HDL cholesterol and can reduce blood pressure.
This type of fat includes both omega-3 and omega-6 fats. They are called "essential fats" because our body can't make them so we need them in our diets. In general, omega-3 fats promote less inflammation than omega-6 fats. We need a dietary balance between the two types because, while some inflammation is beneficial, it can lead to chronic diseases if it gets out of control.
Foods like salmon, mackerel, sardines, grass fed meat and eggs, and flaxseeds provide good sources of omega-3 fats. They are heart healthy because they reduce blood pressure, increase healthy HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation.
Omega-6 fats are found in poultry, eggs, vegetable oils and nuts. They tend to increase inflammation and this is one thing that contributes to the beginning of plaque formation and heart disease. Try to increase your intake of omega-3 foods while simultaneously reducing your intake of omega-6 fats, especially vegetable oils, to balance them out.
Eat More Healthy Fats
I'm not saying to go crazy eating foods that contain saturated fat like bacon and butter, but I think it's worth knowing that they aren't as unhealthy as they seem. I still think a good approach to a healthy diet is to eat a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, proteins and low sugar. Eating a variety of fats is also important because they aren't all created equal. There are many kinds and they have different benefits.
Saturated fat is found in animal products, dairy and oils and should be eaten sparingly although it's not as unhealthy as previously thought. Trans fats are best avoided altogether because they increase inflammation and can lead to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Monounsaturated fats are plant based and found in olive, peanut and sesame oils, avocados, and nuts and benefit heart health. Omega-3 fats promote less inflammation than omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are found in poultry, eggs, vegetable oils and nuts and tend to increase inflammation. Eating a variety of fats is also important because they aren't all created equal. There are many kinds and they have different benefits.
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