Each month, I am going to dedicate one post to learning about a key nutrient in my Nutrient Profile. There’s a TON of information out there, and a lot of it can be confusing or contradicting! Let’s cut the bullshit and realize no one thing is amazing or terrible for you – it’s all about balance – and learn as much as we can while doing it. The end of each post will feature a Recipe Roundup that involves our key nutrient. All recipes I’ve made before myself, because why recommend something you haven’t tried?
Let’s talk about fat.
Anyone that knows me, knows I am a huge proponent of dietary fat. I only drink whole milk in my lattes, and would never touch low or fat free yogurt (it doesn’t even taste nice!) I prefer chicken thighs over breasts, and I always use olive oil or butter when roasting or searing veggies. I want to get one thing clear, right now – fat doesn’t make you fat.
Dietary fat got it’s nutrition journey started on wobbly legs. Where did this bad reputation come from? Let’s take a deeper look at the historical implications of dietary fat guidelines and why there’s so much confusion today about how to incorporate it into your diet.
Giving dietary fat a bad reputation
It started in 1961 with the American Heart Association, which published dietary guidelines urging consumers to replace saturated fats (from animal proteins) with polyunsaturated fatty acids (from vegetable oils). The fear was that fats were causing an increase in cardiovascular disease. These guidelines were co-authored by Jeremiah Stamler, who received sponsorship for his articles from Mazola Corn Oil – which, oh how interesting, sells vegetable oils. There was no evidence to support the consumption of vegetable oils in correlation to reducing heart disease. Also worth noting is that the predecessor of these guidelines were the following:
Diet may play an important role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. The fat content and total calories in the diet are probably important factors. The ratio between saturated and unsaturated fat may be the basic determinant. A wide variety of other factors beside fat, both dietary and non-dietary, may be important.
I don’t know about you, but none of things feel very, er, certain.
Several years later in 1968, the US Senate Committee on Nutrition & Human Needs was created to help combat malnutrition. A man named Nick Mottern was brought in to write the 1977 report, Dietary Goals for the United States. Mottern was a reporter, and by no means a food scientist, dietitian, or doctor – and he dictated that dietary fat should be no more than 30% of total daily calories, with saturated fats maxing out at 10%. Where did this 30% come from? Good question – it was never tested.
All this was obviously wonderful for the corn and vegetable oil industry. Think about the marketing opportunities – brands could now place phrases like “heart healthy” on their products.
Of course, because there wasn’t much concrete data to back up Mottern’s report, scientists began weighing in. The American Medical Association raised a red flag, and the dairy and cattle industries chimed in. A redraft was issued with less harsh guidelines on saturated fats and meat consumption. However, the battle was far from over. Several months later, a woman named Carol Foreman was named Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. She supported Mottern’s guidelines, and turned to the National Academy of Science for help – but they refused. Instead, she found a man named Mark Hegsted …who interestingly fed Mottern most of his information found in his report.
Hegsted began doing research at Harvard in 1981 – but take this as you will – the research was sponsored by Frito Lay, and involved studying the benefits of replacing fats like butter with cooking oil. The particular cooking oil of interest was one called Olestra, which is interestingly banned in several countries currently. At the same time, our girl Susan had become a lobbyist that served Proctor & Gamble … the makers of Olestra. At the same time, studies were done separately that involved people eating high fat diets, and no increase in cardiovascular risk was found!
Unfortunately, a lot of information out there is tainted by lobbyists. Several years ago, a study came out stating that there is no direct link between obesity and drinking soda – and it was sponsored by Coca Cola. This is where we see a giant downhill spiral beginning. As companies begin reducing fat in their products to keep up with consumer demands (biased by our “guidelines”), new things are added to their products instead, to help improve taste in their newly low fat foods: sugar, salt, and chemical flavorings. Does that sound healthy? This is exactly when the beginning of our obesity epidemic got its start.
So what’s the deal then? Is fat healthy or unhealthy?
It depends greatly on the type of fat we are talking about! There are 3 main types:
- Saturated fats – these tend to be solid at room temperature, and are reputedly the “bad fats”. While too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol, we need to distinguish that there is HDL cholesterol (good) and LDL cholesterol (bad). Too much saturated fat causes excess LDL, but HDL helps remove LDL from the body – so you need some saturated fats in your diet. You can find saturated fats in animal products and tropical oils like coconut and palm oils.
- Unsaturated fats – these tend to be liquid at room temperature, and typically come from plant products. Look for these in nuts and seeds, fish, avocado, and canola oil. Unsaturated fats come in two forms: poly- and monounsaturated. Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, and are necessary in a healthy diet! Find these in fish and flax seeds; monounsaturated oils are found in most seed oils like canola and sunflower. Unsaturated fats help reduce LDL and increase HDL.
- Trans fats – these are just oils that have been hydrogenated (the link goes into better detail than I can) for better stability for shelf life or repeated heating. These raise LDL and lower HDL, which is unfavorable. Look out for these in fast food and packaged snacks!
The bottom line is, stick to fats from natural, whole food sources. Your body needs both saturated and unsaturated fats – and history has shown us many different cultures and diets subsist on whale blubber, full fat milk and high fat cuts of meat just fine! Avoid overly processed fats found in junk foods and fast foods.
How much fat do I need in a day?
This depends greatly on your personal dietary needs and how many calories you are consuming.
First things first, there are 9 calories per gram of fat, and 4 calories per gram of protein or carbohydrate. Most low fat guidelines recommend keeping your fat intake around 30% of your daily calories (interesting how we’ve gone back to Mottern’s number here!) I eat around 2,500 calories a day, so that clocks me in around 83 grams of fat. Higher fat guidelines (such as the way most Mediterranean cultures eat) can go up to 40% calories from dietary fat. 7% of your dietary fat can be saturated fats, the rest coming from unsaturated fats.
Interestingly, when I did bodybuilding and had to calculate my macros, there wasn’t really a cap on fat intake. There were maximums for protein intake based on your weight, but only a minimum requirement for fat that needed to be met! And then depending on whether you were bulking (eating to gain weight) or cutting (eating to lose weight), you’d meet the rest of your daily calories with carbs.
What exactly does fat do for my body?
So why was there no max on fat when I was bodybuilding? Maybe because dipping below the minimum is dangerous! And, the less fat you’re eating in your diet (just like with fat free products), the more you’re having to replace it with something else. Let’s take a look at how fat effects us.
Nutrient absorption. This one is huge. Certain vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they absorb into the body via fat. Such vitamins include vitamins A and D. A is good for eye health, immunity, and skin care to name a few; D promotes calcium absorption, bone health, and reduced inflammation. Without enough fat in your diet, your body may not be able to utilize these vitamins to their full potential.
Hormone balance. Fat is absolutely essential for regulation of hormones and gene signaling in the body. Unbalanced hormones can actually make weight loss more difficult – so eat your healthy fats! Your body actually makes hormones using cholesterol, so don’t you dare toss out that egg yolk. Balanced hormones also help with recovery after a tough workout.
Brain function. The brain is mostly made of fat and cholesterol – so a diet too low in both can actually harm your brain by lowering neurotransmitter serotonin (which is a chemical that makes you feel happy). This can cause depression, mood swings, and lowered cognition.
Bone density. Back up to vitamin absorption – without being able to properly absorb vitamins A & D, you are at risk of low bone density and osteoporosis.
Reduced heart disease risk. I know, we’ve gone full circle, but I thought we’d better end here – after all this, fats are NOT bad for your heart! Saturated fats help raise HDL, and replacing fats in your diet with carbohydrates actually helps promote inflammation and plaque build-up.
Convinced? Check out the recipes below if you want to add a healthy dose of fats to your next meal!
February Recipe Roundup (featuring healthy fats)
- Skirt steak with chimichurri sauce – This is AMAZING. We had this for dinner one summer night and couldn’t stop spooning the chimichurri over every bite (like, I’m talking DOUSING our food in this). The recipe made a lot of sauce, so we continued to pour it over everything the rest of the week – chicken thighs are also great!
- Coconut cream baked oatmeal – So delicious, and so easy to make in a giant baking dish and portion out for the week! The coconut flavor is out of this world – I love anything with coconut milk in it, and this delivers.
- Banana and coconut butter smoothie – This is probably my favorite smoothie ever. I use way more coconut butter than you’re supposed to, and I use whole milk. If you haven’t had coconut butter, I suggest you buy it NOW! It’s the best.
- Crispy coconut kale with salmon and coconut rice – One of my new favorite dinner recipes! We made this a few weeks ago and made it again the second we ran out. Favorite part? The kale! It crisped up in the oven so perfectly and the coconut flavor was just right. Salmon is one of my favorite fish, for both the flavor and the healthy fats!
Not recipes, but also a love:
- Sunflower seed butter is one of my favorite snacks! I love it with honey crisp apple slices. The texture is more spreadable so it’s easy for dipping, and the flavor is subtly sweet. I actually prefer it to ALL other kinds of nut butter!
- Brazil nuts are another favorite snack, as well as macadamia nuts – the latter literally melt in your mouth. They don’t even need to be roasted or salted; they’re perfect raw.
- I threw together an avocado smoothie that was life changing once – it’s a whole avocado, 1 C milk of your choosing, 1 T honey, and ice. That’s it. Now I make it all the time.
What’s your favorite source of fat? Have any favorite recipes?