Debunking the Fat Myth: Why You Need Healthy Fats in your Diet
Why Do I need Healthy Fats?
For decades now, we have been conditioned to fear fat. Around the 1980’s, low fat diets were recommended for weight loss and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Food manufacturers began taking all the fat out of foods, and adding more carbs, sugar, and artificial flavorings. This did not improve rates of cardiovascular disease, it in fact made it worse. It also caused many people to begin avoiding ALL fat, including healthier fats like olive oil, fatty fish, and nut and seed oils.¹ Many of us are still recovering from the low-fat craze, and having ‘fat fear’! Fats were never all BAD for us, in fact, we NEED fat for our overall health. Plus, studies have shown that saturated fat itself is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.² Having fats in the diet is all about context — this includes the different types of fats, how they are produced/stored, and how they are used (heating them vs. adding to a salad). While it might be nice if we could all just add a stick of butter to every meal and call it good, it’s not quite that simple. For example, some butter is ok for most people but hydrogenated oils or “trans fats”, like margarine, are a no-no. You might be wondering what “healthy fat” even is since there is a great deal of confusion out there on the topic. This guide will give you the information you need on the benefits of certain fats and oils and how to include them in a balanced diet.
Benefits of Healthy Fats
Reduce inflammation: One of the ways that certain fats support overall health is by reducing inflammation in the body. However, some fats can actually CAUSE inflammation depending on the different forms and how you use them. Some oils can also be more inflammatory for some individuals, due to your individual genetics and how you utilize the oils. The actions of different fats and oils are also largely depending on the availability of other nutrients in the system, including specific vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. We will get into more detail on that later.
Regulate blood sugar & energy levels: Have you ever noticed that if you eat a bowl of pasta or oatmeal, your energy crashes quickly and you feel hungry again before long? This is because refined carbohydrates (like oatmeal, white rice, or pasta) turn rapidly into glucose in the bloodstream. This quick-burning fuel does exactly that- it gets burned up quickly and your body will signal that it is ready for the next meal/energy source. Fats, fiber, and protein provide more steady energy than those refined carbs.
Cellular and Hormonal Health: We need healthy fats to build all of our cell membranes, to make hormones, and to protect our nervous system. If you eat the wrong types of fats, these bad fats will actually end up being part of your cell membranes, making them less flexible and more inflamed. Healthy fats build healthy cell membranes!
Endometriosis - prevention, as well as reduction in pain. ³
Reduce menstrual pain & cramping ⁴
Pregnancy- 2.7-6.1 g of total omega 3’s reduced rates of premature delivery. ⁵
Improved fertility: increased intake of omega 3’s was associated with improved rates of ovulation. ⁶
Lower Triglycerides ⁷
Lower Blood Pressure ⁸
Reduces inflammation in inflammatory disorders of the GI tract (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis) ⁹
Improvements shown in eczema when taking fish oil as part of a healthy diet. ¹⁰
Improvements in Psoriasis ¹¹
DHA is critical for the proper development of the visual system of infants. ¹²
Reduced inflammation, oxidative stress and improved pregnancy outcomes in mothers with gestational diabetes. ¹³
Reduces itchy eyes due to allergies ¹⁴
Slow cognitive decline, prevent progression of Alzheimer’s¹⁵
Helps with reducing inflammation associated with depression ¹⁶
Reduced anxiety ¹⁷
Oil and Fat Types, and Where to Get Them
Now that you know WHY to increase your omega 3’s, let’s talk about how to get them in your diet.
Monounsaturated & Polyunsaturated (Includes omega 3 & 6). Most of these contain a combination of different oil types, so they are combined to one list. These should be your primary fat sources:
Omega 3 sources (alpha-linolenic acid) :
Cold water fatty fish (preferably wild): salmon, anchovies, herring, trout, sardines, small amounts from algae.
High-quality fish oil, cod liver oil or krill oil supplements.
Omega 3-fortified eggs
Oil: Flaxseed, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, hemp seed oil (Note, these also contain omega 6).
Omega 6 sources (linoleic acid):
gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) from supplements like evening primrose, borage or black currant oil.
Nuts: (raw and organic) almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, macadamia, Brazil nuts. NOTE: Be sure to get raw nuts and seeds when possible. Roasting nuts can cause the beneficial oils to oxidize and go rancid, causing them to become more inflammatory in the body. Keep them refrigerated.
Nut Butters: cashew, macadamia, almond, hazelnut
Seeds: sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, chia, hemp seeds
Seed Butter: sesame (tahini), sunflower seed butter
Oils: avocado oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil (cold pressed and in opaque bottle only; this oil goes bad very quickly), macadamia nut oil, sesame oil. In general, seek out high-quality oils in small amounts, and keep delicate oils like flaxseed oil refrigerated.
Certain dark green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, and collards
Saturated: Okay in small amounts, as part of a well-balanced healthy diet. Think about foods like high fat meats as a ‘garnish’ on a plate full of veggies!
Mostly found in animal products such as all meats, milk, cream, cheese, butter, other whole milk dairy products and fatty meats, eggs, coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut butter.
Grass-fed beef: Lower in saturated fat, and has more omega 3 healthy fats than conventionally raised, grain-fed cows ¹⁸
Grass-fed butter contains more omega 3 healthy fats than regular butter, and can be used in moderation if not dairy-sensitive. If you are sensitive to dairy, ghee or coconut oil would be okay for cooking.
Oils / Fats to Avoid
These fats are overly processed, and more inflammatory in the body, especially when heated. Many of these oils are commercially produced using solvents to extract the oils. ¹⁹ Many of them also contain too much omega 6 (read more about the omega 3/6 balance below). While you may not be doing much frying in these oils, they are also commonly used in many restaurants, as well as packaged/processed foods like potato chips and snacks. Read ingredients labels, and avoid these whenever possible:
conventional flax oil **
fats from conventional animal products.
*The FDA officially banned the use of hydrogenated oils and trans fats in the food supply. After June 18, 2018, manufacturers can no longer use these oils; but if foods were produced and distributed before that date, they are still available on shelves for the next couple of years. So read your labels, especially foods like condiments, dressings, etc. ²⁰
**Cold-pressed flax oil in an opaque bottle is a better option; this preserves the delicate oil.
Importance of Omega 3 Fats
Now that we have broken down the different types of healthy fats to focus on, let’s take a closer look at one of the absolute superstars in that group: Omega 3 fats. These are found primarily in fatty fish, as well as some nuts (walnuts), seeds (flax, chia), and small amounts in algae. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning we need to get these from our diet, since the body cannot produce these on its own. Both omega 3 and omega 6 have anti-inflammatory properties, and we need both. The problem is, that many people are getting too much omega 6 without adequate omega 3, which can actually cause more inflammation. Normal amounts of omega 6 from nuts ,seeds and their oils is okay- but when we add in other vegetable oils from things like take-out foods, fried foods, fast food, and packaged foods, this tips the balance in favor of too many omega 6’s vs. omega 3’s. Higher omega 6 relative to omega 3 ratio is pro-inflammatory, contributing to conditions like atherosclerosis, obesity, and diabetes. ²¹ The primary goal should be to increase your omega 3 intake to balance the omega 6.
Omega 3’s from fish oil vs. vegetarian sources
We often recommend getting your omega 3’s from eating fish or taking fish oil supplementation, vs. getting your omegas from vegetarian sources like flax or algae. The vegetarian sources do provide some omegas, but in much smaller amounts than fish oil. Flax oil also contains omega 6 and omega 3, going back to the issue of too many omega 6’s relative to omega 3’s as discussed above. The other problem is that some individuals cannot convert the vegetarian oils to a source the body can utilize in order to reap the health benefits of these oils. This is why we need to look at different fats in the context of each person’s individual health, including their genetics. There are a few cases when the body will not convert omega 6 plant oils well:
If there is already a high amount of inflammation, those omega 6 fatty acids might go down more inflammatory pathways in the body to create pro-inflammatory cytokines. This process is caused by a different enzyme called delta 5 desaturase.
High sugar intake, leading to high insulin levels in the blood: High insulin turns on delta 5 desaturase, which promotes omega 6 going down the more inflammatory pathway. The good news is that adding more omega 3 oils will slow down overactive delta 5 desaturase activity
Inadequate delta 6 desaturase production: this is a necessary enzyme to get the anti-inflammatory benefits from healthy fats, by converting the plant based omega 6 to omega 3’s. There are a couple of reasons delta 6 desaturase may be low:
Stress levels: under high stress, this enzyme actually gets inhibited, making it even harder to convert omega 6 to omega 3
Inflammation: Aren’t these oils supposed to help with inflammation? They are! But when the cells are already in a very inflamed or diseased state (as in cancer, autoimmune), delta 6 desaturase becomes even more inhibited in its function.
Inadequate cofactors: This enzyme also needs other vitamins and minerals to work well, like B6, Mg, and zinc.
How to get even more anti-inflammatory effects from fish oil
Omega 3 fats are extremely nourishing to our cell membranes, which are composed of mostly FAT. However, if certain vitamins and minerals (cofactors) are deficient in the body, the omega 3’s don’t have the same benefits. They need cofactors to help get the omega 3’s in and out of the cell membranes. These cofactors also help to recycle the omegas so they can be used again in the system, instead of being used once or not used at all. This may be why some individuals don’t notice the positive effects of fish oil right away.
What we need to help fish oil work better: antioxidants like vitamin C, glutathione (our master antioxidant and free radical scavenger), and Vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols). These address both the fatty part of the cell (membrane), and the inside of the cell (cytosol). Vitamin C and glutathione have a reciprocal relationship. They basically recycle each other, so their cellular benefits can be utilized more than once. Vitamin C also has this reciprocal relationship with Vitamin E.
As you can see, fish oil has a wealth of benefits. Most of us are not getting enough omega 3 fats on a daily basis, and supplementation can be an easy way to ensure that you’re reaping all of the amazing benefits of omega 3’s!
NOTE: If you’re taking medicine that affects blood clotting or if you’re allergic to fish or shellfish, consult your health care provider before taking omega-3 supplements.
Dr. Natalia Pellegrino
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Dr. Natalia Pellegrino is a board-certified Naturopathic Doctor, registered through the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. She has been working in the field of holistic health since 2006. Dr. Pellegrino obtained her B.S. in Biology at SUNY Purchase in 2003. She subsequently completed two years and 1,300 hours of training in clinical massage therapy and traditional Chinese medicine at New York College of Health Professions in 2006. Her training incorporated a cultural and educational trip to China, which deepened her professional commitment to restoring patients’ health using the most natural means possible. Learn more about Dr. Pellegrino right here.