The Healthy Side of Fat

Posted on March 6th, 2012 by Ben | Posted in Newsletter Articles

If you’re a parent, you’ll remember what a blessed thing sleep is in those months following your child’s birth. I remember long nights when the baby would wake up just minutes after I had finally gotten him to sleep; walking with him in the dark, softly singing whatever scraps of songs I managed to summon to my groggy brain: Irish folk tunes, Silvio Rodriguez, The Police, old hymns, and, I swear, just about every line from U2’s Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Though I may have been bleary-eyed and incoherent at work the following mornings, I recall those dances in the dark with my squalling son with some fondness.

Much worse were the nights Janine woke beside me, wheezing and coughing, sometimes degenerating into a fit of hacking that just wouldn’t stop. She’d had some difficulties with asthma as long as I’d known her, but during her pregnancy with our son and in the months following his birth, things got progressively worse. On the days that she was simply too exhausted from the asthma to function, I would have to stay home from work to tend to her and the baby. We went to doctors, both allopaths and naturopaths; she tried herbal tinctures and homeopathic remedies, and eliminated potential allergens from her diet. Some things were useless while some provided a bit of relief, but the asthma attacks always returned. The only things that really helped were the steroid inhalers her allergist prescribed, but while better than suffering through an asthma attack, she hated the way they made her feel. And while the steroids took the edge off her symptoms, they weren’t taking her asthma away. When she asked her allergist what was causing her asthma—what the underlying reasons might be—he simply shrugged.

There were other scary times, too, like when, out of the blue, she developed intense abdominal pain the doctors thought (but weren’t sure) was from her gall bladder. She was generally unhealthy, often depressed, and significantly overweight. I started believing I’d be spending a large portion of the rest of my life shuttling her to doctor’s appointments and emergency room visits … and we hadn’t yet reached the ripe old age of 30.

Ultimately, she got tired of doctors being unable to tell her what was causing her health problems and took matters into her own hands. She started researching nutrition, took classes with the Nutritional Therapy Association, and started building a career as a nutritional therapist. Today she’s asthma-free, slim, energetic, and healthy, and helps others to regain their health, too— and she did it largely by bucking conventional wisdom.

What did she learn in her studies of nutrition that helped her recover her health and vibrancy? She’d be the first to tell you that it’s complex, and that each individual has a unique genetic, epigenetic, and health history that affects their current nutritional needs. But a lot of it is distilled into two words: Eat fat.

Of course, eating fat is precisely what most of us have been taught is bad for us, the focus not only of many public health campaigns, but also incessant marketing pitches featuring slender young women cradling containers of … well, it hardly matters what, just so long as it’s low fat or fat free. But a careful, responsible review of the research into fats and oils (collectively known as “lipids”) shows that while particular industrially manufactured forms of lipids—hydrogenated and their associated trans fatty acids (or “trans-fats”)—are, indeed, very unhealthy in the human body, the natural lipids that humans have been consuming for countless millennia are not only okay to eat, but actually crucial to any number of systems in the body.

Lipids are, of course, an excellent and compact source of energy, and are the preferred source of energy for the heart. Fats are digested more slowly than carbohydrates and proteins, leading to better satiety; when present in the small intestine, fats even stimulate the production of hormones that stop hunger pangs. In my own case, if you put a large bag of potato or corn chips in front of me, I’ll absent mindedly munch until the bag is empty. I’ve been known to tuck away entire loaves of bread without really thinking about it. But give me a handful of nuts—a high-fat food—and I’ll be satisfied for hours. I used to eat huge bowls of oatmeal for breakfast and be hungry by nine o’clock. Now I’ll have a couple of pasture-fed eggs for breakfast and won’t be hungry until well after noon. The slow digestion of fats and the feeling of fullness they provide allows for better energy regulation within the body and can help prevent overeating.

More importantly than the calories it can provide, however, dietary fat is also necessary for the absorption of many crucial vitamins and other nutrients. The vitamins A, D, E, and K, for example, are not efficiently absorbed in the absence of dietary fat and are consequently known as fat-soluble vitamins. Important phytochemicals and nutrients are also fat-soluble, including alphaand beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin, carnitine, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), inositol, and lipoic acid; many of these (like the fat-soluble vitamins) are important antioxidants, as well as performing other critical roles within the body. “In fact,” writes Mary Enig, a nutritionist and biochemist, “a low-fat diet can very easily become a vitamin-deficient diet.”

Fats themselves contain many compounds that are essential to the human body. The essential fatty acids (EFAs – “essential” because they cannot be produced in the body and must come from diet) linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and ALA (an omega-3), and their derivative fatty acids GLA, AA, EPA, and DHA, are used in the production of prostaglandins and eicosanoids, which are thought to help regulate a wide range of substances into and out of cell membranes. GLA, EPA, and DHA in particular seem to have some role in protecting cells from radiation. The cholesterols in fats—which have a popular reputation worse than fats themselves—are necessary for the synthesis of hormones, and are consequently essential for, among other things, mental, emotional, and sexual health.

This is but a small sample of the health benefits of fats. Of course, a person can eat too much fat. As with most things, moderation is the better part of wisdom. But if you decide to make fats a more intentional part of your diet, what fats to choose?

Hydrogenated and trans-fats are industrially manufactured products and should be avoided at all costs. These interfere with the function of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are implicated in coronary disease and poor immune function and hormone regulation, among a host of other ills. You won’t find any hydrogenated or trans-fats at LifeSource.

Rancid fats are nearly as bad for the body as trans-fats. Liquid oils do have a tendency to instability—that is, they can easily go rancid when exposed to light, heat, or oxygen— but solid fats tend to be more stable. These include the fats found in meat and fish (particularly their rendered forms, such as lard, tallow, and schmaltz), and whole dairy, including cream, whole milk (preferably non-homogenized), whole milk yogurts and kefirs, and butter (especially in its rendered form, ghee); coconut oil is an excellent solid vegetable oil. Because of their greater stability, these fats are the best for use in cooking.

Liquid oils should always be cold- or expellerpressed, and because of their greater instability, are not generally good for use in cooking, particularly highheat frying. They should be treated instead as finishing oils, sprinkled on a food after it has been cooked. After it has been opened, a bottle of oil is best stored in the refrigerator. Extra virgin olive oils are perhaps the best oil in this category, and there are a wide range to suit a variety of tastes. Nut oils (including almond, walnut, almond, and macadamia) are another good choice, as are unprocessed sunflower, safflower, and sesame oils.

I should also note that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our diet is important; while both are essential, in the United States we usually don’t eat anywhere near enough omega-3s. As dietary supplements, omega-3s are abundant in cod liver oil, fish oil and flax oil. Some seeds, such as flax, chia, and sacha inchi contain high levels of omega-3s; in addition, pasture-fed animals tend to produce higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than do their grain-fed counterparts. These higher levels can be found in the meat of pasturefed animals, but also in their milk, butter, and eggs.

Whatever reasons there may be to eat fat, one trumps the rest: it makes food delicious. A florette of plain steamed broccoli may be full of vitamins and phytochemicals, but it’s mildly unappetizing; pour a little olive oil or melt some butter over it, and it’s delicious. On one level, our enjoyment is our bodies’ way of communicating its need for fat to assimilate the fat-soluble vitamins; on another, it’s simply yummy. Our bodies know they need fat, and the pleasure we take in eating it is the pleasure of giving our bodies the stuff of life. Enjoy.

Photos:

Nuts by steffenz

Olives by CeresB

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