Last week, we talked about the basics of hormones and how to deal with stress in a positive way. Now we turn our focus to diet and nutrition. Today, it’s all about FATS. That’s right! The four letter word that evokes all kinds of fear and anxiety in so many people. With all the misconceptions and confusion surrounding it, it’s time to see and embrace it for what it is – an ESSENTIAL nutrient!
What purpose does fat serve?
As a macronutrient, meaning our body needs a lot of it, fat is essential for every cell in our body. Fat not only provides and stores energy, it also insulates and protects the body, aids in the absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) and minerals, assists in the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, helps with inflammation…just to name a few.
Of course, fat adds flavor and texture, too. And because it is more energy-dense than the other major macronutrients, carbohydrates and proteins (9 calories/gram vs. 4 calories/gram), it also helps us feel full and satisfied. I suggest you do an experiment to test this. Compare your satiety level after consuming plain toast vs. toast with avocado. I bet you the latter will have more staying power and keep you fuller for a longer period. All this to say,
a healthy diet = a combination of carbohydrates, protein, AND fat!
How much fat should you consume?
The current recommendations are:
- Total calories from fat: 25-35%
- Saturated fat: < 7% of calories
- Trans fat: <1% of calories
However, remember that these are just guidelines. Eating a well-balanced diet is soo much more important than stressing over each gram of fat.
If there’s anything that you take away from this post, I hope it’s this:
Stop fearing fats!
If you or someone you know is a chronic dieter, most likely following one of those ever-so-popular low-fat or fat-free diets, chances are yours or their hormones are imbalanced. The reason being, fats are the building blocks of hormones.
To give you an example, consuming adequate amounts of fat is especially important for the female reproductive system. On a personal note, I will be very open and share with you that I had hypothalamic amenorrhea for several years.
Without a doubt, I attribute it to not fueling my body as I should have been (starving/binging) and over-exercising. I knew this could not continue and finally decided to consciously incorporate fat back into my diet. Within 3 months, my cycle returned. This could have been attributed to a number of factors, like limiting exercise, but I believe eating more fats had a lot to do with it. Now this is not to say that the results will be the same for everyone, as our bodies are all so unique. For some, it may take shorter or longer to recover, while for others there may be underlying issues going on in the body.
However, one thing is certain – our bodies need a wide variety of fats to work properly. Again, it’s all about consuming a “well-balanced” diet rather than pursuing a “perfect” diet, if that even exists. I’m completely against labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad.”
Here’s a good example of why:
I personally believe all the controversy over fats began with labeling them – saturated fats = “bad”, polyunsaturated fats = “good.” Because what did this do? The majority of the saturated fats in our diet has been replaced with polyunsaturated fats, primarily in the form of vegetable oils derived from soy, corn, canola, and safflower.
So what’s the problem with this?
Well, let’s first talk about saturated fats…
- Mostly solid at room temperature
- Major sources:
- Red meat
- Whole fat dairy products (milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream)
- Palm and coconut oil
- Commercially prepared baked goods
As I’m sure you’ve heard, yes, they may clog your arteries, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (although the studies show a lack of evidence to conclude such correlation), etc. However, so can replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates or processed vegetable oil, which is what’s been happening. You see, this is where the problem lies. In an effort to eliminate saturated fats, highly processed low-fat products (filled with sugar and preservatives) and vegetable oils began to be produced and consumed in enormous quantities. Unfortunately, such a shift may actually be more detrimental to our health than the saturated fat itself.
You have to remember that saturated fats also play an important role in our bodies. For instance, they make up at least 50% of cell membranes, help keep our bones strong, enhance the immune system, and possess antimicrobial properties.
The suggestion says limit, not eliminate!
Now let’s talk about the so-called “good” fats –
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats…
- Liquid at room temperature
- Major sources:
- Vegetable oils – canola, soybean, olive, etc.
- Flax seeds, Chia seeds
Omega-3 and omega-6 (PUFAs) are essential fatty acids, meaning our bodies cannot make them and thus must be obtained from our diet. They both have distinct biological functions and offer unique health benefits and are essential for normal growth and development.
They are considered “good” because they have been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease.
BUT, the problem is that we are consuming way too much omega-6 fats in the form of highly processed vegetable oils stripped of their original nutrients in respect to omega-3. As mentioned earlier, the low-fat craze and the replacement of animal fat with vegetable fat may be partially to blame. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 2:1-4:1 (to put this into perspective, the modern Western dietary ratio is nearly 20:1).
The issue with omega-6 is that it contributes to inflammation in the body, which is a contributing factor for many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Additionally, PUFAs are highly unstable and prone to oxidation in the presence of heat, oxygen, and moisture. Rancid oils produce free radicals, which are extremely reactive chemically and can wreak havoc on your body. For instance, they can damage your tissues, organs, blood vessels, etc.
One of the ways you can prevent oil rancidity is to be aware of its smoke point. My fellow dietitian, Anne from Fannetastic Food wrote a comprehensive post on which oils to use for cooking, baking, roasting, etc., so be sure to check it out!
All this to say:
- Stop labeling fats as “good” or “bad”
- If you use vegetable oil in salads, throw in some salmon or flaxseeds to balance those omega-3s and omega-6s.
- Go ahead and have that butter on your toast instead of highly processed margarine. Eat REAL foods.
- If you are cutting back on red meat or dairy products in an effort to limit (not eliminate) the intake of saturated fats, then replace them with other real, high-quality fats found in other foods. For instance, choose fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and avocados, instead of highly processed, low-fat products, refined carbohydrates, or commercial vegetable oils.
- There is a fat you DO want to avoid – trans-fats. They are made through a process call hydrogenation, in which a liquid oil is converted to one that is solid at room temperature to make it more stable (e.g. margarine). So avoid products that contain “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. But you won’t have to worry bc you’ll be nourishing your body with REAL foods, right? 😉
Now, I intentionally choose to eat and enjoy full-fat cheese, avocado toast with a fried egg on top, bananas with generous amounts of nut butter, full-fat ice cream… I always feel satisfied afterward, and guess what? I haven’t gained weight, and my cycle is still very regular. So stop fearing and stressing over fats, because not only is it pointless, but you can kiss hormonal balance goodbye with all that stress.
So when it comes down to it, it’s all about eating (one more time for good measure) a well-balanced diet. Instead of labeling fats as “good” or “bad” focus on eating unprocessed, whole foods fat and all. But remember, even foods that are super good for you can be harmful if consumed in excess.