Now that fat is back with a vengeance in the mainstream media (thanks, Time Magazine), I feel like it may be time to talk a little bit more about it: the types of fat that are considered healthy to consume and just how much you should be eating.
Fat is Good for You & Your Hormones
I’ll keep this brief. You’ve mostly likely heard the news that fat is a good thing. Our brains are made predominantly of fat. Fat is a major source of energy and helps you absorb certain vitamins and minerals. We need fat to build cell membranes and protective myelin sheaths. Fat is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and immune processes. Healthy fats help you feel fuller longer, balance blood sugar, and help to regulate hormones.
Even saturated fat is not the evil substance we once thought is was and has numerous health benefits. (we’ll talk more about this below). Read 8 Truth Bombs About Fat here.
If you’d like to skip a lot of detailed information about the different kinds of fats and the role they play in the body, skip down to the “Fast Fat Facts” below.
The Best Fats for Hormones?
Historically, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been touted for their health-promoting properties, while industrial made trans fats and saturated fats have been demonized. We now know that, while all fats are certainly NOT created equal, we’re still learning about the roles of these different chemical structures in the body and some fats (namely, of the saturated variety), are not quite as bad as we once thought.
Now let’s break it down, shall we?
All fats have a similar chemical structure: chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in varying lengths, shapes, and orders. Even small differences in the structures of these chains can result in huge differences in form and function.
Monounsaturated fatty acids have one (mono) double bond in their fatty acid chain. Generally, the more double bonds, the more fluid the fat, so these tend to be liquid at room temperature and may solidify when cooled.
These fats are found in many oils, including olive oil, flaxseed oil, sesame seed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and peanut oil. (Note that the aforementioned oils are also comprised of polyunsaturated and saturated fats, in addition to monounsaturated fats.)
Monounsaturated fats are also found in large amounts in avocados and nuts. These fats are particularly amazing for controlling high blood pressure, promoting healthy cholesterol levels, and are good for brain health and function.
Remember those double bonds? Well, polyunsaturated fats have more than one of those bonds, hence the prefix “poly”, which means that they tend to stay very liquidy, even when refrigerated. Polyunsaturated fats tend to oxidize easily (a reaction that produces free radicals) and are not the best fats to heat at high temperatures. These are best kept in dark bottles or other dark packaging in cool, dark places.
Polyunsaturated fats are also a broad categorization for omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, and omega-9 fatty acids, all essential, but some of these are needed in much different amounts.
These are polyunsaturated fats that we call “essential” because they cannot be made in the body and must be obtained from food.
The most important EFAs are omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-6 fatty acids are absolutely important – they play a crucial role in brain function and normal growth and development. However, the modern Western diet tends to favor omega-6 fats, which are pro-inflammatory and can get out of control when omega-3s aren’t there to balance things out. Omega-3s are important for circulation, fighting systemic inflammation, and supporting brain function.
Unfortunately, our consumption of beneficial omega-3s is embarrassingly low, making the ratio of omegas 6:3 highly skewed in the omega-6s favor. This is a problem because both fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes.
The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s should be about 1:1 or 4:1, while typical Western diets look more like 10:1 or 25:1; most likely due to the overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acids in the forms of processed seed oils, grains, and meat and dairy from grain-fed animals.
The good news is, eating more omega-3-rich foods such as cold water, fatty fish, grassfed beef, algae, and nuts balances out the overconsumption of omega-6 fats.
The easiest of all the fatty acids to break down in the body, saturated fats are critical to healthy function of the human body.
Saturated fats have actually been shown to improve cardiovascular health by reducing levels of a substance called lipoprotein-a (Lp(a)) that correlates strongly with heart disease risk. Saturated fats can also raise HDL levels (this is a good thing) and even help with weight loss.
These fats contribute to stronger bones, especially in women, and improved brain, lung, and liver health. Some saturated fats have positive associations with immune health, supporting the function of white blood cells so they can do their jobs.
No. Just no. If you want more of an explanation on this, please leave a comment below and I will write another post of the dangers of trans fats. There are some naturally-occurring trans fats, but not many. To avoid them, avoid any products that have the word “hydrogenated” anywhere on the label and avoid fried or greasy foods that you aren’t making yourself.
Beware of Fancy New Franken-fats
As the word about trans fats got around and bans began spreading throughout the U.S., a new commercial fat showed up on the market to replace trans fats. Interesterified fat is a modified fat molecule that includes hydrogenations followed by a restructuring of fat molecules – a process called interesterification – actually raises blood glucose levels and depresses insulin and beneficial HDL cholesterol in humans.
Again, the best way to avoid these laboratory-derived fats is to stick to the ones we know, the healthier alternatives mentioned above, and limit the fried and greasy foods we eat out.
Fast Fats for Hormones Facts
How Much Fat Should You Eat?
So, we know that fats aren’t evil. But the problem with anything in our great American culture is that we tend to take all things to the extreme (power Yoga, anyone?). If you’ve incorporated more fat in your diet (~50%) and are still eating a lot of carbs, processed or whole, you might experience some weight loss resistance or sluggishness. A good rule of thumb is to get about 2 tbsp. of healthy fats from whole foods sources at every meal. Experiment with different macronutrient ratios and see what’s right for your body. For instance, if you’re going for a higher fat diet (about 50% of your calories from fats), it might be best to increase your protein intake and lower your carbohydrate intake. That might look something like:
- 50% fat
- 30-35% protein
- ~15% carbohydrates from real, whole food sources
If you’re going a little lighter on the fat, it might look like:
- 35% fat
- 25% protein
- 40% carbohydrates from real, whole food sources
I recommend tracking your macronutrients in an app like MyFitnessPal for just a couple of days to get a better idea of just how much fat you’re consuming if you’re not sure.
Who Might Want to Avoid a Lot of Fat?
There are some cases in which you should keep fat consumption down. Working with a qualified practitioner to make sure you’re body is utilizing fat properly is key if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- You experience oily and/or floating stools on a regular basis.
- You’ve had a stool test that indicates fat malabsorption.
- You have problems with your gallbladder.
- You do not have a gallbladder.
Some Good Fats:
Remember to stick to organic, raw nuts and seeds, wild-caught fish, and organic produce when possible.
- Fatty, cold water fish
- Fatty grassfed, pastured meat
Good Fats for Cooking:
In general, raw, organic, cold-pressed, unrefined oils are best. However, refined oils (refined avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil) tend to have higher smoke points. Some fats are better for heating, while some oils, like walnut oil, is best left unheated.
- Avocado oil*
- Bacon fat*
- Coconut oil*
- Olive oil
- Lard/leaf lard (rendered from pastured, organic pigs)*
- Tallow (rendered from grassfed, organic beef, lamb, or mutton)*
- Palm oil (not to be confused with palm kernel oil)*
- Poultry fat (typically from goose, duck, or emu)*
- Macadamia nut oil
- MCT oil
- Walnut oil
*Good fats for heating
I hope this clears up some of the confusion about fats – that there’s nothing to be scared of, but it’s still best to educate yourself on the best fats and how they work in the body.