Fats:  Foes or Friends?

If there’s one food category that’s taken on a bad rap, its Fats for sure!

Fats come lastly in our bodies’ line-up of preferred fuel sources because while they are the most calorically dense, they are also the most difficult to utilize.  Because they are so calorically dense, we often crave them when we are really hungry and they are what are body looks to utilize from reserves when food is scarce.

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Our bodies need fats to function properly! Fats provide our bodies with essential fatty acids (EFA’s) which cannot be formed in the body and therefore must be obtained from food sources.  Fats provide cushioning, insulation and storage for extra nutrients to be used when food is lacking.  They are essential for hormonal balance, proper brain function and development, proper eyesight, blood clotting, and controlling inflammation.  Fat is necessary to maintain healthy skin and hair, and helps our bodies absorb and move fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, E & K through the bloodstream.

Yet, again, too much of a good thing is not good at all and not all fats are created equal.  Because of its greater caloric density, fat is often fingered as the villain in our country’s epidemic of obesity, though experts note, dietary fat and body fat are not necessarily or always directly linked, as we can also gain body fat from eating too many carbs or proteins.

Some body types require more or less fat than others.  Gender, overall diet, lifestyle, genetics and activity may all play a role in how much fat you should be consuming. The American Heart Association still recommends that the average person obtains 25-35% of their calories from fat.  Please note, these recommendations are based on calories, NOT volume.  In other words, a 2,000 cal./day diet may healthfully include anywhere from 500-700 calories from fat.  Remember: fat is denser in calories, watch that you don’t use this as a pass to go overboard.

Some recommend taking in as little as 10%, such as Dr. Ornish with The Reversal Diet, which aims to reverse ailments, such as heart disease.   However, others recommend more, especially for children where those fats are essential to proper brain development.  Some consume more (good) fats as an essential aid in efforts to alleviate and/or reverse disorders such as ADHD.

Some find that low-fat diets trigger depression while others swear that diets higher in fat cause disease.  To better understand how much fat your family, personally, should be consuming, be sure talk to your nutritionist, naturopath or other health professional.

Whether you lean more towards higher or lower fat intake, it is essential that the forms you consume are healthy!

Fats are generally broken down into these subcategories:

Unsaturated Fats

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These are said to lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) though this end may not be accomplished without simultaneously reducing consumption of bad fats.  Unsaturated fats subcategories consist of:

Monounsaturated: Avocado, nuts, and vegetable oils such as olive and peanut.

Polyunsaturated: Vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, soybean, and corn oils

Omega 3’s:  found in foods such as walnuts and flax

Omega 6’s:  found mostly in vegetable oil such as soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil.

Most Western diets have an omega-6:omega-3 ration of 16:1, which is associated with an increase in inflammation and other health woes.  Healthier ratios are said to be in the range of 4:1 – 1:4.  Many even recommend simplifying it and sticking to a 1:1 ratio.

Saturated Fats

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These fats are solid at room temperature, hence it also being referred to as “solid fat.”  It is important to understand some distinguishment in this category as it is often overly generalized and consequently misunderstood.  Saturated fats include butter, lard, margarine, shortening and other animal fats but also extends to include coconut, palm and other tropical oils.

The problem with this overgeneralization is that recommendations and health articles lead consumers to conclude that all saturated fats are bad for you, at least to some degree.  A belief that is simply false.  There is seldom any stated differentiation between forms.

Butter, lard and the like are long-chain-fatty acids. This makes them more difficult for the body to break them down.  Coconut oil, however, is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids which the body metabolizes more quickly and readily in the liver.  While coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it liquefies quickly when it gets around 78°F.  Many incorporate coconut oil into their diets to lose weight and improve their overall health.

Diets high in long-chain fatty acids, such as butter, lard and margarine, are said to clog arteries and generate disease  (though these health effects are still seen primarily amongst those consuming a considerable amount of processed foods).  General recommendations for saturated fats is to limit them to 10% of your daily calories.

Trans-Fats

These are your “No-Go’s” when it comes to fats.  DO NOT EAT THESE! These are fats that have been altered to increase stability and shelf life.  They are found in processed/pre-packaged foods, such as chips, crackers, cookies, dressings and other products made with shortening or hydrogenated oils.  A “0g Trans Fat” label does not mean that it truthfully has no trans fats, only that the servings contain a low enough amount that regulations don’t require them to tell you about it.  Avoid Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated anything!

Quality is Key

As with any other food, quality is key.  Look for cold pressed oils (heat processing damages the oils, potentially making them toxic) and note the grade.  “Extra virgin” is your best quality.  It comes from the first pressing.  It is the most expensive but also maintains the most nutritive properties and flavor.  “Virgin” oils come from your second pressing. They are somewhat more affordable, add less flavor to a dish (which may be good or bad depending on what you’re making with it) and maintain less of the nutritive properties of the source food.  “Pure” oils may be cheaper but are often processed with chemicals to extract what’s left from the source food.  They also be further refined/processed to remove smells or improve end-product marketability with little regard for health efficacy.

My favorites are Extra Virgin Olive Oil and either Virgin or Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. I substitute coconut oil in place of butter or any other solid fat in various recipes (such as in making Momma’s homemade whole wheat biscuits and pie crusts); use it in its liquid state in the kids’ birthday cakes; and use it to make the BEST homemade organic popcorn.

I use extra virgin olive oil in virtually everything else.  It is especially best used as a finishing oil applied after the food has been cooked and removed from the heat source. Others that you may like to keep on hand include grape seed oil and sesame oil for high heat cooking.

The best sources of fats remain whole food sources.  An ounce of nuts or seeds a day is said to be a great benefit to all, providing essential fats and many other nutrients to help your family grow and thrive!

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