Making peace with fat

Americans have shunned fat in their diet, blaming it as the culprit for our obesity and heart disease. Unfortunately, these epidemics are still poorly managed, and research shows that the linear thinking of “fat makes you fat” is incomplete. In fact, the average person is 20 pounds heavier today than he or she was in 1990. Rather than focusing on avoiding fat, we need to focus on minimizing unhealthful fat sources while maximizing the many alternative healthful sources.

Fat Keeps You Satiated

A diet with adequate amounts of fat leaves you satiated. For example, compare eating an eight-ounce serving of fat-free yogurt versus eight ounces of full-fat yogurt. I guarantee you will feel fuller after eating the full-fat yogurt and probably would not be able to finish the entire eight-ounce serving. Often in fat-free varieties, the fat is replaced with sugar and carbohydrates, which burn quicker and leave you feeling hungrier sooner.

This is important and bears repeating: Fat is not the bad guy. It’s all about the kinds of fat we are consuming. Our modern diet is far too heavy in omega-6 fatty acids (commonly found in vegetable oils, commercial meat, and processed foods), which leads to an imbalance that causes inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish) are the kinds of fats we need to consume for their anti-inflammatory effects.

Why We Need Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Current research shows that inflammation caused by omega-6 fatty acids is at the root of many of our modern-day health concerns, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Our diets have evolved to having a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (approximately 15:1), whereas our diets once had a ratio of 1:1.

Our bodies are unable to make omega-3 fatty acids, so they must come from our diets. Due to increased food processing and moving farther away from natural agricultural practices, omega-3 food sources have become depleted. For example, omega-3s have been stripped from whole grains to extend shelf life, and livestock in the United States are mostly fed grains instead of omega-3-rich grass.

Omega-3 fatty acids contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is anti-inflammatory, promotes brain health, and actually aids in maintaining lean body composition in both men and women. We are healthier when maintaining the 1:1 ratio of omega-3 fat to omega-6 fat, but recent evolutionary studies show that women may need fat more than men.

Fat Feeds Your Brain

Women hold one-third of their body weight in their hips, which are essentially DHA piggy banks. During pregnancy, the fat cells break down to feed a growing fetus’ brain (primarily made of fat). If you have ever followed a low-fat diet and felt brain fog, this is why. Our bodies need a certain amount of fat to build healthy cells and neurons, feed the brain, make hormones, and more. When we have adequate DHA, we are more efficient and leaner. When we are depleted, we need more low-DHA fat cells to maintain the DHA that our bodies need.

How to Eat More Healthfully

Here are some general guidelines for curtailing unhealthful omega-6 fats:

  • Avoid anything out of a box
  • Avoid anything white (white flour, white salt, sugar)
  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store (where all the fresh foods are)
  • Fill most of your plate with vegetables

Add to these to your grocery list:

  • Coconut oil for cooking
  • Collard greens
  • Flax seeds (grind before using)
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Halibut
  • Walnuts
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Winter squash

Avoid these on your grocery list:

  • Cereal grains, including whole wheat bread
  • Grain-fed meats
  • Margarine
  • Mayonnaise (most use cottonseed oil)
  • Potato chips
  • Prepared tomato sauces (many use cottonseed oil)
  • Vegetable oils (canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil)

I hope you are now ready to consider giving fat another chance. As with everything, balance is essential. In the coming months, we’ll cover more nutritional topics like good and bad carbs, food allergies, and more.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health in San Francisco. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities, and her practice is primarily focused on weight management, hormone imbalances, and gastrointestinal conditions. E-mail: [email protected]