Most middle-aged Americans who grew up in the second half of the 20th century are terrified of fat, and it’s no wonder. For decades, dietary fat has been made out to be the supervillain of the nutrition world, but this mighty nutrient is making a superhero comeback, due to its many beneficial effects on both our waistline and overall health.
Why has fat been so vilified? Misinformation, politics, and influential trade organizations all had a hand in steering us away from this oh-so-important dietary component, beginning in 1955 when researcher Ancel Keys claimed that dietary fat (saturated fat, in particular) raised cholesterol and caused heart disease. Based on faulty research and misinterpreted data, his research struck a nerve and people began to listen.
Then, in the 1960s, the powerful Sugar Research Foundation dealt fat another blow when it paid Harvard nutritionists to downplay sugar’s effects on heart health, and instead imply that fat was to blame for the country’s increasing health and heart issues.1 This resulted in flawed policies and recommendations that led to a decades-long obsession with fat-free or low-fat, high-sugar processed foods that left Americans more overweight and unhealthy than ever before.
Is Fat Really Good For Me?
Fortunately, the tides are turning and the importance of including healthy fats in our diet is making its way into the limelight. The benefits of a diet rich in health-promoting fats are extensive and include everything from better blood sugar regulation and improved cholesterol to decreased inflammation.
In particular, consuming plenty of fats as part of a whole-food diet can help with three critical aspects of health: maintaining an ideal weight, nutrient absorption, and cognitive function.
Weight Loss: Throw all your preconceived notions out the window, because eating fat will not make you fat! In fact, research shows that a diet high in healthy fats actually helps you lose weight. In one study of 311 overweight women, subjects who followed a high-fat diet for one year had greater weight loss and more favorable fasting glucose levels than women on low-fat diets.2
How does this work? Scientists are finally figuring out that sugar is what makes us gain weight, not fat—this is because our body stores excess sugar as fat. When you consider that most Americans consume more than 150 pounds of sugar each year, you can see how easily those pounds can creep on. But, it turns out that if you limit sugar and refined carbohydrates and focus on healthy fats, your body will learn to burn fat—instead of glucose—for energy. A high-fat diet can also curb hunger and cravings that can lead to overeating.
Vitamin Absorption: Fat is crucial for your body’s absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K, E), and a diet low in healthy lipids can lead to serious deficiencies of these important nutrients. From strengthening your bones and joints and clotting your blood to boosting your immune system and protecting your heart health, these vitamins provide nutrition that you simply can’t achieve optimal wellness without.
In one fascinating trial, adding avocado (a healthy source of fat) to salsa increased subjects’ absorption of vitamin A by three times and lycopene—a potent antioxidant—by four times, in comparison to salsa without avocado.3 In another study, full-fat salad dressings significantly improved absorption of carotenoids (fat-soluble nutrients that give vegetables their vibrant colors). Researchers saw no carotenoid absorption with reduced-fat dressings.4
Brain Health: Our brain is composed of 60% fat, most of which is the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is critical for cell communication, and adequate amounts of this fatty acid in the brain lead to boosts in happiness, memory, cognition, and learning. And the flip side? A deficiency of omega-3s can trigger stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, and low DHA levels are even associated with smaller brains!5
Before you run out and grab the first full-fat food you can find, remember that not all fats are created equal—some are actually bad for your health.
Good Fats or Bad Fats: How to Tell the Difference
There are good fats and bad fats, and focusing on the beneficial fats (while eliminating the harmful ones) is key when it comes to your overall well-being and long-term health.
So, how can you differentiate friend from foe?
Bad fats are found in refined vegetable oils overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids, such as soybean, corn, safflower, and canola. You see, while we need both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, it’s the ratio of the two that matters. Humans evolved with a nearly 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, but our modern Western diets tend to be more along the lines of 16:1, which leads to an excess of omega-6s, widespread inflammation, and omega-3 deficiency. In addition, many of these vegetable oils are processed using chemicals and toxic solvents.
Trans fats—like margarine and shortening—are truly the bottom of the barrel when it comes to their effects on your health and should be avoided at all costs. Altered fats designed to extend the shelf life of foods, trans fats can cause weight gain, inflammation, and cholesterol issues. They hide in processed foods like cookies, frozen and fried foods, cupcakes, and donuts.To steer clear of these “frankenfats,” check labels for anything “hydrogenated,” as this indicates the presence of these harmful lipids.
Now for the good news! Good fats that benefit your health are easy to add to your diet if you know what to shop for. Focus on adding some of these friendly nutrients to every meal:
• Coconut oil. Medium-chain fatty acids, which are easy to digest and a great source of energy, make up the majority this amazing oil.
• Grass-fed butter and ghee. Full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and rich in trace minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, high-quality butter (and it’s clarified cousin, ghee) is a superfood in its own right.
• Avocados. These fruits are rich in monounsaturated fats (which raise levels of good cholesterol), vitamin E, folate, and healthy protein.
• Omega-3 rich fish. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring are all rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
• Flaxseed oil. Loaded with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another omega-3, flaxseed oil can optimize digestion and ease temporary inflammation. Flax seeds are also great fat sources—add them to any dish for a boost.
• Extra virgin olive oil. Monounsaturated fats and plentiful antioxidants make EVOO a great low-temperature oil choice.
• Nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and pecans are wonderful sources of healthy fats, along with pumpkin, sesame, hemp and chia seeds.
We know that healthy fats benefit nearly every aspect of our health, but what do they do in our gut?
Yes, Your Gut Needs Fat, Too!
When it comes to gut health, healthy fats work hand in hand with your helpful gut bacteria to protect and reinforce your gut barrier, which works hard to regulate your immune response and keep toxins, chemicals, and inhospitable bacteria from reaching your bloodstream.
What’s more, not only do beneficial fats work to reduce temporary inflammation that can make the gut lining more permeable, but certain omega-3 fatty acids encourage the growth of our friendly gut bacteria and promote our intestinal cells’ secretion of a protein that further controls inflammation and dampens exaggerated immune reactions.6
This means that the probiotics (the good guys) living in your digestive tract also need good fats to help them accomplish their jobs, which range from assisting with digestion and helping you absorb nutrients to optimizing your metabolism and even improving your mood.
So, how do you incorporate good fats into an all-around gut-healthy lifestyle?
1. Set the foundation for optimal gut and overall health by taking a high-quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement like Hyperbiotics PRO-15 that provides billions of viable organisms deep into your gut to start supporting your health.
2. Focus on a whole-food diet brimming with organic, plant-based foods (aim to make these 70-80% of your diet) and prebiotics to nourish both you and your mighty microbes.
3. Include 4-5 servings of healthy fats every single day—a serving is equal to a tablespoon of oil, four ounces of fish protein, or a handful of seeds or nuts.
4. Make lifestyle choices that support your microbiome, like steering clear of antibiotics (in food and as medicine), stress, antibacterial cleaners, processed food, environmental contaminants, and anything else that depletes your precious microbes.
After more than 50 years on the naughty list, the research is clear—fat is finally earning its keep as an essential nutrient vital for our health. And now that we know that our friendly gut flora need them just as much as we do, we should take steps to include healthy fats as part of our everyday health and wellness goals. So, go ahead, eat fat for weight loss, energy, and gut health and you’ll be well on your way to living your happiest, healthiest days!References:
1. Mcgandy, R. B., Hegsted, D., & Stare, F. J. (1967). Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 277(4), 186-192.
2. Gardner, C. D., Kiazand, A., Alhassan, S., Kim, S., Stafford, R. S., Balise, R. R., . . . King, A. C. (2007). Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women. Jama, 297(9), 969.
3. Unlu, N.Z., Bohn, T., Clinton, S.K., Schwartz, S.J. (2005). Carotenoid absorption from salad and salsa by humans is enhanced by the addition of avocado or avocado oil. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(3), 431-436.
4. Brown, M.J., Ferruzzi, M.G., Nguyen, M.L., Cooper, D.A., Eldridge, A.L., Schwartz, S.J., White, W.S. (2004). Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings as measured with electrochemical detection. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80(2), 396-403.
5. Brenner, S. R. (2012). Red Blood Cell Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels and Markers of Accelerated Brain Aging. Neurology, 79(1), 106-107.
6. Bentley-Hewitt, K. L., Guzman, C. E., Ansell, J., Mandimika, T., Narbad, A., & Lund, E. K. (2015). How fish oils could support our friendly bacteria. Lipid Technology, 27(8), 179-182.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.