The culture of health in the United States has taken turns demonizing various nutrients. In the 1980’s, it was Fat’s turn, and the messaging was so aggressive that some of us have never recovered.
Starting in the late 1970’s, the US Senate began taking an interest in the link between diet and heart disease. Members of Congress were dying prematurely, and their colleagues wanted to know why.
Ultimately, the finger was pointed squarely at Fat – particularly saturated, animal fats. This gave rise to an entire arsenal of “fat free” or “low fat” products. Most of these products made up for the lack of fat (flavor) with sugar and other additives. As we now know, the low-fat epidemic resulted in a high-sugar epidemic, and as a result obesity began to skyrocket at around the same time fat was condemned.
But science has evolved since the 70’s and 80’s. And like anything, black and white thinking is generally not the right approach. Balance is better. This means fat (like any other nutrient) is not 100% good, nor is it 100% bad. The health of a particular fat in your body depends on many factors, including how it breaks down, how much processing it has undergone, what state it is in when you ingest it, how much of it you eat overall, and what you eat with it in any given meal.
Our nutrition guidelines recommend getting about 30% of your dietary calories from natural, clean and unprocessed Fat. On a 2000 calorie diet (typical for many men), this is about 67 grams of fat. And on a 1600 calorie diet (typical for many women), this is about 53 grams of fat per day.
Each gram of fat contains 9 calories, unlike protein and carbs which are both 4 calories per gram. This is why it is easiest to overeat calories (we call this “calorie surplus”) when you are consuming a higher fat diet. It is a common pitfall for people who are adhering to “low carb” – they switch out their carbs at 4 calories per gram for unchecked fat ingestion at 9 calories per gram. And while some fats do indeed take longer to process than super-fast refined carbs, a calorie surplus will always lead to weight gain, regardless how it happens.
Many health & fitness professionals approach Macronutrient intake in the following way:
Step 1: Make sure you are getting your Protein quota for the day, usually about 20% unless you are aggressively lifting weights, when you might want to increase to 25% or even 30%. This amounts to around 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Many people find it difficult to eat “enough” protein, which is why protein is prioritized for lean muscle retention.
Step 2: After your Protein needs are attended to, use Carbs and Fat as somewhat interchangeable levers to eat your overall calorie needs depending on what Dietary Phase you are in. To minimize cravings, we recommend a 40% Carb and 30% Fat ratio. However, you can eat higher Fat and lower Carb, or vice versa – as long as you stay within your overall calorie goals for the week.
This is a pretty solid approach to calorie (and weight) maintenance.
The problem really arises with the calorie-dense Standard American Diet, full of processed food. The typical western diet is very high in fats AND carbs, and typically very low, poor-quality protein.
A great rule of thumb for health and weight maintenance is that you can generally eat higher Fat, or higher Carb, but NOT both. You’ve gotta pick one, and they each have their benefits and drawbacks. And if you want to keep your lean muscle tone, you can’t replace Protein – even if you find it more fun to eat Carbonara than Steak. 🙂
So if we’re eating roughly one-third of our daily calories in Fats, where do we start? There is a huge difference in Fat source quality. Some Fats are so nourishing, they can sooth systemic inflammation and fight disease and cancer. Other Fats actually cause systemic inflammation, disease and cancer.
For the purposes of this article, let’s talk through the Fats that are healthiest for your body. We’ll then review some less healthy fats, and finish off with the types of fats that you should aim to very rarely eat. We’ve split Fat sources up into 4 categories.
CATEGORY 1: HEALING FATS
WHOLE, STRAIGHT FROM NATURE
The very healthiest fat sources you can eat are likely the ones you are getting the least of. These are fats that you could pick off a tree or bush, or pluck from a stream, and eat pretty much straight away.
Nuts top the list of healthy fats, because they have incredibly strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Nuts are described by scientists as “nutritionally precious”. Specifically, you should aim to get more walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, and pistachios in your diet.
Note that nut oils do not have the same anti-cancer properties. It has to be the whole nut.
Eating just half a walnut a day has been proven to cut certain types of cancer and inflammatory disease risk in HALF! It really is incredible the healing power of whole nuts. You can read more about the incredible anti-inflammatory properties of nuts here.
Seeds are also super healthy. Pepitas (roasted shelled pumpkin seeds) and sunflower seeds are among the healthiest seeds, and have many of the same health benefits as nuts.
But there are two types of seeds that deserve special attention here: FLAX seeds and CHIA seeds. These little guys deserve their super-food status. They are both very high in fiber and antioxidants. Just 2 tablespoons of chia seed has 11 grams of fiber! That’s more than in an entire typical meal.
They’re both also very high in Omega 3 fatty acids. That’s a big deal in the Standard American Diet because almost all the fats we typically ingest are Omega 6, which can be inflammatory in the body when they are out of balance.
Because chia acts somewhat like tapioca, it’s great for thickening things. There are some really yummy fruit jam and pudding recipes out there using chia seeds. Flax seeds shine when added to baked goods. Just make sure you eat ground flax seeds. Your body can’t break down whole flax seeds. Also, try to eat the actual seed – not just the oil. That way you get all the benefits of the whole plant, not just its refined fat content.
Other sources of whole fats include fruit fats like whole avocados and coconut, and small fish sources such as salmon, mackerel and anchovies.
All of these fats are superior to even unprocessed oils, because they contain the complete nutritional profile that nature designed – not just their fat content singled out. (Some nutrition experts call oil the candy of the fruit and vegetable world. I’m not sure I fully agree, but it is true that, by definition, making oil removes every element of a food except for the oil/fat it contains).
So make every effort to eat these Category 1, Direct-From-Nature Fats. They truly are gut-soothing, stress-reducing, crave-fixing, anti-inflammatory wonders.
CATEGORY 2: HEALTHY FATS
MINIMALLY EXTRACTED FROM NATURE
All minimally processed oils, along with milkfats, fall into this category.
In our opinion, the only oils to eat or cook with are olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil. Those three oils are only 1-2 steps away from their natural state, so even though the nutrients and fiber have been stripped from them, they are least are not chemically or industrially produced.
Here’s how to use each according to its flavor profile and smoke point:
Use Virgin or Extra Virgin Olive oil when it will either not be heated at all (ie salad dressings, drizzle over finished dish) or it will be moderately heated (no higher than about 350 degrees). While olive oil has a distinct flavor when cold/raw, heating it subdues the grassy/strong flavor notes, resulting in a mild-tasting dish. So don’t worry about olive oil changing the flavor of your dish unless it’s being drizzled on unheated. Note: Do not buy regular (not labeled as virgin) olive oil – it goes through heavier chemical processing.
Use Avocado oil for the basis of higher heat cooking like stir fry, roasting vegetables, and grill marinade. Avocado oil has a very neutral flavor profile – we find it doesn’t taste like avocado at all. We use it for salad dressings frequently, and also bake with it! It also has a higher smoke point which makes it safer to use at higher temperatures without turning rancid or carcinogenic. (Oil that has been heated past its smoke point changes its chemical structure. That makes it unstable and potentially carcinogenic.)
Use Coconut oil a little more sparingly – particularly because it is 100% saturated. It also tastes mildly like coconut. We use it for specific dishes like Thai food that call for its flavor. Many people use coconut oil in granola, but we prefer avocado for that also since it doesn’t have to be melted first.
Overall, it’s a good idea to switch up your fats and not always use the same thing.
Rounding out this category, we include somewhat-controversial Milkfat. The dairy industry has recently come under fire as being exceedingly cruel, in much the same way factory farming has. It’s important to strive to get dairy from small farms and pastured, grass-fed animals.
Despite its recently demonization, there has been substantial research about dairy in general, with some fascinating results. It boils down to this: Milk Proteins (especially Casein, and to a much lesser extent, Whey) do tend to be inflammatory in the body. However, Milk Fat globules have proven in multiple studies to be anti-inflammatory in the human body. That is, they have a soothing effect on inflammation everywhere but particularly in the gut.
For this reason, grass-fed butter makes an excellent cooking choice. If you’re sensitive to milk proteins, cooking with Ghee makes a lot of sense. Ghee is clarified butter – it’s had the milk proteins (more or less) removed, leaving only the milkfat behind.
Also, you may want to consider goat dairy products! Goats have a different protein profile in their milk and have been shown to be overall less inflammatory than cow’s milk. Goat diary farms also tend to be smaller, with more careful health management of the herd and therefore less antibiotics and synthetic hormones used on the animals. We have found an excellent local goat’s milk Kefir that we love, and are about to branch out into some other products as well.
Speaking of grass-fed, any animal fat that is 100% pastured (not factory farmed but eating its natural diet in a natural environment) is going to have healthier fat than factory feedlot animals.
CATEGORY 3: UNHEALTHY FATS
LACED WITH CHEMICAL BYPRODUCTS
After two categories of healthy fats, we now head into unhealthy territory.
Category 3 is the category that factory farmed animal fats are in. This is because these animals are not fed a healthy or natural diet appropriate to their species. In fact, meatpacking corporations have taken all kinds of disgusting shortcuts, like feeding the ground up bones and hides of slaughtered cows to future generations of cows, and feeding inedible or sick portions of chicken to pork and cows. Feedlots are now feeding their cows candy like Skittles as a cheap carbohydrate. We realize that sounds crazy and unbelievable, so here’s an entire Google Search Page about it!
The sad truth is that factory farmed animals are fed whatever is cheapest by their corporate owners, that will keep them alive long enough to slaughter.
Over many generations this practice has led to a build up of toxic chemicals and metals in the animals. Animals store toxins in their fat after their livers process it. They store heavy metals in their bones, which makes bone broth and collagen supplements from factory animals anything but healthy.
Further, this process is causing the animals to be sick and diseased, requiring huge loads of systemic antibiotics. Did you know that 80% of the antibiotics in the US are used on domestic meat animals, not on humans?
Factory farmed chicken is no better. They are fed cheap GMO grains that are doused in pesticides like Roundup. They are never given access to clean water or air, resulting in a highly diseased animal. In fact, factory farmed chickens are so diseased that their carcasses are dunked in bleach water before packaging. Yet dangerous bacterial outbreaks and recalls are on the rise anyway.
Factory farmed animal fats (and bones for that matter) are just really unhealthy for you. Try to avoid them if you can. If you do purchase factory farmed meat, stick with the leanest cuts available like breast for chicken, tenderloin for pork, top sirloin for beef.
If you are purchasing pastured, naturally fed animals, you don’t have to worry as much about eating more animal fat because there will be far less toxic material stored in that fat. There will also be less fat overall, because pastured animals are much leaner – more similar to wild animals. (This can create some overcooking issues when you are first adjusting to it, so be careful!)
CATEGORY 4: DAMAGING FATS
PROCESSED, FAKE AND/OR RANCID
We’ll round out our category list withe bottom of the barrel – fake, industrialized and rancid fats.
Out of all the things we eat that are directly linked to diseases and cancer, these guys are at the top of the list in causal factors. If you’re going to cut one thing out of your diet, we recommend eating as little of these types of fats as possible – by that we mean one serving once a month or less.
Deep fried (rancid trans fats) are at the very top of our Cease and Desist advice. Anything that has been cooked in a vat of smoking oil is going to be carcinogenic and super inflammatory to the human body.
Almost all fast food choices, in their quest for French Fries to be profitable at a dollar, are going to use the cheapest frying oil they can – and in almost all cases, that means soybean oil.
The quicker you cut this stuff out of your diet, the more immediately you’ll start feeling and looking better. Things to cut out include fried French fries (try baking them at home), fried potato chips (try buying baked ones instead), chicken nuggets and fingers, and deep fried desserts like donuts. (I know, my heart is crying too.)
I proudly admit that I’ve conquered almost all deep fried food except my love of tortilla chips at Mexican restaurants – Mexican is my Achilles heel! 🙂
Hydrogenated oils are a close second on this list of body damagers. Also known as trans fat, companies are not required to list a fat as “trans fat” if it has only been partially hydrogenated. However, ANY amount of hydrogenation is still a trans fat, by definition. The Federal Government allows packaged food to contain up to a 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving in order to claim its product is trans fat free.
Of course, every time a rule is created, the industry will find a way around it. This loophole has resulted in food companies manipulating the serving size portions to avoid the tarnished nutrition label while still maximizing these oils – which, remember, increases their shelf life and reduces waste. But since the average person eats more than one tiny serving of highly sweet, salty or fatty snack food in one sitting, they may actually be eating a substantial amount of of trans fats if they eat a lot of packaged food.
A foolproof way to avoid trans fats is to look for anything on the label that says “partially hydrogenated”. If it says that, it contains trans fat, no matter WHAT the nutrition label claims. Remember the loophole, and avoid it.
There is a lot of confusion around these oils, particularly because they were marketed as healthy for SO long. Think of your vegan spreads and vegetable based margarines. Vegetable based anything sounds healthy, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s absolutely not.
These are oils that are naturally in a liquid state at room temperature. They are then chemically manipulated to act more like saturated fats, increasing their shelf life by delaying when they go rancid. That is where the term “trans fat” comes from – it is halfway between an unsaturated fat and a saturated fat, but nothing close to anything our planet makes naturally.
If you are vegan, you are much better off sticking to the non-animal fats listed above than consuming any sort of solid vegetable margarine or shortening. Cook with unrefined oils. Put nut butter and chia jam on your toast in the morning.
As we mentioned, adding hydrogen increases the shelf life of highly processed products for months. Unfortunately, because they are fake, your body doesn’t know what to do with them. They inflame your gut and your cardiovascular system, and can be a huge strain on your liver. They contribute to diabetes and insulin resistance by clogging your arteries and preventing sugar (glucose) from being delivered into your cells, resulting in a dangerous buildup of blood sugar.
Side Note: Hydrogenated oil is also found in quite a bit of big-brand nut butters as well. This avoids separation of the fat from the solids, and is a more convenient product to use. It still has trans fat. 😞 Aim for a nut butter with no “partially hydrogenated palm oil”. Smaller and more local brands tend to be just nuts and salt – yay for simplicity, boo for having to stir. Oh well, a small price to pay for a healthier fat.
Fake (chemically produced) oils are the third and final type of fat in this category. These include almost all commercial oils except olive, avocado and coconut.
The top 4 vegetable oils consumed in the United States are Soybean, Canola, Palm and Corn oil. You should avoid them all and replace them with Category 2 oils.
The Trans Fat content of partially hydrogenated soybean oil (most commonly used oil in fast food because it is both cheap and shelf stable) is between 43-50%. You are eating that stuff with every french fry and onion ring you swallow.
Canola oil is an excellent example of an oil product not found anywhere in nature. Canola got its “healthy” label due to its omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. But unfortunately, canola oil is made from the mostly inedible rapeseed plant, and must undergo massive processing in order to become edible and shelf stable.
One of the processes that canola oil undergoes is deodorization. This is the final process that all vegetable oils undergo. It has come to scientists’ attention, however, that this process results in low levels of Trans Fat being produced. And while the serving size may contain such little trans fat that the FDA allows it to be listed as “0g” on the label, the people who cook a lot with canola believing it to be healthy may actually be getting substantial amounts of these heart-damaging fats in their diet.
All 4 of the vegetable oils listed above go through Refinement, Bleaching, and Deodorization. Most of this oil is extracted by boiling it with a chemical solvent called hexane. This can affect the stability of the oil, turn it rancid, and destroy any naturally-occuring Omega 3’s that may have existed.
Overall, our recommendation is to make Fats from Categories 1 and 2 a regular part of your daily life, Fats from Category 3 an occasional thing when you are in a pinch or can’t find anything better, and Oils from Category 4 very infrequently – less than one serving per month.
While these are guidelines and meant to educate you, life is really about balance. Food shouldn’t be a stressor to us. If we master our daily habits (our “big boulders”), then the occasionals (our “pebbles”) are easy things for our bodies to accommodate and filter for us.
We have pretty awesome filtering systems inside of us – our livers and our kidneys – that are meant exactly for these “occasionals”. They aren’t meant to be overwhelmed daily.
For Further Reading
The Truth About Fats, Bad And Good
Trans Fat: When Zero Isn’t Really Zero
The Honest Truth About Canola Oil
Canola Bad For Brain Health