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Most clients I work with have an uneasy relationship with fat. Its no wonder. In my 21 years of nutrition experience, I’ve seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other regarding fat. I was in University training to become a dietitian during the fat-phobic years. Back when everyone ”knew” that fat was bad for you. To be healthy, you needed to eat a low-fat diet. Pasta and bagels were the king and queen. Practically every parent fed their babies yams and rice cereal as their first foods.
Contrast that to the present where my social media streams are full of avocado recipes and articles espousing the benefits of coconut oil. Parents feed their babies avocado as their first food and ask me whether kids should be taking omega-3 supplements.
Now if that wasn’t confusing enough, you need to add to the mix the fact that the word for “fat” found in food is the same as the word we use to describe someone as being overweight. Experiencing some low self-esteem? You may call it having a “fat” day. In our mainstream culture, “fat” is a derogatory term. That’s why the term “phat” is so clever. And, why there is a movement to reclaim the term. They wouldn’t need to reclaim it if it wasn’t derogatory.
The reality is that fat, like all foods, doesn’t fall into a “always” or “never” category. Like all foods, to be healthy, we need to eat fat in balance. Because we need fat.
- Fat is an essential part of our bodies. It’s used throughout the body. One area that it plays a particularly strong role is in our brain and nervous system.
- There are some vitamins that we need fat to absorb. These are called the fat-soluble vitamins. The fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Fat doesn’t raise our blood sugar.
- Fat helps keep us full for longer after we eat a meal.
- Last, but certainly not least, fat tastes fantastic! Whether it’s a creamy, oozy brie, a handful of macadamia nuts, a well-marbled steak, or chocolate melting over your tongue, you can’t deny the pleasure that we receive from fat.
- Bite for bite, fat is the most concentrated source of calories. In our largely sedentary, modern world, it’s easy to eat more calories in a day than we burn.
- Trans fat is dangerous for our hearts. Thankfully, most of the trans fat has been removed from our food supply. But it’s still found in deep fried foods. Well, let me be more specific. It’s found in heavily-used deep frying oil. When you cook fries, calamari, chicken fingers, etc in that old oil, the food absorbs it.
- The scientific community has continued to study heart disease and its causes. Some of the early conclusions about saturated fat and the risk of heart disease are being re-considered. This has drawn considerable media attention with conclusions such as saturated fat is healthy. I don’t go that far. I'm waiting for more research before I have an opinion on the healthiness of saturated fat.
- It’s suspected that having an unbalanced omega 3:omega-6 fat ratio contributes to inflammation, which may be at the root of things like heart disease, other diseases, and general aging. The perfect ratio isn’t yet known. But most of us in our modern eating habits likely eat too much omega-6 in relation to omega-3. The answer is to eat more fish, nuts/seeds, avocado, and olive oil, and less highly processed foods.
What to Do in the Meantime:
- Don’t be fat phobic. Enjoy the pleasure that fat provides. Drop the guilt when enjoying treats and reap the maximum pleasure per bite.
- Eat fish twice a week or take fish oil supplements. Don’t consume fish? Go for an algae-based omega-3 supplement.
- Include nuts and seeds daily. Ideas include: sprinkling some hemp hearts on your morning cereal and having a handful of almonds at mid-afternoon snack.
- Include monounsaturated fat-rich foods several times a week (if not daily). Olive oil and avocados are two examples of monounsaturated fat-rich foods. Use olive oil for cold foods (e.g. salad dressing) and foods cooked at low temperature (e.g. roasting veggies). Give the avocado-toast trend a try or substitute avocado for mayo in your egg salad sandwich.
- Eat more foods that are close to the way nature made them and fewer highly processed foods. Another way of saying this is :“Eat foods that someone’s great-grandmother would recognize.”
- Work towards changing your relationship with your body. Be grateful for what it (you) can do. Transition away from focusing on the ways it doesn’t live up to our society’s beauty standard.
Have you taken the healthy step of including nuts in your daily eating habits? Perhaps you’re eating nuts because of their healthy fats. Or, because you’re eating a more clean, plant-based diet. Or, because they make a great protein-rich snack that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Whatever your reason, nuts certainly are a healthy food to include regularly. When I work with clients, I look to have them eat nuts and seeds frequently. The good news is that word about how healthy nuts are seems to be getting out to people. Most clients I see are eating nuts several times a week. However for a large number of clients, eating nuts equals almonds. Only almonds. It may be whole almonds, almond butter and/or almond milk, but the only nut or seed that they’re eating is almonds. This is a problem.
If almonds are the only nuts that you eat, now’s the time to expand your repertoire to include different nuts and seeds. Here’s why:
Variety is Better Than Any 1 Food: We humans are omnivores. Your body is designed to eat a wide variety of foods. Yet, so many people eat the same few foods over and over again. Nuts and seeds are all different. Some have more healthy fats, some have more protein, and they vary in the amount of minerals and other nutrients. By sticking to only one or two nuts/seeds you are missing out on many of the benefits of different nuts/ seeds. And, when you eat a lot of only a few foods, you can get too much of some nutrients.
California Drought: Most of our almonds come from California. Did you know that California has been experiencing a drought for years? And, that their ground water is decreasing fast. Did you also know that almonds trees take a large amount of water? It’s not a good combination.
Before you throw the baby out with the bathwater (I hate that saying, do you know of a less violent one that expresses the same meaning?), please note that I’m not saying to never eat almonds again. What I’m saying is that considering that eating a variety of foods is a healthier choice, now’s a good time to take the pressure off of California water sources by expanding your nut and seed repertoire. Enjoy almonds amongst a wide variety of nuts and seeds.
There’s a whole world of nuts and seeds out there. Explore it. I do - half a shelf of my fridge is taken up with nuts and seeds. And yes, you want to store them in the fridge to keep them from going rancid.
Here’s some ideas of nut and seeds to check out. Alternatively a trip to your local bulk food section can inspire you.
- Hazelnuts (Get these while you can. There’s a blight wiping out all the trees in North America).
- Pine nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Sesame seeds/ tahini
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds/ hearts
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds/ pepitas
Curious about how I can help you achieve your health and nutrition goals? Schedule a (free) call to find out.
Once a year, UBC students who are training to become dietitians do a project where they write short articles for dietitians. This article was written by Nicki Kontogiannis and Frankie Reinbolt. Now, what to ask them to write about? That was easy. I think that you’d have to be living under a rock to not have noticed the explosion of coconut oil in grocery stores and on menus. Coconut oil is being marketed as a healthy fat, that it causes weight loss, and all sorts of other benefits. So, I asked them to look into the scientific research to find out if it’s really a healthy choice. Here’s what they found out.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a highly concentrated form of saturated fat. It comes in two forms – unrefined and refined:
- Unrefined coconut oil, also called ‘virgin coconut oil’, has a sweet, light coconut flavour and is great for baking or lightly sautéing.
- Refined coconut is more processed, tasteless and is better for cooking at higher temperatures.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Unhealthy?
- Raises HDL (good) Cholesterol: Coconut oil has been associated with high HDL cholesterol levels. It also does not increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels to the same extent as other saturated fat sources, such as butter.
- Good for Cooking: Coconut oil has a higher smoking point making it suitable for frying as it can withstand high heat. It also works particularly well in baked goods as it has a “nutty” flavour.
- RaisesLDL (bad) Cholesterol and Total Cholesterol (TC): As mentioned above, coconut oil does not raise LDL and TC levels to the same extent as butter; however, it still increases both to a greater extent than vegetable oils, and a rise in overall cholesterol levels in the blood can be linked to cardiovascular disease.
- High in Saturated Fat: Coconut oil is 86% saturated fat. The scientific community is learning more about saturated fat’s effect on our bodies, and that not all saturated fats (e.g. butter vs coconut oil) may have the same effect on us. Not enough has been learned yet to clearly say whether the saturated fat in coconut oil is healthy or harmful for our health.
- Significant Source of Calories: Like all fats, coconut oil is a concentrated source of energy (calories).
Coconut Oil Frequently Asked Questions:
Can coconut oil burn fat?
- The studies that have been done so far on weight loss should be viewed through a critical lens. These studies had small sample sizes, short study periods and subjects were also exercising and eating healthier. Thus coconut oil may not have been the determining factor for weight loss.
Can it prevent cancer and boost immune function?
- There is no scientific evidence to prove this.
The Bottom Line:
- Nicki & Frankie: It is important to remember that regardless of the type of fat, all fats contain 9 kcal/gram and too many calories in any form can lead to increased weight gain. Coconut oil should be enjoyed in moderation.
- Kristen: I’m not jumping on the coconut oil bandwagon until we learn more about how different saturated fats affect our heart health. And, I’ll want to see much more research before I believe that coconut oil causes weight loss. I use it occasionally in baking – it’s great when you don’t know if there may be vegan people you’re baking for. Otherwise, I stick to olive oil for most of my cooking. I like to support local farmers, and I love the taste, so I continue to use butter on the occasion that I want a solid fat. I put milk in my coffee.
Curious about how I can help you achieve your health and nutrition goals? Schedule a (free) call to find out.
Eat Right Ontario. (2015). Coconut Oil. Retrieved from https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Fat/I-ve-heard-that-coconut-oil-is-the-best-oil-to-use.aspx#.VVfIx6aGtUQ
Machowsky, J. (2011). Coconut Oil: The Great Debate. Retrieved from http://www.nutrition411.com/content/coconut-oil-great-debate
McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Harold Scribner.
Marina, A.A., Che Man, Y.B., Amin, I. (2009). Virgin coconut oil: emerging functional food oil. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 20(10), 481-487. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2009.06.003
Davis, B., Vesanto, M.(2014). Becoming Vegan. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co.