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.