What About Fat?

November 30, 2011 in Categories: , , by

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If you take one piece of information away from my blog, I want it to be this:  fat is NOT bad for you.  This whole low-fat diet craze that began in the late 1970’s was based on flawed research.  That original research implicated saturated fat as the cause of cardiovascular disease.  It is now becoming recognized that the true culprit in the rise of cardiovascular disease in Western culture is carbohydrates (sugars and starches, fructose being the biggest culprit) and hypercaloric diets (where you consume more energy than you need).  That’s why the rate of heart disease has skyrocketed in the last three decades despite the fact that so many of us switched to low-fat salad dressing, pasta, and Snackwells. Chronic stress and inadequate sleep are also factors in the cardiovascular disease equation.

Not only is dietary fat not bad for you, it’s critical for your health.  You need to eat fat in order to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K (which between them affect every system in your body).  Fat is essential for cell construction, nerve function, digestion, and for the formation of the hormones that regulate everything from metabolism to circulation.  The membranes of every cell in your body are composed of fat molecules. Your brain is composed of more than 60% fat and cholesterol.  By the way, dietary cholesterol isn’t bad for you either (but I’ll save that for its own post), so stop avoiding eggs.  Eggs are very healthy for you, especially if you get pasture-raised eggs.

You’ve probably heard alot about omega-3 fatty acids.  That’s because dietary deficiency in omega-3s has been linked to:  dyslexia, violence, depression, anxiety, memory problems, Alzheimer’s disease, weight gain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, eczema, allergies, asthma, inflammatory diseases, arthritis, diabetes, auto-immune diseases and many others.  But not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal.  There are three forms.  ALA is found is flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and many other plant sources of polyunsaturated fats.  Your body mainly needs the other two forms (the difference is actually the length of the molecule, ALA is the shortest and DHA is the longest), DHA and EPA, which are found in fish, pasture-raised (and omega-3 enriched) eggs, free-range poultry, pasture-raised/grass-fed meat, dairy from pasture-fed animals, and wild game.

So, what about omega-6 fatty acids? These are also polyunsaturated fats.  Many diet gurus are now labeling linoleic acid (the dominant form of omega-6 found in grains, modern vegetable oils and meat from grain-fed animals) as the True Bad Fat.  But, there are no bad fats in nature.  The problem is the quantity of omega-6 fats that has insinuated itself into the modern human diet.  Ancestral diets consisted of a 1:1 to 1:2 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (in some areas, it may have been as high as 1:4).  When grain was introduced into the human diet (and to the diets of grazing animals that we raise for food) approximatly 10,000 years ago, we started increased the proportion of our dietary fat that is omega-6s.  And this has increased even more over the last 100 years, increasing exponentially with the introduction of canola oil into our diets in the mid 1980s).  Modern Western diets contain anywhere from a 1:10 to a 1:40 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. This is NOT what nature intended for our optimal health.

There is a complex interplay between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your body, and both are essential for life.  Generally, omega-3 fatty acids contribute to anti-inflammatory processes, whereas omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.  “Pro-inflammatory” sounds bad, but, in the balanced quantities that our ancestors consumed, it is critical for wound healing and fighting infections.  But, when you combine excessive omega-6 fatty acid consumption with the irritation to the gut lining caused by gluten and other lectins and excessive carbohydrate consumption (which is also pro-inflammatory), our bodies have constant low-level inflammation.  This sets the stage for many diseases, decreased ability to fight infection, and exaggerated allergies.

There is also no reason to avoid saturated or monounsaturated fats.  And high-quality animal fats like butter and tallow from grass-fed cows and like lard from pasture-raised pigs are great sources not only of healthy fats but of fat-soluble vitamins.  Coconut oil and palm oil/shortening (not to be confused with palm kernal oil) are also great sources of a type of saturated fat called Medium Chain Triglycerides, which has been shown to have a variety of beneficial effects in the body, including being outstanding for brain health.  Cold-pressed vegetable oils (actually, fruit oils if you want to get technical) like olive oil, avocado oil, and macadamia nut oil are high in monounsaturated fats (especially the very heart-healthy oleic acid) and tend to be rich in antioxidants too.

If you make only one change to your diet after reading my blog, I hope that it is increasing your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with the goal of restoring the balance between omega-3s and omega-6s in your diet (and stop being afraid of animal fats when they come from quality sources).  It is best to achieve this with food choices, like eating more seafood (which will make the biggest difference), buying some or all of your meat from pasture-raised sources (see “If I Can’t Always Afford Grass-Fed Beef, What Should I Buy?”), reducing the consumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids (like grains, soy products, most nuts and seeds, and refined vegetable oils, meaning oils other than cold-pressed oils–so olive oil or avocado oil are still fine).  You can also try adding a high quality fish oil supplement to your diet, although clinical trials show that this has great short-term benefits (4-6 weeks) but may not be good for you over the longer term.  Either way to tackle your omega-3 to omega-6 balance, you will feel better for it.


PaleoMom, I’m doing the AIP. It seems pretty difficult to maintain a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio. Even olive oil and avocado oil are high in omega 6. Along with organ meats. I guess one could always take in more fish oil to balance it out but how much is too much fish oil? How can one realistically accomplish this?

I think balancing omega 3 to 6 ratios are actually a little easier on the AIP than regular paleo diet because we avoid nuts and seeds, which are a large source of omega-6s for most people. The strategies are the same following the AIP compared to standard paleo: eat grass-fed when budget allows, eat wild-caught fish as often as budget allows, limit chicken to a couple of times per week (even free-range chicken is still quite high in omega-6). It’s much better to eat fish than fish oil (since the omega-3s can oxidize so easily once processed into fish oil supplement form).

How does turkey fit in? I’m doing AIP, and pastured ground turkey is the cheapest ground meat. If I have turkey patties for breakfast 6 times a week, is that too much for my omega 6 intake?

It is fairly high omega-6, but can also be quite lean depending on whether it’s pastured and what type of ground you’re getting. It’s not ideal, but if you’re also eating fish most days, you should be okay.

Do you mean that when we were hunter gatherers we did not eat fruits and nuts. I think grains apart, that came later, nuts and fruit were an integral part of the early human diet.

No, that is not what I meant. I don’t think I said anything to that effect. I’m not a big supporter of limiting fruit, except for those with metabolic derangement. I do think that many people tend to go overboard on nuts, though. But, unless you have specific health issues or sensitivities, there’s no reason to avoid those either.

I’m sort of stuck right now with my choice of fats I get to use. I am on the AIP, so butter/ghee is out for me. Also, I can’t get my hands on grass fed fat to render where I live, and I’m thinking that the grain fed fat I can get from the local butcher isn’t a great option? I’ve also JUST found a source for palm shortening (hard to find up here in Canada) but that will take some time to ship. The problem now I think (?) is that coconut oil might be causing an issue for me too. (I’ve had to cut out coconut milk already)

I have red palm oil, but when I want to eat the same meats/veggies I’m cooking for my family, it would be nice to have some lard or tallow as the kids seem to be turned off by the color that red palm oil leaves. Should I just stick with red palm oil until the palm shortening comes in? Or would rendering the grain fed fat be ok? I’m thinking from what you’ve written here, it’s not a good option.

hello Paleomom
re: diet to fight multiple sclerosis. Prof Swank and Prof Jelinek refer to research that showed positive impact of low saturated diet to relaple rate reduction and disease progression slowdown. Please comment as it partly contradicts with the Paleo Approach to fats.
Swank RL, Dugan BB. Effect of low saturated fat diet in early and late cases of multiple sclerosis. Lancet 1990; 336:37-39

I have an extremely picky eater. I am going to have my son work with an OT this summer to overcome some sensory challenges but in the meantime would you recommend an Omega-3 supplement for him until he expands his diet?

This article does nothing to clarify understanding. If you’re going to make such statements, use some references (preferably to peer – reviewed journals) so that you provide an argument that is backed up with scientific research, not just your opinion.

Waste of time.

Hi, can you explain the difference between palm oil and palm kernel oil? This is the first article where I’ve seen that distinction made.

I came across “palmolein” in an ingredients list (plantain chips). Is that palm oil/red palm oil (i.e. recommended) or indeed palm kernel oil?

Also, when listed as just “palm oil”, should we assume that it’s palm kernel oïl?

As always, thank you for the wealth of information – My copy of The Paleo Approach is never far from hand.

[…] Recognizing that when I was hungry, I needed to eat. From my whole30 experiences, I’ve learned that it’s easy to eat too little on a cleanse. We’re so afraid of eating the wrong thing, or eating too much of something. But, what we forget is that we’ve cut out a lot of foods that we would normally eat on a daily basis and they need to be replaced with something! So, I tried to eat a lot of fat throughout the day to help keep the amount and quality of food that I took in up to par. I ate a half to a whole avocado and probably 7-8 tablespoons of coconut oil or ghee. I also ate a whole batch of the best deviled eggs ever. By myself. (Post to follow!) Fat is super important to satiety (feeling satisfied!) and to our health! […]

Hi – first of all – you rock. Simple. And thank you for all your efforts.
I feel soooo much better and I am full for much longer since eating fats (i used to have to snack every 2,5-3hrs), and would shiver if I was hungry. Now even when hungry I don’t have the feeling I’ll faint. But seems my body is struggling to break down fats and fatty acids according to lab test results – would you have an advice on that?

Thank you once again!

Hi Sarah, you mentioned clinical trials about fish oil supplements not being good in the long term; do you have an article on that or do you have a link to the source? I’d like to read more about it. Thanks!

[…] Use a liberal amount of fat. I beg of you – stop being afraid of fat! Fat is such an important part of the human diet – especially for women. The fat phobic nutrition era that we are slowly crawling out of, is based on cherry-picked and misinterpreted science and professional opinion. Just make sure you use a good quality fat! If you want to keep it vegan, use coconut or avocado oil. But trust me when I tell you that duck fat is hands down the best fat to use in this recipe, followed closely by lard. As long as the animal was raised properly, animal fat is not only not dangerous for you, but incredibly healthy! […]


You claim that omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory and one should limit their consumption. That’s why you also recommend grass fed. Could you provide scientific research to support your claim? In addition – I would appreciate it if you take a look at the following paper. It’s a systematic review of no less than 15 randomized control trials on the effect of omega-6 on markers of inflammation and the conclusion is that there’s no evidence that omega-6 causes inflammation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22889633

[…] Fat is needed to absorb key vitamins and minerals. You need to eat fat in order to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Between them, these vitamins impact every body system and play some incredibly important roles. Vitamin D is vital for skin and bone health, and is needed to absorb calcium. Vitamin K aids in blood clotting, Vitamin A is key for eye health and Vitamin E protects our cells from damage caused by free radicals. If you don’t eat enough fat, it doesn’t matter how many multivitamins you swallow- your body will not properly absorb these important nutrients. Click here to read more about this on The Paleo Mom website. […]

[…] Before you think “drinking the fat” is not for you, keep in mind that healthy fats are good for us in moderation. As long as you’re eating clean don’t be afraid of a little good clean grass-fed butter. Check out what the Paleo expert The Paleo Mom has to say about fat in moderation being good for you. […]

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