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) approximately 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.