The surprising truth about the fat you’re avoiding:
A discussion with Dr. Julia Segal, ND
Canadian and American government food guidelines have long shaped our ideas of what and how we should eat. The age-old “food pyramid” may come to mind for many of us. As new studies and data emerge, however, much of what we thought we knew about nutrition has or is becoming outdated. For example, did you know that the Canadian government issued a new food guide in 2020 that puts an emphasis on fresh foods, including “healthy” fats1?
In spite of this evolution, many companies and professionals continue to promote a no-fat or low-fat diet. But are all fats created equal? And should they really be avoided at all costs? Or if some fats are good and others are bad, how do we know which fats to choose?
To get to the bottom of this, we sat down with Body Harmonics’ resident Naturopathic Doctor, Julia Segal, to learn more.
What is the difference between good fat and bad fat?
“In a nutshell (no pun intended), good fat is fresh fat that hasn’t been modified, processed or heavily cooked or heated. Watch for bad “trans fats” in foods by looking for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Plant fats from fresh nuts and seeds, avocado and olives are all wonderful examples of good fats. Extracted oils, such as olive oil, can be trickier as some will be minimally processed and fresh, while others will be chemically treated, heat processed and even cut with small amounts of lower quality oils. Look for the location of harvest and the location of packaging to be the same. You can also trust your sense of taste—if you can get a high-quality oil and experience all the flavour and fragrance it has, you won’t be fooled in future!”
“When it comes to animal fat such as dairy, eggs, poultry and meat, good fat has everything to do with the quality of the animal’s feed as well as the quality of their life. For example, cows that eat grass on pasture will have high amounts of omega-3 fats in their milk! We want to consume moderate amounts of these fats in any case, so investing in pasture-raised chicken and eggs, grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and butter from cows that are grass-fed, is highly worthwhile for your health. This practice also supports small family farms and divests from industrial agriculture.”
What actually causes bodies to store fat? Commonly it’s presumed to be sugar and fat.
“Just the first one! It really comes down to the sugar, as well as anything that turns very quickly into sugar after eating it—in other words, processed carbohydrates. When blood sugar spikes quickly, insulin is released into the blood stream to mop that up into the cells and tissues that need it. But over time, with high consumption of refined and processed carbohydrates, we will produce more and more insulin as our cells become less sensitive to it. Insulin causes fat storage and contributes to inflammation when present in excess. Other hormones also play a role in fat storage, including our thyroid hormones and our stress hormones, like cortisol, which causes more fat storage deep in the abdomen. And, while the other “S-word”—salt—doesn’t cause fat gain in and of itself, diets very high in salt tend to also be high in processed carbohydrates that are highly addictive and hence lead to weight gain.”
So which fats are beneficial and why?
“Fresh, unadulterated unsaturated plant fats (think olive/avocado oils, nuts, seeds and avocados) are, by and large, beneficial. Seeds such as hemp seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are some of the most beneficial high fat foods. There are unsaturated omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats in seeds in addition to very helpful plant molecules that balance hormones and inflammation. Fish are also a good source of omega-3 fats, though sourcing clean and ethical fish is getting trickier. In addition, for most people, high-quality saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter are beneficial in limited quantities. Animal fats from fish and poultry, depending upon what the animal ate and how they lived, can also be beneficial at many stages of life.
“While we need various fats, including omega-6 fats, it’s the omega-3 fats that impart particular benefits throughout the body. They work themselves into our cell membranes, including in our brain, which is around 60% fat, and have positive effects on cell signalling, inflammation, and even cholesterol and cardiovascular health. Thirty percent of the grey matter of our brain is the omega-3 fat, DHA, so it’s no surprise that omega-3 fats show promise in treating mood disorders such as depression when used at the right dose and in the right form.”
How much fat should we be eating on a daily basis?
“This depends on the individual and must be considered in relation to the ideal amount of carbohydrates and proteins for that person as well. Most generally healthy people can consume 50% of their daily calories from fat, sometimes more. Keep in mind that a small amount of fat can be very high in calories as one gram of fat has nine calories. So, this can be tricky to eyeball. The good news is that most people do not need to restrict their fat intake. Rather, they should focus on the type of the fat on their plates, ensuring it is fresh, undamaged and of a high quality. A variety of fats from whole plant foods with some added oils, such as olive oil, are a great way to start. Keep in mind that animal foods from dairy to poultry and meat will add fat content to your diet as well.
There are some health conditions and some genetic types that require quite a reduced saturated fat intake in order to maintain good health. Saturated fat comes from coconut oil, butter, as well as animal foods. These people should focus on unsaturated fats from avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil and seafood. Interestingly, even those with familial high cholesterol can eat moderate amounts of eggs which don’t have much saturated fat and are nutrient dense.”
Quick guide to good fats
- Generally, healthy people can consume 50% of their daily calories from good fats
- Good fats include:
- Fresh, unadulterated unsaturated plant fats such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and avocados
- Unsaturated omega-6 and omega-3 fats from ethically sourced fish and eggs (essential to brain health)
- High quality saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter (limit to no more than 10% of daily calorie consumption)2
- Avoid “trans fats” in foods by looking for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list
- Avoid carbohydrates such as potato chips and other processed snack foods
The bottom line on consuming fat? Don’t fat shame fat! There’s no need to be afraid of fat, just the overly processed, industrialized and hydrogenated kind. Keep the above tips in mind, read ingredients lists, choose wisely and enjoy! (And, of course, keep your body and mind feeling great with a daily dose of Pilates & Movement.)