Let's Talk About FAT, Baby (But Really: Is Fat Healthy?)

A few days ago as I was eating my homemade meatloaf with a side of avocado at my desk, I heard something that stopped me in my chewing tracks.

“Olive oil and coconut oil are not healthy. Sugar is better for your brain.”

Without pausing to think, I word vomit-ed, “SUGAR IS CANCER!” thus thrusting myself into a lovely debate about the benefits of healthy fats. I wanted so badly to speak the truth, to stake my claim, to explain how sugar caused me years of struggle and how eliminating sugar led to my own personal victory dance. I threw out lines like, “Fat gives you energy!” (“Carbohydrates give you energy.”) and, “Burning fat for energy instead of sugar causes you to lose weight!” (“Eating no fat causes you to lose weight.”) and so on.

I believe so strongly in the way that I eat because it has changed my life and my health. But honestly, it’s been four years since I’ve done the research, read the books, taken notes—I’ve forgotten the many important values. I’ve forgotten the “why.” And, to be fair, we don’t all need to be walking encyclopedias. Matty knows that eating a diet rich in high-quality proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats cause his autoimmune deficiencies to calm down. That’s all he needs to know. I know that it keeps me from letting emotional eating take control and gives me energy. But lately, I’ve been wanting to dive a little deeper into the “why” [so I can win debates] so I can mix a little education into my beliefs.

Which is why I just spent the last two hours reading everything I can find about fat. How did you spend your holiday weekend?????

I hope you don’t mind if I share with you some of my findings. I’ll try to make this as un-sciency as possible, but no promises. I’ve looked at both sides of the story (namely, a paleo perspective vs. a vegan perspective), and I was surprised to find that if these guys would just broaden their focus, they might find they agree more than they disagree.

Stay with me—it’ll be fun! Promise.

What’s the difference in fat as energy vs. carbohydrate as energy?

Big picture: Fats are an efficient way to provide your body with energy and fuel to sustain you throughout the day. Carbohydrates provide energy for high-intensity activity, like a 90-minute workout.

This explains why you could be hungry two hours after you eat carbs: you’re relying on glucose to fuel your energy. But when you’re eating a balanced diet with the right fats your body goes to your fat stores for energy. Burning fat is always better than burning glucose riiiight?

But let’s also put this in context: Eating too much fat is, indeed, a huge problem. Overconsumption screws up your hormones and causes inflammation, which is what causes all those nasty diseases. It’s not the fat itself, it’s the amount and type of fat we consume.

Now, if you’re eating a diet with the proper amount of protein, vegetables, and fruit, (and not eating calorie-dense carbohydrates like sugars and processed foods, or even grains and beans) then you aren’t getting enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Which is where the healthy fat comes in. Fat has more than twice the gram-for-gram calories as a carbohydrate and protein, making it a GOOD thing, and a great source for energy.

Another thing to keep in mind: your body uses a mix of fats and carbs for energy. High energy: carbs. Lower-intensity energy (like just getting through your day without crashing): fats. What’s really cool about fat is that a higher proportion of fat can be used for fuel, so long as you’re regularly making healthy food choices. Sensing that theme yet?

Are oils and saturated fats bad for me?

Short answer: Both sides agree that when eaten with a nutrient-dense diet, oil and saturated fat are not bad for you.

Granted, I had to find that answer hidden very deep within the bowels of the Forks Over Knives website, but I found it:

Forks Over Knives

But in general, the Forks folks still believe that oil clogs our arteries and causes heart conditions, despite all the new evidence that says otherwise. (Like Time Magazine, and NPR, and Harvard Medical School cardiologists.)

The paleo folks say this: saturated fats (like those found in coconut and extra virgin olive oil) do not cause artery clogging, but systemic inflammation does. Inflammation that comes from eating too many refined carbs which are converted directly into Palmitic acid (the type of saturated fat most correlated with insulin resistance and inflammation). Meat and oil contain PA, but it’s not the same as just eating PA. These real foods also contain other fats that help protect your body from too much PA. It’s those darned refined carbs that offer no protection whatsoever.

And now a brief note on coconut oil: it contains about 66% of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides), which are shorter-chain fats that absorb and metabolize quicker than longer-chain. This means they are more likely to be burned as fuel than they are to be stored as fat. AKA, I’ll be keeping unrefined coconut oil in my diet.

And now, to literally quote cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of more than 100 scientific papers on nutrition and health when asked if fatty foods are more likely to make people fat (which, PS, increases the risk of heart disease):

“That’s what we once thought. We thought that high-fat diets raised the risk of heart disease. But evidence has proved that the proportion of total fat in a person’s diet has no effect on heart disease. Growing evidence indicates that this is also true for obesity. Dietary fat doesn’t make people fat. When we studied how specific foods related to weight gain over time, the main culprits were starches, such as potatoes, refined carbohydrates, and sugars—in other words, poor-quality carbohydrates.”

Dietary fat doesn’t make people fat.

And here’s some more good news about what saturated fats do to your body from someone who knows what he’s talking about, Dr. Michael R. Eades. You’ll find this list in this thorough article about fat phobias.

  • Liver Health: Saturated fat encourages liver cells to dump their fat cells, which helps the liver to function more effectively, and helps prevent fatty liver disease.

  • Immunity: Saturated fatty acids help white blood cells to recognize and destroy invading viruses and bacteria, and keeps the immune system vigilant against the development of cancerous cells.

  • Hormones: Eating saturated fat tends to increase free testosterone levels, which helps to repair tissue, preserve muscle, and improve sexual function.

  • Heart Health: The addition of saturated fat to the diet reduces the levels of a substance called lipoprotein (a), which correlates strongly with risk for heart disease.

  • Cholesterol: For many people, saturated fat can lower LDL cholesterol levels and increase the amount of HDLs in the bloodstream, creating a more favorable cholesterol ratio.* Far from saturated fat clogging your arteries, it actually helps decrease oxidative damage and keeps your arteries lubricated.

  • Lung Health: Lard and tallow are both sources of saturated fat that are also chock-full of palmitic acid. Palmitic acid protects our lungs, making up nearly 70% of lung surfactant (lung lubricant).

  • Bone Health: Bones require saturated fats to properly assimilate calcium.

*Some people see increased total cholesterol when eating more saturated fat, but in the context of a whole-foods, nutrient-dense diet, this increase is often heart-protective.

All this to say, I do not douse my food in extra virgin olive oil. I do not eat cups of nuts at a time. Sometimes I even steam my veggies (gasp!), and I firmly believe that too much fat is a bad thing. They key is balance and lots of nutritious veggies and protein in addition to the healthy fats. Don’t think you can go eat donuts and fried chicken then cook your zucchini in olive oil and tell me that’s balance.

Also, my brain hurts from reading all these articles and books. Everyone has a different opinion, and I’m certainly no scientist. I just know what works for me and my family. I like that I can eat a meal without getting hungry two hours later or feeling my energy suddenly drop. I enjoy the freedom that comes from eating whole foods that taste good.

And now I’ve got the facts to back it up, too.

If you’ve found this at all interesting or helpful, I want to know. If you have anything to add or if you kindly disagree, speak up! I’m interested in hearing all perspectives.

Sources: It Starts With Food, Forks Over Knives and articles as linked above