I hope you have been enjoying our series on the Paleo Lifestyle. We are in the middle of the Paleo approach to food. Last week, we reviewed some basics on protein, which you can read here, in case you missed it.
This week, we are going to tackle one of the more confusing and contradictory topics so far: dietary fat. When we hear the word fat, it is usually in a negative context: "I feel fat," or "That food is high in fat," or "That fat is bad for you." While you may "feel fat" and some "fat is bad for you" food that "is high in fat" is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we need fat to survive!
All Your Cell Membranes are Made of Fat
Fat is a great source of fuel and is used extensively in making all of the hormones that run our body. It surrounds and insulates our nerve system, protecting it and keeping it from short-circuiting. Fat also protects our vital organs from injury. If you didn't have fat in your body, you couldn't survive.
Every tissue and organ in your body is made up of cells. Every cell has a wall called a cell membrane, which are like the gate keepers for the cell: they let good things in and keep nasty stuff out. The primary building block of the cell membrane and, subsequently, your whole body is FAT!
But, not all fat is created equal. Some types of fat are very fluid and allow for easy transfer back and forth across a cell membrane; others are not so fluid and slow down, and can even stop the transfer of important items in and out of cells.
The least fluid fat and the worst offender is Trans Fat. Trans fat is actually an artificial fat, found in margarine and shortening, and can be found in anything with a shelf life (ie, cookies, crackers, chips, baked goods etc). Trans fat is very bad for cell membrane fluidity and, therefore, bad for you! Don't eat it!
The next fat in the fluidity scale would be Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is found primarily in animal and dairy products. Over the years, trans fat has been implicated in increasing the risk of heart disease. This thought has been coming out of heathcare for decades, but recent studies indicate it may not be true. An interesting article from Medical News Today was one of several I found indicating that reducing saturated fat in the diet did not reduce the risk of cardiovascular or stroke events.
The best fat in terms of fluidity is Unsaturated Fat. Unsaturated fat comes from plants, such as olives, nuts and seeds, as well as cold water fish and wild game. This fat is usually liquid at room temperature. In contrast to trans fat (which is harmful), saturated fat (which may be neutral), unsaturated fat may be protective in nature, relative to heart disease and its related disorders. A 2017 Harvard Health Publishing Article does an excellent job of summarizing the different types of fats and the potential health benefits of unsaturated fat.
A Closer Look at Unsaturated Fat
Just like proteins are made up of smaller particles called amino acids, fat is made up of fatty acids. Also like proteins, there are essential fatty acids and non-essential fatty acids. Non-essential fatty acids are ones the body can put together on its own and essential fatty acids have to come from a food source.
Two essential fatty acid groups that have been in the press a lot lately are Omega 6's and Omega 3's., which are both found in unsaturated fat. Sources of Omega 6's include grain (corn, wheat, etc), nuts, seeds and vegetable oil. Sources of Omega 3's are fish (cold water, deep caught fish, fish and krill oil) and wild caught game.
We need both for healthy cells, but there is an important caveat: the ratio of Omega 3's to Omega 6's should be in the neighborhood of 1:1. Today, the ratio has been estimated as high as 1:25 (WAY TOO MUCH OMEGA 6'S). Dr. Mercola notes research that shows an increase in the following heath issues as the ratio of Omega 3's to Omega 6's increases: Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Macular Degeneration, Obesity, Cardiovascular Disease, Type II Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psychiatric Disorders, Cancer, Asthma, Autoimmune Diseases and others.
Doc, Bring It In for a Landing!
I told you at the beginning that fat was one of the more confusing and contradictory topics! But they are important. Here is the take away:
- Far from being bad for you, fat is vital to health.
- Certain fat is better than others, primarily based on how well they allow particles to pass through cell membranes.
- The worst kind of fat is trans fat.
- Saturated fat may not be as bad as once thought.
- Unsaturated fat may improve your health.
- Omega 3 fats are the best.
Some Practical Steps:
- Incorporate cold water, wild caught fish (salmon) and/or wild game Into your diet.
- Start taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement.
- Look for Omega-enriched eggs and grass-fed beef.
- Cook with olive oil and coconut oil on medium heat.
- Use butter instead of margarine.
- Don't eat deep fried, fatty foods.
- Don't eat things with a long shelf life (cookies, chips, etc).
Until next time, eat healthy and live well!
Doug Williams, D.C.