Fat is Your Friend
WHY HEALTHY FATS MATTER AND HOW TO SHOP WISELY
When it comes to nutrition, there are a lot of pervasive beliefs and practices to dismantle—whether it be the calorie myth or making a habit of restrictive juice cleanses. A good place to start is understanding how these trends take off so you can make informed decisions for your health. When it comes to fat, the misinformation began in the 1970s, in what NPR dubbed the “Fat-Free Food Boom.”
Since research uncovered a connection between heart disease and fat, carbs were deemed “good,” fat was villainized, and fat-free replicas of everything from yogurt to muffins emerged. By the Nineties, the fear was full-fledged and the shelves were stacked high with an assortment of highly-processed, sugar-laden “foods.” Many adopted Diet Coke as a snack and skipped anything with the F word.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE SHADES IN BETWEEN
In a world where avocado toast reigns supreme and coconut oil is an all-over wellness panacea, what has changed? It turned out that the study from the 70s had oversimplified the problem—the fats that raise harmful cholesterol, or LDL (low-density lipoprotein), come from trans fats and overconsumption of saturated fats. That includes deep-fried foods, red meat, and processed dairy. The good varieties—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—increase HDL (beneficial cholesterol) and are the critical building blocks of the brain. According to Dr. Drew Ramsey, it is beneficial to flood your diet with long-chain omega-3 fats, as well as minerals like zinc, magnesium, and folate. All are linked to reduced signs of depression and greater potential for neuroplasticity, or the growth and evolution of the brain over time as new connections are made. “Little decisions that you make every day, including what you put into your body, affect the size of your brain when you're older," Dr. Ramsey explains. "They also affect your risk of serious illnesses, like depression and dementia."
Along with cognitive health, fats are juicy allies to our hormones and can thwart inflammation. “The precursor of what makes estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, and many other hormones is cholesterol. And the only way to have that is to get enough fat in our diet,” says midwife and Yale-trained MD, Dr. Aviva Romm. “Plus, nutritional deficiency and other factors can push you into earlier menopause—you want to focus on reducing inflammation and oxidative stress through lots of antioxidants and plenty of healthy fats.” Adding to the list of ways it promotes vitality and outer radiance, Sakara founder and co-CEO Whitney Tingle also vouches that the macronutrient was an important piece in her diet to changing her skin. “Essential fatty acids build healthy cell membranes and protect the skin’s natural oil barrier,” Tingle says. “Healthy fats balanced my microbiome, supported my hormones, and that symbiosis was reflected as clear, glowing skin.”
Along with cognitive health, fats are juicy allies to our hormones and can thwart inflammation.
THE FAT FIND: OIL SHOPPING 101
One way to fortify your diet with the right fats is through oils. They can serve as an integral addition to your health, or become the crux of your diet. Shopping for them, then, can feel overwhelming. When it comes to healthy shopping queries, we often turn to Sakara Health Coach and avid plant-based home cook, Sasha Pagni; here, she shares how to distinguish quality oils from their nutrient-lacking counterparts, which to cook with and when, and how to decode omega-3 from omega-6 (from omega-9) in a healthful, practical way.
Low Smoke Point (Ideal for Making Salad Dressing or Drizzling on Soup)
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Pumpkin Seed Oil
Baking Binders (Ideal for Adding to Muffins, Breads, Pies, etc.)
Coconut Oil/MCT Oil
What To Look Out For:
Many low-quality oils lacking nutrients—hydrogenated varieties, canola, palm oil—are used frequently because they are government subsidized, have extremely high smoke points, and offer a neutral flavor profile. There are a few other nutritive options that have a mild taste and can be cooked at high temperatures without degradation; opt for avocado, almond, or grapeseed. “For baking, binders that offer delicious flavor profiles and added nutrients include walnut and hazelnut oil, while coconut MCT oil makes for a frothy addition to coffee or an adaptogenic latte,” Pagni says.
DHA, EPA, ALA
Two specific types of omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, receive a lot of praise as they help reduce inflammation, fight against certain cancers, aid in muscle recovery, and enrich everything from eye health to memory. The long-standing belief was that these nutrients were only available from fish, but these creatures get DHA and EPA from eating microalgae and seaweed. Along with thyroid-supporting iodine, you can receive bioavailable sources of these fats by incorporating chlorella, spirulina, and sea vegetables into your diet. ALA, or alpha-linolenic, acid is the third essential omega-3 fat that is critical for human growth and development—potent food sources include walnuts, chia seeds, and Brussels sprouts.
The olive oil business is a lucrative one; so much so that the mob has been tied to exporting fake versions in place of the real thing. Beyond deciphering if your olive oil can be traced to the Mafia, sourcing is a key marker for quality. Single-source regions are the highest echelon. When multiple regions get involved, manufacturing becomes dicey, quality gets diluted, and other oils (with varying expiration dates) beyond olive are likely to be incorporated. Pagni suggests small-batch brands and shopping from brands you trust, like Brightland or Wonder Valley. “Local oils will always be the highest quality, and most farmers markets will always have one olive oil stand; otherwise most towns have olive oil tasting rooms (or a bunch of infused oils), and these places are pretty meticulous when it comes to sourcing,” Pagni says.
Oxygen is what gives us life, renews our cells, and provides us energy. Oxidation, on the other hand, is enemy number one for anti-aging. Like anything, higher quality is usually connected with less manipulation. Oils are at their most nutrient dense when they are minimally refined, with the lowest possible amount of extraction, heat, and exposure to light and air. This is why it's important to look for labels like “cold-pressed,” “unrefined” and “virgin” on your bottles of oil. “In the name of accessibility, I would add in ‘cold-processed’ as an option of oils," says Pagni. "It is the next best thing after ‘cold-pressed’ which can be more difficult to find in non-metro cities and more expensive.” As well as the verbiage on the label, proper olive oils will be manufactured in dark glass bottles to protect them from light and will offer clear expiration dates. You can also conduct a sniff test; oils that are oxidized, rancid, and/or past expiration may have a distinct smell that has been likened to Play-Doh or wood varnish.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 vs. Omega-9
Omegas are a controversial, complicated topic. Omega-3s take a lot of the spotlight because they lead the anti-inflammation brigade and support hormone production. Omega-6 fats include arachidonic and linoleic acid, and are found in nuts and seeds, and many processed oils (soybean, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil). Omega-9 fatty acids are considered non-essential because the body already makes them, but they are found within some of the most nutrient-dense oils on the planet, including extra-virgin olive oil and almond oil. The issue comes into play in terms of the 3 to 6 ratio. Many chain restaurants and processed foods cook use those nutrient-lacking oils (the aforementioned soybean, safflower, and corn) and tip the scales, which increases inflammation. “As with all things in life, navigating fats and oil is about finding the balance,” Pagni says. To flood the body with anti-inflammatory fats, increase your intake of foods with DHA, EPA, and ALA, and cook at home with oils like EVOO, walnut, pumpkin, avocado, and coconut.
After you’ve mastered oil shopping, fill your kitchen with more whole food sources of fat like brazil nuts (which also offer additional benefits in the form of selenium); avocado; pumpkin seeds; coconut yogurt; flax, chia and hemp seeds; macadamia nuts and cashews; coconut butter and cacao.