Since the documentary "What the Health" came out, I've been asked a lot-- and have heard a lot-- about the value of adopting a vegan diet. This documentary, created by vegans, touts a plant-based diet as supreme, and that eating animal foods, such as eggs and meat, has adverse effects on our health.
Food ideologies, much like religion, can make people both very heated and self-righteous. I see a great many people spout off "facts" all over the internet-- especially social media-- with pride and conviction as if they are quoting some biblical text.
This is why I don't subscribe to one food ideology over another. The advice I give clients is based on CURRENT research (which is always evolving btw), vetted from multiple credible sources. Mostly doctors and nutrition experts in niche areas. There are so many areas of study within nutrition-- from gut health to metabolism to specific chronic diseases and beyond...if I'm curious about the impact of grains on individuals with Type 2 diabetes, for example, I'm going to seek information from sources that are experts on Diabetes.
Do you see how this can get super complicated? Especially if you try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to every individual? Based on what one person or publication or documentary says?
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, there is a subject I'm super passionate about, which is the real topic of this post, and that is fat.
I post a lot about it because fat has gotten such a bad rap for such a long time and it's really unfair because fat is one of the most important parts of our diet.
Before you run off to KFC and buy a bucket of fried chicken wings let me clarify...I'm talking about healthy fats. Not all fats are created equal.
First of all, what is fat?
Fats are organic molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen elements joined together in long chains called hydrocarbons. They can be put together in different ways, which creates different types of fat with unique properties. Their configuration also determines whether the fat is healthy or unhealthy.
There are 3 types of fat we can get from our diet: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Saturated fats contain a chain of carbon (C) with two hydrogens (H). We call this chain “saturated” with hydrogens. Because of its structure, it is usually solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats have one or more double bonds between the carbons. Thus not all of the carbons have hydrogens stuck to them. This puts a “kink” in the chain. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond and polyunsaturated fats have more than one.
So what does all of this have to do with healthy fats?
For years, all fat has been grouped into a collective "bad" pile. But as mentioned above, not all fat is created equal.
In recent years, Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have become increasingly, and commonly, referred to as the "healthy fats;" however, it is important to note that saturated fat isn't necessarily "bad" fat, despite having a negative connotation.
I remember not long ago being told to only eat the whites of eggs, so I would dispose of the yolks or buy those awful cartons of egg beaters. Gross!
I also remember using fake butter sprays at home in place of butter because butter is saturated fat and that was a big no no. I didn't eat red meat for YEARS because we-- the collective we/public-- were told that too much red meat consumption leads to heart disease.
Here's the problem. Most of the studies that have been conducted on the subject of animal -- saturated-- fat are either poorly constructed (ie heavily biased such as the "What the Health" doc) or include too many variables. That's the problem with a lot of studies that try isolate one culprit in a very complicated puzzle. In order to isolate one cause, we'd have to place test subjects in a metabolic chamber for years to control every aspect of their environment and lifestyle, and that just isn't very practical.
One thing we do know now, due to the rise in heart disease and diabetes AFTER the low-fat phenomenon took off, is that the real culprit in the "bad fat" debate is not fat from natural sources-- i.e. grass-fed animals and fatty fish, and whole plant sources such as olives, nuts, and seeds.
The culprit is PROCESSED fats. Humans have eaten saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from unprocessed sources for thousands of years without problems. What they didn't eat, prior to industrialization, was processed fats. These include trans-fatty acids, hydrogenated fats (like margarine), and many vegetable oils, such as corn, canola, safflower, and soybean.
Scientists estimate that the omega-6/omega-3 ratio in a hunter-gatherer diet was around 1:1. Humans currently consume a ratio of about 16:1 to even 20:1 – an intake that’s way out of balance. Especially considering that most of our omega-6 and saturated fat intake is from refined fat sources, not from whole foods, and that's a problem.
The reason we need a variety of healthy, unprocessed fats from both plant and animal sources is to ensure adequate intake to support metabolism, cell signaling, the health of various body tissues, immunity, hormone production, and the absorption of many vitamins and nutrients (such as vitamins A and D).
The fat we consume is digested and either used for energy, stored in adipose (fat) tissue or incorporated into other body tissues and organs.
Many of our body tissues are lipid (fat) based, including our brain and the fatty sheath that covers our nervous system. Even our cell membranes are made of phospholipids.
Thus, the fat we consume literally becomes part of our cells. It can greatly influence how our cells communicate and interact with one another.
For example, fat can affect signaling molecules that influence blood vessel constriction, inflammation, blood clotting, pain, airway constriction, etc. Since our brains are fat-based, changes in fat composition can affect the transmission of nervous system impulses.
As you can see, balancing our fat intake can promote optimal functioning of our entire body. Therefore it’s important that we emphasize whole food fat sources in our diets, and supplement as necessary-- especially vegetarians and vegans.
That's the missing piece of the "whole health" puzzle-- complete balance.
Without animal fat, our diets are not actually complete and we run the risk of getting sick. I actually was never sicker than when I consumed a higher carbohydrate, lower fat/animal protein diet. I literally caught everything I was exposed to. My immune system was a mess.
Since adopting a well-balanced diet of mostly whole food sources nearly a year-and-a-half ago, I have been sick only twice. TWICE! And very briefly (usually my colds would turn into horrible chest infections that would last for weeks up to a couple of months). Even pregnant, surrounded by germ infested classrooms at school with people coughing around me...I haven't gotten sick (knock on wood!).
I am but one person, but definitely, a good example of how reigning in on "extremes" can lead to much better overall health, which increases happiness, too.
My recommendation is always to enjoy a balanced diet filled with a good mix of healthy fats from both animal and plant sources, reduce processed oils and refined carbohydrates-- you'll crave them much less thanks to the satiety fat provides!-- and amaze yourself with how great you feel.
My clients lose weight while feeling great and NOT depriving themselves using this approach and it is a life changer.
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And stay fabulous.