The Skinny on Fat

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Fat is a very confusing topic for a lot of people and for really good reason. In the 80s and 90s, we were inundated with messaging that fat is bad for you and the source of the American obesity epidemic and chronic illnesses. However, in recent years, it’s come to light that fat isn’t the evil we once were told it was and that sugar is actually a bigger problem (in spite of the sugar industry’s relentless lobbying efforts). But, it seems that some have taken advantage of this change in the tides and have taken the fat message in the opposite direction, creating diets that claim that eating lots of fat is healthy and will help you lose weight. And then there are the different kinds of fat with vague names that make it hard to keep them straight – saturated, unsaturated, trans, omega-3s, polyunsaturated, omega-6s…it’s dizzying. In this post, I’m hoping to clear things up for you.

Saturated Fats

Before we can talk about good fats vs. bad fats, we should cover what their names mean.

The dietary units we call “fats” are actually fatty acids which are made up, in part, by a chain of carbon atoms. When every carbon atom in the chain is bonded to a hydrogen atom, it is called a saturated fat. I remember this by thinking of the hydrogen as saturating the fat like water saturates a sponge so that every bit of the sponge is soaked.

Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature – so foods like butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter – these are saturated fats.

Saturated fats are often thought of as unhealthy fats, but that is not necessarily the case. Here is where it gets a little complicated: within the saturated fats category, there are short, medium, and long chain saturated fats. There is an important role in our diets for short and medium chain saturated fats: they help stabilize our cell membranes, help us convert Omega-3 fatty acids into usable forms, have antimicrobial properties, and have anti-inflammatory properties. Coconut oil falls into the medium chain category and that is the root of what makes it a healthy fat option. The health concerns come from overconsumption of the long chain saturated fats, such as animal fats, dairy fats, and cocoa butter. These are the fats whose excess consumption is linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. They also are higher in calories and are stored in our adipose, or fat, tissue. Unsurprisingly, Americans in general eat too much of the long chain saturated fats and not enough of the short and medium chain ones.

So what does this mean the fat in your diet should look like? This means eating lean cuts of meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), low-fat dairy products, and minimizing our consumption of things like butter. When it comes to the short and medium chain saturated fats, they do play an important role in our diet, but we don’t need to be eating a lot of them to derive the benefits and it’s important to remember that fat is a calorie-dense food. Therefore, moderation really is the key.

Unsaturated Fats

Since we now know that saturated fats have all of their carbon atoms paired with hydrogen atoms, we can guess that unsaturated fats have one or more carbon atoms not paired with a hydrogen atom. Instead, those unpaired carbon atoms form double bonds with the carbon atoms next to them. This chemical structure makes unsaturated fats less stable than saturated fats so they are liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fats are olive oil, flax seed oil, and fish oil. These are fats that are more vulnerable to going rancid and becoming carcinogenic when cooked to temperatures too high.

Unsaturated fats play very, very important roles in our diet, including: brain development and energy, maintaining healthy body tissues and skin, regulating our hormones, assisting in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and cushioning our organs. These are very healthy fats that we should consume regularly.

Within the unsaturated fat category, there are two types: monounsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon atoms while polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds between carbon atoms.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s fall into the polyunsaturated fats category and are often considered the healthiest fat. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish, like wild salmon, flax seeds, and Omega-3 eggs. While Omega-3s are found in plant sources such as flax seeds, it’s important to note that the form those fats take in plants are not a form that the human body can readily use (ALA). This means that our bodies must first convert them into usable forms (EPA & DHA) before they can be used. Unfortunately, after that conversion occurs, our bodies’ absorption rate of those fats is less than 5%, so it’s more efficient to consume Omega-3s from fish sources than plant sources.

The health benefits of consuming Omega-3s include: building healthy brain cells, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease, lowering the rate of certain cancers, elevating our mood, and improving our learning, attention, and vision. In general, we Americans do not eat enough Omega-3s.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are also a form of polyunsaturated fat that are very good for us. They play a critical role in our brain function and normal growth and development, among other roles. They are found in vegetable oils, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, edamame, and sunflower seeds. In general, Americans consume plenty of Omega-6s. The ideal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3s in our diet is 2:1.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are the bad fats. These are fats that do not occur naturally; rather, they are created by taking an unsaturated fat and adding hydrogen molecules to it, a process called hydrogenation. This was a profit move by the food industry in the early 1900s to stabilize vegetable oils so they would have a longer shelf life (the invention of Crisco). Trans fats have become very common place in prepackaged foods these days although there is a perception that they have fallen out of favor since the backlash against them. However, this is the food industry being sneaky. Legally, if a food contains less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving, they can put “0 grams trans fat” or “trans fat free” on a food package label. The lesson here: you can’t trust what the front of a package says. Instead, what you need to do to determine whether a food contains trans fats is to look in the ingredients list for the word “hydrogenated.” Hydrogenated oils are trans fats.

There are a number of compelling reasons to avoid trans fats: their consumption has been linked with low birth weights, high blood sugar, increased LDL (“bad” cholesterol), a decrease in nutrition density levels, a decrease in visual acuity, a decrease in Omega-3 levels in the brain (which we now know play a critical role in brain function), and a decrease in HDL (“good” cholesterol).

What About the Keto Diet?

The recent rage in fad diets has been putting your body into a state of ketosis by decreasing our carbohydrate consumption to very low levels and increasing our fat consumption to force our body to burn fat for energy. There are a number of problems with this diet craze.

For one, our bodies don’t burn fat for energy anywhere near as efficiently as they burn carbohydrates for energy. So by cutting our bodies primary fuel source drastically, we are depriving ourselves of the energy we need. Many on keto diets will experience low energy levels and mood levels because of this.

Secondly, you can overdo it with fat. The saying “too much of a good thing” really applies here. Yes, fat plays an important role in our diets but eating too much saturated fats (long chain), for example, can increase your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Furthermore, on high-fat diets such as this, you can’t be just indiscriminately eating loads of fats. The healthiest way to to eat is to focus on fish and plant sources of food. You want the majority of the fats you eat to be unsaturated, particularly polyunsaturated. Cutting carbs and eating loads of meat and butter and dairy may help you lose weight for a little while but it can have negative long-term health effects.

Finally, and perhaps more practically, this diet is not sustainable. Keto dieters may lose weight for a period, but they will crave carbohydrates and will swing back in the other direction and gain that weight back. This is simply what happens with deprivation in humans. This can contribute to a pattern of yo-yo dieting which has been shown to contribute to a slower metabolism over time and higher weights.

Bottom Line

When it comes to fats, high fat or low fat isn’t answer. Right fat is the answer. If your focus is on eating healthy fats, omega-3s, omega-6s, and other unsaturated fats like olive oil with a balanced diet, then you are eating a right fat diet, supplying your body with the fats you need without negative health impacts.

Should You Try the Ketogenic Diet?

The ketogenic diet has become the rage for rapid weight loss recently, but is it worth giving it a try? As I do with any fad diet, especially ones that involve eliminating entire food groups, I examined this one with a healthy amount of skepticism.

First, what is the ketogenic diet? You may recall the Atkins diet craze that preceded the South Beach Diet back in the late 90s/early 2000s – this is like a more extreme Atkins. Essentially, you slash the amount of carbs you are consuming down to just 2-4% of the calories you consume per day and focus on eating large amounts of fat. Your body primarily relies of carbohydrates to burn for energy. By cutting the amount of carbs you are consuming down to such a small amount, you force your body to begin to burn fat for energy – thus the weight loss results. Burning fat for energy – sounds great, right?

Well, not so fast.

First, it is very important to note that this is an incredibly unsustainable diet. As anyone who has tried Atkins or South Beach will tell you, you can cut out carbs…for a while. But long-term it’s just not doable. For most people, this is invitation to deprive and then overeat carbs when it finally gets to be too much. Such a diet is great for setting up a pattern of yo-yo dieting, which has been linked to heart disease and diabetes, as well as more weight gain over time. Furthermore, if you don’t follow this diet completely, you won’t see the results, which makes it even less sustainable. Basically, you will lose significant weight quickly on a ketogenic diet, but you will regain it quickly as well – this is not a diet for long-term weight loss.

If you are able to adhere to this diet in the long-term, the weight loss effects are likely to fade over time. Additionally, many experts say that this diet will result in muscle loss, which will slow down your metabolism, hindering further weight loss. You will also likely see a significant drop in your energy levels. This diet is not recommended for people with heart disease for the above reasons (remember, your heart is a muscular organ).

There are also a number of nutritive issues with this diet. For one, you really need to make sure you are supplementing very well because you will not be consuming anywhere near the nutrition your body needs on this diet. For another, this diet is very low in fiber, so you may encounter some serious digestive issues.

As a certified health coach, I do not espouse any diet plans that are unsustainable or involve cutting out an entire food group. This diet is not an exception. However, I am even more opposed to this diet because of the dangers it can pose to patient health. The keys to lasting weight loss are and will always be: a sustainable, balanced diet of fresh produce, healthy fats, and right carbs, regular exercise, and supportive healthful habits such as stress management.

What’s the Deal with Fish Oil?

One supplement that has been all the buzz for a little while now is fish oil – and for good reason, too. In fact, this is a supplement that I, as a certified health coach, recommend to most of my clients. I also take it daily and have gotten my family on the bandwagon, too. Fish oil, also known as Omega-3 fatty acids, is an interesting and multi-talented fat but most people don’t know all of its benefits. So, here is everything you need to know about fish oil.

What is Fish Oil?

Fish oil is the common name for Omega-3 fatty acid supplements because fish are the richest source of these essential oils (here, I mean literally essential, not “essence of”). Fish oil contains two forms of Omega-3s that our bodies can use, EPA and DHA. You don’t need to take a supplement to get your Omega-3s, though. Cold water fish, such as tuna and salmon, contain the greatest amounts of Omega-3s. However, unless you are eating fish regularly (and most of us are not), I strongly recommend you supplement to make sure you are consuming enough to reap the benefits.

Non-Fish Sources of Omega-3s

Flaxseeds, greens, and various other seeds also contain Omega-3s; however, they are in the form of ALA which the human body cannot use. Because of this, when we consume a plant source of Omega-3s, our bodies must convert the ALA into EPA and DHA, forms it can use. Unfortunately, once the ALA has been converted, our absorption of the Omega-3s from plants is less than 5% so you must consume much, much more plant sources than fish sources of Omega-3s to derive the same benefits and your body has to work harder for them. Therefore, unless you have an allergy or food sensitivity that prevents you from doing so, I strongly recommend opting for a fish source over plant sources of Omega-3s.

Benefits of Omega-3s

The more we learn about Omega-3 fatty acids, the more amazing things we learn they do for us. Studies have shown that Omega-3s may help lower your blood pressure, mitigate the effects of stress on your heart, act as anti-inflammatories and anti-coagulants, lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and steady your heart rate. They may also diminish depression and may help protect against Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory loss. For pregnant women, DHA (a form of Omega-3) has been found to be important for neurological and vision development in babies. Pretty amazing stuff, right?

What to Look for in a Fish Oil Supplement

When selecting a fish oil supplement, you want to make sure that you are purchasing one that is made with clean, quality ingredients. You may have heard people complain about the flavor of their fish oil supplements repeating on them throughout the day – this is common with low-quality fish oils. As with all supplements, it’s important that you do your research here. You want your fish oil to be sourced from wild-caught fish, not farmed fish. Often, you will find quality fish oils made from sardines. You also want to read the label to verify what the capsule’s coating is made out of. Gelatin is commonly what the coating is made out of; however, some poor quality capsules may actually use PVC or BPA materials (enteric coating) which have been linked to cancer and other health problems. Finally, you want to read the label to make sure that the supplement contains EPA and DHA – the forms of Omega-3s that can be readily absorbed and used by our bodies. Here is a link to the fish oil supplement that I have selected for myself and my family. 

 

Should I Throw Out My Coconut Oil?

Is Coconut Oil Really Unhealthy?

I’m sure that many of you have heard about the American Heart Association’s (AHA) latest statement on saturated fats and are wondering if it means you should throw out your coconut oil and whether you should be concerned about your health after having eaten it.

Since that statement was issued, I’ve been down the coconut oil rabbit hole researching what the AHA had to say. The problem with working in the nutrition and health field is that our understanding of those topics is constantly changing so inevitably what I advise my clients will change as well. Does that make nutrition advice any less valuable? No. It just means that we are getting better at science. So, totally open to the fact that I may need to adjust my dietary advice, I ventured down the slippery slope of coconut oil research (see what I did there?).

If you’re short on time, here’s the cliff notes version of my response:
Coconut oil is not going to kill you and you don’t need to throw it out.

If you’re still concerned, good! I want you to be critical and ask questions and come to your own conclusions. So here is my rationale:

1. First of all, the AHA’s statement was based on a review of existing data (they selected just 4 studies), some of which is very old (like 1960s old). More recent studies have shown that cholesterol levels alone are not a solid indicator of heart disease risk and a number have actually shown no correlation between saturated fat consumption, heart disease, and mortality. It also bears stating that this is not a new stance from the AHA but news outlets clamped onto the mention of coconut oil in a larger, more broad statement because of the oil’s recent popularity. This statement was about saturated fats, not just coconut oil.
2. The AHA’s statement completely overlooks the role of inflammation in heart disease. Inflammation helps plaque build up in our arteries, leading to heart disease. Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and, thus, consuming it can reduce that arterial inflammation. Processed vegetable oils on the other hand, like canola oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil, which the AHA espouses, are highly inflammatory.
3. As a saturated fat, coconut oil is more stable than unsaturated fats, like olive oil and sesame oil. This makes it a preferable oil for cooking at high heat and over longer periods. Because of the instability of unsaturated fats, they are more prone to oxidizing and become carcinogenic when heated to higher temperatures.
4. The human body needs fat for a number of vital processes. In fact, our brain is made up of 60% fat! Like everything else in life, the key to fats is moderation. Should you be eating coconut oil with every meal? No. But using a tablespoon or two to cook your dinner is perfectly safe.
5. Coconut oil is high in a compound called lauric acid, which is extremely beneficial to the strengthening of the human immune system. Breast milk is also high in lauric acid in order to help develop the immune systems of babies. Thus consuming coconut oil has beneficial effects on our immune system.

Essentially, there is a place in our diet for saturated fats in moderation and coconut oil is perfectly fine to consume. So, no, don’t throw out your coconut oil.

Some Moo-sings on Milks (see what I did there?)

Twenty years ago, you never would have guessed that milk would be a polarizing issue, but, here we are. The moo milk and the no moo fans are just as vehement that theirs is the right side of the issue and it can lead to some major confusion about which is actually healthier. If you’re in that boat, I’m here to break it down for you.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an almond milk drinker but not because I think it’s healthier than dairy milk or that dairy milk is bad for you. I just have never liked the taste of cow’s milk – in fact, getting me to drink my milk as a kid was a losing battle for my parents at 9/10 family dinners. Cheese, however, is a totally different story.

So let’s talk about the pros and cons of each type of milk.

Nut Milks

If you are lactose intolerant or sensitive to lactose, then nut milks are a great substitute for the moo. However, they are not a bastion of health as some would lead you to believe. Most store-bought nut milks contain both natural and chemical emulsifiers and there are concerns that those emulsifiers may harm our gut health and contribute to obesity.  In terms of nutrition, you’re really not getting much from nut milks. They are not a significant source of protein or fat; however, they do contain more calcium than cow’s milk. You may also find nut milks fortified with vitamins and minerals (such as Silk), but on their own, nut milks do not contain as much Vitamin A and Iron as dairy milks do. If you’re watching your calorie count, nut milks may be a good option for you since they are less calorie-dense than cow’s milk. Obviously, however, if you have a nut allergy you should avoid nut milks.

Soy Milk

Unlike nut milks, soy milk is a significant source of protein with just about the same as dairy milk. However, unlike moo milk and nut milks, soy milk is a good source of folate. One of my primary concerns with soy milk is the fact that most of the soy in the US is genetically modified, so if you are buying soy milk or any soy products, make sure that they are non-GMO certified or organic.

The greatest pitfall that nut and soy milks have is that they come in a number of sweetened flavors and people often buy these thinking they are doing something healthy for themselves. Just one serving of a sweetened vanilla almond milk contains 16 grams of sugar! If you are going to buy non-dairy milks, it is important to make sure that you are buying the plain, unsweetened variety. If it doesn’t say “unsweetened” on the label, then it’s sweetened and, if you’re not sure, check the ingredients list. (Note: sugar will appear in the nutrition facts in dairy milk, but that is the naturally-occurring lactose, not added sugar. You can confirm this by reading the ingredients).

Cow’s Milk

Unless you are lactose intolerant, cow’s milk is a solid option with some caveats. It is important to buy organic milk to avoid ingesting hormones or antibiotics passed on from treated cows. It is also important to select a low or reduced fat variety, particularly for adults, because it is high in saturated fats. Cow’s milk is a good source of calcium (though not the best) and it is high in protein. It also contains Iron and Vitamin A. So cow’s milk is not the unhealthy sludge it’s often made out to be (and to those who say it’s not natural to drink milk because no other animals drink another animal’s milk, I say imagine what society would be like if we based everything on what other animals do!)

So that’s the scoop on milk. As a heath coach, I can say there are pros and cons to each and it really depends on what works for you. Quite frankly, it’s time we stop policing what other people choose to consume so don’t be bullied into a milk you don’t want.