The Fat Controversy: Are There Healthy and Unhealthy Fats?

There are unhealthy fats... and fats that you should completely avoid.

While some experts understand that a low-fat diet doesn’t necessarily equal good health, due to trends such as the Paleolithic diet and emphasis on organic and free-range, some practitioners over state the health benefits of certain types of fat and foods that contain those fats.

The State of the Evidence: Dietary Fats

Saturated Fats:   The link between saturated fat and health is highly debated.  As with most nutrition science, research indicates that its more likely that multiple dietary factors are involved in the development of disease versus a single dietary component.  This includes, what is substituted for saturated fat in the diet, the amount and types of saturated fats (and other fats) consumed, how animal foods are cooked/prepared, oxidation of fats, overall diet composition, etc.  I believe that current evidence indicates that some saturated fat from selected sources can be part of a healthy diet, but high intakes of saturated fats (mostly from animal foods) are linked with negative health associations.  

1. Animal Products/Fats:  Animal products such as, meats, processed meats and dairy products are major sources of dietary saturated fat.   Certain animal products and their fats have been associated with inflammation and chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.   A high animal fat diet and in particular, red meat, which includes beef, pork, lamb, goat and veal, and processed meats have been associated with certain cancers.   Processed meats (ham, bacon, pastrami, hot dog, sausage, deli meats, salami) have also been linked with heart disease.  Beef fat is the largest single source of arachidonic acid in the American diet.  Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is pro-inflammatory.   In general, plant based diets emphasizing other types of fats (fish oils, olive oil, healthy vegetable fats) and lower in high glycemic carbohydrates and fatty animal foods is correlated with better health.  (Its also worth noting that decreasing your meat consumption is more sustainable and promotes planetary health).

2. Tropical oils: Unrefined palm and coconut oils also contain a high percentage of saturated fats, however, do not appear to carry the same risks as animal saturated fats. 

3. Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate contains a high percentage of saturated fat (similar to tropical oils), but has been associated with reduced risk factors of heart disease and contains many healthful components.  

Bottom line? 

All saturated fats are not the same, but even the healthier sources of saturated fats shouldn't be your main source of fat as high intakes (mostly animal foods) are linked with negative health associations.  In general, a mostly plant based diet (low glycemic/whole intact grains, nuts/seeds, fruits and vegetables, healthy vegetable fats) should be emphasized along with modest quantities of quality, lean animal products and other saturated fats. 

  • If you include animal foods in your diet its best to choose free range, grass fed and finished and organically raised animals as they have less saturated fat and more healthy fats than grain fed animals (and are void of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides).  No more than 1, 3-4 oz. serving/ week of “red meat” would be my recommendation. "Red meats" such as elk, bison and buffalo also have a healthier fatty acid profile.  (Best = "red meat" only as an occasional treat) Avoid processed meats.  Instead of red meat, opt for: quality lean poultry, organic 2%/full fat** unsweetened/plain dairy products (as well as organic, omega-3 enriched eggs and quality fish).
  • Healthier sources of saturated fat:  coconut products like organic, unrefined coconut oil or coconut milk.   In modest amounts, coconut oil is a good choice for baking and high temperature cooking.  Dark chocolate rich in cocoa (70%+) with minimal added sugar, free of added fats is a healthful treat in small amounts (we're talking a small square here!).

**Small quantities of quality 2%/full fat dairy may be a better choice versus 1%/skim dairy products.. Lower fat dairy products have been associated with certain health issues.  This doesn't mean that you can eat dairy products with abandon and some experts even feel, due to other health concerns with dairy, that a better alternative is to   incorporate more non-dairy alternatives (nut, hemp, coconut milk) into your diet.  I would suggest no more than a few servings of dairy/week - try choosing dairy foods naturally rich in probiotics such as, greek yogurt (also lower in carbohydrate/sugar), kefir as well as natural aged cheeses. (Best = try to incorporate more non-dairy alternatives into your diet).

Omega-6 Fatty Acids:  Many omega-6 fatty acids are unhealthy fats.  As previously discussed beef fat is a dietary source of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that is pro-inflammatory.  High intakes of processed, industrial oils such as, corn, soybean and other “vegetable oils” are also pro-inflammatory and should be avoided.  Since these oils are in many food products make sure that you read the ingredients list in the Nutrition Facts Label and avoid food products containing these unhealthy fats.

Hydrogenated fats or trans fatty acids:  All hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats/oils, otherwise known as trans fats, are unhealthy fats and should be avoided.  These  are the worst types of fats.   Trans fats are chemically altered cheap fats that are added to processed foods such as, margarines, cookies, crackers, baked goods, snack foods, salad dressings, etc. etc. to prolong shelf life.   Trans fats have been associated with inflammation and chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

This is a general guide to unhealthy fats and diet recommendations may need to be modified based on your individual health and healing needs.  In general, focusing on whole foods and the correct balance of fats in your daily diet is a major step forward in your health and healing process.

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Some References:  The Institute of Functional Medicine, Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, 2004; Hyman, M. Ultrametabolism,2006; Alschuler L. et al. The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 2010; Murray, M. et al. How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine, 2002; The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Food as Medicine conference, 2012; Ornish D.The Spectrum,2007; Astrup, A et al. The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010?, Am JClin Nutr, 2011, WCRF/AICR Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer, 2007  

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