Let’s talk fat!
If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, and/or if you’re familiar with Nourishing Traditions (NT), you probably already know the answer to “what are healthy fats and why should I eat them?” But if you’re new here and new to traditional cooking, then you might be very confused about this issue. It’s okay. A lot of people are, at first!
So let’s dig in.
Should I Eat Fat?
First the big question: is fat good or bad? The mainstream would have you believe that nearly all fats are bad, and that even the “good” ones (like olive oil) should be consumed only in tiny quantities. A low- fat or fat-free mantra is pushed everywhere. Foods like skim milk, low-fat cheese, butter substitutes, and processed low-fat foods are all the rage. Dieticians and doctors and, well, just about everyone say that you should avoid fat as much as possible.
It’s all a lie.
There, I said it. Fat is good for you. Those low-fat foods are not real foods and can be quite detrimental to your health (now — foods that are naturally low in fat, like vegetables, are fine, though they should still eaten with added fat. We’ll talk about why in a minute). Most low-fat packaged foods have a lot of soy, sugar, and “stabilizers” added to them to make them still taste good and “work” right. For a long time, trans fats were added to these products instead of naturally saturated fats! Of course, everyone is now well aware that trans fats aren’t healthy, either, so manufacturers have begun to phase them out.
Don’t be fooled, though — some manufacturers have simply reduced serving sizes, because if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, they don’t have to list it on the label and can actually claim “0g of trans fats!” in big letters. Even though they know it’s a lie. Other manufacturers are simply using intersified fats, which is a process very similar to trans fats and supposedly even more detrimental to your health. Many “buttery spread” type products are now made this way. Still others are using various combinations of liquid vegetable oils, most often soybean (then corn, cottonseed, etc.). These are GMO and extremely unhealthy as well. Beware all processed low-fat foods…or any other processed food, for that matter.
Why Should I Eat Fat? Won’t I Get Fat?
I’m sure this is your next question. But the truth is, no, you won’t get fat. Our bodies burn fat quickly and use it for energy. We don’t store it. Carbs are broken down much more slowly and are stored as fat for energy “later” if we consume too many. Therefore, eating fat can’t make you fat, since your body just does not store it!
As for personal experience, we lost weight eating a high-fat diet. This is true for many others that I know as well. Keeping our weight at a healthy level has been effortless, also, for the first time!
Instead, fat does a lot of wonderful things for you. It provides energy, as I already mentioned. It also helps your body to use all of the fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Without fat, you cannot break down or absorb any of these vitamins. So you can take all the supplements you want (which typically are oil-based because…those vitamins are found in fat!), but without adequate dietary fat you will not get much benefit.
And if you are low in these vitamins, your immune system will not function well, your skin and hair will be dry, you’ll lack energy…need I go on? Well, you may be depressed, you may lose your sex drive, you may have mood swings, anxiety, you may struggle with infertility, and generally be at risk for all types of infections. Yes, fat is that important.
Additionally, fat helps your body to actually regenerate. Your brain is largely made of saturated fat and cholesterol. Your hormones are regulated by fat. (So, if your hormones don’t work right, you are at risk for PCOS, infertility, adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and so on.)
This is why you should always eat your vegetables with fat — they’ll help you absorb all those wonderful nutrients! Some good salad dressing or butter on steamed vegetables will go a long way towards helping your body.
So What Fat Should I Eat?
Now you’re probably convinced that there’s something to this eating fat stuff. If fat helps all those body systems, that’s a pretty good clue that you should eat it. But as we discussed a little bit above, not all fats are good for you. So how do you know which you should eat?
First — no trans fats. Ever. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me on that point! Avoid intersified fats, too.
Second — no GMO fats. Ever. That’s a little more controversial, but the truth is we don’t know the long-term effects of GMOs on our bodies. Early research with rats suggests that they become infertile and experience a lot of other health problems in a relatively short amount of time. GMO food is not something we want to be messing with, ever. Choose organic if you know the food is likely to be GMO, because organics cannot be. This includes corn, soy, alfalfa, rice, and sugar beet. More are entering the market soon, including cassava, castor beans, and papaya.
Now we’re left with the non-GMO polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats. What to do about those?
In my opinion, you should avoid nearly all polyunsaturated fats. The fact that their bonds are so “open” (which is what makes them liquid at both room temperature and while refrigerated) makes them extremely unstable. These fats go rancid very quickly, especially when exposed to heat or light (such as…sitting on a grocery store shelf in a clear plastic bottle, which likely contains BPA; or being shipped on a hot truck). Please note that it is heat and fat which cause BPA to leach…. Cooking with them is an absolute disaster, because they’ll oxidize and form free radicals (which cause cancer) and trans fats (heart disease). These fats are also very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which the typical American eats way too much of. Some people do choose to use polyunsaturated fats in very small quantities. They buy them cold-pressed in dark glass bottles and keep them refrigerated. They are used only unheated (like in salad dressings), never for cooking. Polyunsaturated fats include fish oils, corn, soy, sunflower, and safflower oils.
Monounsaturated fats are actually quite healthy for you — a point most will agree on! These oils are usually liquid at room temperature, but solid when refrigerated. They’re more stable than polyunsaturated fats because only one bond is “open.” These are safe and actually beneficial to eat on a regular basis. One caveat: don’t heat them. Since they are still unsaturated, they can go rancid easily. Olive oil heated over 350 degrees will form trans fats. It’s also best to buy them in dark glass bottles and cold-pressed, and store them in a dark pantry to prevent rancidity. These are best eaten raw. Monounsaturated fats include walnut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, peanut oil, other nut oils, and canola oil. I would not recommend canola oil though (especially not for cooking) because it is highly processed and may be GMO.
Now for saturated fats…my favorite! And the mainstream dietician’s bane. Despite all of the misinformation surrounding them, saturated fats do not cause heart disease and obesity and all that other junk. In fact, the original research conducted on saturated fats did not distinguish between naturally saturated fats and trans fats, because on a molecular level they appear the same. All of those bad things that were attributed to saturated fats were really caused by the trans fats, not the naturally saturated fats. Dr. Mary Enig, author of Eat Fat, Lose Fat, discovered this critical mistake early in her career and was essentially “banished” from the mainstream community for pointing it out!
So why are saturated fats so good? They are extremely stable, both when refrigerated and at room temperature. They can be safely heated to 350 – 450 degrees (depending on the particular fat) without becoming rancid. This makes them very safe to cook with in almost any situation (though you don’t ever want them to start smoking; that is an indication that they have gotten too hot and have oxidized). Saturated fats are largely responsible for our mood, hormones, healthy skin and hair, etc. Babies’ bodies and brains (and kids) are largely made from saturated fat and cholesterol, so it’s crucial to consume enough of it. Saturated fats include lard (actually that’s monounsaturated; it’s only 49% saturated fat! But it cooks and behaves like a saturated fat), beef tallow, bacon grease, cream (and other dairy products), coconut oil, and palm oil. All of these are very good for you and should be consumed often!
One caveat: please choose animal fats from a healthy source. Do not buy lard at the grocery store, because it is not pure lard: it will have “partially hydrogenated lard” added to it, and preservatives like BHT. Fat also gathers up all the toxins and ‘yuck’ that animals consume, so buying these fats from conventionally-raised animals (fed lots of hormones and antibiotics and etc.) will contain all of that stuff in concentrated form. Instead, source your animal fats from pastured, preferably local animals. Visit Eat Wild to find a farm near you.
Where Can I Buy These Fats?
The best source is locally if at all possible. A good local farmer or butcher can help you find high-quality animal fats. Raw milk (which we’ll talk about more soon) is a great “fatty” food that should always be sourced locally. Eggs, too, are best if pastured and local (those yolks are a great source of fat too!). But, that’s not always available.
Chaffin Orchards is a good place to source olive oil. I’ve never ordered from them, nor do I have any affiliation with them, but I know a lot of bloggers are really happy with them. Personally, I get mine from Trader Joe’s. Is it top quality? Probably not…but it’s good enough and it fits in my budget.
Coconut oil can be purchased from Tropical Traditions, or Nutiva (I buy mine, Nutiva brand, through Amazon). There are other brands out there, too. Just make sure that it’s extra-virgin, unrefined oil. There are refined versions available in stores. It’s much, much cheaper to buy online than in stores, so keep that in mind (a 15 oz. jar might cost nearly $15 in the store; I can buy a 54-oz. jar for under $20 online). Palm oil is also available at Tropical Traditions.
U.S. Wellness Meats offers beef tallow for sale, and sometimes lard too. These can be the hardest to find!
Do you eat fat? What types do you use the most? Where do you source them from?