Dietary fat is absolutely critical for health and fitness. Unfortunately, there’s tons of misinformation and confusion about healthy fat. Which fats are healthy? When aren’t they healthy? Which fats are never healthy? Let’s find out.
To truly understand why the topic healthy fat is so hotly debated and nebulous, we need to take a look at the history. If you’d rather just read the science, jump further down the page.
If you were alive in the 1980s, you likely noticed a remarkable food trend sweeping the nation: “Low-Fat” became the rage.
Many people read in a 1984 issue of Time Magazine that dietary fat will make you obese and “clog your arteries,” causing you to drop dead of a heart attack at an early age (and then roll since you’re so round).
This idea was popularized by one study (called The Seven Countries Study) first reported on in 1956. The lead researcher was a man named Ancel Keys, who rose to scientific prominence studying fish breathing (seriously). It turns out that the study data was poorly collected, misinterpreted, and maybe even intentionally obscured. Towards the end of his life, Keys even admitted that cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease.
Keys’ Seven Countries Study was so scientifically unsound that the American Heart Association (AHA) initially refused his application for publication, stating in 1957 that his conclusion dietary fat causes heart disease “does not stand up to critical examination.”
Three years later, the AHA accepted the paper and endorsed its conclusion wholeheartedly. What changed? Keys was now on the AHA board. You read that right; when the AHA refused his bad science, he used political connections to get on the board and approve his own work. Absolutely despicable.
Once Keys made his own distortion-of-the-data into nutritional dogma, Senator George McGovern stepped in to make “low-fat” a major part of the first national dietary recommendations in 1980, despite vehement protestations from doctors gathered for a senate hearing.
Fast-forward to today, and the majority of Americans are still afraid of dietary fat, in large part because of this one scientific fumble. It’s worth noting that large agricultural and food product conglomerates have a vested interest in keeping “low-fat” recommendations on the books. Real food like avocados and beef have no option to go “low-fat,” but processed food giants can easily engineer the fat out of their foods. So long as Americans view fat to be the enemy, “low-fat” Oreos will end up looking healthier than beef to many consumers.
Margarine is a perfect example of this. Clearly a man-made product, margarine has a long line of research showing that it is incredibly unhealthy. Yet margarine sales skyrocketed when “low-fat” became a health buzzword.
In the United States, for example, in 1930, the average person ate over 18 pounds (8.2 kg) of butter a year and just over 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate around 5 lb (2.3 kg) of butter and nearly 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine.
Ancel Key’s bad science still has margarine outpacing butter in the western world.
Low-Fat Diets Are Unhealthy
Even if a man avoids unhealthy industrial processed foods while maintaining a low-fat diet, he’s going to have problems. Low-fat diets have been shown to cause decreased testosterone, unnatural appetite swings, and mood swings. Dietary fat is essential for health.
Fat is Actually Healthy – The Right Fat
So we know that bad science led to our cultural fear of fat, and that not eating enough fat poses health risks. This doesn’t prove that eating fat is actually healthy.
Fortunately, under the right circumstances, it is extremely healthy – even necessary for health. Which fats are healthy? In keeping with the running theme here, if it’s natural, it’s probably healthy.
Consumption of natural, healthy fats is shown to:
- Decrease depression
- Increase satiety (leading to easier management of healthy weight)
- Improve skin
- Decrease sunburn (and therefore skin cancer) risk
- Improve brain function
- Improve energy levels
- Improve cell structure
- Decrease inflammation (reducing general aches and pains)
- Increase testosterone levels
Natural, Healthy Fats:
- Beef Fat (or Tallow) from Pastured Cows
- Lamb Fat from Pastured Lamb
- Pork Fat (Lard) from naturally-raised pigs (non-hydrogenated)
- Fish Fat (In fish meat or cod-liver oil in reasonable portions)
- Tropical Oils (Coconut and Palm)
- Avocados (extracted avocado oil, less so)
- Macadamia Nuts
- Olive Oil (provided you don’t heat it)
There are a few important points for healthy fat consumption. First, source is extremely important. Animals tend to store toxins in their fat, so fat from poorly raised animals is significantly less healthy. Second, it’s important to limit polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) intake to reasonable levels. Ideally, PUFA would comprise 1-2% of calorie intake. Finally, fat is sensitive to heat in varying degrees, and overheating fat can make it very unhealthy.
Healthy Fat and Heat – The Danger of Oxidized Fat
To understand this fully, we need a simple primer on the molecular structure of fats. Fat molecules are strings of carbon atoms bonded together in a line (like a backbone). Carbon atoms have the capacity to support four bonds each. Picture a carbon atom in the middle of the chain; it is bonded to two other carbon atoms, one on the left and one on the right. Since it has the capacity for four total bonds, it still has two bonds available. If two hydrogen atoms are present, it will bond to each of them, satisfying it’s four bond requirement. Saturated fats are called “saturated” because they have more than enough hydrogen when formed – so all the carbons in the chain bond to two hydrogen atoms.
If only one hydrogen atom is present, the carbon atom is unhappy because it still has an extra bond to give. So it will double-bond with one of its adjacent carbons. Now it is happy with four total bonds: two to the left carbon, one to the right carbon, and one to the hydrogen. Unsaturated fats formed without enough hydrogen, so one double bond is present.
Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond, because they were formed with even less hydrogen present.
This difference in structure is why saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats are liquid. The double bonds in unsaturated fat prevent the fat molecules from stacking as neatly, so they have to be at a lower temperature to move close enough together to form a solid.
Polyunsaturated fats are typically less healthy than saturated fats as a result of these structural differences. Turning double bonds to single bonds requires less energy input than breaking single bonds does, so it can happen at a lower temperature. If you heat any fat up to a high enough temperature, bonds will break. If oxygen is present, new bonds will be formed with oxygen atoms, and the fat is now oxidized.
Oxidized fats are typically very unhealthy; they are part of what causes heart disease and arterial plaque. Because unsaturated fats have bonds that can be broken more easily, they are less stable, and more prone to oxidation. Unsaturated fats are less healthy, in large part, because they are more easily oxidized.
Highly saturated fats (like coconut oil, tallow, and lard) are very stable, and can withstand higher cooking temperatures. Less saturated fats, like those found in fish, pork belly, eggs, butter, or bacon, are much less stable and can only withstand lower temperatures. A good rule of thumb is to stay well below the “smoke point” of the fat you’re cooking with. If you see smoke, you’re compromising the health of the cooking fat. Olive Oil should not be heated at all.
“Vegetable” Oil is Not Healthy Fat
“Vegetable” Oil, more correctly called “seed” oil is unhealthy for a few reasons. First, the majority of the fat present in these oils is polyunsaturated fat (or PUFA). As we just learned, this makes them more unstable and likely to be oxidized. In fact, those double bonds are so fragile that even the light coming into a clear bottle of “vegetable oil” can break them. Second, the PUFA in “vegetable oil” is largely Omega-6 PUFA, which is highly inflammatory. Eating “vegetable oil” is likely to put you into an inflammatory state, which increases the likelihood of athletic injury, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, acne, heart disease, liver disease, and even the common cold.
If we think back to the Real Food rule, it’s very clear that “vegetable oil” is fake food.
Look at all the processes, chemicals, and equipment required to produce “vegetable oil.” This doesn’t even include the seed harvesting process, which is effectively impossible to do by hand on any reasonable scale. It is quite clear that you would not be capable of making your own at home. “Vegetable oil” is not real food, it is an industrial food product, and should not be consumed by humans.
Fat Consumption for Health
- Corn, soybean, canola, sunflower, safflower, peanut, or “vegetable” oil.
- “Vegetable based shortening” like Crisco.
- Large doses of PUFA in general, especially the Omega6-heavy varieties.
- Overheated, or oxidized, fat of any kind.
- Ample natural ruminant fat (beef, lamb, bison, buffalo, butter)
- Plenty of Egg Yolks and Fish
- Non-Hydrogenated Lard
- As much as you want Avocados, Coconut, Coconut Oil
- Some cold Olive Oil
Healthy Fat Conclusion and Recommendation
In short, if the fat comes from a seed-processing factory, avoid it. If it comes from an animal or fruit, it’s probably good. Fat is best cooked mildly.
This means you get to include tons of healthy, natural fats that you may have been scared to eat in the past. Enjoy the eggs, lard, tallow, and butter!
Start today. Stop eating any and all “vegetable” oil right now. Do your best to never eat it again. Do eat plenty of natural, healthy fats. Especially those that come from well-raised animals.
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