Research Review: Should you balance your fats for better health?
For fifty years, scientists told us that too much saturated fat was bad for our hearts, and advised us to switch to polyunsaturated fats instead. Oops.
It turns out that polyunsaturated fats are not all equal, and some of them actually increase the odds of cardiovascular disease and death.
In this week’s Research Review, we’ll explore why mistaken conclusions in science can sometimes become accepted wisdom – and which fats you really should eat for better health.
Ever notice how a particular food can become all the rage – only to drop out of fashion a few years later?
And how the food or nutrient that our doctors told us to get more of in 1990 can morph into the one they are warning us against in 2013?
It’s enough to harden a person’s arteries.
With so much conflicting information out there, it can be tough to figure out what to believe.
But as you’ll learn in this article, health is about balance. Too much or too little of any nutrient can lead to trouble.
Keep that in mind as we explore the complicated world of fats and their role in heart health.
What fats should I eat?
In the last half of the 20th century, doctors and nutrition professionals agreed: too much saturated fat was bad for the heart.
The recommendations were clear: If you want to avoid heart disease and keep your arteries free of build-up, you should increase polyunsaturated fats and decrease saturated fats in the diet.
That’s what they told us – and most of us listened.
But lately, there’s been a shift in scientific understanding.
- Saturated fats don’t seem to be as bad for us as doctors used to think.
- Polyunsaturated fats are not equal in their effects.
- And the type of polyunsaturated fat you eat may be just as important as how much of it you eat.
Keep fats real
Here’s one simplified way to understand the relationship between some different fat types.
Notice that generally, fat type alone doesn’t determine the healthiness – rather, healthy fats are found in whole, unprocessed foods, while unhealthy fats are found in processed foods.
For example, you’ll notice that naturally occurring saturated fats (such as coconut) are important in a healthy diet. On the other hand, artificially created saturated fats (fats that start out unsaturated and are then chemically processed – for instance, through hydrogenation — to become saturated, such as margarine) are not as healthy a choice.
Our bodies know what to do with real food. They don’t know what to do with the other stuff.
Keep fats in balance
Here at PN, Dr. John Berardi has long recommended getting:
- 1/3 of your fatty acids from saturated fats;
- 1/3 from monounsaturated fat; and
- 1/3 from polyunsaturated fat (with a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids)
Of course, these should mostly come from whole, unprocessed foods. (We’ll give you some ideas below.)
Want to know why omega-3 fatty acids are special, check the Research Review: How do omega-3 fatty acids work?
Every once and awhile a food or nutrient gets vilified. (By food I mean anything that has been around for at least 100 years. Low fat, low cal, low-sugar cookies — not food.)
But the truth is, there’s really no such thing as a “good” food or a “bad” food. And almost anything we swallow can be good or bad for us, depending on whether we have a deficiency or a massive overabundance.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s take a look at water. Pure, innocent, cornerstone-of-life water.
You’re mostly water – about 70%. You need water daily to live. So water is good, right?
But even water can kill you. If you over-hydrate yourself you can get water intoxication. Too much water causes a decrease in key electrolytes that are really important for important things like your heart pumping.
And of course, your lungs like to be moist but not full of water.
Again, it’s all about balance. The right amount in the right place at the right time.
Finding fatty acids in the grocery store
Now you know which fats you should eat in what proportions. But there’s no “fat” aisle at the grocery store, and most nutrition labels don’t classify fats beyond telling you whether they’re saturated or unsaturated.
Here’s how to recognize what kind of fats you’re buying and eating.
- Saturated fats come mostly from animal fats (e.g. butter, meat fats) and tropical oils (e.g. coconut oil). They’re usually solid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated fats come mostly from avocados, nuts, and olive oil.
- Most other oils are polyunsaturates.
Start with whole foods
If you’re looking to add good fats to your diet, start with whole food-based fats in their natural, least-processed state. This includes things like:
- fatty fish and seafood; sea vegetables
- raw nuts and seeds
- fresh olives
- fresh coconut; raw cacao
- pastured butter and full-fat dairy
- fatty meats if pastured / grass-fed