Fat – Friend or Foe

Fats are all the craze right now.  We’ve finally figured out we don’t get fat when we’re eating the right kinds of fat, and that when we eat fat, we actually get thin!  Seems counterintuitive right?

Many people, however, are still stuck in the low-fat era of the past.  This includes most physicians and the recommendations handed down by the federal government.  So why are they all wrong?  To understand that we need a bit of a history lesson.

The History of the Low-Fat Craze

In the 1950’s our country began experiencing prosperity after the difficulties of the Great Depression in 30’s and then WWII in the 40’s.  Along with that came more access to food and finally the industrialization of food.

This is when doctors began seeing heart disease develop.

By the 60’s and 70’s studies began indicating there was a correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease.  There were two hypothesis:  it was either sugar or fat that was the culprit in raising cholesterol levels.  Several researchers were involved, but eventually it won out that fat was the perpetrator (If you would like to hear more about this check out The Bitter Truth About the Sugar Industry).

By the 1980’s all doctors were placing their patients on a low-fat diet and the craze continued into the 90’s.  Everything was either low-fat or no-fat.  The problem is when you take fat out of the food, it tastes horrible!

So what did they do? – they added sugar to make the food taste better.  Fast forward 20 years and heart disease rates have only gone up despite doctors keeping their patient’s cholesterol levels lower.

Now we know that in fact it was sugar raising triglyceride and cholesterol levels not the fat.  The research backs this up.  When we know better, we do better.

Which Fats Are the Good Fats?

My husband has been tracking his food recently on a popular phone app.  Each time he enters a food with a large amount of fat, it warns him of the high fat content.  In fact I’ve increased the amount of fat in our diets over the past few years, so this is a frequent occurrence.  He knows after all my ranting that fat is not bad, but still finds the different types of fat confusing.

Maybe you can relate?

Why We Want Fat In Our Diet

First of all, fat satiates us.  Fat is high in calories and keeps us full between meals.  This helps to cut down on the snacking.  Fat takes the longest to digest of all the macronutrients, so as it slowly enters our blood stream it keeps our blood sugar stable.  We don’t want quick spikes and drops of our blood sugar, this is what leads to ‘hanger’ (hungry-anger) and leads to bad food choices.

Fat is the foundation for the molecule cholesterol.  Now some of you may believe cholesterol is foe, but it’s actually a friend.  The cholesterol molecule is the basis for many of the important hormones in our body such as cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.  These keep our bodies functioning properly and need to be at healthy levels or there are uncomfortable side effects.

Lastly, 60% of our brain is made up of fat, so to keep our brains in good shape, we need healthy fats in our diets.

Not All Fats Are Created Equal

The key words here are healthy fats.  Not all fats are created equal.  More on that later, let’s first discuss the different types of fat and help clear up some confusion.

Flashback to tenth grade chemistry class and learning the periodic table.

Fats are long chains of carbon molecules that are bonded to hydrogen atoms.  When a carbon atom is bonded to the maximum number of hydrogens, then that is called a saturated fat (think the carbons are saturated with hydrogens).  When a fat molecule has double bonds and less hydrogen atoms, then it’s called a unsaturated fat – (not saturated with hydrogens).

You can have monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats.  This refers to the number of double bonds in the molecule.  One double bond would be monounsaturated (mono- means one) and polyunsaturated means multiple double bonds (poly- means many).

Another difference is that saturated fats are solid at room temperature whereas unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at this temperature.

Examples of saturated fats:

  • coconut oil
  • butter
  • ghee (clarified butter)
  • lard (animal fat)

Examples of unsaturated fats

  • Monounsaturated: olive oil, sesame oil, almond oil
  • Polyunsaturated:  flax see oil, hemp seed oil, pumpkin seed oil

Trans Fat

Now let’s talk about trans fat.  Why didn’t you learn about trans fat in high school biology?  Because it’s not a naturally occurring fat.  Trans fat is synthetic – it’s created in a chemistry lab.  The food industry uses chemicals and very high heats to turn regular fat to trans fat.  Why?  Because the fat is more stable and doesn’t go rancid as quick as natural fat.  This improves shelf life and makes the food last longer.  You will find trans fat only in processed and fast food – it doesn’t occur in nature.  Researchers discovered that trans fat reacts poorly in your body and leads to heart disease.  This is why some packages read “zero trans fat.”

Clean Is Key

So as you can see, not all fats are created equally.  Saturated fat is not necessarily bad for you.  This includes animal fats such as lard, butter, and the fatty portions of meat.  The problem with this is many toxic chemicals and hormones are stored in the fat of the animal.  So if you are eating a clean animal (grass or pastured raised without added hormones or antibiotics) you shouldn’t worry about consuming its fat.

I would not however, consume a lot of saturated fat from processed foods.  Even if it’s not trans, it still may not be good for you.

Like all other food, you want to consume fats from a whole food source.  That means the fat will be naturally occurring and you won’t have to worry about trans fat.  So even if it’s considered saturated fat, but it’s from a real, whole food, it’s actually good for you!

So what are some of the best sources of whole, healthy fats?  Well here are just a few

  1. Avocados
  2. Cheese (if possible, grass fed cows)
  3. Oils (coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil)
  4. Dark chocolate
  5. Whole eggs (eat the yolk – that’s where the fat is)
  6. Fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines)
  7. Nuts (almonds, walnuts, macadamias)
  8. Seeds (flax, chia, hemp seeds – eating whole instead of oil form is better)
  9. Milk and yogurt (be sure to eat the full fat version – again from clean cows, if possible)

So don’t worry when your diet app gives you a warning after a meal of salmon cooked with olive oil, those are all good fats and they will keep you going strong. The other great perk is that fat makes food taste good!  So eat it up!

I hope this helps clear up some confusion for everyone and if you enjoyed this blog you might also enjoy The Bitter Truth About the Sugar Industry which talks about some similar things.

Thanks for reading this article and remember that every journey begins with a single step.

~ Kelly ~


I have attached a video link below for on an overview of Dr Mark Hyman’s book Eat Fat, Get Thin.  I haven’t read this book yet, but I like Mark Hyman.  If you have read it, let me know what you think – Kelly@thejourneytohealth.com.