Stephanie Small is founder of Three Sisters Nutrition, a phone-based practice helping women improve their relationship with food, and blogs for holistic weight loss site 9 Weight Loss.
Remember how trendy low-fat was in the 1970s and 80s? When I was growing up, my house featured fat-free everything. As a teen, I scorned cheese (unless it was on pizza), never ate nuts, and rarely indulged in a full-fat ice cream. Once I started cooking for myself, I used fat-free spray on the pan whenever I sautéed veggies. Needless to say, my dinners didn't taste too good!
And I didn't feel well. I needed glasses by the third grade. By high school my skin was a wreck and my moods were unstable. A diet low in fat and high in refined carbs and sugar meant my energy and health suffered.
Looking back, I wonder if my rampant sugar addiction was due at least in part to the fact that I simply wasn't getting enough fat. Not only does the stuff satiate you, but it's incredibly nourishing as well.
These days, I am a pro-fat crusader. Some of my clients are leery of this important macronutrient. They're still buying into the old myth that "eating fat makes you fat." It doesn't. Sugar makes you fat. High fructose corn syrup makes you fat. Refined carbs make you fat. Stress makes you fat, and lack of sleep and exercise make you fat. But fat, the macronutrient, has been unfairly demonized, and I'm here to redeem it.
First, a word about the types of fats we eat. I'm a believer that any natural fat—saturated or unsaturated—is important for optimum health. Now, I know that this is a controversial statement. For instance, these days it's common to hear the terms "good fats" and "bad fats." "Good" fats tend to refer to plant-based fats, like nuts, avocadoes and olive oil. These are primarily sources of unsaturated fat. Meanwhile, animal fats, which are primarily sources of saturated fat, are deemed "bad".
I don't agree with this, and I'm not alone.
Here's my thinking: Obesity, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses have been occurring in epidemic proportions over the past 100 years. Why? Well, for one thing, our diets have changed significantly, in a short amount of time. Our ancestors were eating whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods for thousands of years. Unlike the modern American, their immune systems functioned superbly. And interestingly, much of their diet included raw milk, eggs, and animals: all foods high in saturated fat. For more information, check out Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price. It's worth reading if only for the photos (lots of teeth).
Meanwhile, trans fats gained popularity during the backlash against saturated fats. You may know them by the terms "hydrogenated fat" or "partially hydrogenated fat." They're fats that have been changed chemically, giving the food they're in a longer shelf life. In other words, they're fake fats, and they put more money in the manufacturers' pockets by making these packaged products last longer. But they've been linked to heart disease and diabetes. One way to avoid consuming them is to cut down on your purchase of pre-packaged foods. You can also become an expert label reader: just because a bag trumpets "no partially hydrogenated oils" doesn't mean it's safe. Check the ingredient list!
Whatever natural fat you choose to consume, remember that quality is key. Craving a burger? There's a huge difference between a fast-food, corn-and-soy-fed, feedlot-raised, antibiotic and hormone-ridden limp patty and an organic/pasture-raised/grass-finished/local juicy hunk o' meat. You'll get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck from the latter.
Not convinced yet that your body needs fat? Here are a few more arguments.
Fat gives you energy.
Eating quality fat will improve your body's use of glucose for energy by curbing your appetite and slowing the rise of blood sugar when you eat. This actually then will lead to less fat storage, more efficient cells and more energy.
Fat helps you absorb vitamins.
Without fat, your body cannot absorb the vitamins A, D, E and K. This is why skipping the dressing on your salad is a big mistake. Anoint it with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. While you're at it, your sweet potato needs a spoonful of rich, full-fat butter too.
Fat keeps you fuller longer.
Find yourself reaching for chips or cookies two hours after you ate? Try adding some more fat to your meal and see whether your cravings decrease.
Fat is necessary for the structure of the cell membranes.
If you don't eat enough fat, your cell membranes will get wrinkled and puny. They'll lose their integrity, effectiveness and ability to absorb nutrients. Inter-cell communication is key for the body's function.
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