When discussing food as medicine, each meal presents an opportunity to create health & energy.
Sounds easy, right? If only it was that simple. Nutrition information is complex as there's still a lot of research needed and many health professionals view nutrients differently from one another. It seems every nutrient undergoes some sort of scrutiny. For over 40 years, dietary fat was demonized because researchers believed high fat diets affected the risk of cardiovascular disease and weight gain. As low-fat diets influenced diet culture, grocery stores were flooded with non-fat and low-fat options. It’s taken some time to swing the pendulum back to appreciating fats. Today, healthy fats are encouraged for weight management, satiety and sure enough, heart health. The previous research only found a correlation between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease, not between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol.
Dietary fats are broken down into two major categories: saturated and unsaturated fats. Without getting into the nitty gritty, saturated fats contain single bonds whereas unsaturated fats contain double bonds. The bond structure determines if the fat will be liquid or solid at room temperature. Saturated fats, like coconut oil, are solid while unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are liquid.
Polyunsaturated – Found in plant and animal foods, such as fish,
vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Omega 3 and omega-6 fats are the two major ones in this category. (More on this below)
Monounsaturated – Found in plant foods, such as nuts, avocados and vegetables oils. These fats contain antioxidants, lower blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity and decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. levels Monounsaturated fats are staple fats in the Mediterranean diet.
Saturated fat – Found in plants, mostly coconut, palm and palm kernel oil, and animal fats.
Trans fat – Partially hydrogenated oils found in packaged, fast food and margarine. These ultra-processed fats show the highest correlation to cardiovascular disease and have recently been banned by the FDA.
Let’s briefly jump back to the polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3s reduce inflammation, promote heart health, protect the brain and help prevent metabolic syndrome. They help increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. Common sources of omega-6s are corn, soy, cottonseed and safflower oils and processed foods.
In the American diet, the average ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 7:1.
This is the average; the ratio has been seen high as 20:1.
The ideal ratio is 3:1.
This disproportionate ratio leads to greater rates of inflammation, which contribute to the development of disease. Inflammation is vital immune response to heal wounds and fight infections. When chronic inflammation ensues, the risk of disease development increases for diabetes, metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
In 2015, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines removed the limits on total fat and cholesterol. As quantity subsided, quality became essential. Extra virgin olive oil, nuts, avocados and fatty fish are excellent options for unsaturated fats; whereas, canola oil, safflower and sunflower oil should be limited as these oils are more inflammatory. While we can’t completely avoid the omega-6s, what we can focus on is closing the gap between the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio. A mindful approach to consuming more whole food sources and reducing processed foods and omega-6 rich vegetable oils will have a beneficial impact.
When it comes to saturated fats, it’s complicated. The current dietary guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of total calorie intake. In the Standard American Diet, most saturated fats come from pizza, cookies, fast food and certain meats. So, it makes sense to limit these less than optimal food choices. However, coconut oil contains lauric acid, that has been shown to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, limiting saturated fats can be good for health only if people replace saturated fats with good fats, not refined carbohydrates.
Beginning to sound like a nutrition science class, huh? The reason we go into all this is because dietary fats play a HUGE role in our bodies. Healthy fats allow cells to respond faster, aid in hormone production and promote absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, K. Dietary fats regulate weight, thanks to their “high satiety value”. Stored fats are a major energy reserve. When we are exercising, consuming a low-calorie diet or sleeping through the night, our body needs fuel. During these times, stored fat is broken down and released providing energy to our cells.
That can be a lot to digest, pun intended! Day in and day out, we are delivering food as medicine, through our plant-based and functional foods. We don’t skimp on the fats but like everything else we do, we focus on quality. From coconut butter to ghee to nut butters, nuts and seeds, you can find these healthy fats throughout our menu. Fats are energy dense foods that provide optimal fuels for our bodies.