For many of us, the word “fat” is a scary one. We try to eat a low fat diet in order to protect ourselves from all of the dangers of fat. When we think of eating fats we usually associate them with weight gain and poor heart health. What we tend to do instead is to eat a diet that is high in carbohydrates (rice, bread, and pasta) and avoid things high in fats (butter, red meat, and oil). But hey, people are saying we should eat low carb to be healthy, too! Which one is true?
First of all, we must debunk a big myth…not all carbohydrates and fats are created equally.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates (those found in fruits and vegetables alongside fiber and helpful nutrients), and refined carbohydrates (these have been somehow chemically altered by a process in order to eat them).
Complex carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables. Some of the best sources are green leafy vegetables (spinach, lettuce, and broccoli). But really any whole plant food is a good thing to add to the diet at any time. (I would never tell a patient not to eat a fruit just because it has some sugar).
Refined carbohydrate foods such as breads, pastas, and rice all share one thing in common… the body breaks them down into sugar. Your body doesn’t see very much difference between a piece of bread and a spoonful of sugar other than the taste. When you eat a refined carbohydrate like the ones mentioned above or such as sugar, you are giving your body the ingredients to create Arachidonic Acid which is a necessary building block of the chemicals that create pain and inflammation. These fats are Omega-6 fatty acids.
Now that we understand that carbohydrates are inflammatory in nature, let’s talk about fat. We need to understand that not all fats are created equally. The main way to separate the types of fats is to talk about trans fat, unsaturated fat, and saturated fat.
First, let’s have a quick discussion about trans fats. Trans fats are man-made from exposing unsaturated fatty acids to extreme heat in order to give them a thicker composition (think of margarine, for example). While these fats are cheap, helpful in baking, and tasty… they are extremely dangerous and have the highest correlation to heart disease.
Trans fat should always be avoided. Read your food labels- they are often found in processed foods, especially in frozen meals such as pizzas or fried foods.
Next, let’s talk about unsaturated fats. These fats are natural fats that are found in high quantities in plant sources. The more unsaturated fat something has, the more likely it is to be found as a liquid at room temperature. Therefore, think of unsaturated fats as oils. Sunflower, safflower, corn, and olive oil are some of the easiest to find. We use these oils for cooking, frying, or for dressing our salads.
Lastly, we’ll mention saturated fats. Saturated fats are found mostly from animal products (butter, meat, fish, and eggs). They are usually found to be solid at room temperature. However, some plants have saturated fats in them as well (think avocados and coconut oil). In the past, saturated fats have often been demonized and marked as unhealthy.
As we mentioned above when talking about sugar turning into Omega-6 fatty acids which are inflammatory, when we eat fat we’re usually eating either Omega 3, Omega 6, or Omega 9 fatty acids. We’ll leave Omega-9 fatty acids out of the discussion for now as they’re a bit more rare. It turns out that it’s not so important whether we’re eating unsaturated or saturated fats, what is more important is our Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio.
The closer we are to a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6, the less inflammation we will have, which means we will also have less pain and less chronic disease symptoms.
See the chart below for an idea of how much Omega 6 vs. Omega 3 you’re getting in your diet.
As you can see above, just because it comes from a plant doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you.
Some of the healthiest fats to use around your house are olive oil, coconut oil, and grassfed butter (such as Kerrygold Irish Butter).
If you have the ability to purchase grassfed meats from a local farmer, it’s the one of the healthiest sources of animal protein and fat (but can be very expensive). However, since we live on an island, fresh caught fish is very high in Omega 3 and is widely available, affordable, and delicious! Eat it often.
The key to having a healthy diet is to have a variety of food that gives you a combination of helpful nutrients. And every person should have a diet that concentrates on being PLANT-BASED! Take a look at the chart below, and try to make your meals look this way on the plate. (Think of ‘protein’ as meats, eggs, fish, or vegetarian protein options such as lentils, hemp seeds, and bean sprouts).
The takeaway message is this: Eat plants at every meal and make them the majority of your diet. After that, try to enjoy a moderate mixture of carbohydrates and proteins that include a balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
Eat this way, drink lots of water, and get some exercise and you’ll find yourself spending a lot less time feeling fatigued, injured, and sick.
Wishing each of you a healthy and happy week,
Dr. Stephen Shinault
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