Natural Foods Education  Jennette Turner

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Are Fats Our Friends Now?

By Jennette Turner

You may have noticed that people have started to question the villainization of fats. For the preceding two decades, fats (especially animal fats) have been blamed for causing a host of maladies including heart disease, cancer, and obesity. (It’s no surprise that the food processing and vegetable oil industries, who reap tremendous benefit from this association, have been relentless promoters of this misinformation.) But now even mainstream media such as Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times Magazine have all had cover stories about fat, presenting evidence that fat may not be the dietary scourge it had been made out to be.

The fact is that fat is an essential nutrient that the body cannot function without. Fats are the building blocks for cell membranes - including the cells in our brains. (This is especially important because healthy cell membranes are needed in order to use the neurotransmitters that regulate our moods.) Fats are also necessary for our bodies to make hormones and prostaglandins that regulate bodily functions like digestion, reproduction and immunity. Fats make up the myelin sheath around our nerves. Fats regulate the digestive system and balance blood sugar, preventing insulin resistance and diabetes. Fats also help regulate body temperature, cushion our internal organs, provide us with stable energy throughout the day, and taste good, too! Fats are our friends!

Dietary fats help our bodies absorb and use many of our most important nutrients, including several fat-soluble anti-oxidants like Vitamins A and E. (Anti-oxidants protect the body from disease-causing free-radicals and slow down the aging process.) Low-fat diets limit the amount of anti-oxidant nutrients we have to protect us from free-radical damage. They can also create nutrient deficiencies because these and other nutrients pass through the digestive system without ever being absorbed.

For example, calcium needs fat for absorption. You can drink skim milk and take calcium supplements all day long, but unless you get enough fat with them you can still be deficient. Vegetables like kale and broccoli are another good source of calcium, but put some butter on them or you won’t be able to use it!

When we avoid dietary fats, we reduce the amount of essential fatty acids we take in too. Essential fatty acids must be obtained through diet – our bodies can’t make them – and are crucial for our health. We need both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and we need them in a balanced amount: one to two times as many 6’s as 3’s. Most commonly used vegetable oils, (like safflower, sunflower, soy and corn), contain at least 5 to 10 times more omega 6’s than 3’s. Because we’ve been told to limit the amount of animal fats we consume, many of us have relied heavily on these oils, which has lead to widespread omega 3 deficiencies.

Our hearts, brains, livers, nervous systems, reproductive systems, immune systems and skin all depend on adequate and balanced amounts of essential fatty acids. You can find these fats in certain nuts and seeds, fatty fish, the yolks of eggs from free-range hens, and the meat from free-range animals. (Industrially raised feed-lot animals are not a source of omega 3’s, further contributing to our omega 3 deficiency, and a reason to avoid them.)

Not all fats, however, are healthy. Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils, also referred to as “trans-fats”, are potent toxins associated with degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as mental illnesses, reproductive disorders and obesity. Many of the earlier studies done finding a correlation between saturated fats, cancer and heart disease, were done with hydrogenated fats- not naturally saturated fats like butter and other animal fats. Unfortunately they were lumped together, and for years now we have been mistakenly learning that all saturated fats are unhealthy.

Healthy fats include butter from free-range cows (a great source of selenium, one of the important anti-oxidants, as well as vitamins A, D, and E, trace minerals and lecithin), unrefined olive oil (another great source of anti-oxidants), flaxseed oil (rich in omega 3’s), and the fats that naturally occur in foods like nuts, avocados and free-range meats.

All in all, good quality fats are a vital and enjoyable part of a healthy diet, and we don’t need to fear them. It’s well worth our time to choose fats wisely, to learn about different fat sources, and how to incorporate them into our diet in a way that’s best for us.

Jennette turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She Teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launced Dinner with Jennette (www.jennette-turner.com/dinner), to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. she can be reached at jennette-turner.com / 612-374-6039

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