Rethink Fats

When it comes to fat, there are a lot of misconceptions. Many of these myths have found their way into popular culture. Most prominently, we’ve been led to believe that eating a fatty diet makes you fat, which is why the low-fat fad has persisted for so many years. Only now are people beginning to realize that fat is essential to healthy living and that eating healthy fat doesn’t make you fat! Not only do good fats lower inflammation and reduce your risk of heart disease, they also curb your cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. We’re now discovering that fat is not the culprit. The question we should really be asking ourselves is: what kind of fats are we putting into our bodies and what impact do they have?

Let’s break it down. Essentially, there are three types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. All fats contain some combination of these three, and in their natural form, provide all kinds of benefits to our bodies. The challenge, however, is that the most readily-available fats on the market (rancid cooking oils and industrially-processed food) are not in their natural form. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils (like peanut oil, grapeseed, sunflower, canola, corn, soybean, rice bran and cottonseed oil) are processed under high heat and pressure, rendering them toxic for our health. Unfortunately these industrial oils are found in almost all packaged foods, leading to an imbalance in our omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio which causes inflammation and health problems. It’s a much safer bet to cut out processed foods with unhealthy oils and instead get polyunsaturated fats from real food sources like avocados, nuts, seeds and chicken skin, all of which have health benefits. 

Weston A. Price found that traditional cultures ate a lot of fat but only got about 4% of their fat intake from polyunsaturated fats and that these were always unheated, freshly pressed and eaten in small quantities. Interestingly, in 1890 lard (a vitamin D rich saturated fat) was the most used fat in America but by 1990 soybean oil, an unhealthy polyunsaturated fat, held the number one spot.

We’re now discovering that fat is not the culprit. The question we should really be asking ourselves is: what kind of fats are we putting into our bodies and what impact do they have?

When cooking at high temperatures, use natural fats with a high smoke point, such as ghee, lard, beef tallow and coconut oil. Fats with a relatively low smoke point, such as butter and extra-virgin olive oil, can be added to foods after they are cooked. (Just a quick note on refined vs. unrefined coconut oil: both can be great, but pay close attention to the refining process. As Food Renegade, points out, “Most are refined using a chemical distillation process dependent on lye or other harsh solvents, or they’re made from the rancid oil byproducts leftover from creating desiccated (dry) coconut flakes. Sadly, these are refined, bleached, and deodorized in an effort to create a palatable product that can be sold to consumers. Many coconut oils are even hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated!”)

While this may seem like a lot of technical information, Chris Kesser provides a simple rule of thumb. In the Paleo Cure, he says, “Saturated and monounsaturated fats from meat, poultry, animal fats, nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut, olives, and dairy products should form the foundation of your fat intake.” (pg. 117). The basic goal is to limit the presence of processed foods in our daily lives, which will naturally reduce the amount of unhealthy oils we consume, as well as the trans fats that are created when those oils are hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. Studies have linked these types of fats to obesity, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. They are the true culprits that give all fats a bad reputation.

While it may be unrealistic to cut out all processed foods from our diets, by limiting these products and incorporating real, whole food into our daily meals, we allow our bodies to benefit from the positive attributes of natural fats, including cholesterol, which actually balances hormones, builds brain cells, and protects our bodies. The bottom line is this: rather than villainizing fat, we need to make better decisions about the fats we avoid and the fats we embrace.

Action Steps:

  • Avoid rancid industrial oils and eat plenty of healthy fat from meat, poultry, animal fats, fish, avocados, coconuts, olives, and raw dairy
  • Nut butters and oils should be raw or cold-pressed and eaten in moderation, with the exception of peanut oil, which should be avoided
  • To begin the detox process, get rid of anything with these ingredients listed on the label: soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, rice bran oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil
  • Avoid buying pre-made salad dressing and condiments and instead make your own with whole food ingredients. Shop on to find products that don’t contain hydrogenated oils.
  • Cook with fats like lard, tallow, coconut oil, and ghee, and use cold-pressed oils like olive oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed for salad dressings or to drizzle over cooked vegetables
  • When you must buy packaged food, look for versions that don’t have unhealthy oils. Examples of products that have swapped rancid vegetable oils for heart-healthy oils are Jackson’s Honest potato chips (who use coconut oil to fry their organic potatoes) and Pete’s Primal Mayo (who use avocado oil with no soy, corn or canola oil)

Tips from my kitchen (and the kitchens of those I admire):

  • Beyond cooking with fat and using cold-pressed oils for salad dressings, I eat plenty of whole milk, cream, grass-fed butter, coconut and avocados. I add a spoonful of coconut oil into my smoothies and eat cut coconut chunks as a snack on the run
  • For a healthy lunch, try ½ an avocado sprinkled with sea salt or a tablespoon of fish roe, add some cultured vegetables and raw cheese
  • I use lard from pastured pigs as an alternative to vegetable shortening. It’s one of the highest sources of vitamin D. Check out my DIY section for full instructions
  • Melissa Henig is famous for her raw butter puddings and raw butter banana cream pie (high in vitamin A and E, cancer fighting conjugated linoleic acid, and omega 3s). Check out the rethink13 Pinterest page to get butter pie recipe or experiment with your own combinations of softened raw butter, raw honey, eggs and fruit.