For years I tried and consistently failed at a low-fat diet, unconsciously filling up my healthy-fats void with sugary frozen yogurt or microwave popcorn (which still sends shivers up my spine). These days I find that adding just a bit more fat to my diet is making me feel better all around.
But, as we start to embrace healthy fats, I’m also noticing the pendulum swinging the other way. Think bacon-laced muffins, cookies, scones or the Bulletproof Diet. I’ve even noticed myself getting a little bit too excited about the crème fraiche that’s now in my fridge!
The new 2016 dietary guidelines released by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments reflect the confusion that still surrounds how much fat we need: Jane Brody reported in The New York Times that, for the first time, the guidelines do not suggest restricting total fat in order to maintain body weight. But they do suggest limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories – which means limiting most animal fats that you find in meat, cheese, yogurt, and eggs. However, doctors like Mark Hyman, the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional medicine debate that saturated fat only poses a health risk when you’re eating a diet that is high in sugar and processed carbs.
Confused yet? Me too. That’s why I sat down with Rebecca Katz, chef, nutritionist and author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook to help me figure out a sane way to navigate healthy fats. Rebecca also calls herself the queen of “everything in moderation, including moderation,” which I love.
A Q&A with Rebecca Katz
Why is fat a vital part of our diet?
Fat plays a really important role in our ability to feel satiated. If you take fat out of your diet, you then have to increase something else, usually the sugar content. And when you increase the sugar content and you take out the fat, the brain gets the signal ‘I need more, I need more, I need more!’ because it’s not satisfied.
So, on a macro level – what is a healthy approach to fat?
When I talk about fat I really like to stick with what I call “ancient oils.” So, I include extra virgin olive oil, a little bit of grass-fed butter, avocado, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, and ghee, which, as you know, has been around since the beginning. The fats that I don’t particularly gravitate to are the fats found in processed foods.
Do you mean transfats? Why are transfats so bad for us?
Trans fats are created when you add hydrogen to liquid oil — like soy bean oil or corn oil — which turns the oil into a solid. Think of Crisco and Margarine. These are the fats found in many processed foods – anything that says “partially hydrogenated,” on the label is a dead give away. These fats are nasty since the increase the levels of LDL, or what I call lousy cholesterol, and inhibit HDL, the good cholesterol that slows the build up of dangerous plaques in our arteries.
When you say a little bit of grass-fed butter or coconut oil, what does that mean?
Like everything else you don’t want to overdo. When I say a little, I mean a small percentage of what you’re cooking, so a couple of tablespoons of olive oil with whatever dish you are cooking. In a day you could have a ¼ cup of walnuts, a half of an avocado, and some olive oil. We are not talking about old school French cooking, we are talking about a new way of looking at fat so that it’s complementary and it’s incorporated into the diet. I look at the Mediterranean diet because I think it makes the most sense. Fat is integrated without being extremist.
And why is grass-fed butter better than, say, regular organic butter?
Grass-fed butter is high in omega-3 fatty acids because the cows are grazing on grass. It’s also higher in Vitamin K2. If you can’t find grass-fed butter in your market, then go for organic so you can skip the added hormones and pesticides.
What are the benefits of including healthy fats in your diet?
Our brains are made of 60% fat. You need to feed your brain good, healthy fats if you want to have optimal brain function.
Fat also plays a really big important role in the way we absorb nutrients. So, remember in the 1980s, when we were eating what I like to call ‘hippie gruel’ and eating plain, steamed broccoli? Healthy foods were like a punishment. But, what science is telling us is that nature knows best. So, that plain steamed broccoli that we are eating – well, guess what? If we sautéed it in some olive oil and garlic, we would be able to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins of that broccoli. And not only that, it would’ve tasted great and we would’ve been satiated!
That’s the snapshot: If you want your food to taste good, if you want to feel satiated, if you want your joints to feel good, and you want your brain to function optimally, then adding good fats to your diet gives you that.
When my daughter was born and I was breastfeeding, I learned about how fat helps with brain development and it was liberating for me. And since I’ve started giving her grass-fed butter, she has become the best eater. She was born a very tough eater and wouldn’t gain weight. She eats a lot of butter now and it seems to be very helpful.
What’s really important about that story is that that kids can have sensitive taste buds. As we get older, our sense of taste numbs a bit. But kids taste things so profoundly. It’s why they tend to stray away from bitter, like spinach and broccoli. What good fats do is they calm down those taste buds, so your daughter feels like, “Oh! Somebody just wrapped a blankie around my tongue so now I can eat!”
My daughter would probably eat a half a stick of butter a day if I let her. How much should we follow our kids’ lead versus being aware of how much she is having?
I would look at how she is responding. If your child doesn’t have a sensitivity to dairy, then trust your instincts about how she is doing. It sounds like she’s eating better, she’s eating more, and her body is capable of absorbing it.
That’s what I’m feeling; just observe her and observed how she responds.
Absolutely. And one size does not fit all. If you have a kid who’s lactose intolerant, maybe grass-fed butter is not her thing, maybe it’s olive oil or coconut oil.
For those of us who tolerate dairy, do you recommend whole milk and yogurt or low-fat?
If you’re eating dairy, I recommend full-fat, organic dairy that has no added hormones. Low-fat dairy is a processed food. Whenever you take the fat out of the dairy product, the natural sugars go up, so now you’ve got something that is much higher in sugar.
Is that because the fiber is stripped out?
No, it’s because the fat helps slow down the absorption of sugars. The things that slow down our production of insulin are good healthy fats and fiber.
I understand that we want to get oils from fish because they provide us with omega-3 fatty acids, but I feel very concerned about toxins in our fish because our oceans are so polluted. I’ve been told to eat the smaller fish like anchovies, sardines but I don’t really like them.
I have two ways for you to do sardines in my cookbooks and I think you might like them. But here’s the deal if you don’t eat fish: There are a lot of the fish oils like the Nordic Naturals that are very safe. As we age, the omega-3s are really important to quell inflammation, help with brain health, heart health, mood. If fish is not a part of your world, then you really need to supplement with a good quality fish oil. If you’re vegan, there are really good oils made out of kelp.
And if you do eat fish, you want to choose wild fish because eating farmed fish doesn’t give you the same health benefits – is that correct?
Correct. With farmed fish, you’re not getting those omega-3s. They are higher with omega -6’s which is a little more pro-inflammatory. So you are looking for that omega-3 triad and that comes from a wild fish, scallops, mussels, crabs, shrimp, sardines, anchovies, those types of fish.
Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us! The takeaway for me is to stop being afraid of healthy fats and to be conscious about adding it for its health benefits and for how satisfied it makes me feel – without going too crazy.
By Andrea Ferretti
Andrea Ferretti and Jason Crandell are a husband and wife team who have been teaching, writing about, and living their yoga for nearly two decades. Andrea is the former executive editor of Yoga Journal and is now creative director for Jason Crandell Yoga Method. Jason is an internationally recognized teacher known for his precise, empowering, down-to-earth approach to vinyasa yoga. They live together in San Francisco with their full-time boss, Sofia-Rose Crandell, age 3. To read their blog or to learn more about Jason's upcoming teacher trainings, please visit their web site www.jasonyoga.com
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