Since we were little, we’ve all been taught that if you’re sick, you should eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and drink lots of clear liquids to feel better. But has anyone ever told you that fat is just as integral to healing as any of these other well-known healing substances?
On the contrary, since we were little a lot of us have probably been taught that fat is actually bad for you. That it brings about any number of health problems, from obesity to heart disease and cancer. Fat has long been the scapegoat for a variety of health problems, and food manufacturers have responded by hooking us on low-fat versions of once natural products – from milk to ground beef.
While times have changed, and most people now recognize a place for “healthy” fats in the diet, we still have a ways to go with our misconceptions about fat. Beyond just being a natural and healthy part of our diets, fat is an extremely valuable and irreplaceable healing tool. Without good quality fats in our diet, we cannot achieve optimal health.
What is fat?
Fats, or lipids, are a class of macronutrient – the other two macronutrients are carbohydrates and proteins. What makes fats chemically unique is that they are composed entirely of triglyceride molecules – which simply means three fatty acid molecules with a glycerol backbone. They can be classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated – terms that are at least familiar to most of us by now. Without getting too sciency, the degree of saturation corresponds to the chemical make-up of the molecule, and basically explains its stability. Saturated fats are the most stable, resulting in fats that are solid at room temperature – think fatty bits of meat, butter and coconut oil. Monounsaturated fats are less stable, and therefore liquid at room temperature – think olive oil, avocado oil, etc. Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable and always liquid. Most of the well-known cooking oils are polyunsaturates – canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, etc. The fats in fish and nuts are also largely polyunsaturates, although we may not realize it because they’re not packaged as a fat.
Another thing that sets fats apart from carbs and proteins is that they are worth 9 calories for each gram, compared to only 4 for carbs and proteins. While many people see this as a reason to avoid fats, I would argue that it is a positive. By including a proper amount of fats in our meals, we become satisfied and feel full, saving ourselves from cravings and snacks later on.
What role does fat play in the healing process?
To understand how fats help the healing process, we first have to know about hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins exist in most of the body’s tissues and perform many different functions. They regulate the opening and closing of cell membranes, dilate bronchial tubes, and maybe most important of all – control inflammatory function. Without the prostaglandins, the body would be unable to control inflammation, a vital step in the healing process.
There are three main prostaglandin pathways in the body, each with its own purpose. The word “pathway” just represents how the prostaglandin arises, and the eventual purpose it serves in the body. The prostaglandin 1 and 3 pathways are anti-inflammatory whereas the prostaglandin 2 pathway is pro-inflammatory. Prostaglandins 1 and 3 mainly come from the well-known essential fatty acids, found in unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils, nuts, and fish oils. Prostaglandin 2, on the other hand, comes from saturated fats, mostly animal fats and tropical oils like coconut oil.
This explains why animal fats have a reputation for being inflammatory because, to a certain extent, they are. What many people do not understand, however, is that inflammation is a vital part of the body’s healing process. Without inflammation, the body cannot raise the fever it needs to fight off an infection or swell up a swollen ankle so that it is immobilized. Inflammation is the body’s way of responding to injury, and it is a natural and healthy process that needs to be supported through diet just as much as anti-inflammatory processes.
The goal for the diet is to support all of these processes equally. Not just to support the anti-inflammatory pathways by only eating unsaturated oils, but also the pro-inflammatory pathways by eating saturated fats. When we consume these fats in whole foods and in healthy proportion, we support the body’s ability to inflame and anti-inflame. When we’re doing that, we’re giving the body what it needs to heal.
The effects of NSAIDs
One obstacle to normal prostaglandin function is drugs such as aspirin, NSAIDs (advil, Tylenol, etc.) and steroids. All of these drugs inhibit the inflammatory prostaglandin 2 pathway. As a result, pain is often relieved. These drugs do not only have this effect on the inflammatory pathway, however, but on all three of the pathways. In effect they shut down the anti-inflammatory as well as inflammatory processes. Over a short period of time, this is not so serious, but when taken over a long period of time, these drugs are effectively halting the body’s healing process by shutting down vital pathways. This is why, among other reasons, taking NSAIDs on a regular basis is not recommended, and we should instead be trying to support our bodies to control inflammation naturally with nourishing foods.
How do I choose the right fats to support the healing process?
Because fats have earned such a bad rap in the past, many are afraid and overwhelmed at the thought of embracing fats again. Here are a few tips to getting back on the fat train.
- Choose whole over processed. You really don’t have to worry about balancing your fats as long as you’re eating a variety of fats from unprocessed sources. Think cold-pressed oils such as olive oil, avocado oil and flax seed oil, fatty fish such as salmon, nuts and seeds, and yes, animal fat! Animal fat can be very nutritious, in fact it contains some of the highest quantities of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K available in nature. When eating animal fat, it’s best to ensure that it’s coming from a high-quality source. Grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon have superior fat and vitamin profiles compared to grain-fed beef and farmed salmon.
- Use appropriate cooking oils. Saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil are more stable and are the only fats that should be heated. Unsaturated fats such as olive oil should really be reserved for dressing salads and eaten cold. Also, be cautious of overcooking salmon, and eating all of your nuts roasted. The fats in these foods are polyunsaturated and lose their integrity at higher cooking temperatures.
- Don’t buy products with trans fat. Just don’t! Similar to NSAIDs, trans fats actually interfere with the prostaglandin pathways, shutting down your body’s inflammatory processes. Trans fats largely come from bad sources and are best avoided.
- Don’t forget to support your digestion. After a long amount of time being on a fat-free or low-fat diet, the body’s mechanisms for digesting fat can become sluggish. Try adding 1 tablespoon of olive oil or butter to one of your meals every day. If this is causing you discomfort, I would recommend seeing an NTP to help you through this process. Ideally you want to be having about 3-4 tablespoons of fat with most of your meals – this can easily be accomplished with olive oil on your salad, adding some nuts or avocado slices, and choosing dark meat over white meat.
Let’s not be afraid of fat anymore! Not only does it keep us satiated longer and make food taste good, it is key to our body’s ability to regulate inflammation and bring about healing.
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