In today’s episode we’re tackling lots of questions about dietary fat including how much fat is too much, whether or not dietary cholesterol raises serum cholesterol and if fat really clogs your arteries. Plus, we’ll go into healthy fat sources, how to incorporate fat into your meals and snacks, signs that you need more fat and how to monitor and adjust your fat intake.
Oh boy am I excited to write about this topic. I’m not sure why – it’s not something that has been a lifelong passion for me or anything – but when I started to learn more about it and realized how much of what I thought I knew was wrong, I knew I had to share it with you. I want to talk to you about cholesterol. That word has an unfairly negative connotation. It blows my mind that you can go to reputable sites from health institutions and the government and read so much about cholesterol that just is flat out wrong.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is so critical to human health that every single cell within our bodies is equipped to produce it on its own. Our liver is designed to recycle it so we can get as much use out of it as possible. Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D, to make hormones, and to make neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, a primary regulator of mood). Cholesterol is required for the formation of synapses in your brain – allowing you to think, analyze and store information.
It’s no surprise that human breast milk is naturally high in cholesterol and even contains a special enzyme to make sure that infants absorb as much of it as possible.
Nora Gedgaudas, author of “Primal Body, Primal Mind” refers to cholesterol as the human body’s version of duct tape. I love that and think its spot on. Cholesterol is deployed in response to chronic stress, poor dietary choices, thyroid issues, injury or inflammation. Because of that, it’s often found “at the scene of the crime” in the case of arterial damage.
You see, when there is damage within our bodies, new cells are generated to help repair the damage. Cholesterol is a component of those new cells. In additional to that, cholesterol – that duct tape of the human body – is carried to the scene of the crime via its carrier, LDL, to help patch up the damage. Unfortunately, because of our generally poor dietary choices and chronic stress, we never stop initiating this damage. Chronically high carbohydrate consumption keeps our inflammatory response in overdrive. Chronic stress causes internal damage and our body never gets a break. But cholesterol keeps doing its job – getting deployed out to the scene of the crime to patch things up. Well of course, if you keep slapping on additional layers of duct tape it will pile up and yes, you guessed it, you start to see “clogged arteries”.
Since cholesterol is there, it gets the blame. How about we look at what’s causing the damage!? Cholesterol is a healing substance – why is it chronically needed for healing? Where’s the damage coming from and how do we make THAT stop? It’s like saying that since police are at the scene of every crime we need to focus on reducing the number of police so that there is less crime. Um, yeah, go ahead and try that.
Now, I want to make one more point about cholesterol from food sources. Yes, your body is capable of producing cholesterol on its own. However, it’s a very complex and inefficient process. When you consume cholesterol from food sources, your body is able to down regulate cholesterol production. There is a natural system of checks and balances in place because we were designed to consume cholesterol rich foods like eggs and animal proteins. However, when you dramatically cut cholesterol and saturated fats from your diet, your body sends its cholesterol production into overdrive because it can’t possible survive without ample cholesterol.
If you want to be healthy, if you want your body to function optimally, if you want your immune system to be strong, here’s my advice: eliminate the cause of the damage within your body. Cut out processed foods and wheat products. Focus on whole foods, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and high quality meat, poultry and seafood. Don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by cutting your cholesterol intake or limiting your fat intake. The real culprit here is inflammation and the primary drivers of inflammation are poor food choices and chronic stress.
Give me just one second while I climb up onto my soap box….
Y’all. We’ve been lied to. For decades. We have the WRONG impression about dietary fat. Like, really, really wrong. Ready for the cliff notes version of the truth?EATING FAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAT.In fact, not eating ENOUGH fat might be a big part of the reason you’re gaining fat. No joke. I’m totally serious. I’ve gotta clear this up. These common misconceptions make me so crazy.
It’s really unfortunate that fat on our body is referred to by the same word as dietary fat in foods we eat. That, and a lot of misinformation, has led us to believe that dietary fat leads to an accumulation of body fat.
I’m going to ask you to think about something differently. So, a gram of fat has more calories than a gram of carbohydrate or protein, right? A gram of fat has 9 calories whereas a gram of protein or carbohydrate has only 4. That’s one of the big reasons people think fat is “fattening”. More calories = more weight gain (misleading, but a common thought nonetheless). The problem is that we’re thinking about it alllll wrong. Bear with me while I attempt to clear this up. A calorie isn’t some magical thing that piles up and makes you look fatter. Calories are how we measure the energy potential in food. One more time just because its worth repeating:calories are how we measure the energy potential of a particular food.
So what, right? Basically, dietary fat delivers more than twice as much energy to our bodies than protein or carbohydrate!! That’s a GOOD thing! That means that we can fuel our body for longer on less than we can if we just stuck to protein or carbs.
Research has shown that when you eat a low fat diet you actually increase the activity of certain enzymes that encourage your body to store more fat. On the flip side, ample dietary fat has been shown to increase the activity of enzymes that help you burn stored body fat! How’s that for a twist on what we’ve been taught? Not only that, but a lower fat diet is going to make it much harder to manage your hunger and cravings!
We need fat in our diet if we want to be healthy. Do you realize that your brain is about 60% fat? In addition to being an incredible fuel source and critical component of cognitive health, fats are components of every single cell in your body, they are required for the manufacture of hormones and they are essential for the utilization of many vitamins and antioxidants. If that’s not enough, you need fat for the proper growth and calcification of your bones, they keep your skin soft and supple, they support your immune system and help control your body’s inflammatory response. And that’s just the beginning!
For political and financial reasons we won’t go into (today), ignorance and greed led to the vilification of fat beginning in the 1970s and 80s. The food industry seized the incredible financial opportunity and flooded the market with low-fat and fat-free alternatives. These alternatives were loaded with artificial ingredients and sugar to replace the flavor and mouth feel the fat had been providing.It’s no coincidence that between 1980 and 2008 obesity in adults more than doubled and extreme obesity more than tripled.
We’ve been told to avoid dietary fat and cholesterol to reduce our risk of heart disease. People in positions of authority in medicine and politics have insisted that fat consumption increases the risk of heart disease and dietary cholesterol increases serum cholesterol. We’ve been convinced that dietary fat triggers inflammation and disease. Fat intake is not to blame for any of those things.
So if dietary fat isn’t to blame for heart disease, what is? The short answer is inflammation and oxidation, which are most significantly influenced by insulin (a result of excessive carbohydrate consumption) and cortisol (a result of chronically elevated insulin and physical or emotional stress). I promise, I’ll talk much more about this part another time…
There’s no doubt that there are in fact good fats and bad fats. The bad fats, however, are not saturated fats from animal products. The bad fats are these toxic, plastic fats (trans fats) made in factories and highly unstable fats from crop oils like canola and soybean. They are chemically altered, foreign to our bodies and wreak havoc inside us. They have been linked to just about every disease you can think of. The FDA is now requiring that trans fats be labeled on food products, but there are loopholes. One of the biggest loopholes is that if a product contains 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving it can advertise and label the product as “trans fat free”. That is an issue not only because it’s an outright lie, but also because most people don’t limit themselves to one serving of these foods! They’re designed to make us eat more!
I have SO much more to say on this topic and of course you’re going to hear about it, but this is already getting long and writing this has made me crave bacon (so I’m gonna make some).
But to get you started, a great way to get started is to move away from low fat, chemically altered, processed food choices. When you emphasize whole foods direct from nature you’ll naturally increase your intake of quality, healthy fats. Let go of your fear of butter. Eat a fatty chicken thigh instead of always opting for the super lean breast. Have some bacon, for crying out loud. Add fat. Embrace it. Love it. And while you’re at it, please, please, please lay off the processed garbage!
One of the primary determinants of your ability to burn fat is your hormonal balance. Your body is either primed to store fat or burn fat and that is dictated by your hormones and how they interplay with your lifestyle. Know this: there is FAR more to hormone balance than estrogen and testosterone!
The hormones at the center of this story include insulin (a storage hormone), cortisol (a stress hormone), leptin (a satiety hormone) and human growth hormone (an energy, recovery and anti-aging hormone).
Sleep is your hormonal and metabolic recovery period. While you rest, your body plays catch-up. When you get adequate sleep (8+ hours), you naturally help to regulate your hormonal response and this significantly favors fat loss.
If you are NOT getting adequate sleep (even if you feel you can function without out), you don’t allow for that hormonal reset and your body is not primed for fat loss. Cortisol, your stress hormone, increases. Insulin also increases. This combination means that you are hungrier, you have less energy, your stress hormones are in over-drive and you’re less likely to feel satisfied after eating. This hormonal combination also increases your cravings for sweet and fatty foods.
Countless studies have shown that individuals who get adequate sleep are leaner, happier, less stressed and more energetic than those who do not get adequate sleep.
When you’re assessing your fat loss progress and you feel like your hunger, energy, mood and cravings are not balanced and manageable you need to evaluate your sleep patterns. Make whatever adjustments are necessary to get more sleep.
Here are a few changes I made to fit more sleep time into my jam-packed days:
I removed the TV from my bedroom. I was guilty of getting sucked into a show and fighting to stay awake to see the end.
I started prepping the night before – I’d make my breakfast at night, make sure lunch was packed and lay out my outfit for the following morning.
Limiting caffeine after lunch time. I’m sensitive to caffeine and I was routinely having a cup of coffee mid-afternoon. This had to go to ensure that I could fall right asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I hung blackout curtains in my bedroom. To ensure that my sleep-space was as quiet and dark as possible, these were a great addition!
I turned off my ringer. No more texts, emails or news alerts coming through my phone while I try to sleep!
I started working out in the morning. I had been working out in the evenings but this just boosted my energy and made me feel wired. I was having trouble sleeping so now I keep my workouts in the first half of the day.
Start small. Commit to an early bedtime a couple nights a week and notice the difference in your hunger, energy, cravings and mood. Change isn’t easy or comfortable but it’s worth it if it means you can get to your goals more efficiently!
To read more about balancing hunger, energy and cravings or the hormones associated with fat loss, check out one of my favorite resources: Metabolic Effect!!