You. Need. Fat.

June 29, 2009


Ok I know what you’re thinking. Bathing suit season is here and the LAST thing any of us needs is more fat.

But, I’m here to tell you that yes, that’s exactly what you might need.

Let’s start at the beginning, which for me was in high school. When I started attending my private high school, all the girls were worried about eating fat. For lunch they ate a plain bagel and drank Snapple. These were all skinny girls. So, to my 14 year old mind, the no-fat plan made sense.

I started refusing to eat anything that had fat grams on the label, much to my mother’s chagrin. What about olive oil, she said? Olive oil is healthy!

I said, “Mom, olive oil has 14 grams of fat per serving.”

She said, “There’s no fat in eggs! Eggs are good for you!”

I said, “Moooommmmm, there are 5 grams of fat in every egg! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I was irritable, as most teenagers are. I also got sick a lot. When I went away to college, my digestion went from bad to worse. I had fainting spells and we wondered if something was wrong with my brain. Tests were always negative. I was fine, according to doctors.

After college I had a conversation with my mom about how I was feeling. I told her that I just didn’t feel healthy, even though the doctor said I was. I didn’t feel hearty. I was weak. My mom asked if I was eating well. I said yes, but I felt like no matter what I ate it just wasn’t being absorbed. I could drink water all day and still feel dehydrated!

I was totally functional through all this. It’s not like I was lying in a hospital bed. I was working and going to the gym and by all standard measurements…I was fine. Except I was so NOT.

Skipping ahead a number of years, I’ll just summarize by saying that I’ve cleaned up my diet a whole lot. I started eating whole grains and lots of vegetables. Processed food got the boot. Duh, I mean, you’re reading this blog so you know that.

But fat? I still didn’t want to be fat. I kicked sugar and was happy to cook with just a drizzle of olive oil.

And then came weekend 3 at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Sally Fallon (author of Nourishing Traditions and founder of the Weston A. Price foundation) was our guest speaker. I had heard about the work of Weston A. Price and admired his research. If you are unfamiliar, dig into the WAP website, pronto my dears!

Basically, Dr. Price found that people from indigenous cultures all over the world ate very different diets but had common health characteristics. They did not suffer from the diseases we see in the West. When people from the villages moved to industrialized areas and were exposed to processed foods for the first time, THAT’s when they got sick.

What does this have to do with fat? Well, as Sally explained, traditional diets ate meat – with all the skin, organs and fat included. Some cultures ate little meat but plenty of milk – whole, raw milk. In short, naturally occurring fats were an important part of their daily diets.

You’re probably thinking, yeah, but I don’t run after yaks all day. Those people burned more fat than I do. That’s why they could eat all that stuff.

Maybe. But the truth is, our bodies require a certain amount of fats to function. Here’s an excerpt from Nina Planck’s Real Food that struck me so important I just have to share it with you:

The vital role of fat in digestion is illustrated by an obscure condition called rabbit starvation, caused by a diet exclusively of lean protein…the symptoms are lethargy, nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, and eventually death. Without fat, digestion literally fails and you starve – even if you’re eating plenty.

Bingo! That was me! But there’s more.

Did you know that your brain is 60% fat? And that mother’s milk has a greater proportion of fat to protein than cow’s milk? Fats are clearly very important for human development. Not only that, they’re important for fertility too! And I’m not just talking unsaturated fat here…I’m talking full-on saturated animal fats. (From healthy sustainably-farmed animals of course.)

But heart disease is our #1 killer? How can we eat fats knowing that they are going to clog our arteries?

Let’s refer back to Weston A. Price. His findings very clearly showed that natural, traditional foods led to good health but processed, modern foods were to blame for a sharp decline in a population’s health. So, is it really about saturated fats being bad for us? What about our man-made hydrogenated margarines that have proven far more deadly than any fat that comes from nature?

Sally Fallon told us that she eats half a stick of raw, organic butter in her oats every morning. She said that the fat in dairy products is essential for absorbing vitamins and calcium. That low-fat dairy products leave the body questioning where the rest of the whole food is…leading to ice cream cravings!

I did a little experiment. I started adding butter to my oats. A tablespoon, not a stick. Boy was it gooood! And within days, lines I had begun to accept in my face started to disappear. I’ve gained no weight and I’m now cooking with butter at almost every meal, along with other naturally occurring fats like coconut oil, olive oil and sesame oil. I’m avoiding man-made modern fats like margarine and canola oil. This all seems to be in line with eating organic produce – it’s like getting back to pre-industrialized times in the food supply.

Turns out that of course my mom was right. I’ve been trying to convince her to enroll at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition because she’s a natural.

If you don’t believe any of this talk about fats, just consider the past 20 or 30 years and the plethora of low-fat/no-fat products in the supermarket. By now, Americans should all be very slender!

But we’re not, are we? Shoot. There goes THAT theory.

How do you feel about eating fats in your diet?

I realize this is a radical notion, to eat fats. So here’s more reading if you are interested: