You can hardly go a day without someone mentioning “good” and “bad” fats (or “healthy” and “unhealthy” ones).
There are entire blogs dedicated to which fats are good and which fats are bad. Some even rank them from best to worst, or vice-versa. We have an obsession with fats, especially the “bad” fats.
Why is this? Well, to answer that, we first have to answer the question: what are good and bad fats?
Good and bad fats as they’re commonly understood
There seems to be a general understanding that some fats are good and some are bad based on two simple ideas:
- Eating certain foods will make us fat
- Being fat is unhealthy
The problem is that both of these ideas—which are often presented as “everybody knows” ideas that don’t need evidence to be true—are not actually that accurate.
So what are good and bad fats, after all? Well, generally we see that saturated fats receive a big bad label on them. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, like butter and animal fats like lard. But it’s not universal, because everyone is confused about whether coconut oil is good or bad, and it’s solid at room temperature, too. (Depending on how hot the day is, of course.) So not everyone agrees on that one.
But the most common division of good and bad fats is this…
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Sunflower and safflower oils
- Soybean oil
- Sesame oil
- Avocado (oil or the whole fruit)
- Nuts and nut oils/butters
- Sunflower, flax and pumpkin seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.) and fish oil
- Trans fats (most commonly seen in vegetable shortening and prepared foods)
- Milk and cream
- Red meat (beef, lamb, etc.)
- Poultry (chicken, duck, etc.)
Why worrying about fat isn’t helpful
Like I mentioned above, the whole idea behind good and bad fats is largely based on misinformation about health and fatness, and about food and weight gain. Let me go into a bit more detail on each of these.
The relationship between food and weight
Science has known for years and years now that dieting does not work, meaning that what we eat is more or less irrelevant to how much we weigh. (Unfortunately, in the mainstream, we have a lot of catching up to do.) On the other hand, according to a (huge) long-term study, we see better health outcomes when we eat our fruits and veggies, avoid smoking and drinking, and stay moderately active. And by moderately active, what I mean is any number of things: working out, taking a walk or even enjoying a little sexy time with your babe a couple of times a week! Seems pretty manageable to me.
What’s more, if you’re genetically thin, you’re going to stay thin. If you’re genetically fatter, it’s difficult to keep your body small because, as we’ve discussed, diets don’t work. And that’s why more and more people are advocating for body acceptance. We can fight an uphill battle that tells our body it’s not good enough, or we can work hard to accept and love our body the way it is. I’m glad a lot more people are starting to choose the latter!
It is so, so important for us to understand what science is really telling us before we make substantial changes to our bodies’ internal environments. Big changes to what we eat or how we’re exercising can put a lot of stress on our bodies, so I encourage everyone to be gentle and kind with themselves when dealing with their own wellbeing. Further to this, food should ideally be a source of nourishment, community-building and self-care, not a source of shame and fear. If there’s one thing we know is bad for our wellbeing, it’s stress: Gabor Mate, M.D., wrote a whole book about all the ways that chronic stress literally kills people (amazing book, by the way—highly recommend!). Let’s try not to add food to the list of things that stress us out.
Is fatness unhealthy?
So much misinformation about fatness has been going around in the past couple of decades that it’s easy to see why people think fatness is a death sentence. Even doctors are not immune to being human and having biases that aren’t grounded in science. (Did you know that on average, an American doctor gets less than 20 hours of training on nutrition in their 4 years of medical school? That literally means that the nutrition rep at your local grocery probably knows more about nutrition than your family doctor. Pretty wild!)
But what we do know (as outlined above) is that the fear and stress sometimes associated with getting fat is not at all good for us. And since dieting doesn’t work and the anxiety of worrying about it can literally kill us, does it really even matter? I’m not so sure.
One study found that people who were bullied about their fatness were actually more likely to become fatter. The researchers concluded that the most important public health intervention was to educate people who are perpetuating stigma against fat people, because the stigma itself was detrimental to fat patients’ health.
Another study tells us that it’s difficult to tease apart the health concerns associated with fatness and the health concerns associated with stress, and we see high stress in fat people. Why? Because society is pretty hostile towards fat people and that’s really stressful. (Think about it: the whole “war on obesity” is basically all of society saying, “How can we get rid of people who look like you [fat people]?”)
On the other hand, there are lots of cases where we see people having better health outcomes when they’re fatter. Like when you’re trying to recover from a stroke or healing after heart surgery.
So since our most up-to-date science can’t actually confirm that fatness is unhealthy and we can’t really do that much about fatness anyway, I would like to make a humble suggestion…
…Can we try not to worry so much about what we put in our mouths? It seems like all healthy roads point to better self-esteem and reduced stress, so I vote for giving that a try.
Why we shouldn’t be afraid of “bad” fats
When you look at the list of “bad” fats, do you notice that most of them are pretty unprocessed? I mean, sure, you have to churn the butter and age the milk for cheese, but it’s the kind of thing you can do at home and traditionally, we did.
Have you ever tried making olive oil at home? Do you know how many olives you’d need to make a bottle of oil? (FYI: it takes at least 10 pounds of olives to make a litre.) This is a process that you need special equipment for, and that prioritizes just one part of a fruit. What happens to the olive pulp after the oil is extracted? It’s disposed of. If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume that you care about food waste, and industrial food waste is a really big environmental problem, too. Is the waste even being composted? Some companies don’t even do that.
Now, don’t get me wrong: please eat olives. Please at avocados, and nuts, and fish, and all the whole foods that we derive “good” fats from. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t eat these foods, because like all whole foods, they have their benefits when it comes to nourishing our bodies.
But I really hesitate to tell people to avoid “bad” fats. This is because the more we dispose of naturally-occurring “bad” fats, the more processed our oils become, and the fewer parts of our food we use. I’m not saying that everyone needs to eat a spoonful of straight bacon grease with their breakfast every morning, but I do encourage people to think critically about anything that encourages us to replace naturally-occurring things with industrially-produced things. (Like breast milk—if you haven’t seen Hollie McNish’s Embarrassed, it’s pretty spot-on.)
What’s more, I’m a believer that practically nothing in the world will hurt you if it’s done in balance. You can eat an apple’s worth of apple seeds (which can cause cyanide poisoning in large amounts) without even getting sick. We eat tuna all the time, knowing that large amounts of it can cause mercury poisoning. So I really don’t think that this mainstream terror about fats needs to continue. We’re already using fats (even saturated ones or “bad” ones sometimes), so why not avoid wasting the ones that are readily available to us?
I challenge us to ask ourselves: why are we throwing out chicken fat and then buying a pound of butter from the store to sauté our veggies with? Why are we removing all the bacon fat from the pan and then adding vegetable oil to fry the next ingredient? It’s worthwhile to think critically about this stuff.
What should our relationship with fats be?
My advice is to do what you can to use naturally-occurring and readily-available fats. It both reduces food waste and allows us to support whole foods wherever possible.
So if you’re eating chicken, I recommend finding a use for that fat, whether you’re using it for food or something else.
If you’d like to get some omega-3 fatty acids in your system, I recommend getting some salmon or flaxseed in your tummy, rather than taking a supplement unless absolutely necessary.
This supports a more transparent relationship with what’s going into our bodies. We have no idea how a supplement or refined oil is made and what happens to any potential waste in most cases. But we do know how much of that salmon went into our tummies, and the wonderful nourishment it gave us. This is the same with things like milk and meat. We have more control over making sure that nothing goes to waste. (You’d be amazed at what I can do with a single chicken.)
And in terms of fatness and health? I hope I’ve shown you that feeling good in your skin and loving your body—including listening to your body’s needs—is the best thing you can do for your wellbeing. I, for one, think you’re pretty rad exactly as you are.