You gotta love fat. Dietary fat includes delicious foods in their own right—almonds, bacon, avocados, salmon, olives, meat, macadamia nuts, eggs, cheese, chocolate—and foods that make already tasty foods a little more flavorful—butter, cream, olive oil, coconut oil.
The surprising thing about beneficial or “good” fats is that there’s disagreement regarding what constitutes “good” and how much of the “good” we should eat relative to the other macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates. The benefits discussed in this article are based on the following principles:
• “Good” fats are unrefined animal fats, fat from fish, and select fats from plants, such as avocado, olive, nuts, and tropical oils. They tend to include a higher proportion of saturated or monounsaturated fats or be higher in omega-3s.
• The “bad” fats are vegetable fats, such as soy, peanut, corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oil that have been refined. They tend to be high in omega-6 fats and are highly susceptible to oxidation during processing, which makes them reactive and damaging to the body.
• You’ll generally get greater benefits from eating good fats when you limit your carbohydrate intake to below 60 percent of the diet, which is the amount recommended by the U.S. government.
• A loose definition of a lower carb diet is one that provides less than 200 grams of carbs a day from whole food plant sources.
• For fat loss on a low-carb diet, a review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests 50 to 150 g/day of carbs is too high, and a useful definition is less than 50 grams of carbs a day as ideal for fat loss.
Without further ado, here are the ten benefits of eating fat.
#1: Better Body Composition
Eating a greater proportion of your calories from fat can help you achieve optimal body composition. Your body requires a decent amount of fat to stay lean for the following reasons:
• Fat makes up the outside layer of all the cells in you body. Ideally, this lipid layer will be composed of omega-3 fats because this makes the cells more sensitive to insulin, allowing for an energetic metabolism and less inflammation.
• By decreasing your carb intake and replacing it with fat, you can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation, and support your metabolism.
• Omega-3 fats help turn on genes that are involved with lipolysis or the burning of fat, while turning off the genes that store fat.
• Omega-3 fats also support thyroid hormone function, which is a hormone closely involved in body fat regulation. Low thyroid hormone is a common reason people can’t lose fat.
• Cholesterol, which comes with fat, is used to make hormones. Eating a greater proportion of fat allows for hormonal balance of androgens such as testosterone and estrogen. Fat loss and the maintenance of a lean physique are much easier if hormones are balanced.
• Fat is filling. When paired with a nice dose of protein, fat can lead to greater satisfaction from eating, curbing hunger and cravings. Research suggests that the medium chain fatty acids such as coconut and red palm oil are the most satiating of all.
Bottom Line: Healthy fats help you lose fat by improving metabolism, balancing hormones, and eliminating constant cravings.
#2: More Muscle
Having more beneficial fat in your diet produces muscle gain with training because it supports hormone balance and recovery from intense exercise. A higher fat diet with simultaneous carb restriction can elevate growth hormone, which inhibits muscle breakdown.
Surprisingly, scientists haven’t looked at the effect of fat on post-workout muscle gains and body composition. Sports nutrition researchers have tunnel vision on protein and carbs, but peripheral data show abundant benefits of a higher “good” fat intake due to its potent effect on hormone balance and ability to reduce inflammation.
Bottom Line: Healthy fat intake leads to greater gains from strength training. For men, this means you’ll have greater mass gains from training, and ladies, this means you’ll have stronger, tighter curves.
#3: Easier Fat Loss
It’s well accepted that eating some fat is necessary if you want to lose fat. It was a big mistake to go low-fat for fat loss because people tended to replace natural fats with carbs, while food manufacturers replaced fat with sugar, leading to a huge increase in nutrient-poor calories that the body stores as fat.
Research shows that you can lose just as much body fat eating a high-fat, low-carb diet as you can with a low-fat, high-carb diet and you’ll reap better metabolic adaptations so that you keep the fat off.
A fascinating Swedish study found that when diabetics ate a low-carb, high-fat diet (50 percent fat, 20 percent low-glycemic carbs, and 30 percent protein) they lost equal amounts of fat after 6 months (4 kg) as a group that ate a low-fat, high-carb diet (30 percent fat, 60 percent carbs, and 10 percent protein). The low-carb, high-fat group decreased insulin and had better blood sugar regulation than the high-carb group, indicating better metabolic chemistry.
Bottom Line: Eating adequate fat and limiting carbs can produce fat loss and improve metabolism so you maintain optimal body composition in the long run.
#4: Better Reproductive Health
Fat is critical for reproductive health in both men and women because it’s used to manufacture hormones and improves gene signaling that regulates hormone balance.
For women, not eating enough fat is a common cause of infertility, while eating the wrong fats increases complications from PMS and menopause. For men, lack of good fats reduces testosterone and other androgen hormones that are critical for reproductive health.
For instance, a study found that reducing fat intake in men by increasing carbohydrate intake led to significantly lower free testosterone. Total androgen hormone levels were down 12 percent.
Bottom Line: “Good” fat intake allows for higher androgens, better reproductive health, stronger libido, better athletic performance, and lower body fat.
#5: Better Brain Function & Mood with Less Risk of Depression
Your brain is mainly made of cholesterol and fat, most of which should be essential fatty acids, in particular DHA. The precise characteristics of the lipid layer of brain neurons influences electrical properties, which dictate everything from mood to neuromuscular function to cognition.
Adequate good fat intake helps prevent depression and one side effect of the low-fat diets that have been erroneously recommended to lower cholesterol levels is an increase in suicides. This is caused by a deficiency of cholesterol and fat in the brain, which causes lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin that makes people feel good.
Bottom Line: Make sure you get adequate DHA and saturated fat to provide the raw materials needed for optimal brain function. Get omega-3 fats in a 2 to 1 ratio with omega-6 fats
#6: Stronger Bones & Less Risk of Osteoporosis
Healthy fats in the right ratio are needed for bone mineral density and the prevention of osteoporosis. Fats are involved in calcium metabolism and the vitamins K2 and D are both fat-soluble nutrients that collaborate in building bone. Many factors influence bone health, but providing the building blocks for bone with adequate “good” fats and the ideal omega-3 and -6 ratio can only help.
Bottom Line: Enjoy saturated fat and monounsaturated fats in as whole a form as possible (avocados and olives) to get adequate vitamin D and K2. Get your omega-3 to -6 ratio in the 2 to 1 range for best bone health.
#7: Reduce Cancer Risk
Eating “good” fats as part of a diet that optimizes macronutrient intake for glucose management and decreased inflammation will reduce cancer risk. Research suggests that omega-6-rich oils promote cancer progression and metastasis, whereas monounsaturated fat, such as that found in olive has a protective effect.
Meanwhile, low-fat diet interventions aimed at reducing cancer have not been found to have any effect on cancer rates compared to regular Western diets higher in fat. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative found no difference in risk of colorectal cancer between a low-fat and higher fat diet.
A higher saturated fat intake may actually be good for prevention of some cancers. A 2013 survey of dietary fat intake and pancreatic cancer found that a higher saturated fat intake was associated with a lower risk of pancreatic cancer in 111,416 people.
Bottom Line: Cancer risk is influenced by many lifestyle factors, but limiting omega-6 oil intake in favor of whole food fats such as olives, avocados, and unprocessed animal fats appear to reduce cancer risk.
#8: Better Cholesterol Ratio and Reduced Heart Disease Risk
Health authorities have been telling us for decades that we need to avoid saturated fat to reduce heart disease risk. Since the USDA released the low-fat guidelines in 1977, Americans have reduced their heart disease rates, but obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed.
A review of the issue is out of the scope of this article, but practical points that are based on the strongest evidence suggest the following:
• Eating saturated fat does not increase blood triglyceride levels, but carbohydrates do. High blood triglycerides cause inflammation and plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing heart disease risk.
• Small, dense LDL cholesterol particles do increase heart risk. Large, fluffy LDL particles are NOT associated with elevated heart disease risk and are considered benign. Saturated fat raises the large, fluffy LDL, but has no effect on small LDL.
• Saturated fat raises HDL, the “good” cholesterol that lowers your risk of heart disease.
• Many foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, such as eggs and coconut oil, can decrease inflammation, lower circulating triglycerides, and reduce insulin due to the natural antioxidants they contain.
• Large-scale studies show no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk. Meanwhile, a recent study of over 58,000 Japanese adult found that higher saturated fat intake was associated with a 31 percent reduction in mortality from stroke and an 18 percent reduction in heart disease.
This is noteworthy because the Japanese eat a non-Western diet, suggesting that disease prevention is best achieved with alternatives to the Western diet.
• Saturated fats don’t damage easily in high heat, making them the safest fats to cook with because oxidized (damaged) fats cause inflammation in the arteries.
Bottom Line: Bacon, cheese, meat, eggs, butter, and coconut—saturated fat is delicious and doesn’t cause heart disease. Reduce heart disease risk and lower your triglycerides by restricting sugar and limiting your carbohydrate intake.
#9: Stronger Immune System
Saturated fats such as those found in butter, coconut oil, and red palm oil contain the fatty acids lauric and myristic acid. They are anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal and have been found to decrease infection rates by killing bacteria such as harmful candida yeast.
Bottom Line: Including a variety of saturated fats in your diet can help kill dangerous pathogens and prevent infections.
#10: Better Skin and Eye Health
Dry skin and eyes is often caused by a deficiency in fatty acids. Getting adequate omega-3 fats and a variety of saturated fats in your diet can help improve the body’s ability to lubricate effectively.
Bottom Line: Get at least 3 grams of omega-3s in your diet daily and eat a variety of saturated fats because they are rich in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K that help the body regulate lubrication.