In this series for AVFM I’ll be writing about the role of nutrition in men’s health, and men’s mental health in particular. In my nutrition practice, I focus on men’s mental health specifically. It comes as a surprise to some, but the food we eat can have a significant and dramatic impact on mental health. And that’s important, especially for us involved in the men’s rights movement. We’ve got to take care of ourselves so we can continue our work to help men and combat feminist misandry. So read on to learn more about the surprising benefits of healthy fats!
In this post I’ll cover the importance of healthy fat in addressing depression and anxiety. Fat is a critical nutrient that has been unfairly maligned for decades. Beginning in the 1940s and ’50s, bad research like Ancel Keys’ “Seven Countries Study” set out to establish a correlation between dietary fat saturated fat and heart disease. As it turns out, the Seven Countries study was seriously flawed and relied on cherry picked data while ignoring data from other countries that clearly contradicted the hypothesis that eating dietary fat leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Today, 60 some odd years later, the battle is still raging on. The American Heart Association’s recent recommendation to avoid coconut oil because of its saturated fat content has made headlines in recent weeks. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of healthy fats, as well as what types of fat you should eat and which fats to avoid, keep reading!
In my last post I wrote about the importance of protein for mental health. All food we eat can be broadly divided into three categories called macronutrients, which are protein, fat and carbohydrates. In this week’s post I’m focusing on dietary fat, and I’ll move on to carbohydrates in my next post. Understanding how to eat an appropriate ratio of the macronutrients (protein : fat : carbohydrate) is a crucial first step in constructing healthy, well-balanced meals.
Why eat healthy fats?
Fats are essential for human health. Whereas dietary protein is primarily utilized for functions like building muscle and neurotransmitters like serotonin, fats and carbohydrates are our two main energy sources. They are used to provide the calories necessary to fuel the body’s many metabolic processes. Both carbohydrates and fats provide energy for the body and both are necessary for proper health.
In contrast to carbohydrates, which provide a quick burst of energy that quickly burns out, healthy fats provide stable, long-lasting energy, and that’s exactly what we want. Eating excessive carbohydrates can be likened to throwing kerosene on a campfire – it makes a big flame, but that flame doesn’t last long. In contrast, fats are like a big Oak log that burns for hours and turns into a nice bed of coals that emits steady, consistent heat that’s long lasting.
In western countries like the United States, many people overconsume carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, and don’t eat enough healthy fats. I’ll talk more in my next post about carbohydrates, so stay tuned for more about that. Many Americans also eat too many unhealthy fats. I’ll explain more about which fats are healthy and unhealthy shortly. But fats don’t just provide long-lasting energy; they also play many other roles in the body, which I’ll go over briefly in the next section before getting into which fats are healthy and which should be avoided.
The many roles of fat in the body
Dietary fats are indispensable nutrients that are necessary for many bodily functions in addition to providing energy. For example, every cell in the body is surrounded by a semipermeable membrane that is made out of fats, also known as lipids. This lipid membrane separates the water-soluble contents of the cell from the water-soluble fluids that surround the outside of the cell. Without fats, we could not have cells in the body. Many different types of fats and cholesterol make up cell membranes and assist in numerous critical cellular functions.
A second crucial function for fat in the body is providing electrical shielding for nerve impulses, which enables the nervous system to transmit messages through the body. Individual nerves, called neurons, are coated in a fatty substance called the myelin sheath, which provides electrical shielding. This shielding allows electrical signals to be conducted very quickly – at about 200 miles per hour – and without electrical interference.
The myelin sheath is what deteriorates in conditions like multiple sclerosis, or MS. Some people with MS suffer from movement problems and lose muscle control because the nervous system isn’t able to communicate with skeletal muscle. Because of the role the nervous system plays in transmitting emotions, some MS patients also experience emotional changes and mood swings.
Because the myelin sheath is made from fat, it’s essential to consume adequate healthy fats in the diet. Without the proper building blocks for the myelin sheath, the nervous system can degrade and mood issues can follow. Eating healthy fats is important not just for stable energy, but also for emotional regulation. Without the myelin sheath, nervous system communication that is important for mood cannot take place, and mood suffers.
In addition, the brain itself is made up of about 60% fat and considerable research has demonstrated the importance of fats for brain health (1). These are just a few examples of how important it is to consume dietary fat, especially when it comes to mental health. With an understanding of how important fats are, I’ll define what healthy and unhealthy fats are in the next sections.
Which fats are healthy?
There are three main types of fats, and it’s important to eat a variety of each of the different types. Here I’ll review the types of fats and which foods are good sources of each. Then I’ll review unhealthy fats and which foods should be avoided, as not all fats are healthy.
Monounsaturated fats: These fats are called monounsaturated because they have one double bond. Because of that double bond, these fats are somewhat unstable under heat and are best consumed with minimal heating. They are not generally good fats for cooking.
- Olives and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (2)
- Poultry fat from turkey, chicken, goose and duck
- Macadamia nuts
Polyunsaturated fats: These fats have more than one double bond, hence the name polyunsaturated. The most well-known and healthy polyunsaturated fats are the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are anti-inflammatory.
- Wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon, sardines and anchovies (3)
- Choose fish lower on the food chain
- Although larger predatory fish like tuna and swordfish also contain omega-3s, they are higher in mercury
- Hemp seeds
- Sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds
Saturated fats: Although these fats have long been attacked as being unhealthy, artery clogging and heart attack inducing, the science really does not support this contention. Saturated fats contain no double bonds and are the most stable under heat, and so are the best choice for cooking and frying.
- Organic butter from grass-fed cows (like Kerrygold)
- Yes, really! Good quality butter is a health food
- Organic unrefined coconut oil
- Dairy fat in whole-fat organic milk, yogurt and cheese
- Uncured bacon and pork lard
- Yes, really!
- Look at the ingredients on lard. Sometimes it is preserved with BHT, which should be avoided
- Tallow (beef fat)
- Fat on steaks from organic, grass-fed cows, bison and lamb
Unhealthy fats to avoid
I’ve spent a lot of time praising the importance of healthy fats, but not all fats promote health. Some other fats are decidedly unhealthy and really do contribute to cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
- Trans fats (4)
- These are typically vegetable oils that have been chemically modified through a process called hydrogenation to be solid instead of liquid at room temperature
- Even if a food item says it has 0g trans fats, it can still contain some trans fats if they are less than 0.5g per serving, thanks to an FDA loophole
- Look at the ingredient list. If you see any partially hydrogenated oils listed, such as partially hydrogenated soybean or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it DOES contain trans fats and should be avoided
- Trans fats have been implicated in cardiovascular disease
- Vegetable oils
- These oils include soybean, Canola, corn, vegetable, sunflower and safflower
- They are unstable and turn rancid easily
- These oils are high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids
- Fried foods (5)
- These are almost always fried in vegetable oils and contribute to inflammation
- If you’re a chip lover, a healthier option is Jackson’s Honest chips, which are fried in coconut oil
Takeaways about healthy fats
Although healthy fats are high in calories, many people find that they lose weight by eating more of them. The reasons behind this are complex, but revolve around stabilizing blood sugar. This helps to stabilize mood as well, and can actually help reduce the risk of metabolic disease like diabetes. In closing, here are a few easy ways to include more healthy fats in your diet:
- Pan fry vegetables in a liberal amount of butter or coconut oil
- Eat 1/4 to 1/2 an avocado with meals, sprinkled with sea salt
- Drizzle olive oil on food
- Make an easy salad dressing and use it liberally:
- 1 part vinegar (apple cider or balsamic)
- 3 parts olive oil
- Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste
- Sprinkle raw or sprouted nuts and seeds on meals (6)
- Walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, or cashews
- Pumpkin, sesame, sunflower or hemp seeds
- Snack on nuts like pistachios instead of carbohydrate-heavy crackers or chips
- Add butter and/or coconut oil to your coffee or tea
Healthy fats are an important part of a well-balanced diet. See if you don’t feel better and stay full longer by including more of them in your diet. Stay tuned for my next post about carbohydrates, which is another important piece of the puzzle. Limiting refined carbohydrates while increasing healthy fats can help improve your mood, help you lose weight and reduce your risk for diabetes (7) and cardiovascular disease (8).