How healthy fats can improve our gut health
BY MAGGIE KEARNEY
A few years ago I made the switch to a paleo diet in an attempt to minimise my Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms. I have spent countless hours researching nutrition and movement in an attempt to reduce my ongoing gut troubles. I have had to work my way through the labyrinth of conflicting information out there as to how the gut works and what foods to eat to heal the gut, increase energy, enhance concentration and overall brain function.
One of the most important things I have learnt in my efforts to create a healthy microbiome is the necessity to consume a diverse range of foods rich in nutrients, but also foods rich in healthy fats.
I know - FAT!
Initially this was hard to get my head around as much of the prevailing health advice advocates restricting fat intake as eating fat is suggested to increase your chances of getting fat, give you heart disease or high cholesterol, or every other ailment known to humankind!
However, there has been a recent increase in scientific studies focusing on how our bodies use macro and micronutrients, which has led to a shift in scientific thinking when it comes to fat. It is actually the case that our microbiome (and subsequently our brain) requires nutrient rich forms of fat to function optimally.
Below I will share what I have learnt in this area in an attempt to try and reduce the confusion around good and bad fats, how our body uses fatty acids, and what foods we should avoid and should eat to get a healthy macronutrient balance.
The benefits of fat
Good fats assist in decreasing inflammation and promoting the growth of healthy gut bacteria as well as promoting the formation of new cells. But we need to ensure we are eating the right fats. I am in no way advocating eating a diet filled with processed fatty foods, or gorging on processed bacon or thickened cream. As most of you would know, it is not just the fat in these foods that will lead to gut symptoms flaring up, but the myriad of other toxic ingredients and processes involved in these “fatty” foods.
Significantly increasing the amount of fat in my diet has had these fantastic results:
My IBS symptoms have improved dramatically, I experience less bloating and gut discomfort, as the level of inflammation in my gut from consuming a carbohydrate-heavy (albeit gluten free) diet subsided when I replaced a lot of this food with foods rich in fat;
I feel significantly more satiated after meals, which means I am less inclined to snack and therefore my insulin levels are far better regulated;
My concentration and mental acuity has improved, as a result of consuming foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which promote brain function;
My mood has improved as a result of an overall reduction in inflammation in my body and the stabilising effects that fat has on hormones;
My sleep improved as eating clean fats with dinner keeps energy and insulin levels steady.
What are the good fats?
Every week I still come across numerous blog posts and health articles which advocate the consumption of certain fats which are presumably healthy because they are low in saturated fat….but one thing to remember is that:
Saturated fat is not bad for us when consumed in moderation.
There is also no evidence connecting consumption of saturated fats with heart disease and obesity. For more on this issue, I highly recommend David Gillespie’s book “Big Fat Lies”.
For a healthy microbiome, we need diversity in our diet. This means we need to consume fat as well as a variety of types of fat.
To achieve this level of variety, we need to eat foods containing the following fats:
Saturated fats – these fats are the most stable, which means they are less likely to oxidise;
Mono-unsaturated fats – these fats are slightly less stable than saturated fats;
Polyunsaturated fats – these fast are relatively unstable.
The instability of a fat does not mean that that fat is unhealthy for you, or that it will cause inflammation in your gut. The less stable a fat is however, the more careful you need to be when preparing meals utilising this fat, as unstable fats can become toxic when heated at high temperatures, or processed in certain ways.
Getting the right balance of good fats
Our bodies thrive on consumption of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids – these fats are integral for our body to function effectively and we cannot produce them ourselves – we must get them from our food. Both Omega-6s and Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats.
The most important thing to understand when choosing which fats to consume is that our bodies thrive on a balance of Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids in a ratio of 4:1, or as close to 1:1 as possible (ancestors evolved eating close to 1:1 ratio). With the rise in consumption of vegetable oils, soy and processed grains, today the standard Western diet shows that people are consuming these fatty acids in a ration of up to 25:1.
Quality fats, being those rich in Omega-3s, or those with the right balance of Omega-6s to Omega-3s, often contain higher amounts of vitamins too, such as vitamin A, D, E, and K. It is therefore important to eat these fats with other nutrient-dense foods, as this will increase the fat-soluble nutrients you absorb. That’s why it is so important to include some healthy fats in each of your meals, especially with your vegetables.
It is also worth noting that many studies have shown that omega 3 from animal sources is superior to plant sources. Animal sources have pre-formed DHA whereas the body needs to convert plant sources of ALA to DHA. This conversion is poor in the healthiest of people, let alone nutrient deficient people.
How bad fats can destroy our gut and brain
Fats that are toxic for our bodies and inflammatory for our gut are those that are unstable and have become oxidised which can result from cooking at high heat, microwaving or frying. The most toxic fats are very high in omega-6s and have been processed in one of these ways.
Foods that display these characteristics and should be avoided include seed oils or vegetable oils, which are produced at high temperatures, such as:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower seed oil
- Rice bran oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Flaxseed oil
It is much cheaper to make these oils so they are often found in store bought foods. Obvious examples include chips, biscuits, chocolates and store-bought sauces, but you also need to be careful with “healthy” foods as well, as these oils are contained in foods like rice crackers, granola and popcorn to name a few.
Tip: Always check the ingredients label.
Restaurants and cafes often cook with these oils as well, as they are so much cheaper to produce and therefore buy, so even meals that you think contain healthy ingredients, could be spoiled by being cooked or coated in toxic fats.
In my experience, consuming these kinds of oils inflamed my IBS symptoms, and can cause a lot of stomach pain and bloating. These fats are also very high in Omega-6 fatty acids, so not only are they toxic for our health but they increase the imbalance in our bodies between Omega-6s and Omega-3s, which in turn leads to inflammation and subsequent illness or disease. Authors such as David Gillespie and Dr Perlmutter believe that the prominence of these fats in the Western diet is a primary contributor to increases in obesity, heart disease and chronic illness.
5 good fats to eat
The most stable forms of fat that are beneficial for our guts and our brains include fats that are high in saturated and monounsaturated fats and fats that are high in Omega-3s, or have a balance of Omega-3s and Omega-6s.
Examples of some of the most delicious and healthy fatty foods you should be consuming include:
Grass fed meat contains a high proportion of antioxidants, Omega-3s and trace minerals and vitamins. However, if cattle are fed grain, studies show that this destroys the Omega-3 content in their meat and fat and increases the amount of inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids in the meat.
Extra Virgin Olive oil
It is important to consume extra virgin olive oil rather than other varieties, as extra virgin olive oil is less processed, and therefore more stable. It contains a combination of saturated and monounsaturated fats. Olive oil contains more Omega-6s than Omega-3s, however extra virgin olive oil contains a very high proportion of antioxidants and so is a very healthy form of fat to consume (in moderation).
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which is why it is often recommended for cooking because it is more stable and therefore is less likely to oxidise (and become toxic) when heated. Coconut oil has recently been criticised in mainstream media because it is high in cholesterol, however it is important to understand that it is not high in bad cholesterol, because it is an un-oxidised fat (for more on this, Dr Perlmutter’s article cited below provides some helpful insight).
Salmon is rich in healthy Omega-3s and contains nearly no Omega-6s, however it is very important to eat wild caught salmon if you can, as a lot of salmon in Australia is farmed and therefore grain-fed. Grain-feed fish contain a higher proportion of Omega-6s than Omega-3s.
For fantastic quality salmon I go to Fish & Co in Annandale but they also have an online store. All of their salmon is wild caught in Alaska, snap frozen and sold frozen, it tastes nothing like farmed salmon and is very rich in delicious healthy fat!
Tip: You will know it is wild by the darker colour of the salmon.
Walnuts are a rich source of monounsaturated fats and contain a higher ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6s. They are perfect for a satiating and nutrient-dense snack between meals and will not spike insulin levels.
When dealing with chronic illness or gut health issues anything, which can reduce inflammation, is beneficial. Eating foods rich in healthy stable fats achieves this, but also promotes the growth of healthy new cells, facilitates diversity in the microbiome, and will lead to significant overall health benefits such as increased energy and concentration.
5 resources for further reading
As I mentioned, I love to read and research. I’ve found the following 5 resources very useful on my journey to discovering the benefits of healthy fats and eliminating my IBS symptoms:
David Gillespie - his book Big Fat Lies
Chris Kresser - his blog article about animal vs plant sources of omegas here
Let us know in the comments below what fats you include in your diet and any other book recommendations you may have on the subject!
Maggie is a lawyer who lives in Sydney. In her spare time she is a freelance blogger with a particular interest in writing about nutrition, wellness and the gut-brain connection. She follows a paleo lifestyle and is also a yoga and F45 enthusiast. You can connect and follow along with Maggie on Instagram.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE