The past two weeks have given me a slight obsession about fat. Is it good or is it bad? Should I eat a lot or a little? What is the real nutrient value?
I’ve always been a big advocate for not cutting out any macronutrients. Our bodies need carbohydrates, fats, and protein in order to function. If we do not get the right amounts of these, our incredible bodily systems will pull from other internal resources to keep functioning, leading to illness and disease if this quick fix isn’t corrected.
Everyone loves protein. It’s easy to get enough of it in an average, plant-based diet. It’s in grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Most people eat more protein than they need to everyday, especially with the constant focus on getting enough through food marketing initiatives.
Carbohydrates are good in moderation, and our food society has excess carbohydrates everywhere. Pizza, burgers, sandwiches, pasta. We cannot get away from it. So I am okay with the fact that the Thrive Diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and pseudo-grains as the main carbohydrate source.
But fat has me stumped. Mostly, oil has me stumped. Fats are in many plant-based foods, with a high concentration in nuts and seeds. And many oils are produced from these: flax seed, grape seed, hemp, walnut. Then we also have olive oil and coconut oil, which has its own debate. Thrive focuses on flax seed, hemp, and coconut oils. There’s at least 1 tablespoon in most recipes, and I eat about 1-2 tablespoons a day, which is well within normal daily limits. But I am also getting a few more tablespoons a day from nuts, nut butters, seeds, and avocados. At the end of the day, my food diary shows that I am 20-30 g over my daily needs of 40 g. That’s a lot of fat.
Proponents of no-added fat diets avoid oils because of their lack of nutrient density. 1 tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories, 14 g of fat, and trace amounts of iron, vitamin E, and vitamin K. By comparison, 1 tablespoon whole olives has 10 calories, less than 1 g of fat, and various amounts of most vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, calcium, sodium, and potassium (source). That’s a lot more food for nutrient value and the same calories. I get that issue – so why does my diet have so much oil?
When olives and seeds are pressed to make oil, it is both concentrating nutrients into a smaller form and leaving out nutrients from the shell that is left after being pressed. By picking the right oils, such as flaxseed, hemp, and pumpkin oil, the nutrient value is comparable to eating a whole handful of raw seeds. Both the oil and the seeds are nutrient-dense foods, packing in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Olive oil, however, leaves a lot of nutrients behind in the crushed olives and does not provide a great ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids compared to the others. A lot of other common oils in our Western diet, including canola oil, vegetable oil, and safflower oil, are similar to olive oil in their lack of nutrient value when processed from whole foods to oil. And considering that all oil is technically a processed food, less is always better in my opinion.
However, since fat I am getting is from adequate nutrient-dense sources, for now I am okay leaving the oil in my diet. I am still on the fence with coconut oil and only use it to cook, since flax seed and hemp oils have too low a burning point for cooking, which would destroy the fatty acids and convert them to trans-fats. But since I also eat whole flax seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds, giving my body the nutrition from the whole food in addition to the concentrated oil, I will continue to include them in my diet, as given in the Thrive meal plan, within moderation. Studies have shown that runners actually need added dietary fat in order to perform at optimal speed and endurance. If we do not get enough fat, our bodies are forced to only use carbohydrates for energy, which can be depleted quickly, especially in endurance athletes. The right types of added fat provides additional fuel for longer use to supplement glycogen stores. As a runner who has heard enough stories about people losing too much weight (fat) and having training issues, I’m happy to keep drizzling oil on my salads and in my smoothies.
Sources/More information (pro and con):