Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Starter Series: 3. Eat Fat.

Thus begins the third installment of our Starter Series about eating paleo-style: Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, little (or no) dairy, and no sugar, no grains, and no legumes.  I was going to call this "Eat Nuts and Seeds," as the above mantra would suggest, but then I took a step back and paused.  Question everything.   

What are we going for with "eat nuts and seeds"?  

Basically, we want healthy FAT sources.  It's the fat, not the nuts and seeds that matter.  Besides, many people are allergic to nuts and seeds, so this is a potential breaking point for those following a paleo-style eating plan.  This is especially true for schools.  You can't promote a diet placing nuts and seeds as prominent components when government standards disallow nuts from schools due to potentially fatal allergies.  I don't want this road bump to jeopardize the whole dietary plan!

Plus, nuts and seeds contain digestive nasties like lectins and phytates, just like grains, so I can't fully endorse them without some caveats.  While they have been a long standing resident in our diet, evolutionarily speaking, nuts and seeds can be hard on digestion.  If you've been down the paleo baking road or eat a lot of nuts, you know of what I speak.  Let's just say it can be messy...

So do we desire nuts and seeds for some unique benefit?  Are they contributing something vital?  Not really.  The vitamins and minerals they provide are great, but can be had through other sources.  The bigger picture is FAT.  We want to shift the paradigm to help the public, educators, and leaders accept fat as a NECESSARY (and freakin' tasty!) component of our diet.  It's okay, I know what they made you think all those years.  Contrary to popular belief, fat IS good for us and IS necessary.  For more on what I call Fatphobia, please read my post.

I've also taken on the infamous "arterycloggingsaturatedfat" in my post: Saturated with Fat.  

Here is what I can surmise from my research: 
  • Fat is a necessary component to EVERY meal.  It slows glucose from entering the bloodstream to protect against blood sugar spikes and a runaway train insulin response.   It helps promote satiety after eating.  
  • Fat is used for fuel.  It is a great source of energy.  Your brain NEEDS fat to function.  So does your heart.  
  • Fat is necessary to absorb and store essential fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K.  You can't live without them or fat.  Period.  
  • Fat cells secrete the hormone leptin that tells your brain, "Okay, I'm full!" Leptin also increases fat metabolism (using it for fuel) and metabolic rate in general.  It's not the amount of leptin that is key to losing and burning fat, but your body's sensitivity to it.  This mechanism mirrors that of insulin.  Just like how insulin resistance from perpetually high levels of insulin in a carboholic can lead to diabetes, leptin resistance can make the fat get fatter and may actually precede insulin resistance on the road to metabolic nasties like diabetes and heart disease.  The source of leptin resistance?  Surprise, surprise: Carbohydrates!  (Which, I might add, are also the source of insulin resistance.)  Looks like fructose is the culprit, another reason to ditch the agave, avoid HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) like the plague, and go low-carb.  Thus, fat is part of an integral feedback loop for weight management.  Read more about the leptin-obesity link at Whole Health Source.  
  • Insulin actually inhibits using fat for fuel, so high insulin means storage of fat, not burning it.  What spikes insulin?  Say it with me now: Carbohydrates!  Blood glucose rises from carbohydrate metabolism.  Thus, if you want to use fat for energy instead of a seat cushion, eat low-carb to keep your blood sugar in check.  Read more about this at Hyperlipid.   
Can you see the big picture emerging?  Carbohydrates, especially fructose-containing ones, create leptin resistance and carbohydrates, especially those metabolized into glucose (see the glycemic index), create insulin resistance.  Betwixt the two, you are riding the roller coaster to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, you name it.  Sounds thrilling!
  • Scary triglycerides that correlate with heart disease (unlike cholesterol in general or saturated fat--sorry to rain on the low-fat parade) have a glycerol molecule tying together three fatty acids.  That glycerol comes from carbohydrates you ingest.  More carbohydrate means more triglycerides, and limiting carbohydrate means fewer triglycerides.  Fewer triglycerides means less fat storage and increased ability to burn fat for fuel.  Hence LOW-fat, HIGH-carb diets lead to MORE triglycerides than HIGH-fat, LOW-carb diets.  You would think more fat in the diet leads to more triglycerides since they are made up of three fatty acids, but that just isn't what we see in the research (see The Heart Scan Blog for more details).  The authors of Hyperlipid and The Heart Scan Blog disagree on some aspects of this topic, so I suggest you read up on their viewpoints to make an informed decision of your own.  (Note: It is really quite a mind-trip to read such intensely in-depth discussions on the minutia of body chemistry.  Definitely makes me feel like a nutrition n3wb!)  
  • The linear model of saturated fat leads to high cholesterol (in particular the "bad" LDL kind) leads to heart disease is just plain wrong.  Sorry to rock your world, but it is.  Read Mens Health Journal for more information on the evolution of this revolution to modern medicine that is still on the fringe of public acceptance.  In reality, it's the small, dense LDL we need to watch out for which INCREASE when saturated fat is supplanted by carbohydrate in the diet.  Sounds eerily familiar to the triglyceride story.  So total cholesterol, HDL:LDL ratio, and even total LDL DO NOT correlate with heart disease.  It's the triglycerides and small, dense LDL you need to worry about, and your carbohydrate intake that is directly linked to both.  If you are concerned about your cholesterol, check the particle size (there are tests for it, just ask) for the bigger picture.  As my commenter from CrossFit Fire of the Gods pointed out, check out Heart Scan Blog for more information about cholesterol and read their own summary of the current research: CrossFit Fire of the Gods.  
  • FEAR carb overload (particularly of fructose-containing foods and high glycemic foods), trans fat and other man-made frankenfats (i.e. anything hydrogenated), and omega-6 fatty acids that overbalance crucial omega-3 fatty acids.  (We'll talk more about omega-6 below, don't worry.)
  • DON'T FEAR saturated fat, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, or monounsaturated fatty acids.  
Is your mind abuzz yet?  Need an interlude?  Here is a YouTube video from the movie Fat Head that puts fat in perspective in a silly, graphical way that I found really entertaining and simple to understand.  And it's short!  Thanks CrossFitKaty's Nutrition Blog for helping me find this resource!

The 'take away' so far?  Make sure you are eating healthy fat with every meal.  What is healthy fat?  Here are my suggestions:
  • Eat animal fats.
I know, this goes against the paleo "eat lean meats" prescription, so let me explain.  Animal fat is high in HEALTHY saturated fat (yes, I know it is hard to swallow, and even harder for me to type, but it is true).  Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of The Paleo Diet himself, has been softening his take on saturated fat.  Originally, he was rooted in the Saturated Fat Bashers camp, but he is coming around, albeit slowly.  Healthy animal fats are embraced by the Primal Blueprint, including lard, poultry fat, tallow, and ghee, as described in a good primer at Mark's Daily Apple.  

Saturated fat really isn't that bad for us.  Re-read my post Saturated with Fat for more information.  And don't forget that great Men's Health article dispelling the myths.  For more, check out Dr. Eades author of Protein Power.  

NOTE: Eating animal fats does NOT mean eating bacon 24/7.  Sorry!  Despite that savory aroma-eliciting salivation and the electrifying melt-in-your-mouth crunch of meaty baconiness once you sink your fangs into its crumbly flesh, bacon almost always includes sugar (in some form or another, yeah I mean You, evaporated cane juice) and can also include toxic nasties called nitrates, a known carcinogen.  Choose your bacony indiscretions wisely and know that although divine, it probably isn't technically-speaking "paleo," unless of course you can actually find sugar-free, nitrate-free, paleo conforming bacon.  If you do, please let me know where you find it!

Butter is another grey area.  Dairy constantly has its kneecaps lobbed off by the Paleo Diet proponents, including founder Dr. Loren Cordain.  I can understand their issues with dairy: the growth hormones and inflammatory-response inducing proteins, plus the heavy dose of omega-6 and toxins from the grain-based diet of most dairy cows.  Makes sense.  But there is also some good about butter, namely: vitamins A, D, E and K, antioxidants, CLA, "anti-stiffness" factor, iodine, digestion-aiding fats, and cholesterol (yes, cholesterol is good for us, get over the myth already!).  These benefits are described in more detail here in an article by the Weston Price Foundation.  You may have stumbled upon that name before since he is often mentioned in the paleo/primal community.  Weston Price was an ethnographic researcher at the turn of the last century who studied the health of isolated, non-industrialized populations around the world to determine a healthy ancestral diet.  He came up with dietary guidelines somewhat similar to the Paleo Diet; however, he included dairy and sprouted/soaked/fermented grains amongst suggested foods.  Another discussion of butter is a post by Hyperlipid, a blog I mentioned earlier.  This is a VERY technical post that appears to come to the conclusion that butter is okay as long as your blood glucose isn't sky high (one more reason bread and butter is NOT a good idea at the nightly dinner table).  Another example, a study at Lund University found that butter produces less fat in your bloodstream than olive oil.  Why?
The primary explanation for the relatively low increase in blood fats caused by butter is that around 20 per cent of the fat in butter is comprised of short and medium-length fatty acids. These are used straight away as energy and therefore never affect the blood fats to any large degree. 
I think I will stop here and save our discussion of dairy for another Starter Series post.  For now, I would suggest excluding dairy initially from paleo-style and then reintroducing butter (and other high fat dairy) slowly and only from the best sources (raw, grassfed).  Does it make you sick?  If not, add some to your diet and enjoy the benefits.  May the paleo gods strike me down: I LOVE raw, grassfed butter!
  • Eat healthy oils.
Fish oil is a biggie here.  You probably should be supplementing with quality fish oil because you just can't get enough from fish (yeah, you can try, but you'd probably wind up with more toxins too since the fatty fish with the highest omega-3 are also high on the food chain and accumulate a heavy dose of heavy metals--our gift to the seas).  Also, the omega-3 that used to be ubiquitous in the hunter-gatherer diet we evolved upon just isn't as readily available today.  Times have changed and we have moved on to feeding our animals boatloads of grains and changing their body composition to fit our preferences.  Even eating all grass-fed, pastured, wild caught meats isn't enough.  From our omega-3 discussion, you know that more omega-3 is better because we want to balance out that potentially nasty omega-6 bombarding our diet from processed foods, meat, nuts, seeds, etc. and although omega-6 plays important roles in our diet, it can also lead to the dark side of inflammation.  So we are trying to get back a roughly 1:1 balance of omegas;  thus, we can benefit from supplementation.  Yes, I know it is processed and creating dependency on something inherently unnatural.  That bothers me too.  But I see the benefits and don't think I can ever eat enough fish to get the omega-3 I need.  So, I try to reduce the evil of this suggestion by finding quality, purified (mercury and PCB free) fish oil without a long list of fillers and other substances like wheat and soy that chip away at the fish oil's anti-flammatory benefits.  The other benefits of fish oil?  How about better recovery from exertion and sickness/injury, a healthy brain (remember, your brain is fat fueled), heart health, better vision, and protection against cancer?

Possible side effects include fishy burps (the few I had initially went away quickly and haven't returned--if unnerved, try a flavored brand without chemical additives), possible bruising and blood clotting issues from thinned blood (rare, but possible especially with high dosages; however, this is challenged at the Heart Scan Blog), too much vitamin A or D if you take cod liver oil in high dosages, and the toxins from our lovingly polluted seas.  A lawsuit was recently filed that challenges the purity of well-known brands of fish oil.  Although purity may be in question, I have to trust that guarantee label on my bottle (not a tested brand, yet, unfortunately).  I still believe the benefits speak for themselves.  Still hesitant?  There's more detail at The Paleo Diet website,  Mark's Daily AppleHyperlipidHeart Scan Blog, etc.

To calculate your recommended fish oil dosage, use this handy calculator from Whole 9.  Brilliant!

Other healthy oils: olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, and in moderation: walnut oil and sesame oil.

Not so healthy oils: canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, flaxseed oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, grape seed oil, and soybean oil.

Check out Mark's Daily Apple for more detail on these oils including important information about heat and oxidation potential--a MUST read!  
  • Eat nuts and seeds.
Nuts (no, not peanuts, silly--they're beans) and seeds are a healthy component of paleo-style eating because they add fat, along with some other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.  Nuts and seeds are the storage form of energy for growing seedlings, so they are packed full of nutrition.  They are endowed with vitamin E, essential fatty acids, fiber, folate, plant sterols, magnesium, and potassium.  As a protein source, they are pretty poor because they are so much more fat than protein, and because they contain lectins and anti-nutrients, like phytates.  Soaking can help remove these toxins for easier digestion.  However, if you are looking to lose weight, limit nut intake (Cordain recommends 4oz a day max for those trying to lose weight).  Why?  Well, at first glance, he is just repeating the "fat makes you fat" propaganda and he doesn't like the high omega-6.  I can agree with the latter point.  At second glance, I realize that it is the CARBOHYDRATES in nuts that are the problem.  While you may think you have a great fat source, you forget those other macronutrients that the Zone allows us to sweep under the carpet.  Carbohydrates in excess of 50g a day WILL not allow you to lose weight, instead, they'll help you gain it and also lead to more problems down the line.  Here are the breakdowns: an ounce of cashews has 8.5g of carbohydrate (not counting fiber); pistachios are 4.5g per oz; almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are about 2g per oz; and macadamia, brazil, and pecans are closer to 1g per oz.  Doesn't sound like much?  Try munching and see where it takes you, or dip into some nut butter.  It is easy to go overboard.  On a lower-carb diet, every gram is precious and most should come from veggies.

Valid question: Why eat nuts and seeds, which have lectins/anti-nutrients/phytates, but NOT grains, which also have them?

Answer: Basically, anti-nutrients are characteristic of all plants to some degree or another, especially their progeny!  The argument for the inclusion of nuts and seeds is their host of nutritional benefits and their evolutionary history with us.  We have been eating nuts and seeds far, far back in our evolutionary record (not that our history justifies our diet, but it provides evolutionary context at least) and our bodies can digest them easier than grains, especially those containing gluten (see Why No Grain and Cereal Grains: Humanity's Double-Edged Sword by Cordain for more).  Nuts and seeds require minimal processing and were an important fat in many hunter-gatherer diets.  To remove the digestive irritants, you can go soak your nuts (heh) and seeds to increase their digestibility.  Nut and seed oils have removed the anti-nutrients and lectins, but watch their level of processing, omega-6:omega-3 ratios, and dangerous oxidation at high heat.  Bottom line?  Take them or leave them.  I think you can make a solid argument against nuts and seeds as much as for nuts and seeds.  If you like them, don't overeat them, and don't feel digestive detriments, then by all means enjoy them.  You can get your fat from other sources, but having more variety is always nice, especially with a diet already slashing out whole food groups :)

Okay, so which nuts and seeds are best?  Cordain doesn't really like seeds (except flax, but he is changing his mind on that too) and definitely voices caution about nuts.  Here is Cordain's comprehensive chart on the types of fatty acids in different nuts.  What does all this mean?  According to most sources, try to minimize the omega-6 content, so choose nuts that have high omega-3 relative to omega-6.  But, you're pretty screwed no matter the nut, since they ALL have such high omega-6, hence limiting them in your diet.  Macadamia nuts do well, and coconut oil (super high in saturated fat) is my hero, despite Cordain's reservations.  My suggestion, minimize the carbohydrate and omega-6 whenever possible and go light if you are trying to lose weight, EXCEPT with coconut oil, since it's so darn special.
  • Eat avocados.
Yes, they are a class of their own.  I couldn't find which other category fit them best.  They are technically berries, and named after a certain other "nut" found on human males--no joke!  Their flesh is rich in monounsaturated fat.  Avocados are also high in potassium (more than a medium banana); folate; carotenoids; vitamins E, B6, C, and K; fiber; copper; and phytonutrients.  They can be eaten raw as a delicious accompaniment to steaks, chicken breast, and salad, or blend them in puddings, smoothies, and shakes for non-dairy creaminess.  Pretty versatile! 

Bottom-line: Fat is good for you!  Make sure you have a fat source with every meal!

And now for the recipes

I included fat in almost EVERY recipe to date--so I will save you the exhaustive list.  Feel free to search and use the sidebar tags for my recipes.

Today's recipe is one I have been devouring lately.  It is so good that I think about it when I wake up and savor the memory when I go to bed.  No kidding.  But that is how paleo has been for me: an exploration of my tastes and adventure into the unknown, finding mouth-watering gems along the way.  Here is my latest, and the best part?  It's a five minute or less meal!!!

Salad from the Sea
I thought I hated canned fish, but when the necessity for a quick non-refrigeration-required meal hit me, I  put the past behind me and gave this a go.  OMG--It is SO delicious!!!  I can't get enough of it!

Serves one for a satisfying full-fat meal ready in five minutes or less!  Easily doubled, tripled, etc.

1 can of wild caught mackerel packed in olive oil with sea salt and NOTHING else on the ingredient list*
1/2 lemon

Wash lettuce and place in a large bowl.  Add the contents of the can of fish, breaking the fish into bite-sized hunks.  Add lemon juice to the empty can and swirl to try to get every last morsel out of that can.  Empty onto your salad.  Toss to incorporate the fish and dressing evenly.  Grab a fork and have at it!

Why is this a fat recipe?  Read the label (yeah, I know, "no labels in REAL paleo," but hardliners can get their head out of the sand and get real).  More fat than protein, oh yeah!  You get the benefit of fatty fish omega-3 and olive oil's monounsaturated fats, the lettuce and lemon's net basic load to balance the fish's acid, high-quality protein from the fish, and a slew of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to fuel your body nutritiously.  Such symmetry in such an easy paleo meal!

*One caveat: I have heard that eating canned fish is a "no no" due to toxins in the fish and from the canning process (and, yes, any processing is frowned upon).  Also, the high heat of canning reduces nutrients and oxidizes fat.  This study shows that consuming less than 350g of canned fish a week is safe toxin-wise, but children and pregnant women should use caution.  The take-away: canned wild-caught fish without added anything is probably best, if less convenient, and better yet: use freshly cooked, wild-caught fish you made yourself.  And try to eat fish that don't accumulate those toxins we've put in their water, so go small.  Add your own olive oil or another tasty healthy oil to make this salad even healthier!  For me, this'll do in a pinch and is damn tasty, dare I say, even crave-worthy!

Fish Salad on FoodistaFish Salad
Fish Citrus Salad on FoodistaFish Citrus Salad
Tuna Fish Salad on FoodistaTuna Fish Salad


  1. Wow, that's an opus! This is fantastic work, your blog readers will learn so much, and so much faster than those of us who have been piecing these things together over years and years (and reading and re-reading Taubes' GCBC).

    There's one piece you could add - that piece about small dense LDL levels and heart disease, summary here:

    Then there's this even more nuanced element that describes a reason why small, dense LDL may be the most harmful kind: No matter how you spin it, the story of carbohydrates is getting uglier and uglier. Carbohydrates, such as those in your whole grain bagel, drive small LDL up, while making them prone to a glycating process that makes them more likely to contribute to formation of coronary atherosclerotic plaque."

  2. Almost forgot - if you have not viewed "Fat Head the Movie" in its entirety - you should! It might even be a good Friday night CF Affil movie night topic. That guy (Naughton) is scary smart and therefore way too funny for his own good.

  3. Very true, Paul. I completely forgot to mention cholesterol! Doh! I appreciate your additions and will put them into the post now. Thank you for your eye for detail and knowledge of the best sources to find the data. Thank you!

    And no, I haven't seen Fat Head yet, but I have seen a bunch of clips and like what I see. Thank you for the recommendation!

  4. Fantastic information! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. "Minimize the carbohydrate and omega-6 whenever possible and go light if you are trying to lose weight, EXCEPT with coconut oil, since it's so darn special."

    That's right. Coconut oil is actually helpful in loosing weight. Actually, I'm into this diet thingy and bought mine from I guess the price is just worth it, though.