Still part of the fat-phobic trend of the early 90s? It’s time to revamp your nutritional wardrobe. The fat-phobic trend is exiting the nutrition building, but not without leaving an unsightly trail of confusion in its wake. What’s important is getting the right balance of essential fatty acids as part of a high quality, wholefood based diet.
If you haven’t already got the message: Fat isn’t bad!
Many people are still ‘fat-phobic’ or afraid of eating fat because they think they will become fat. If we are missing certain fats that our bodies cannot make (called ‘essential fatty acids’), then our skin becomes dry and scaly, our behaviour changes to make us more irritable and depressed, and we don’t learn as well.
So let’s state the fat facts. Naturally occurring fats, including oils, are a very important part of every diet. Unfortunately, the low-fat trend of the early 1990s has resulted in lingering false notions about the role of fat in the diet. Thankfully this fad is well and truly on its way out the door, but not without leaving a trail of fat-phobic confusion behind. The world of Western nutritional medicine is much like the world of fashion – fads are fickle and it seems there’s a new (and sometimes horrible) trend every season.
I for one am glad that trend is nearly over, because let’s face it – a low-fat life is not very fun, nor tasty. It’s interesting to note that “reduced fat and caloric intake and frequent use of low caloric food products have been associated with a paradoxical increase in the prevalence of obesity” (1). Unfortunately, although we are watching the low-fat trend leaving the building dressed in its garish feathers and an outdated leopard print leotard, we’ve been left fatter and more confused than ever before. Low-fat options still abound in supermarkets, and will continue to do so as long as there is consumer demand for them. Some people just can’t throw their leopard print leotards away.
No diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.[George Bernard Shaw]
So many taboos about fat have arisen from this period of fat phobia, including the perception of ‘you are what you eat’. But eating fat doesn’t make you fat, unless you consume far more energy in the form of fat than your body needs. The relationship between dietary fat and unwanted body fat, or fat in your arteries, is anything but linear. This controversy is fuelled by politics and related economic interests rather than actual science. Fat is important, and we just need to ensure we’re getting the right kinds.
Oils ain’t oils
Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is that all fat is basically the same. All fats differ substantially from one another in their biochemical structure, in the way they are digested and absorbed, and in their physiological effects. Natural dietary fats function with intricate complexity in the human body, and they are needed and used in varied ways under varied circumstances.
For example, short- and medium-chain saturated fats have potent antimicrobial properties, bypass the gall bladder during digestion and enter the portal blood to provide an immediate source of energy. Longer-chain saturated fats fuel muscles, give structural integrity to cellular membranes, assist in brain structure and function, protect our lungs from air pollution and oxidative damage, and protect the more delicate polyunsaturated ‘essential’ fats from damage and rancidity, improving their proper use. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? In short, the right kinds of dietary fats are wonderful and we need them!
So what fats should I eat?
Our innately intelligent bodies can produce all the fatty acids from the carbohydrates that we eat – all except for two that we need to get in our diets. These two essential fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.ALA is the starting material for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These tongue-twisting guys are important polyunsaturated fatty acids. And all three – ALA, EPA, and DHA – are members of the omega-3 hipster gang of fatty acids. Like a good pair of jeans, they will never go out of fashion, and we will always need them in our wardrobes to look and feel fantastic!
For the majority of human evolution, omega-6 fats (from corn oil, peanut oil, soy oil, and sun flower oil) and omega-3 fats have been consumed in a ratio of around 2:1. Nowadays that ratio is anywhere between 10:1 and 20:1, partly because of all the omega-6 oils that have been used in cooking or prepared food over the past 50 years, and partly because we have dramatically reduced our intake of omega-3 fats. To flourish we need both, but in the right balance. Most of us need to concentrate on getting enough omega-3 fats in our diets, and less omega-6.
Few people are aware that omega-3 fatty acids are the most deficient nutrients in the standard Western diet. Insufficient intake of these amazing fats is linked with virtually every modern disease process, weight problem, affective disorder, and learning disability.
The essential fatty acids are converted in our bodies into eicosanoids (including leukotrienes and prostaglandins), hormone-like substances that influence a mind-boggling number of metabolic processes. If we get an overabundance of the wrong kinds of eicosanoids, we end up with cellular inflammation. Eating enough omega-3 fats (1000-5000 mg per day) helps prevent cellular inflammation – which is what causes joint pain, breast pain, menstrual cramps, and a host of other problems.
Omega-3 fats are essential for the optimal functioning of every cell membrane in your body. That means getting enough of it is grand news for your immune system, cardiovascular system, brain, eyes, skin, nails and hair. It’s why not getting enough omega-3 fats can lead to dry skin, cracked nails, brittle hair, fatigue, depression, memory problems, hormone imbalances, aching joints, arthritis, and more colds due to a poor immune system. You can find these precious fats in:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Flaxseed and its oil
- Macadamia nuts and their oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Inca inchi oil
- Fish and fish oil supplements
- Egg yolks
- Sea algae
The benefits of ‘good’ fats
- People with higher blood levels of omega-3 fats have lower BMIs, narrower waists, and smaller hip circumferences. The cell membranes of overweight and obese people have been found to be 14 percent lower in omega-3 fats than are those of people with healthy weights (2).
- Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil supplements lower cholesterol better than statin drugs (3) and also lower triglyceride levels (4).
- DHA can stabilise your moods. Deficiencies contribute to depression, postpartum depression, preeclampsia, and various post-menopausal conditions (5).
- Omega-3 fats (especially DHA) support brain function. Sufficient amounts of DHA for foetuses and infants have been linked in numerous studies to higher IQs, while deficiencies have been associated with learning disabilities such as ADD and dyslexia (5).
- Omega-3 fats increase the feeling of fullness after eating a meal (6).
There are no bad foods, except…
As a holistic dietitian who advocates natural and intuitive eating, I often say that there are no ‘bad’ foods – with one exception: trans fats. Of all the nutrition trends, this one has to be the most questionable of them all.
A stack of evidence suggests that our current epidemic of heart disease began in the last 70 years, when partially hydrogenated fats (trans fatty acids), the foods containing them, and refined foods devoid of antioxidant vitamins were introduced into the mainstream diet.
Some fashion trends make no sense at all, and nobody looks good in them. Think of a hat made of garbage bags that completely obscures the model’s vision as she walks down the runway – completely ridiculous and quite dangerous. Similarly, trans fats are not found in nature. So our bodies haven’t evolved to deal with them. They are produced by a process where hydrogen is added under extremely high temperatures to naturally occurring polyunsaturated fat, so that these fats are solid at room temperature giving them an extremely long shelf life. Think margarine, copha, and just about every processed food you can think of, including biscuits, crackers, baked goods, even baby formula.
Apart from copha and margarine, other names to watch out for on labels are: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening and shortening.
This stuff is made to look good on the shelf – not to make you look good.
The risks of these ‘bad’ fats just aren’t worth the convenience and affordability they seem to offer.Partially hydrogenated or trans fats are associated with higher cancer rates than are saturated fats (7). In combination with excess sugar, cortisol, alcohol, and inadequate levels of magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, and B vitamins, excess trans fats inhibit the conversion of essential fatty acids (the good guys) to hormones that the female body needs for optimal health. This can lead to water retention and water weight gain, increased uterine cramps, pelvic pain and arthritis (8).
The problem with the diets of today is that processed foods containing trans fats often replace foods in which naturally occurring essential fatty acids are found, such as almost all raw nuts, whole grains and vegetables. Diets high in trans fats, omega-6 fats and excessive saturated fat have been found to contribute to insulin resistance due to the marbling it creates in skeletal muscles.
Nowadays, dietitians and government officials blithely assure the public that a healthy breakfast is low-fat and consists of margarine spread on high-fibre (albeit highly refined) toast or cornflakes with low-fat milk – and a piece of fruit, as long as you don’t exceed the recommended maximum of two pieces a day. I would instead suggest a healthy-fat, wholefood breakfast of organic avocado and a free-range egg on sourdough, banana buckwheat pancakes with almond and brazil nut butter, an organic omelette with red capsicum, kale and parsley, or quinoa porridge with fresh berries, ground flaxseeds, and full fat biodynamic milk or coconut milk. It will also taste a hell of a lot better than hydrogenated fat on cardboard.
Other good fats
Using organic virgin coconut oil (a medium-chain fatty acid with many health benefits including the ability to fight infection) can be a healthy part of your diet. Use it in cooking but don’t fall into the trap of overdoing it (three tablespoons in a smoothie every morning is probably overdoing it, no matter how heavily it’s touted as a superfood). Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) – which, once absorbed, go straight to the liver from the digestive tract, where they are used as a quick source energy or turned into ketone bodies, which can have therapeutic effects on brain disorders like epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. The lauric acid in coconut oil has been shown to kill the bacteria Staphylococcus Aureus (a very dangerous pathogen) and the yeast Candida Albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans. It’s also a great skin moisturiser!
Avocados and avocado oil are wonderful sources of healthy fats, accounting for around three quarters of the kilojoule count of an avocado. Most of it is monounsaturated fat, in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fat is considered to be a ‘good’ fat, which reduces levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood and lowers your risk of stroke and heart disease.
You can safely use some organic butter and some saturated fat in your diet, too. Just take care to ensure that any animal fat consumed comes from clean, grass-fed, organic sources (i.e. pesticide free, hormone-free).Organic butter, although a saturated fat, is an extremely stable fat that can be used in cooking. As a whole food it is rich in fat-soluble vitamins including A, E and K. Butter contains a decent amount of short and medium chain fats which can lead to improved satiety. Butter is a good source of the fatty acid butyrate which is anti-inflammatory and has powerful protective effects on the digestive system. Butter is about 3-4% butyrate. In fact, butyr-ate derives its name from butter.
By the way, extra virgin olive oil is an omega-9 fat, which has a neutral effect.
According to traditional East Asian wisdom…
Fats are important on a physical level, but also on an energetic, psycho-spiritual level. In TCM, fat consumption supports the yin principle and creates a sense of security, and a slowing, grounding influence. Healthy fats are needed by cell membranes for important functions related to flow and fluidity. They build our tissues, enhance fluid metabolism, and direct nutrients into the nervous system. Then the predominantly yin aspect of fat gradually changes into a yang, physically energising, and warming quality. This is why fats, whether from oils, nuts, seeds, or animal products, help us to feel secure, to slow down, and to have ample energy and warmth (9). Additionally, the essential fatty acids are wiggly, flowing fats that nourish the sacral chakra, our centre of creativity and flow.
Fat is not the enemy
All natural fats have a role to play in our health, and what matters in the end is proper balance. A ratio of 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fats is the goal, and we can get closer to this by increasing our intake of dark green leafy veggies, walnuts, flaxseed, sustainably caught oily fish and whole free range eggs. Hundreds of studies have shown the health benefits of increasing your intake of omega-3 fats while also decreasing trans-fats, omega-6 fats, and refined carbohydrates. Artificial, overly processed, or rancid fats, however, are the ones that need to be avoided at all costs.
When sugar and insulin levels are normalised and your diet has the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats and micronutrients from whole foods, then there’s no need to worry about the impact of dietary fat intake on overall health.
1. Heini AF & Weinsier RL 1997, “Divergent Trends in Obesity and fat Intake Patterns: The American Paradox”, American Journal of Medicine, vol. 102, no. 3, pp. 259-264.
2. Micallef M et al 2009, “Plasma n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids are negatively associated with Obesity”, British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 102 , no. 9, pp. 1370-1374.
3. Studer M et al 2005, “Effect of different antilipidemic agents and diets on mortality: a systematic review”, Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 165, no. 7, pp. 725-730.
4. Sanders TA et al 1997, “Influence of n-6 versus n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Diets Low in Saturated Fatty Acids on Plasma Lipoproteins and Hemostatic Factors”, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, vol.17, no.12, pp. 3449-3460.
5. Northrup C 2010, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Bantam Books, New York.
6. Parra D et al 2008, “A diet rich in long chain omega-3 fatty acids modulates satiety in overweight and obese volunteers during weight loss”.Appetite, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 676-680.
7. Enig MG et al 1978, “Dietary Fat and Cancer Trends: A Critique”, Federal Proceedings, vol. 37, pp. 25-30.
8. Abraham G 1978, “Primary Dysmenorrhea”, Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 139-145.
9. Pitchford P 2002, Healing with Whole Foods, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
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