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The Truth About Fats

I grew up with the notion that fats were bad,and that eating fat would make me fat. In fact, most of us aren’t eating enough of this macro-nutrient in our diet. The right fats can actually help you lose weight, protect against heart disease, increase the absorption of vitamins, support brain health and boost your immune system. Following is some information that I hope will clear up some of the confusion surrounding dietary fats.

So, how did fat get such a bad name?

Over the last 70 years low-fat products have been marketed as the saviour of our health. And the message from governments and the media was – and largely still is – that, when eaten, fat gets stored as fat in the body and puts us at greater risk of heart disease.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we use the same word for the fat we DON’T want (on the hips, around the middle and so on) and the fat that we eat.

The demonisation of fat began when an American scientist named Ancel Keys produced the first ‘evidence’ linking saturated fat to heart disease in 1953. He based his scientific opinion on observational data of heart disease, death rates and fat consumption in six countries (ignoring statistics from a further 16 countries because they contradicted his hypothesis) and assumed a correlation between heart disease and eating fat. (As a side note, when another scientist looked at the same research, this time considering ALL 22 countries’ data, no correlation was found).

Although there might have been correlation (there was a relationship), it was not causal (didn’t actually cause the situation).

A further study on rabbits compounded Ancel Keys’ hypothesis: The rabbits were fed cholesterol (which didn't normally form a part of their 100% veggie diet) and went on to develop fatty deposits in their arteries. And then, guess what happened? Poor bunnies!

Governments (and their health care agencies) across the world began advocating a low fat diet. They told us to fill up on bread, rice, cereals and pasta, and opt for low-fat or no-fat alternatives wherever we could.

Soon, the food industry jumped on board to create products that better satisfied this new advice. They replaced saturated fats with ‘healthier’ vegetable oils, like margarine and shortening – ironically trans fats are now one of the few fats research shows ARE linked to heart disease. The biggest problem is that, when you remove the fat from foods, you need to replace it with something else to make those foods palatable – and this replacement is usually sugar. This was a REALLY bad move.

I hope that this has helped to clear up some of the confusion surrounding dietary fats. Here are some of the best fats to include in your diet.

Saturated fat

These are the fats that have the worst reputation,and they are found in animal fats and coconut oil. We have been told for decades (and we are still being told by government agencies) … that saturated fats raise cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.

This topic is quite controversial but one thing is for certain - when it comes to saturated fat quality is key. The saturated fat in a fast food burger will have an entirely different effect than saturated fat in coconut oil.

I recommend increasing healthy sources of saturated fat like coconut oil and grass-fed meats and minimise the unhealthy sources. This, along with significantly reducing sugar in the diet is an effective strategy to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other chronic degenerative diseases.

The fats that are truly ‘bad’ are the trans-fats, which cause cell membranes to become stiff and hard, thus preventing nutrients from getting in and toxins from getting out. Trans-fats are harmful to cardiovascular health (they lower good cholesterol and increase levels of bad cholesterol). Some trans-fats are contained naturally in dairy products, but they are most commonly found in processed foods (i.e. hydrogenated oils, margarine).

Monounsaturated fats

These are the kinds of fats associated with the Mediterranean diet – particularly olive oil, and populations that eat a lot of these fats, like the people of Greece and Italy, have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. Many cardiologists advocate the Mediterranean diet, as higher intakes of this kind of fat are linked to lower cholesterol (or, to be more accurate, a better ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol).

Polyunsaturated fats

These are the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, also referred to as essential fatty acids. ‘Essential’ relates to the fact that the body cannot make this kind of fat; you need to eat it as part of your diet or take it as a supplement. Essential fats fulfil many roles in the body, and sufficient levels are necessary for healthy cell membranes, the production of hormones, controlling inflammation, and supporting immunity, mood and memory.

As a rule, omega-6 fats are not as good for you as the omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory. It’s not that omega-6 fats are inherently bad, however, it’s the ratio between the two that becomes problematic when it gets disturbed.

Historically, humans ate a good ratio of omega-6 to 3 – ranging between 1:1 and 4:1. The modern Western diet has changed things for the worse, bringing the ratio to around 20:1. This is due to an increased intake of processed foods, vegetable oils and conventionally raised (rather than grass-fed) meat.

Too much of the pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fats in the diet can lead to:

  • Increase in inflammatory conditions/ autoimmune disease

  • Obesity

  • Heart disease

  • Diabetes

  • High cholesterol

  • Cancer

My favourite fats

AVOCADOS They go with practically anything and are high in both vitamin E and in healthy monounsaturated fats. Slice it, mash it, love it!

COCONUT OIL There’s so much to like. Apart from helping to reduce bad cholesterol and blood pressure, coconut oil is an anti-fungal (caprylic acid) when used both externally or internally. The ideal replacement for butter in baking and as your oil of choice when frying.

NUTS Packed with nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E, nuts bring plenty of essential fats to the table. They make the perfect blood sugar balancing snack – eat a handful (preferably raw) with a small piece of fruit or spread a little nut butter on an oatcake.

OILY FISH are filled with omega 3 fatty acids, which are the building blocks of your sex hormones, so are essential for hormone balance. Think SMASH - Salmon (wild), Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herring.

OLIVE OIL Use cold pressed organic oil to drizzle over vegetables or as a dressing on salads.

Following are some reasons to include the healthy sources of fats outlined above in your diet:

  • Fat a concentrated energy source. Gram for gram,fat is twice as efficient as carbohydrates in energy production.

  • Protection – internal (visceral) fat protects your internal organs, like the kidneys and spleen.

  • Fats regulate inflammation, mood and nerve function.

  • Every cell membrane in our body is made of fat – in fact, the brain is 60% fat.

  • Many hormones are made from fat. These are known as steroid hormones and they govern stress, sex, and immune function.

  • Fats are actually essential for survival (experiments on rats in the 1920s showed this and when fat was removed from the diet they died).

  • Fat is the preferred fuel for muscles and the heart. The brain can also burn fat for fuel.

  • Essential fatty acids are required for healthy skin, healthy cell membranes, healthy nerves, healthy joints and to help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Cooking with fat

How the fat is used through cooking and processing also determines whether it is healthy or unhealthy. Essential fatty acids (EFA's) can become a source of free radicals in the presence of light, oxygen and heat. Free radicals are highly inflammatory for the body and may increase the risk of heart disease or cancer.

My go-to sources of fat to cook with are coconut oil, avocado oil, grass-fed butter or ghee. There was a time when I stayed away from butter at all costs, however, I have learned to embrace it in moderation. Butter is actually a rich source of a beneficial short-chain fatty acid called butyrate which is great for the digestive system, and has also been shown to modulate the immune system, reduce inflammation and support brain health.

So, I hope that you will learn to embrace some healthy fats in your diet - if I can do it, the former queen of fat-free everything, anyone can!

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