Big Fat Lies
Poor fat. No other macronutrient has ever been so demonised.
I’m not sure who started the ‘I Hate Fat’ club but I have news for them. It’s time to stop spreading rumours, kiss and make up.
You see fat has been misunderstood, picked on and been the victim of malicious gossip. In the spirit of restoring fat to it’s rightful place in our diet, I’d like to address some of the porkies we’ve been told and share with you the many benefits having adequate fat in our diet provides.
Porkie # 1 - Saturated Fat is Bad, Unsaturated Fat is Good
Since the USDA released the low-fat guidelines in 1977 (telling us that we need to avoid saturated fat) obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed. The best kinds of fats are actually unrefined animal fats (preferably organic and grass-fed), fat from fish, and certain fats from plants such as avocado, olives, nuts and tropical oils. They tend to include a higher proportion of saturated or monounsaturated fats or be higher in omega-3s.
The fats you want to avoid, or at least keep to a minimum are vegetable fats like soy, peanut, corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oil that have been refined. They tend to be high in omega-6 fats and are highly susceptible to oxidation during processing, which makes them reactive and damaging to the body which leads to inflammation and disease.
The fats you want avoid at all costs are the trans-fatty acids. More commonly called trans fats, they are made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas and a catalyst (often nickel), by a process called hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil. It also converts the oil into a solid, which makes transportation easier. Partially hydrogenated oils can also withstand repeated heating without breaking down, making them ideal for frying fast foods which is why they’ve become a mainstay in restaurants and the food industry, for frying, baked goods, and processed snack foods and margarines.
For years, margarine was promoted as a heart-healthy alternative to butter. Since margarine was made from unsaturated vegetable oils, most people assumed it would be better for long-term health than butter (unfairly maligned as it contains cholesterol and saturated fat). That assumption turned out to be wrong. Research showed that margarine is bad for the heart as it contains large amounts of trans-fats from partially hydrogenated oils. The Nurses’ Health Study found that women who ate 4 teaspoons of margarine a day had a 50% greater risk of heart disease than women who ate margarine only rarely. Choose butter over margarine, always.
- Eating saturated fat does not increase blood triglyceride levels, but carbohydrates do. High blood triglycerides cause inflammation and plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing heart disease risk so watch how much carbohydrate you eat, and choose low-GI options.
- Saturated fat raises HDL, the “good” cholesterol that lowers your risk of heart disease.
- Many foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, such as eggs and coconut oil, can decrease inflammation, lower circulating triglycerides, and reduce insulin due to the natural antioxidants they contain.
- Large-scale studies show no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk. Meanwhile, a recent study of over 58,000 Japanese adults found that higher saturated fat intake was associated with a 31% reduction in mortality from stroke and an 18% reduction in heart disease. This is noteworthy because the Japanese eat a non-Western diet, suggesting that disease prevention is best achieved with alternatives to the Western diet.
- Saturated fats don’t damage easily in high heat, making them the safest fats to cook with because it’s actually the oxidised (damaged) fats that cause inflammation in the arteries.
- Trans fats are the worst for cholesterol levels because they raise bad LDL and lower good HDL. They are also inflammatory which has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. And they contribute to insulin resistance. Even small amounts of trans fat in the diet can have harmful health effects - for every extra 2% of calories from trans fat daily, the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23%.
Porkie # 2 - Eating Fat Makes You Fat
Now, I should point out that eating too much of anything will result in weight gain. However the belief that consuming a low-fat diet is good for weight loss is flawed. Eating some fat is necessary if you want to lose fat.
Firstly, one of the many issues with a low-fat diet are people tend to replace natural fats with carbs, while food manufacturers replace fat with sugar, which leads to a huge increase in nutrient-poor calories that the body stores as fat.
Secondly, not all calories are created equal and reducing refined carbohydrates helps weight loss and maintaining weight loss better than reducing fat. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found diets that reduce the surge in blood sugar after a meal – either low-glycaemic index or very-low carbohydrate – are preferable to a low-fat diet for those trying to achieve lasting weight loss.
The study suggests that a low-GI diet is more effective than conventional approaches at burning calories (and keeping energy expenditure) at a higher rate after weight loss. Total calories burned plummeted by 300 calories on the low-fat diet compared to the low-carbohydrate diet, which would equal the number of calories typically burned in an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity. Basically a low-fat diet slows your metabolism down and makes weight gain more likely!
- Though a low-fat diet is traditionally recommended by the U.S. Government and Heart Association, it caused the greatest decrease in energy expenditure, an unhealthy lipid pattern and insulin resistance.
So, just in case you’re not convinced that fat really is not the dietary evil it has been made out to be - I’d like to share with you some of the benefits fat can provide us:
Fat Keeps Us Full
Fat is filling. And when paired with a nice portion of protein, fat can lead to greater satisfaction from eating, curbing hunger and cravings. This helps us avoid overeating at meals, or bingeing - and therefore helps us stay on track with our eating goals. Research suggests that medium chain fatty acids such as coconut oil are the most satiating of all.
According to a 2008 study from University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain - diets with high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids create a greater sense of fullness both immediately following and two hours after dinner than meals with low levels of the fatty acids. It’s no surprise that dieters who consume moderate levels of fat are more likely to stick with their eating plans than dieters who consume low levels of fat!
Fat Builds Muscle
Increasing muscle mass is vital to increasing metabolism and burning calories. In a 2011 study published in Clinical Science, researchers examined the effects of eight weeks of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) supplementation in adults ages 25-45 and found that the fat increased protein concentration and the size of muscular cells in the body. This means eating good fats along with an effective exercise program can increase muscle! Previous studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults and can mediate muscle mass loss due to ageing.
Eating Fat Helps You Burn Fat
A 2003 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who ate a high-fat diet lost more weight than those on a high-carbohydrate diet, even when the high-fat group ate 300 more calories per day. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2007) found that consuming fatty acids can boost metabolism.
Conversely, lower-fat diets can have a negative impact on fat loss because of it’s impact on adipokines. Adipokines are hormones released specifically from your fat cells. One such hormone, adiponectin, is a true fat-burning hormone that works to enhance your metabolism and increase the rate in which fats are broken down, curbing your appetite. Lower-fat diets lead to lower levels of adiponectin which leads to increased appetite and reduced fat-burning - not a good combination!
Omega-3 fats specifically help turn on genes that are involved with lipolysis or the burning of fat, while turning off the genes that store fat. Omega-3 fats also support thyroid hormone function, which is a hormone closely involved in body fat regulation. Low thyroid hormone is a common reason people can’t lose fat.
Our Cells Need Fat To Be Healthy
Fats are a vital part of the membrane that surrounds each cell of the body. Without a healthy cell membrane, the rest of the cell couldn’t function. Cholesterol helps give our cell membranes structure and strength (otherwise it would collapse!) and omega-3 essential fatty acids help our cell membranes remain fluid enough that nutrients and oxygen can readily enter the cell and waste by-products of cell metabolism can be easily eliminated.
Fats Makes You Brainy
Your brain is mainly made up of cholesterol and fat, a large portion of which are essential fatty acids, in particular DHA. Fat not only provides the structural elements of cell membranes in the brain, but also of myelin, the fatty insulating sheath that surrounds each nerve fibre, enabling it to carry messages faster - which dictates everything from mood to neuromuscular function to cognition.
Adequate good fat intake helps prevent depression and one side effect of the low-fat diets that have been erroneously recommended to lower cholesterol levels is an increase in suicides. In fact there is a blood level of omega-3 fatty acids that if a person falls below, strongly predicts risk for suicide. The impact on mood is caused by a deficiency of cholesterol and fat in the brain, which causes lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin that makes people feel good.
Fats Provides Essential Vitamins
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, meaning that the fat in foods provides these and helps the intestines absorb these vitamins into the body. A low-fat diet will eventually result in a deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins.
As a result fat is needed for bone mineral density and the prevention of osteoporosis. Fats are involved in calcium metabolism and the vitamins K2 and D are both fat-soluble nutrients that collaborate in building bone. Many factors influence bone health, but providing the building blocks for bone with adequate good fats and the ideal omega-3 and -6 ratio (2:1) can only help.
Hormonal Health Relies On Fat
Fats are structural components of some of the most important substances in the body, including prostaglandins - hormone-like substances that regulate many of the body’s functions. You need fats because they regulate the production of sex hormones, which explains why some teenage girls who are too lean experience delayed pubertal development and amenorrhea.
Fat is critical for reproductive health in both men and women because it’s used to manufacture hormones and improves gene signalling that regulates hormone balance. For women, not eating enough fat is a common cause of infertility, while eating the wrong fats increases complications from PMS and menopause. For men, lack of good fats reduces testosterone and other androgen hormones that are critical for reproductive health. For instance, a study found that reducing fat intake in men by increasing carbohydrate intake led to significantly lower free testosterone. Total androgen hormone levels were down 12%.
Beautiful, Healthy Skin Requires Fat
One of the more obvious signs of fatty acid deficiency is dry, flaky skin. In essence, the body uses fats to moisturise itself. Inadequate intake of fat will cause the natural hydro-lipid film, that is supposed to protect our skin, to deteriorate. Not only will skin look dry, dull, and lifeless but it will be sensitive and reactive to the environment. Dry eyes may also result.
In addition to giving skin its rounded appeal, the layer of fat just beneath the skin (called subcutaneous fat) acts as the body’s own insulation to help regulate body temperature. Lean people tend to be more sensitive to cold; obese people tend to be more sensitive to warm weather.
- Immune Support - saturated fats such as those found in butter and coconut oil contain the fatty acids lauric and myristic acid. They are anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal and have been found to decrease infection rates by killing bacteria such as harmful candida yeast.
- Cushioning - many of the vital organs, especially the kidneys, heart, and intestines are cushioned by fat that helps protect them from injury and hold them in place.
So ultimately fat is your friend in your battle of the bulge. Whilst individual requirements vary, typically an adult should be consuming between 50-70g of fat a day, keep saturated fat to just under a third of the total intake - and look to get the rest from a mixture of monounsaturates, polyunsaturates and omega-3 fatty acids.