Get rid of the idea that fat is bad for you - it is not! In fact, most of us aren’t eating enough of it. Fat can help you lose weight, protect against heart disease, absorb vitamins and boost the immune system. But knowing which fats to eat and which to avoid is absolutely crucial.
These are the fats which have the worst reputation, and they’re found in animal fats and coconut oil. But here’s the controversial bit which goes entirely against what we have been told for decades - and which we are still being told by government agencies: these saturated fats – the dietary saturated fats – don’t raise cholesterol. The fats which are ‘bad’ are the trans-fats which cause cell membranes to become stiff and hard so that they no longer function correctly. Trans-fats are harmful to cardiovascular health because they lower good cholesterol and increase levels of bad cholesterol, and they are found particularly in processed foods.
These are the kinds of fats associated with the Mediterranean Diet – particularly extra virgin olive oil - and populations who eat plenty of them, like the Greeks and Italians, have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. Many cardiologists advocate the Mediterranean Diet, as higher intakes of monounsaturated fats are linked to lower cholesterol (or, to be more accurate, a better ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol).
You will probably know these as Omega-3s and Omega-6s – the essential fatty acids. ‘Essential’ relates to the fact that the body cannot make this kind of fat so you need to eat it as part of your diet or take it as a supplement. These fats fulfill many roles in the body, and sufficient levels are important for cell membranes, hormones (they regulate insulin function), inflammation and immunity, and mood and memory.
As a rule, Omega-6 fats are not as good for you as the Omega-3 fats, which are all powerfully anti-inflammatory. It’s not that Omega-6 fats are inherently bad, just that the balance between the Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids needs to be right.
Historically, humans ate a good ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 – ranging between 1:1 and 4:1. The modern Western diet has changed things for the worse, and the ratio is frequently 20:1 thanks to processed foods, vegetable oils and conventionally raised (rather than grass-fed) meat.
What happens when this ratio is out of balance is that you get more of all of these:-
§ Increased inflammatory conditions / autoimmune disease
§ Heart disease
§ High cholesterol
Here’s why fat is essential in the body:-
· It’s a concentrated energy source. Gram for gram, fat is twice as efficient as carbohydrates in energy production.
· Fat can be an energy store. Excess fat is stored for future energy production.
· Protection – internal (visceral) fat protects your internal organs, like the kidneys and spleen.
· ‘Subcutaneous adipose tissue’ (that’s code for the fat which you can feel by pinching your skin) helps to maintain normal body temperature and provides padding.
· Fats regulate inflammation, mood and nerve function.
· Every cell membrane in our body is made of fat – the brain itself 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 that 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 the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
How did fat get such a bad name?
Fat has acquired such a bad reputation! Over the last 70 years, low-fat products have been marketed as the saviours of our health and the message from governments and the media was – and largely still is – that, when eaten, all 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 we eat.
The demonisation of fat began when an American scientist called 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. But, when another scientist looked at the same research, this time considering ALL 22 countries’ data, no correlation was found. Although there might have been a relationship, it was not causal, ie it didn’t actually cause the situation.
A further study on rabbits compounded Ancel Keys’ hypothesis: the rabbits were fed cholesterol (which doesn’t normally form part of their 100% vegan 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 which better satisfied this new advice. They replaced saturated fats with ‘healthier’ vegetable oils, like margarine and shortening – and ironically trans-fats are now one of the few fats which research has shown 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. So this was a REALLY bad move.
AVOCADOES go with practically anything and are high in both vitamin E and healthy monounsaturated fats. Slice it, mash it, love it!
COCONUT OIL can help to reduce bad cholesterol and blood pressure. It is also an anti-fungal due to its caprylic acid content when used both externally or internally. It is an ideal replacement for butter in baking and as the best oil for frying. If you don’t like the flavour, there are versions with a neutral taste
NUTS and SEEDS are packed with nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E and bring plenty of essential fats to the table. They make the perfect snack – eat a handful (preferably raw) with a small piece of fruit or spread a little nut butter on an oatcake - peanut, almond, cashew, hazelnut, pumpkin seed are all delicious.
OILY FISH is packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, which are the building blocks of many hormones and therefore essential for hormone balance.
OLIVE OIL Use cold pressed extra virgin organic oil as a dressing on salads rather than to cook with as the high temperatures reached when roasting or frying can turn the oil rancid.
Cooking with fat
How the fat is used (through cooking and processing) is a big deciding factor as to whether it is healthy or unhealthy because essential fatty acids become free radicals in the presence of light, oxygen and heat so frying with oils like olive oil at high temperature leads to oxidation and the production of free radicals – highly inflammatory for the body and may increase the risk of heart disease or cancer.
So, cook with coconut oil, butter, ghee (clarified butter) or goose fat and NOT with olive oil or sunflower oil. In fact, don’t use sunflower oil at all (although do eat the seeds) and save olive oil for salads. Other oils such as nut, avocado and pumpkin seed also make delicious dressings.