The Truth About Fat
Everything You Wanted to Know About Fats and Oils, and What Affect They Have on Our Health
The subject of dietary fat has always interested me, and until now I’ve never fully understood why we actually need to consume fats, or what role fats play in our health.
Hopefully this article will dispel a lot of
blatantly made up stats myths, and answers some questions you may have regarding the fat and oil you eat.
To understand what dietary fat is, how we process it, and how our body uses it, we need to understand what types of fats there are, and the role they play in our health.
Good Fats, Bad Fats and Scary Fats!
Most people realize that not all fats are bad for us.
Interesting Fact: Every food we eat, whether it comes from plants or animals, contains fat (also known as fatty acids) of some kind.
Fat is needed to maintain every cell in our body, and provides us with energy. We also need fat in order to absorb certain vitamins.
Fats are recognized in society (mainstream health and media) as either healthy or unhealthy.
We are lead to believe the “healthy fats” come in the form of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, where as the unhealthy fats, are saturated fats and trans-fats.
I reckon this is about the extent of the average persons knowledge (well mine was anyway) regarding fats.
You may also believe that saturated fat and trans fats contribute to high cholesterol levels which cause artery clogging and possibly heart disease.
This philosophy is still generally preached by medical professionals, the media, in schools etc. so it must be right – right?
Well it’s only a very small part of the story. And this general, blind acceptance is probably the reason why heart disease is still the world’s no.1 cause of death.
First let’s look at our fats in a little more detail:
Fats are recognized by their chemical structure.
Mono-unsaturated fat has a single, double bond structure.
The more double bonds a fat has, the more of a liquid it becomes at room temperature.
Single, double-bond mono-unsaturated fats are found in a number of oils such as olive oil, flaxseed (linseed) oil, canola oil and peanut oil.
It is also present in foods such as avocado and some nuts, particularly peanuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts and almonds.
These oils and foods aren’t purely made up of mono-unsaturated fat. Although this is their primary fat, they also contain a percentage of poly-unsaturated and saturated fat.
As you can probably guess, poly-unsaturated fat consists of more than 1 double-bond structures.
These fats are generally in liquid form even when refrigerated.
Oils such as sunflower oil, corn oil, fish oil and safflower oil are rich in poly-unsaturated fat. As are some foods, such as fish, seafood, soybeans, margarine’s, walnuts, brazil nuts and seeds.
A significant difference between mono and poly-unsaturated fat is poly-unsaturated fat easily turns rancid, particularly when heated. More on that, in a second.
Essential Fatty Acids
One of the reasons poly and mono-unsaturated fat are widely labeled as ‘healthy’ is due to the essential fatty acids (EFA’s) they contain.
Otherwise known as omega-3 and omega-6, they are called ‘essential’ because the body is unable to produce them itself and relies on food eaten daily, for its source.
Omega-3 and omega-6 is vital for optimal health. It is needed for all systems of the body to function normally, including your skin, respiratory system, circulatory system, brain and organs.
Omega-6 can be found in nuts, green leafy vegetables, corn and other grains, particularly grain-fed animal products.
It is also the primary fat found in most cooking oils such as safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, corn, sesame and soybean.
Omega-3 is made up of a number of fats, but primarily alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid(EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The 2 main omega-3 fats – EPA and DHA, primarily come from fish, whereas ALA, which is converted into EPA and DHA, comes from plant sources such as flaxseed.
Omega-3 is being recognized a lot more for its health benefits, with ongoing studies continuing to bear this out.
How Much Omega 3 to 6 Ratio Should We Be Consuming?
We need both sources of essential fatty acids for optimal health.
Due to their diet, our primal ancestors consumed a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 food.
Scientists today (although not the American Heart Association) recommend the omega 3:6 ratio be in the region of 1:1 to 1:5.
Unfortunately since the industrial revolution around 140 years ago, the ratio in America (and getting that way in the UK and other Westernized countries) is more like 1:20 to 1:50.
The introduction of modern vegetable oils and cereal grains fed to livestock, has contributed the most to this unhealthy omega-3 and omega-6 balance.
This massive imbalance is having a detrimental effect on our health – particularly cardiovascular illness, and is largely why heart disease is the world’s no.1 cause of death. Yet amazingly the American Heart Association still refuses to acknowledge the link.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a diet with a mixed ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, revealed a 22% reduction in non-fatal myocardial infarction, and heart disease.
On the other hand, diets higher in omega-6 fats and lower in omega-3’s resulted in a 13 percent increase in the risk.
According to the study:
“Risk… was significantly higher in (omega-6) specific PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) diets compared to mixed… diets…
Advice to specifically increase (omega-6) PUFA intake… is unlikely to provide the intended benefits, and may actually increase the risks of… death.”
Elevated consumption of omega-6 over omega-3 fatty acids (primarily through vegetable oil) is associated with an increase of all inflammatory diseases – which effectively is all types of disease including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Autoimmune diseases
- Psychiatric disorders
- Macular degeneration
Astonishingly, even after significant finding like these, the AHA is still advocating a higher intake of omega-6 fats in our diet!
Here’s a chart to give you a better understanding of the omega 3:6 ratio in oils:
As you can see, the popular oils most people use for cooking with at home, are very high in omega-6, with little or no omega-3 fats.
Fish and flaxseed are the two best natural sources of omega-3 we can consume, and will help redress the omega-3 v omega-6 balance.
I’ve mentioned saturated fat in a lot of previous articles but haven’t given it enough air-time to fully explain its significance and the role it plays in our health.
Saturated fat is so named due to its chemical make-up.
Unlike poly and mono-unsaturated fat, saturated fat has no double-bond between the individual carbon atoms. The chain of carbon atoms is fully saturated with hydrogen atoms – hence the name.
One of the benefits to this chemical structure is that it is highly stable and less likely to suffer from ‘rancidness’, even when cooked with.
The Benefits of Saturated Fat
Still think saturated fat is bad for you?
- The body prefers saturated fat as its primary source of fuel for the heart, and for energy. It uses it far more efficiently than any other food source.
You might want to read that sentence again to fully comprehend it!
- Saturated fat is needed as part of the structure for every cell in the body.
- Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K rely on saturated fat to act as a carrier into the blood stream.
- It has antiviral properties.
- It is used to help regulate and lower cholesterol levels.
Common food sources of saturated fat include:
- Dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese and butter
- Oils such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil and cottonseed oil
Why We’ve Always Been Told To Avoid Saturated Fat
The Seven Countries Study
Since the 1950’s the medical profession and the media have ingrained in us that saturated fat, no matter where it comes from, could cause high cholesterol levels, block our arteries and potentially cause heart disease and premature death.
This mantra has been preached ever since the findings of one study – The Seven Countries Study by an American scientist Ancel Keys, which he started in 1947.
The study hypothesized a relationship between the level of heart attacks and strokes, compared to physical attributes, lifestyle and diet – particularly saturated fat in the diet.
The study was conducted all over the world in many countries. However the results were only published using data from just 7 countries.
Critics argue these 7 countries were purposely chosen in advance to support Keys’ hypothesis.
The video below explains the flawed reasoning’s behind the Seven Countries Study, and why saturated fat isn’t the problem we believe it to be:
The Seven Countries Study is over 60 years old, and despite recent evidence to the contrary, is still upheld by the medical profession today.
Want more evidence to vindicate saturated fat?
If you do some research on the internet you’ll invariably come across main stream health sites and organizations that recommend a diet low in saturated fat, in order to reduce the risk of heart disease.
But when you start digging deeper, you’ll find scientists of notable repute, and independent studies, dismissing the aging theory that links saturated fat with heart disease.
Here are a few examples and their references:
- Gary Taubes, a science writer and three-time winner of the Science in Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers concludes “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.”
- Author and journalist Michael Pollan, a two-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, in his book In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto states “The amount of saturated fat in the diet probably may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.”
- Mary G. Enig a biochemist and nutritionist who is a member of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics states “there is very little evidence to support the contention that a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat actually reduces death from heart disease.”
- Writing in Men’s Health Magazine, Nina Teicholz proposed that intake of saturated fat is only correlated with heart disease, “not a clear, causal link.”
- The Dairy Farmers of Canada quote Andrew Mente, PhD (Assistant Professor, Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University) that “In light of new scientific data, it appears that saturated fat is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”
- Finally here’s a good article written by the Mercola institute – Saturated Fat is NOT the Cause of Heart Disease.
The list goes on, but I think you get the gist of how research is going with this.
Regardless of the growing evidence that shows no correlation between saturated fat and obesity, heart disease and high cholesterol levels, we are still told otherwise.
We live in this crazy, ‘low-fat’ culture, and yet obesity is still on the rise and heart disease continues to be the world’s biggest killer! – Surely the mainstream medical profession and the media have to wake up eventually.
Please note, I’m not suggesting for one minute that this is a green light to go and eat as much saturated fat as you can get down your neck!
But food sources that are high in natural saturated fat should form part of a healthy balanced diet and not shunned for an inferior, health-damaging, low-fat alternative.
Enter the recognised villain of the fat world; ‘trans-fat’..Boo, hiss!
Although small amounts of trans-fats are found in natural food sources, most trans fats are ‘created’ through a hydrogenation process which turns perfectly good oils (unsaturated oil) into perfectly bad, solid oil.
Due to this process, trans fats are also known as ‘synthetic’ or ‘industrial fats’ and are as unnatural as you can get.
The benefits (I use the word lightly) of trans fats, is that they don’t turn rancid and spoil as quickly as liquid fats, and are stable when used in cooking at high temperatures. They also don’t need refrigerating.
This makes them easier to cook with, especially fried foods, and ideal for foods that need to be packed and kept for long periods of time – aka processed foods.
Common foods that may contain trans fats:
- Commercial baked goods — such as crackers, cookies, pastries, granola bars and cakes
- Breads such as hamburger buns, pizza dough, pie crusts and muffins
- Cake and pancake mixes
- Fried foods, such as doughnuts, French-fries, chicken nuggets, hard taco shells
- Shortenings and some margarines
- Frozen meals
Why Trans-Fats Are So Bad For Us
Studies show that trans fat increases your levels of LDL cholesterol and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is the exact opposite of what we should be trying to achieve.
It is this unhealthy cholesterol unbalance that can lead to clogging of your arteries, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other serious health conditions.
Sneaky manufacturers are now aware that ‘we the public’ have been educated about the dangers of trans-fats.
So they’ve pretty much eradicated the word ‘trans-fats’ from food labels and replaced it with less evil sounding words such as – ‘partially hydrogenated’ vegetable oil and ‘shortening’.
Yep, it’s just the same shite – but named differently! Still trans fat, however you wrap it up.
Restaurants, (particularly the fast-food types) bakeries and other eateries will often use foods and baking products containing trans fats.
If you go out for a meal, don’t be afraid to ask how the food is prepared i.e. do they use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil?
If they care about their business and take pride in their menu, they shouldn’t use trans fat based products.
If you want to dig your teeth further into the world of trans fats, checkout: www.bantransfats.com/abouttransfat.html
Fortunately many US states and countries around the world have listened to the growing evidence of the dangers of trans fats, and have now banned their use in foods.
Enter Trans Fats Evil Twin – Interesterified Fat
Just when you think we’ve made progress in eliminating trans fat from our food system, something else just as damaging takes its place.
Processed food needs a fat that will keep it from spoiling for a long time. That way, foods can be transported greater distances and remain on store shelves for longer.
With trans fats being vilified and slowly driven from our stores, the food industry needed to come up with an alternative oil that wasn’t trans fat, but acted in the same way in order to preserve food.
The answer was once again to manufacture another man-made oil known as interesterified fat.
Interesterified fat starts off as vegetable oil and an enzyme is added to it which changes its molecular structure. It also goes through a hydrogenation process to solidify the oil.
Although the resulting oil isn’t a trans fat, it acts in very much the same way.
It will keep from turning rancid for much longer and is stable enough to be used for frying at high temperatures.
The long-term health risks to interesterified fat are still unknown, but preliminary trials suggest it carries the same risks as trans fats.
Even worse is there are no requirement as yet for manufacturers to label interesterified fat as an ingredient on food products.
The terms high stearate or stearic rich fats are used in place of ‘interesterified’.
Foods Containing Interesterified Fat
Just like trans fats, interesterified fat is found in exactly the same types of food and in oils used for frying.
You can virtually guarantee that any food product that contains the words ‘vegetable oil’ on its ingredients label contains either interesterified fat or trans fat.
Processed foods and fast fried foods are its primary sources.
Despite the health risks associated with trans fat and interesterified fat, we need fat in our diet – just the right type, found from natural sources.
The cells in our body rely on fat, and our body needs it for fuel.
Studies show that fat from natural sources (saturated fat) such as dairy and animal-fat, does NOT cause heart disease.
We should try to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet and eat less omega-6 foods, such as vegetable oil and its by-products.
We should greatly reduce or eliminate our consumption of man-made fats found in processed foods and fried foods i.e. trans fat and interesterified fat.
Making small changes to the way you cook could significantly improve your health. For example, use butter instead of margarines and vegetable oil spreads.
Cook/fry with coconut oil. It is far superior to any other cooking oil and is loaded with health benefits.
Drizzle olive oil over a salad rather than cook with it.
Given the compelling evidence, I have no doubt that the world’s statistics for heart disease alone would significantly improve if more people made some of these simple dietary changes.