This is a very interesting topic. The problem is knowing where to start ! Nowadays and for the last sixty years (particularly since the 80's) we've been told to cut fat from our diets, especially if you want to slim down and actually be less fat or avoid coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease ! However recent research has shown that in fact fat is very good for you and that fat doesn't necessarily make you fat or cause heart disease ! It's all very confusing. I often encounter the question from my clients; "won't eating fat kill you ?" In short NO, it won't as long as you make a point to eat only the good fats, that is the natural fats as opposed to fats that have been altered by humans !
Where did it all go wrong ?
To help explain this we must go back in time, to the early 1950's. It was at this time that a biochemist named Ancel Keys submitted a paper for publication titled "The Seven Countries Study". Keys had appeared to statistically prove that there was a strong correlation between the amount of animal fat consumed in a given country and the incidence of heart attack. His research seemed to clearly show that the more animal fat a country ate and thus the more serum cholesterol the higher the incidence of heart disease. This was where the 'Low-Fat Diet' we all know today, popularised in the 80's, was born. However, it has since been discovered that Ancel Keys, who became hugely famous for his work at that time, appearing on the front page of the Time magazine hailed as a groundbreaking nutritional scientist, had omitted data from 15 other countries so that the results of his study would fit his hypothesis ! There were several countries with high fat intake that also showed remarkably low risk of CVD whereas other countries with relatively high CVD were eating very little fat ! On the whole, "The Seven Countries Study" should have been called "The Twenty-two Countries Study" and the conclusion from this larger set of data should have stated that there is no relationship between fat intake and CVD ! Several recent studies have confirmed these findings and some have even shown an inverse relationship between saturated fat and CVD. However, Keys results stuck and so the majority of us began to embark upon the 'Mediterranean Diet' based on vegetable oils (like corn and soy as opposed to saturated fat from red meats and fish etc) and lots of starchy grains (like pasta, bread and rice) emulating the diets of the Mediterranean countries of Italy and Greece where health levels were considered relatively high. Unfortunately, neither Keys nor anyone else noticed that the recommended 'Mediterranean' diet barely resembled anything that the French, Italians and Greeks really ate ! It's also worth noting at this point that since this change in dietary intake (previously we had diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol from foods like lard and lots of red meat) produced by the majority of the western world following the recommendations made by Keys and the consequential advice provided by governmental officials over the last 30 years, obesity, diabetes and heart disease has increased dramatically !
The Calorie Myth
Next came the theory of Thermodynamics ! Fat has more calories (9 calories/gram) than protein or carbohydrates (4 calories/gram each). The law of thermodynamics suggests that if you consume more calories than you burn off, this will lead to weight gain and since fat has more calories per gram it made sense that cutting fat would greatly reduce your total calorie intake and thus reduce the likelihood of becoming overweight ! Unfortunately it's not that simple ! This theory ignored the fact that carbohydrate, and the insulin it releases drives hunger and fat storage. It also overlooked the fact that protein and fat could reduce the total calorie intake by triggering the release of hormones that tell us we're full along with other similar appetite-control mechanisms. So although it made sense, the law of thermodynamics was not completely true. Calorie restriction is not a long term solution to weight loss and if anything can lead to a slower metabolism, less lean muscle mass, more fat storage and often results in the dieter putting all the weight back on and some more once the restriction is stopped. This is more commonly known as yo-yo dieting.
The Low Fat Diet
Be careful when following a low fat diet. Although the advice from the NHS and BHF is still to cut fat from your diet, I'd like to urge you to be aware of what you're actually eating when you consume 'Low-Fat' products. You see fat is flavour and therefore when fat is reduced or completely removed from a product then so is much of the flavour too ! But in order for people to like these products, manufacturers tend to put obscene quantities of salt, sugar, flavourings and other additives into their product so you'll enjoy it and continue to purchase it each time you visit the supermarket. Needless to say this can have some serious implications to health in humans.
So is fat actually good for you ?
The good fats, yes. Fat is our preferred source of fuel and an important building block for many of our cells membranes and hormones. Our brains are mainly made of fat, most of our nerves are fat, reproductive hormones are made from fat as are the hormones that we manufacture to deal with all sorts of types of stress ! Some fats are even known as essential fats ! Furthermore, saturated fats in particular are required for the proper function of many organs such as your liver, heart, lungs, your bones and your immune system ! Without fat our levels of health would plummet and we'd become ill ! Without cholesterol we'd die !
So what are good fats ?
Good fats are found in grass fed meats, wild caught salmon and other fish, raw nuts and seeds, coconut and coconut oil, olives and olive oil, organic free range eggs, avocado and avocado oil, butter and raw grass fed organic dairy products. Another good fat you want to be mindful of is animal-based (as opposed to plant-based) omega-3. Deficiency in this essential fat can cause or contribute to very serious health problems, both mental and physical, and may be a significant underlying factor in many modern diseases. Having the proper balance/ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fats (essential fats) is also very important for optimal health.
The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is 1:1, but the typical diet is more like 1:20 in favour of omega-6. The overabundance of omega-6 rich vegetable oils in processed foods of all kinds explains our excess omega-6 levels. It has been suggested recently that its these excessive quantities of polyunsaturated omega-6 fats found in processed foods, margarine and vegetable oils and not necessarily saturated fat that has contributed to the large majority of health issues we experience today such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and high levels of LDL cholesterol. If your essential omega fat ratios are heavily in favour of the omega-6's then you could consider these excessive omega 6 fats to be bad fats So what are bad fats ?
The bad fats are commonly known as trans-fats and are often created in a factory. Trans fat is known to increase your LDL levels, or "bad" cholesterol, while lowering your levels of HDL, known as "good" cholesterol, which is the complete opposite of what you need in order to maintain good heart health. It can also cause major clogging of arteries, type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems. Margarine, vegetable shortening and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (containing high levels of omega-6's) such as sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, corn oil and soy oil are the true villains, causing far more significant health problems than saturated fat ever could ! Trans fats are found mostly in processed (man-made) baked products because they are known to extend the shelf life of such foods. Examples of trans fat containing foods include pies, pastries, muffins, cakes, biscuits, cookies, crisps, margarine and other vegetable oil-based spreadables.
There are currently no legal requirements for food manufacturers to label trans fats. This means you need to check ingredients lists for hydrogenated fats or hydrogenated vegetable oils.
As mentioned earlier, as a rule of thumb, fats found in their natural state are generally good fats. It's the man made, far-from-nature fats that are considered the bad fats.
How much fat should I have ? I hear you ask. Good question. Personally I believe it differs from person to person depending on genetics, metabolism and activity levels. It depends on what works for you. I've heard of people doing very well on diets containing 10% saturated fat but then there's also people who do equally well on diets with 40% saturated fat ! Consider tribes in very cold regions of the world where vegetation is scarce, eskimos have been known to be very healthy living on diets that consist of up to 80% from fats ! They also have a lower incidence rate of heart disease than some European countries. Before we learnt how to grow and harvest grains our hunter and gatherer ancestors likely survived entire winters on a diet largely comprised of fat and protein.
A number of indigenous tribes around the world are living proof that a high-saturated fat diet equates to low mortality from heart disease.
For example, the Maasai in Kenya who eat meat, raw milk and blood from their cattle, and the Tokealu tribes in New Zealand Territory who eat lots of fish and coconut have diets which are made up of over 60% from fat !
So humans need saturated fat ! Here are just some of the reasons why...
- Improved cardiovascular risk factors. Saturated fat plays a key role in cardiovascular health. The addition of saturated fat to the diet reduces the levels of a substance called lipoprotein (a) that correlates strongly with risk for heart disease. Research has shown that when women diet, those eating the greatest percentage of the total fat in their diets as saturated fat, lose the most weight.
- Stronger bones. Saturated fat is required for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bone. According to one of the foremost research experts in dietary fats and human health, Dr. Mary Enig, Ph.D., there’s a case to be made for having as much as 50 percent of the fats in your diet as saturated fats for this reason.
- Improved liver health. Saturated fat has been shown to protect the liver from alcohol and medications, including acetaminophen and other drugs commonly used for pain and arthritis.
- Healthy lungs. For proper function, the airspaces of the lungs have to be coated with a thin layer of lung surfactant. The fat content of lung surfactant is 100 percent saturated fatty acids. Replacement of these critical fats by other types of fat makes faulty surfactant and potentially causes breathing difficulties.
- Healthy brain. Your brain is mainly made of fat and cholesterol. The lion’s share of the fatty acids in the brain are actually saturated. A diet that skimps on healthy saturated fats robs your brain of the raw materials it needs to function optimally.
- Proper nerve signalling. Certain saturated fats, particularly those found in butter, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil, function directly as signalling messengers that influence metabolism, including such critical jobs as the appropriate release of insulin.
- Strong immune system. Saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil (myristic acid and lauric acid) play key roles in immune health. Loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Know your type
One option is to get yourself Metabolic Typed to determine how well you tend to metabolise fats and therefore obtain a recommended or optimal percentage of fats in your diet for your type. Armed with this information you can create your own personalised diet plan and know exactly where to find the essential good fats in the correct proportions. You'll also benefit from knowing how much of your plate should consist of proteins and carbs too, which types and where to find them. Most importantly, metabolic typing addresses your own genetic requirements for each macronutrient , acknowledging that we're are all uniquely biochemically individual and that we all have differing speeds of metabolism meaning we all have varying abilities to metabolise fats and carbs for energy. What type are you ? Are you genetically like the Maasai and the eskimos or are you more like the equatorial tribes who thrive on a diet consisting less fat ?
At Bodyguards, using the Metabolic Typing assessment method and process we can assess and identify your metabolic type and then provide food lists based on which nutrients you need, along with appropriate shopping lists, easy-to-make meal suggestions, cooking guidelines, and suggested supplements. Discover exactly what foods will improve and balance your health, burn excess body fat, build lean muscle, increase metabolism, optimise physical energy production, eliminate cravings, eliminate hunger between meals, eradicate mood swings and balance emotions, improve mental clarity and ability to concentrate and have a good long-lasting, normal sense of vitality and wellbeing.
So why, you may be wondering, is there all this worry about dietary fat and cholesterol and the increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease nowadays ? I wonder too, although I sympathise with Joe Public because if you walk into a supermarket nowadays you are immediately confronted by clever marketing that draws you towards the bad fats. We don't stand much of a chance ! I'd suggest that it's actually the level of refined and processed carbohydrates that is the problem. Again though, it's tricky for the uneducated shopper when I'd guess at 80% of the aisles in most supermarkets stock processed foods and very little real, natural whole foods ! But I'll leave that equally large topic for another article.... Now go buy some coconut oil and get cooking !
Duncan Edwards BSc Hons CHEK ITP CMTA Director, Holistic Lifestyle Coach, Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor, Personal Trainer and Rehabilitation Specialist Bodyguards Fitness Service Ltd