Fat is a confusing issue! It is one of the three main macro-nutrients that we need to survive (the other are carbohydrates and protein) but it is very much mis-understood and has a bad reputation that is not deserved! Here’s everything you need to know to control the fat in your life!
The first problem is that we use the same word for the essential fatty acids that we consume through our food, with the unwanted spare-tyre – ‘FAT’! But over and above the terminology, by believing that food is simply fuel, or calories, it is then a simple step to believing that the way to lose body-fat is simply to cut down on foods which deliver the most fuel, or calories – and as dietary fat has more calories (approximately 9 calories per gram compared to 4 for both protein and carbs) it seems to make sense that we should eat more protein and carbs, and less fat. But this is a gross over-simplification.
Why food is not just ‘fuel’.
In order to understand exactly how our bodies respond to fats, we have to unlearn the concept of food as fuel. Food is much more than a source of energy, it is in fact a form of information that the body uses to understand our environment. Based on that understanding, it informs our cells how to behave in response to that environment.
The way it informs those cells is by deploying our hormones which are the messenger molecules which control our appetite, our mood, the way we manage sugar in our blood, the way we store fat, our energy levels as well as our reproductive health. So, if we eat the wrong food for us the balance of our hormones is altered in a way that may not be conducive to our health.
Based on this over-simplified logic, we have been eating a low fat, high carb diet for the last 50 years. The same period of time, coincidentally, in which rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer have soared – so maybe we need to work on a different model. Anyone who has struggled through a calorie deficit diet, only to find the weight comes straight back once the diet is over, will understand the problem. What’s going on in this scenario is that our bodies do not have calorie receptors and this over-simplified approach does not take into account the complexity of our body’s relationship with the food that we eat.
Our bodies do not work on a simple calories in/calories out balance sheet. What our bodies actually do is a very complex, multi-factorial juggling act that changes at any given moment depending on a huge range of variables.
Our bodies do not work on a simple calories in/calories out balance sheet. What our bodies actually do is a very complex, multi-factorial juggling act that changes at any given moment depending on a huge range of variables – our diet, our stress levels, our environment, our genes and our lifestyle choices, being just some of them. So, ignoring all those variables and working on the basis that our body responds to a calorie from a stalk of broccoli in the same way that it responds to a calorie from a can of fizzy drink has led to us believing that we can eat whatever we want, as long as we count the calories. And that has led to the biggest uptick in chronic, lifestyle-related disease that the world has ever seen.
How did we come to this?
Prior to the 1970s, our diets tended to be lower in carbs (particularly processed carbs) and higher in dietary fats from animal products (butter, lard, cream, eggs, meat). We naturally ate very few fats derived from processed seeds (so-called vegetable oils), primarily because they had only just been invented.
Margarine was created in France in the nineteenth century as a way of getting cheap calories into the troops and ‘the masses’ in a time of war. Originally made from beef fat and skimmed milk, in 1871 a scientist in New York patented a process for making margarine out of cottonseed oil, which was much, much cheaper to produce. In the early 20th century, prompted by the great depression in the 1930’s (which made animal fats hard to come by) this process was developed further to enable seeds oils to be solidified by using a chemical process called hydrogenation. The result, margarine as we know it today, was considered at that time to be a sort of ‘poor man’s butter’.
In the 1980’s the idea that saturated fats caused heart disease became fashionable and that meant that margarine and its sister seed oils became the preferred source of dietary fats.
Margarine was originally developed as a cheap way to feed ‘the masses’ and was considered a ‘poor man’s’ butter. It was only in the 80’s that the false notion that it was healthy became fashionable
The complicated bit.
The combination of a technology that enabled us to produce cheap food, combined with a notion that natural fats were bad for us gave manufacturers the green light to incorporate hydrogenated fats into nearly every food they produced. These hydrogenated fats (also known as transfats) were not only cheap to produce, but they didn’t go rancid which increased the shelf-life of processed foods, making them cheaper to store and transport. But cheap and convenient is not necessarily a good thing.
Factory produced seed oils presents a lot of nutritional problems. Firstly they are not a natural food, the oils are extracted with the use of heat and chemicals which de-natures them even before they are subjected to further chemical, hydrogenation processes to solidify them. These ‘factory-fats’ are highly inflammatory, not only because they contain very large quantities of the pro-inflammatory Omega 6 but also because their toxic nature creates a burden of oxidative stress on the body which increases the number of DNA-damaging free-radicals we are exposed to. This in turn leads to inflammation in our arteries and our organs which our body tries to manage with cholesterol. Blaming cholesterol for our clogged arteries is a bit like blaming the fire-men for a fire.
Cholesterol is absolutely essential to life. It is in fact the raw material that our body uses to make our hormones. If we don’t have enough cholesterol in our system we become weak and in pain because our mitochondria (the energy factories in our cells) become damaged.
The amount of cholesterol we have in our bodies is not related to the amount of cholesterol we consume in our food. It is simply not true therefore that saturated fat is bad for us. If we think about it logically, it cannot be the case – we have been eating saturated animal fats since the beginning of time and it is only in the last few decades that we have been swapping animal fats for chemically altered seed oils. It is in these same few decades that we have seen the spiraling and alarming rise in cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
At the same time that we have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of seed oil we have consumed, we have also been eating much, much more sugar and processed carbs – and it is this combination of toxic factory fats and highly processed carbohydrates that is so damaging to our health.
The reason for this is that high levels of blood sugar are converted by the liver into triglycerides, which in turn affect the composition of LDL and HDL cholesterol in the body. This, in conjunction with the free radical damage caused by factory fats, creates systemic inflammation, which, to put it simply, makes us ill.
Our shops and supermarkets are flooded with cheap foods that undermine all our best efforts to take control of our health. They are specifically created to trigger cravings and make us eat more and we are mis-led into believing that low fat, high sugar convenience foods are good for us. They are not.
So what can you do?
The first thing is to ask yourself ‘has this food been eaten for centuries, or has it only recently been invented’. If we have always eaten it (eg eggs, butter, meat) it is probably perfectly fine. If it is a relative new-comer (like margarine, high-fructose corn syrup etc), then the answer is probably ‘No’.
When trying to work out which fats to choose, opt for the ones that are as close to nature as possible – cold pressed oils (that have not been extracted using heat or chemicals) and fats found naturally in oily fish and organic, grassfed animals and poultry. My favourite fats for cooking are avocado oil, coconut oil or ghee. For salads I love using avocado and olive oil. Importantly I don’t avoid the natural fats found in meat, fish and eggs – these fats are all high in Omega 3 which is anti-inflammatory and helps to balance out all those Omega 6s.
When we eat foods that are naturally high in fats and protein, like animal products, nuts, avocados and olives we are naturally satiated in a way that keeps our blood sugar on an even keel and avoids dramatic peaks and troughs. This combined with carbohydrates from the healthy, colourful end of the spectrum creates a naturally balanced diet that our body totally understands. It is able to read this ‘information’ easily and this means our appetite is naturally balanced, our cravings disappear and the weight melts away easily – and does not come back.
So if something is natural and has been around for centuries, go for it. If it has been produced in a factory, avoid it like the plague!