The Fats of Life
Since I proclaim to be an advocate of eating a healthy diet to prevent and treat many chronic illnesses, you might ask “why would I devote an entire article to fat?” Well, before you dismiss the topic or label me a nutritional heretic, hear me out: I’m not talking about packing on the pounds or eating the wrong kinds of fats. I’m referring to my new found reverence for the good fats and the role they play in optimizing our health.
For starters; besides being a concentrated source of energy, necessary for the absorption of Vitamins A, D and E and building blocks for our cell membranes and hormones, 70% of our brain is composed of fat! So in order to have optimal mental function we need adequate amounts of the right kind of this vital substance. Optimal brain function means we maintain stable moods, have sharp focus and concentration, we sleep well and avoid severe depression, anxiety and dementia.
Additionally, there are major implications of having good fats on board when it comes to preventing post-partum depression and supporting a child’s brain development. Andrew Stoll, MD, PHD is the director of psychopharmacology at McLean Hospital in Boston, professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the Omega 3 Connection. In his excellent book he explains the role Omega 3 fats (found in fish oil) play in mental health and he discusses how the incidence of post-partum depression could be drastically reduced if women were given this important fatty acid during pregnancy, after birth and while breast feeding. He also emphasizes the need to include this fat (which is a source of EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) in all infant formulas for the non-breast fed babies in order that they receive the foundational components for optimal brain development and function.
No one wants to be fat!
Our legitimate concern over the health risks and aesthetics of being overweight has led us to falsely assume that fat is the sole villain responsible for the drastic rise in obesity and heart disease. But that is simply not true. There are many reasons we get fat and develop blocked arteries: lack of exercise, too much processed food (including the wrong kinds of fats: hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans fats), consuming foods high in sugar and ones low in antioxidants, alcohol, too little fiber, genetics etc.
Some of us have also bought into the idea that all fats are created equal; which is another myth that needs dispelling. Good fats suppress inflammation, lower cholesterol and give fluidity to our cell membranes while the bad ones promote inflammation, raise cholesterol and make cell membranes rigid.
Our Obession with Low Fat Diets:
We began our obsession with avoiding fat in our diet in the 1950’s when a researcher by the name of Ancel Keys popularized the theory that there is a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat in one’s diet, and the incidence of heart disease and certain types of cancer. If this theory were true however, one would conclude that with our reduction in fat intake since that time, our country’s collective health statistics would have improved. But that is not the case.
Before the 1920’s coronary heart disease and obesity were very rare (fewer than 1 in 100 Americans were obese and coronary heart disease was unknown.) By the mid 1950’s heart disease became the leading cause of death in the US, and today it is responsible for 40% of all deaths in this country. Similarly, obesity has continued to rise from 14% of the population during the 1970’s to 28% of the adult US population in 2010.
As health author and promoter of the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Sally Fallon explains in her book Nourishing Traditions “if, as we have been told, heart disease results from the consumption of saturated fats, one would expect to find a corresponding increase in animal fat in the American diet. Actually the reverse is true. During the sixty year period from 1910-1970 the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet declined from 83% to 62%, and butter consumption plummeted from 18 lbs. per person per year to 4. During the same period the percentage of dietary vegetable fat in the form of margarine, shortening, and refined oils increased about 400% and the consumption of sugar and processed food increased about 60%..” (1)
Further proof that sugar and carbs rather than saturated fat may be culprits in these health epidemics is this comment from the former director of the infamous Framingham Study (which began in 1948 and is often cited as proof that the intake of saturated fat is directly linked to heart disease). Dr. William Castelli stated: “weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet” meaning they found that people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active” (2).
I know, I know it sounds so contradictory to what we’ve all been learning all these years! And while I’m not recommending eating red meat at every meal or lathering on the butter, I do believe given our high rates of chronic illness including: ADHD, depression, obesity, heart disease, dementia etc, it may be time to give fat (or at least the good fats) a second chance.
In the hugely popular health website www.Mercola.com, Dr. Joseph Mercola, MD, discusses a study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition (3) that emphasizes the importance of avoiding processed carbohydrates (not good fats) in order to minimize one’s risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Mercola states: “When you replace saturated fat with a higher carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrate, you exacerbate insulin resistance and obesity, increase triglycerides and small LDL particles, and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol. The authors state that dietary efforts to improve your cardiovascular disease risk should primarily emphasize the limitation of refined carbohydrate intake, and weight reduction.”
Dr. Mercola goes on to say: “In a nutshell, eating fat and protein does not make you fat—carbohydrates do. I firmly believe the two primary keys for successful weight management and reducing your risk for diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related health problems are: 1.Severely restricting carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) in your diet, and 2. Increasing healthy fat consumption”
4 Different Types of Fat
Just a touch of chemistry (not my favorite subject either) to hopefully help clear up the confusion over the different types of fats.
Most fats (or lipids) in our body and in the food we eat are in the form of triglycerides (3 fatty acids chains attached to a glycerol molecule) Triglycerides are made in the liver and do not come directly from dietary fats, but rather from excess sugar that has not been completely used by the body. The source of the sugars is carbohydrates, but particularly refined sugars and processed carbs.
There are 4 basic types of fats:
1. Saturated Fats: Saturated fatty acids have no double bonds and are stable as all the carbon atoms are occupied by a hydrogen atom. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Examples are butter, coconut oil (92% saturated), palm oil, beef and dairy.
2. Monounsaturated fatty acids such as those found in olive oil have two carbon atoms double bonded to each other and therefore lack two hydrogen atoms. Example of monounsaturated fat: olive oil which contains a high amount of oleic acid, an important component of cell membranes and protects other fatty acids from oxidation.
3. Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of carbon bonds and so lack 4 or more hydrogen atoms making them unstable and more susceptible to rancidity. Polyunsaturated fats remain as liquid whether refrigerated or not. Oil that becomes rancid or unstable is categorized by free radicals on the double bonds which can cause damage to our DNA and RNA. Sources of polyunsaturated oils are: vegetable oils, corn oil, safflower oil.
So now one might conclude (as I did) that all polyunsaturated fats are bad. That is until we learn that Omega 3’s (good fats) fall into this category.
Essential Fatty Acids: Omega 3’s and 6’s fall into the polyunsaturated category. They are called essential fatty acids because the body cannot manufacture them. In this country we usually take in too much Omega 6 and too little omega 3 (typically a ratio of 20:1) which can lead to inflammation, hypertension, irritation of GI tract, decrease immunity, weight gain and cancer. However, for optimal health, a ratio of 1:1 (between Omega 6’s to Omega 3) is considered optimal. Omega 6’s are found in vegetable oils and Omega 3’s are found in fish oil.
4. Trans fatty acids: these are created in a laboratory when chemists add hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature. Although this unnatural hydrogenation process involving: nickel oxide, a soap like emulsifier and bleach, make trans fats more stable and so give the foods a longer shelf life they have been linked to coronary artery disease. Examples: margarine and Crisco shortening (which have been linked to heart disease and cancer).
Given the shifting understanding of the important role good fats play in our health (including the fact that they are essential for healthy cell membranes, optimal brain function, healthy immune and hormonal systems (cholesterol is necessary for the formation of all of our sex hormones), cardiovascular health and their role in the absorption of fat soluble nutrients etc,) as well as the fact that our ancestors included them in their diets and had far less chronic illnesses that we do, it seems reasonable to include more of them in our diets. Choose them with care from the sources listed below.
Organic cold-pressed olive oil (use for salads and sautéing at low temperatures.) When possible, purchase, organic, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, as the high heat typical processing treatments destroys many of the nutrients.
organic virgin coconut oil (great for cooking at high temps),
butter or ghee made from grass fed organic milk,
raw nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds (soaking nuts and seeds first will break down phytic acid making them easier to digest and allowing the nutrients they contain to be more bio-available)
organic eggs (including their yolk)
organic, grass fed meats (if you eat meat), lamb, turkey, chicken
unheated organic nut oils.
Animal based Omega 3 fats (such as mercury free fish oil) known for decreasing inflammation, improving cardiovascular health and helping with concentration and focus )
The Fat Wars:
“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.”
As the author of this quote (Daniel Bornstein) implies, although many nutrition experts claim they have the definitive answer, I do not believe we have figured out the entire fat equation. On one side of the fat debate, we have the author of the China Study Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and brilliant physicians like Dean Ornish, MD and Joel Fuhrman, MD recommending that we not consume animal proteins, nor should any more of 10% of our calories come from fat. On the other side of the fat war are equally smart individuals such as author Sally Fallon from the Weston A Price Foundation, Dr. Joseph Mercola, MD, popular nutritionist and author: Ann Louise Gittleman, and others recommending we eat grass fed beef, organ meats, eggs (including the yolk) and consume other sources of healthy fats so that a much higher percentage (50—70% ) of our calories come from fats.
I’m not the first to complain that these fat wars are a major source of confusion and frustration. But rather than add to the confusion, let’s take from these studies, debates and discussions the gems that they offer.
1. I do believe there is enough good science and information on the important roles of good fats to include more of them in our diets.
2. These good fats need to be added to a mostly plant based, whole food, organic, non GMO diet.
3. There is also enough information on both sides of the fat controversy to remove all sources of man-made, trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils (typically found in fried foods, margarines, crackers, store bought muffins, chips and other processed food)
4. Low fat or fat free diets, especially when those fats are replaced with processed carbs and sugar can result in disastrous health consequences including ironically enough obesity, depression, dementia, hormonal problems, anxiety, poor concentration etc. Processed foods, sugar and foods that convert to sugar should be drastically reduced.
For the health of your brain, your hormones and your heart, avoid sugar, trans fats and processed carbs and include a bit of the healthy fats in your diet.
1. Nourishing Traditions reference: US Dept of Agriculture Statistic and The Kellog Report, 1989 The Institute of Health Policy and Practice
2. Castelli, William,, Archives of Internal Medicine, 1992
3. Siri-Tarino, PW, Sun Q et al, Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.Am J. clin Nutr 2010 Mar:91(3):535-46 Epub 2010 Jan 13 4
4. SPatty W Siri Tarino, et all Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease, Am J Clin Nutrition Dece 3, 2009
The Omega 3 Connection: Andrew L. Stoll, M.D.
Nourishing Traditions: Sally Fallon,
Fat Flush Plan: Ann Louise Gittelman, M.S., C.N.S.