Low fat diets, low fat recipe books and manufactured low fat foods are everywhere these days. Yet probably nothing in the area of nutrition, diets and weight loss has been so misunderstood as dietary fats.
Common misunderstandings about dietary fats / oils
The confusion is understandable. More is known today about different types of fats than was the case even a decade ago. The ideas about fats that were accepted by the experts twenty or thirty years ago are now largely recognized to be seriously erroneous, yet it takes many years – maybe even a generation or two – before new scientific knowledge becomes common knowledge.
This confusion is readily exploited by various players in the manufactured foods industry. “Low Fat” products are well labelled and easily found – but misunderstood by most consumers. Consumers expect that “low fat” somehow also means “low calorie”. The manufacturers exploit that assumption mercilessly. Advice I give for all processed and packed foods is to always read the label. You will quickly discover that “low fat” almost always means increased refined flours and sugars. It does not at all mean “low calorie”.
Processed foods aside, there are widespread misunderstandings about the word “fat”, which can mean different things in different contexts.
Some “diet gurus” in times past have made such outlandish, foolish and just plain false claims that humans “can’t get fat if they don’t eat fat.”
Recently I read a comment from a dietician (who should know better) supposedly debunking a diet ‘myth’ that bananas are fattening. She replied that this was wrong because bananas contain very little fat at all.
A food does not need to contain fat to be fattening. Those two different uses of the word “fat” in the same sentence have confused even that qualified dietician. Would she tell us that we can eat a bucket full of sugar because it contains no fat and therefore “isn’t fattening”? I surely hope not.
To be “fattening” a food only needs to contain calories and be eaten above your energy requirements. It matters not whether those calories come from carbohydrates, fats or proteins as to whether a particular food is fattening.
Even the above statement has its exceptions. Some foods produce hormonal effects that may raise insulin levels and encourage the conversion of glucose and store it as body fat. The biggest offenders that do this are sugars and starches – not fats.
Some foods have the opposite effect and actually stimulate metabolic function and can assist in weight loss. Interestingly, several of the known foods that can do this are certain specific types of fats. (Omega 3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acid are two examples published in major peer reviewed medical journals in recent times.)
The knowledge of these things was not available to the public and not even discovered by the sciences until recent years. Accordingly, older beliefs persist, although proven false.
Another piece of dietary theory from the 1960’s and ’70’s, now clearly shown to be misguided, is that because fats contain nine calories per gram and carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, we will lose weight by replacing fats with carbohydrates. It sounds good, until examined closely.
That theory fails on several counts.
First of all, proteins are also four calories per gram – the same as carbohydrates. Ask yourself who was behind the mass marketing and lobbying to increase low nutrient carbohydrates such as grains instead of the equal-calorie yet more nutrient rich proteins in your diet – and why.
Secondly, next time you mound your plate with mashed potatoes or rice, look at it first. Look at the size. Did you EVER really have about half the quantity of pure fat on your plate? Of course not. It is far, far easier to raise your carbohydrate intake than to reduce your fat intake. By following the advice to reduce fats and raise carbohydrates, you are simply increasing your total caloric intake. Obviously, that is counter-productive. Actually, it is even worse than that. Fats/oils are very light in weight. They float on water. Carbohydrates are denser, heavier. For an equal volume, such as a level teaspoon, fats and carbohydrates have approximately equal calories. Now, take another look at that pile of mashed potato or rice on your plate.
Thirdly, this theory completely ignores nutrition. It concentrates on calories as if they are the only factor that is important in your diet. Always remember that sugars, grains and other starchy foods are low in nutrients such as vitamins and minerals (compared to complex fruits and vegetables, which are to be encouraged). Your body has absolutely no essential requirement for pure carbohydrates, but you cannot live without proper fat intake. Fats are essential for many metabolic processes – not merely an energy source.
Fourthly, if consuming processed goods for your carbohydrate source (breads, french fries, pastries, etc.), take a close look at the list of ingredients. Almost always, they still contain fats or oils anyway – not to mention sugars, salts, chemical preservatives, and other undesirables.
Another of the older beliefs now disproved is that “animal fats are bad but vegetable fats (oils) are good”. Similarly, that “saturated fats are bad and unsaturated fats are good.”
More modern research, however, proves that there are good animal and other saturated fats, and there are bad animal and other saturated fats in terms of human nutrition and health.
Likewise, there are both good and bad vegetable and other unsaturated fats (oils).
The falsehood that animal fats or saturated fats are always bad is very readily disproved. Human body fat itself is saturated fat. Even a healthy, normal weight person will be roughly 20% body fat. The body manufactures it from dietary fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Without saturated body fat, you would die.
Another clear indication that saturated fats are essential to human health and nutrition is that human breast milk contains a high level of saturated fat (as well as unsaturated fats). No-one questions the nutrition importance of breast milk, do they?
Probably the most serious of the older beliefs now proven false is that low fat diets make you lose weight. While this can be demonstrated as true in the short term, it is now well known that it does not hold true longer term. Almost every study on this matter shows that people on low fat diets lose weight initially, though eventually regain even more weight than they had before they began the diet. The human body, if deprived of fats, will go into “starvation mode”, slow the metabolic rate and encourage the conversion of glucose into fat and deposit it into adipose (fat) cells.
Low fat diets don’t work for permanent weight loss.
Why your body NEEDS fats
The truth is, and ongoing research is proving this more and more almost by the month, that the human body actually requires fat for health and longevity. Lack of fats, and lack of specific types of fats, are complicit in many, many diseases and ailments afflicting modern man.
Every cell in the human body requires fats for metabolic function.
The human body requires saturated fat for a variety of purposes, including the manufacture of many hormones.
Just ask any woman who has suffered from anorexia nervosa, for example, about the hormonal effects experienced when she worked so hard at ridding her body of all body fat. She will tell you that her menstrual cycles and periods stopped altogether.
Some types of fats are important for antihyperlipidemia (they reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels in your bloodstream.)
The right fats assist in lowering your blood pressure, thinning your blood and preventing blood clots.
Likewise, most inflammatory conditions can be prevented or controlled with regular Omega 3 fats in the diet. A lack of Omega 3 in your diet will intensify all manner of inflammatory conditions, ranging from asthma to arthritis and even heart disorders.
The human brain is 70% lipid (fats), and requires a regular intake of certain fats and cholesterol to function properly. Inadequate intake of these fats have been proven in many research reports to lower IQ levels, and are precursors to many mental illnesses ranging from short term memory loss and loss of concentration, through to depression, increased suicide rates, bi polar disorders and schizophrenia, and in the longer term, even Alzheimer’s Disease. (The single biggest predictor of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease is now known to be brain size ten years prior to the first outwards symptoms of the disease. Lack of appropriate fats feeding this fat-based organ results in shrinkage of the brain and eventually to dementias such as Alzheimers.)
Numerous essential Vitamins will not be absorbed by the human body unless accompanied by fats. These include the fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E and K. No matter how many vitamin supplements you take, or how many vitamin rich fat burning fruits and vegetables you eat, if you have a low fat diet you will eventually suffer the degenerative diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies. Osteoporosis is one of the many of these degenerative diseases. Calcium requires the presence of Vitamin D to be absorbed in your intestines, and the presence of Vitamin K to “glue” it into your bone mass.
Animal fats also contain trace minerals. The human body is believed to require sixty different minerals for proper function and these must come from food sources. (Most “multi-mineral” supplements contain only ten to twelve minerals.) Many of these minerals required for proper cellular function are rare, so when available the body stores them in your adipose (fat) cells for later use. Eating animal fats therefore increases your intake of important yet often rare mineral nutrients.
If you observe a person who has maintained a low fat diet for an extended period, you will almost certainly note that their skin becomes dry and flaky. It is far more easily damaged. It loses it’s elasticity. A low fat diet is the pathway to wrinkles, the “old age” look and other skin disorders.
Scientific studies now confirm that certain fats act very similarly to anti-oxidants and are potent cancer fighters and preventers. Omega 3 and CLA – Conjugated Linoleic Acid, are your vital anti-cancer fats. (Admittedly it is equally true that certain fats can cause cancer. More about that a little later.)
Your eyesight is very dependent in dietary fats. The single greatest cause of Macular Degeneration (a form of gradual blindness usually associated with age, and increasingly prevalent in western societies) is lack of Omega 3 oils in the diet. The eye’s macular, when healthy, is coated with Omega 3 oil. In the absence of Omega 3 in the diet, other fats/oils take its place and degeneration of your eyesight begins. Once it begins, it is irreversible. Although reintroduction of Omega 3 may stop or slow the progress of the blindness, it will not reverse the damage already done. Remember that Omega 3 is one of the two ESSENTIAL fatty acids. That means the human body cannot create it out of other ingredients. It must be obtained from your diet.
Both of the Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3 and Omega 6) have functions for stimulating eicosanoids – hormone-like substances that boost the human immune system. If you have a low fat diet, and particularly if it is low in these two essential fats, your immune system will be compromised. (Important note – excessive Omega 6 in relation to Omega 3 produces the opposite effect. It weakens the immune system and leads to many inflammatory diseases, oxidative damage, and ultimately heart/cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
Although Omega 6 is essential to human nutrition, excessive levels are dangerous – and is probably the single most widespread dietary fault in western society. Omega 6 oils are the predominant oil in most seed/grain/legume oils. Unfortunately, Omega 3 is lacking in most western diets and requires deliberate attention in your diet to ensure health.)
Insufficient Omega 6 fats in your diet can result in Diabetes. (It is important to note that Diabetes has other causes, too. Intake of Omega 6 does not of itself prevent diabetes from these other causes.)
The above list of the reasons you must have fats in your diet is not comprehensive, though should give you an insight into the importance of fats in your diet and the dangers of low fat diets.
Fats you need & Fats you need to avoid
As mentioned in Part One of this article, there are both good fats and bad fats.
We’ll commence this section by pinpointing the major “fat faults” in the typical western diet today (not listed in specific order), then look at how to address these faults in your diet:
- Excessive Omega 6 oils
- Insufficient Omega 3 oils
- Presence of Hydrogenated Oils / Trans Fats
- Presence of Oxidized fats
- Lack of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
- Unnatural levels of saturated animal fats
- Excessive Omega 6 oils
Omega 6 fatty acids are essential to the human body. Like many other things in life, however, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much Omega 6 is now recognized scientifically as being the cause or aggravator of many inflammatory conditions, weakening of the immune system, cardiovascular diseases and many cancers.
Omega 6 fats are very common in most foods – plant and animal. It is almost always found in combination with other fats in nature.
Experts believe the optimal ratio of Omega 6 : Omega 3 in the human diet should be somewhere between 1:1 and 1:4. (Paleolithic diets are believed to have been around 1:1). The modern western diet is seriously out of whack with a dangerous ratio of around 15:1
Most grain/seed/nut/legume oils are high in Omega 6 oils and low in Omega 3.
Because Omega 6 is readily found in sufficient quantities in plant food, you should do all you can to avoid adding more to your diet. The most common offenders used in cooking and used in almost every manufactured / processed foods are Soyabean Oil (often just labelled as “vegetable oil”), Corn Oil, Peanut Oil, Sunflower Oil & Safflower Oil.
Insufficient Omega 3 oils
The human diet was once strongly oriented towards Omega 3 fats. Those days are, unfortunately gone. These are the most healthy fats available and are essential to human health.
Unlike Omega 6 oils which have grown in popularity over the past fifty years due to mass production techniques and low costs to consumers, Omega 3 oils are generally more expensive. For that reason, they have become scarce in the modern diet.
Another reason for their scarcity in the modern diet is the trend away from fish in the diet. Fish is a strong source, possibly the best source, of Omega 3 oils though has become more expensive compared to lamb, beef and pork. Furthermore, there are ongoing reports of pollutants and toxins such as mercury being found in fish, turning people away from this highly nutritious food and Omega 3 source. You could also try hemp seed oil as a great source of Omega 3 oils.
If toxins are a concern (and they should be for pregnant or breast-feeding women), taking a refined fish oil supplement daily is advised. Any health food shop and most supermarkets stock them. Be sure to read the label to ensure that they are refined / purified / decontaminated or similarly processed to remove impurities. (If taking an Omega 3 supplement, you should also take a Vitamin E supplement.)
For most people, toxicity should not be a concern so long as you avoid “long life” fish such as shark, swordfish, marlin and tuna. Many of these live for fifty years or more, giving them much longer to accumulate toxins.
The cold water oily fish are the richest sources of Omega 3 oils. Salmon, sardines, herrings, mackerel and trout
Other than eating fish (or other seafood, including seaweeds) at least three days per week, other superior sources for Omega 3 fatty acids include:
Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables and herbs. Perilla and Purslane in particular are great sources, though may be hard to find;
- Walnuts & Walnut oil
- Flax Seeds & Flaxseed Oil (same as Linseed Oil)
- Eggs from organically fed free range chickens (Organically raised chickens whose diet consists of green grass, insects and worms produce eggs with TWENTY times the level of Omega 3 fats than barn-raised, grain fed chickens.)
- Wild game meats or other organically raised red meats. (Grain feeding of livestock reduces Omega 3 content of their meat to almost zero, and raises the level of saturated fat significantly.)
- Some references also suggest beans and legumes as good sources of Omega 3. I recommend against consuming these due to their considerable presence of anti-nutrients (plant chemicals that deplete nutrients from the human body).
Canola Oil is also now commonly recommended as an Omega 3 source. I recommend against this unnatural oil. It is a 1980’s invention, a hybrid derived from the rapeseed, and requires considerable artificial industrial processing and chemical deodorizing and preservatives and stabilizers before it can be used as food. Stick to natural foods rather than these artificial, commercial substitutes.
Omega 3 oils are unsafe for cooking, other than as a whole food. (See the following section on Oxidized fats.) If using bottled Flax, Perilla, Walnut or similar Omega 3 oils, add them after cooking, such as in dressings or sauces.
Presence of Hydrogenated Oils / Trans Fats
Although Trans Fats do occur in nature, they occur in small proportions in a limited range of foods. (Mainly dairy.)
Last century saw the development of the artificial hydrogenation of oils. Hydrogenation is the process of taking an unsaturated (or monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) oil and processing it with a nickel catalyst. The result is that it is artificially “saturated” with additional hydrogen molecules – hence the term “hydrogenated”.
These artificial trans fats do not precisely mirror the rare naturally occurring trans fats. They are alien to the human cell system.
This artificial process makes liquid oils solid (margarines, for example), while partial hydrogenation makes very viscous (thin, runny) oils thicker. Another “advantage” of hydrogenation is that the oil becomes more stable and has a much increased shelf life. This makes them popular for commercial, rather than health, reasons.
The health consequences are severe. Although in the short term, serum cholesterol levels may appear to be reduced, hydrogenated oils raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and raise triglyceride levels – even though these adverse effects may be hidden by the apparent overall reduction in serum cholesterol levels.
Hydrogenated oils also displace REAL and essential oils from human body cells and are now well known as major causers of cancers.
It is also strongly believed that cellular malfunction caused by hydrogenated fats is a major contributing factor to the present era obesity epidemic.
In short, hydrogenated oils or trans fats are poisonous, dangerous and should be avoided at all times. This may be difficult because almost all of the main cooking oils on the market today are partially hydrogenated. Almost every manufactured / processed food – everything from biscuits to ice creams to tinned foods and sauces – contain hydrogenated oils. All your take-out foods from fast food outlets fry or deep fry using hydrogenated oils. And they are killing people.
(“So why are they still legal?” I here you ask. Maybe you should ask your Congressman about the political and economic power of the so-called ‘edible oils’ industry.)
Never buy a processed food without checking the label. Do not buy any product with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats.
Presence of Oxidized fats
Oxidation is a serious hazard with fats. Oxidized fats in the human body release free radical particles with the potential to cause cancers. (Think of oxidation a bit like how steel turns to rust when exposed to water.) There are two common ways for fats or oils to become oxidized:
Prolonged exposure to air. Oils have a limited shelf life once the bottle or jar has been opened after which they gradually become rancid. Rancid oils may change color and begin to emit a stench, but the process will be well underway before the human eye or nose detects it. Many commercial oils are partially hydrogenated to extend their shelf life – a health problem in itself. Others include chemical preservatives and deodorizers.
Heat. Despite being labeled as “cooking oils”, most oils used in cooking today are not suitable for high heats, such as frying.
The two most stable oils for cooking, wrongfully maligned in times past, are avocado and coconut. These oils handle cooking and high temperatures without oxidation better than any of the more common or conventional cooking oils.
Omega 3 oils (flaxseed/linseed and canola oils in particular) should never be used for frying or other high temperature use as they are the most readily oxidizable of all the edible oils.
When all is said and done, though, it is simply better not to even add oils to cooking. Try grilling, boiling or steaming – or stir frying with a small quantity of coconut cream instead.
Also bear in mind that fast food outlets use the same vat of boiling oil all day long. They serve bountiful supplies of carcinogenic oxidized AND hydrogenized fats and thereby are gradually killing their customers.
Lack of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
CLA is a potent cancer preventative with properties similar to Vitamin antioxidants. It is also a “fat fighting fat”. Research has shown that CLA supplementation assists in weight loss. Supplementation is rarely the ideal form of intake for any nutrient, with natural whole foods the preferred alternative.
CLA is, or at least should be, found in dairy products and red meat. Unfortunately, modern agricultural methods have reduced the quality of red meat and dairy today.
Mass agriculture with unnatural grain feeding reduces not only the Omega 3 content of red meat (as discussed above), but also reduces the CLA content to close to zero.
If you are able to hunt your own wild game (deer, rabbits, buffalo, bison, kangaroo, emu, or whatever is available in your part of the world), you will gain far healthier meat than your butcher can sell you.
Some specialist butcheries these days stock game meats – not usual wild, but still raised organically. Look for these, ask for these, and be prepared to pay the extra price they will cost.
It’s a similar story with milk. Grain fed and feedlot dairy cattle produce milk with reduced CLA content and elevated saturated fat content. Look for organic milk instead – and best of all seek raw organic milk (not pasteurized). Pasteurization may extend shelf life of dairy products by killing bacteria, but it also destroys many vitamins, changes the nature of the milk proteins and eliminates the beneficial bacteria. In most places, raw milk can only be bought direct from a dairy farm.
Unnatural levels of saturated animal fats
Briefly mentioned under several of the above headings, mammals and chickens are not grain eaters by nature. Farmers long ago discovered that grain feeding raises body weight of their stock – financially important seeing that farmers auction or sell through stock yards based on weight – not nutrient quality of the meat.
Wild or organically raised animal with natural grass diets produce products (eggs, milk, meat, organs) with “natural” levels of saturated fats, the way nature intended for them and for us to eat.
Farmed fish are a similar story. Some fish farms rightfully feed fishmeal to their growing stock. Others take the poorer quality, lower cost action of unnaturally grain feeding their stock. The latter reduces the “good oils” and artificially elevates the saturated fat levels of fish.
If in doubt, ask before you buy!
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