A consumate learner, recently I've been undertaking a nutrition qualification to see just how nutrition can impact mood and help people towards their goals. Beyond weight loss and gain, nutrition has a massive impact on our overall motivation, feeling and perceptions so for me it makes total sense to bring good nutrition into an overall mental wellbeing plan.
I love having my assumptions challenged by new developments, new thinking and science and I hope you too will enjoy a shift in your perception as I tell you what I've learned about the truth... about fats...
The Truth About Fat
Few would argue that for many years now there is a popular held belief that fat makes us overweight. The very slang for being overweight is being ‘fat’, so it’s no surprise that many think of fat as ‘bad’ and aim to avoid fats as part of their diet.
20% the human body is fat used for healthy functioning and in recent years studies are showing that it is not the fat intake in our diets that is causing rising obesity but rather suggest a rise in consumption of simple carbohydrates such as processed foods including breads and processed sugar and trans-fats (fats that are scientifically manipulated to contain more hydrogen such as hydrogenated cooking oils for the purpose of improving shelf life.)
Fats are essential to our functioning and carry many health benefits, including maintaining the health of cells by protecting the inner working of the cell by their presence in cell membranes, where they waterproof the cell separating the water inside from the water outside. We cannot make the essential fatty acids that make cell membranes flexible and able to communicate with each other so it is essential we get them from the fats in our diet. It has been shown that people with healthy fats as a consistent part of their diet often find weight loss easier in fact and good fats support the body and the liver in reducing belly fat and functioning better as a whole.
Fat protects and cushions us, the brain being 80% fat and are regulating hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen, cortisol and progesterone needing fat to be made. Fact keeps us functioning then, physically, and emotionally and is one of the body’s many protectors. All types of fat have been linked to improved mood in fact, low mood being a large factor in eating habits and one that can contribute to obesity. To see fat as ‘bad’ then is really villainising one of the body’s greatest heroes.
Perhaps better known is that fats provide a source of energy. In times of famine provide energy to prolong life beyond those with lower fat reserves. This natural function of the body to ‘store fat’ for later is the subject of many diets and in the western world there seems to be a mentality to ‘get rid’ of these fat stores by restricting fat intake and exercise. Sensible fat intake and exercise can be wise, however the reasons for those choices may benefit from greater nutritional education. For instance, all fat contains 9 calories in 1 gram with the RDA being less than 65 grams, but how many of us are aware of or checking for this information with our purchasing choices?
Although many make the simple equation that greater fat intake leads to greater weight and body fat, it is not that simple. For instance, In the 50s and 60s most western families would eat full fat butter, milks and fatty meats and obesity levels were not nearly as high as they are now with 30% of British children and a 1/3 of American Children being obese. One could speculate that the main difference in the last 50 years is the rise and availability of mass-produced processed foods. These foods, in the most part tending to use transfats or be carbohydrate rich options with even large constituents of meats such as sausages, burgers, bacon now containing processed additives which the non-discerning consumer may not necessarily be aware.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that fats are a popular food group, perhaps as they satiate the eater, creating a feeling of fullness, as fat takes longer to digest. They also make food taste better improving the texture, flavour and smell. Fats are enjoyable then, as is a sense of satiety. So it can’t be so surprising that fat intake can be higher than recommended in many diets for example the RDA of cheese being a match-box sized piece where popular foods such as pizzas, potato fillings and toppings often contain much more. Of course this also means that retailers will use fats to make their products tastier than the next, again creating recipes that often don’t ‘fit’ with government guidelines on RDAs and sensible portioning.
Before we discuss saturated fats, it may be useful to describe what they are and the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are fats whose chemical bonds are ‘saturated’ or in other words taken up by hydrogen. These are solid at room temperature and appear in meat, eggs and dairy (except for trans fat which are scientifically altered unsaturated fats where more hydrogen is forced in to fill the capacity of the bonds with hydrogen.) Unsaturated fats have some double bonds which hydrogen can’t bond to and therefore cause bends in the structure. Because of this structure they cannot be packed tightly unlike saturated fats and are liquids in room temperature such as vegetable oil or olive oil.
Many people believe that unsaturated fats are healthier. While all types of fats have their health benefits, modern techniques and food processing to increase shelf life by creating trans fats has made many unsaturated fat sources unhealthy So much so that in 2013 the American FDA are forcing manufacturers to phase out trans fat. Historically, many processing methods have been given the green light before we can truly know the long-term effects on the population. Demands of retailers, cost and historical events such as feeding the population after wartime have, in my opinion, pushed forward processing practices which haven’t necessarily been thoroughly tested in terms of long term effects on the human body.
Sadly, most consumers are not educated as to what to look for on food labels to suggest this kind of manipulation and trans fats have been shown to act as saturated fat does in the system increasing LDL cholesterol and decreasing HDL having a negative impact on cholesterol. Good sources of both saturated and unsaturated fats have been shown to increase good cholesterol and aid in heart health.
Saturated fats have both benefits and downfalls. While they have been shown to raise cholesterol, form plaque, harden, arteries and raise blood pressure; the acids they contain (lauric, stearic, palmitic, caprylic) have been shown to have health benefits especially conjugated linoleic acid found in cattle and sheep which has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory heart health and in reducing body fat.
A particular saturated fat which has gained a lot of media attention lately for its health benefits – and a good example in favour of saturated fats - is coconut oil. Coconut oil has been seen to aid in weight loss, regulate blood sugar and is anti-inflammatory in the digestive passage aiding with conditions such as IBS.
Alongside weight gain, one of the biggest reasons to cut down on fats has been to reduce cholesterol. It was believed that because fat contains cholesterol (e.g. eggs, liver) it would contribute to greater quantities of bad cholesterol in the body. Since an effort to raise public awareness of cholesterol, studies have found only a small amount of cholesterol in our bodies comes from food, the rest being generated by the body itself – although for some blood cholesterol will vary widely depending on cholesterol ingested.
Like many scare stories, foods that were labelled to be ‘bad’ for cholesterol such as eggs have been shown to have benefits that outweigh whatever small contribution to cholesterol e.g. providing nutrients and providing a healthier alternative to other food choices that could be worse. It would seem the majority of foods have pluses and negatives and the safest way to eat may be to simply eat a wide variety of foods in a balanced diet.
One way to avoid heart disease may well be to look closer at the fatty acids we are ingesting. It has been shown in early humans the balance of omega 3 and omega 6 was fairly equal and heart disease barely existent. This tells us that the refinement of nuts and seeds etc into oil was a pivotal part in changing the balance and one could guess that further refinement through trans-fats may not help the situation.
In regards to avoiding heart disease, step 1 would be to increase the omega 3 in food intake and reduce transfats such as those found in margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
On the consumption of fats, it is my opinion that the closer the food is to it’s original source, the less interference that source has had (e.g. battery farms, additives, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, animal hormone manipulation) then the better the quality of the fat and the better the body works. Indeed this would appear to be a helpful perspective when much of the obesity crisis appears to have trans-fat and processing at it’s heart.
I would recommend, even to those with high cholesterol or obesity, to intake the RDA of 65 grams of healthy fats daily such as fats in seeds, nuts, olives, coconut oils, meat, fish and dairy as let us not forget fat in it’s purest, ‘good’ form is a fanastic healer and helps the body work better at everything it needs to do for optimum health.
Enjoy this article? I work like clients in a coaching and hypnotherapy capacity both online and in Thame, Oxfordshire (near Bucks) towards their goals around weight loss. Read the weight website section here or get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 07714579665.