“Fact” or Fiction?
Everyone knows some basic “facts” about fats. “Facts” that have been doing the rounds since the early-mid 20th century in the popular press include; butter and other saturated animal fats are BAD, vegetable oils found in things like margarine are GOOD, and above all, if we want to lose weight, we need to stop eating fat altogether. But what if every single one of these “facts” is in fact fictitious? I want to address the many myths surrounding fats and separate the good from the bad and just the plain ugly.
Fats are crucial for building up our cell walls; they are the basic building blocks for our complex body matrix. The average person is composed of between 15 and 30 percent fat – depending on age, sex and physical activity. This fat is used by the body for energy and to build cell walls throughout and our brains are made up of 60% fat, so if we are not getting enough fat, our brains are the first vital organ to suffer. Gram for gram, fats are twice as efficient as carbohydrates in producing energy, meaning if we are not getting enough, our energy levels will drop hugely. We need fats in our diet in order to be able to uptake important fat-soluble vitamins. Fat is also used in the body to “safe-guard” vital organs against toxins that might be building up and often, when people find it hard to shift stubborn fat is it because they are toxic and this, rather than reducing fat intake, is what needs targeting.
HOWEVER, it is crucial that we get the right kinds of fats in our diet, as not all fats are created equal! The good news is that as long as a fat is natural and has been treated correctly, it is likely to be of some benefit. The only fats that are essential for our bodies are omega 3’s and omega 6’s – all other fats can be made by our bodies.
The three types of fats are saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and all are beneficial. The names given to these different types of fat are simply to reflect their chemical structure but it is useful to remember that saturated fats are mainly solid at room temperature whereas unsaturated fats are usually liquid. The common belief for the past century or so has been that the solid fats cause build up in our arteries whereas the liquid ones don’t. And here the myths begin….
No such thing as a good fat, right? All fats make us fat, right? Wrong! The higher quality the fat – of any kind – the better your body will function because the cell walls will be better built and the communication that takes place between different body systems will be more effective. Healthy cell walls are better able to metabolise insulin and if the body can’t manage blood sugar levels, glucose will be stored as fat. So eating fat doesn’t make you fat but eating the wrong sort, might. Whereas omega 3’s and 6’s receive a huge amount of press, they are not the only beneficial fats. Saturated fats are also necessary for energy and insulation and usually come from animal sources – the exceptions being coconut and palm fats. Butyric acid – a saturated animal fat found in butter – is hugely beneficial to our gut bacteria and therefore vital for good digestion. Saturated fats are amongst the most stable for cooking as they can withstand high temperatures and so coconut oil, butter or good old lard are far safer than polyunsaturated oils such as corn or sunflower.
And so to omega 3’s and 6’s. It is recommended that we have a ratio of 5:1 of 6 to 3 fats although it is widely believed that our ancestors’ ratio was nearer 2:1. Nowadays, most people consume far more omega 6’s than 3’s and the ratio is thought to be as much as 25:1 in some people. The trouble with this is that although both these fats are essential, they do different things in the body and too much of either is not necessarily good. Omega 3’s are cooling and anti-inflammatory whereas omega 6’s are the opposite. 6’s are vital for skin health though, so chances are if you’re suffering from eczema, you are deficient in omega 6. If we are getting omega 6’s from nuts and seeds then there should be no problem, but as we will see, omega 6’s have become far too popular….
I hesitate to use the word “bad” for any food that hasn’t been tampered with, but the truth is that fats are incredibly unstable and unless treated and handled correctly, turn rancid. Since plant oils have started to be refined and used to replace more expensive animal fats, our ratio intake of omega 6:3 has risen hugely. Refined vegetable oils are found in a vast number of industrial foodstuffs and the problem is that refining strips the oil of any nutrient value. Vegetable oils sold in clear plastic bottles are not only refined but are also highly likely to be rancid, as oils need to be kept cool and dark. A rancid oil produces free radicals which have been linked to many diseases such as heart disease and cancer and they also speed up the ageing process. Unrefined oils are best and all oils should be stored in dark glass bottles in a cool place.
These are fats which started life out as a natural unsaturated plant oil and have been rendered unrecognisable to the human body by chemical processing called hydrogenation. Known by a variety of names, hydrogenated and trans-fats are the most common. The reason they go through this chemical process is in order to make their naturally liquid form solid, so that they can be used in all sorts of industrialised foods like margarine and cakes in place of more expensive animal fats to give a nice consistency, increase shelf life and above all, keep things cheap for the food industry. Trans-fats are so damaging because they have been chemically altered – their chemical structure has literally been changed. As their chemical structure is not a natural one, our bodies don’t recognise the molecules. Imagine trying to cram a square into a round hole – that is basically what is happening with trans-fats – our bodies have no capacity for recognising their formation and so treats them as saturated fats. Therefore eating a hydrogenated vegetable oil is probably no healthier than eating saturated animal fat. In fact, studies have shown that trans-fats raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol as well as contributing to inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Saturated fat from a healthy animal eaten in small amounts will not do this.
Food labelling can be a minefield when trying to avoid unhealthy or rancid fats, but read on….
Read the labels:
There is currently no legal requirement to list trans-fats on food labels and trans-fats can appear under all sorts of guises, so beware. Avoid the following: -
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Simply “vegetable oil”, as this is sure to be refined and of poor quality, possibly rancid
REMEMBER: The easiest way to avoid trans-fats is to know that they will almost always make an appearance in foods such as industrial cakes and pastries – which means almost anything with a plastic wrapper on. Most things in the UK now state if they don’t use hydrogenated fats and certainly any foods veering towards the healthy will scream it out on the label, so if it isn’t stated, avoid!
Omega 3 sources:
- Fish, especially oily such as mackerel, sardines and anchovies
- Wild game
- Free range organic eggs
- Algae & some plants
GOOD omega 6 sources:
- Free range organic poultry
- Free range organic eggs
- Coconut oil/butter
BAD omega 6 sources:
- Refined vegetable oils
The oils and fats which are most stable at high temperatures and will release less free radicals when heated are: -
- Coconut oil or butter
Do remember though that ALL oils are best kept at low temperatures and high temperature cooking like frying should be avoided. Happy eating!