The Truth About Fat: Separating Fa(c)t from Fiction
Updated: May 12
As recently as only a few years ago, the media, government and any ill-informed well wisher (myself included), would have told you that consumption of fat is the reason people are overweight, period. It’s in the name. People were fat because they ate too much of it. Thankfully, it’s not quite that simple, which means that we can indeed eat the fatty skin from a roast chicken or devour a glass of full fat milk, without having to worry about adding an extra tyre to your midriff or keeling over before your time. Not only this, we actually need healthy fats in our diet.
For millennia humans have been eating fat without any weight gain issues at all (do you recall any fat people in cave paintings?). It is only today that obesity is a full scale epidemic but it is the mainstream, large-scale food producers that are to blame. We, as a society, have been trained to fear the very mention of such an essential dietary requirement and, as such, buy low-fat alternatives in a bid to steer clear of the apparent evil. It’s not evil, though, and until the whole world can finally understand the intrinsic importance of fat, we will continue to do the opposite of what our bodies need when it comes to fats.
It is slowly becoming evident that since the advent of the false assumption that fat is evil, manufacturers have cleverly managed to disguise the taste of fat with sugar, thereby eliminating its apparent malevolence with a sweet poison that we are only now beginning to understand. Before I confront the stronghold that sugar has over us, let me first categorise fats. Yes, some are bad, so you will do well to avoid them, but the bad fats are all manufactured fats, hence the lack of obesity in former generations.
For as long as I can remember, fat has always been the supposed driving force behind the weight problems of the world. The fact that it bears the same name as the end result of eating too much of it, doesn’t really give it a good one. If it received the same kind of PR that some high-ranking fad diets (Atkins, Dukan) have been fortuitously given, we would be able to turn around, gradually, the weight issues of the world. Here’s an idea. Let’s call fat, ‘mirth’. It’s not a particularly pretty word, much like fat, but it means ‘laughter’, which is what people might experience if they stop seeing it as the driving force behind their weight troubles. It won’t bring joy to all the weight-loss food manufacturers, though, and as they have the money and the power to control the world’s views on fat, don’t expect to be given a stocking full of ‘mirth’ for Christmas, quite yet.
There are two main types of fat. Unsaturated fats, predominantly found in foods from plants and vegetables (almonds, avocados, vegetable oil, olive oil, walnuts, sardines, seeds, flax seeds, salmon, macadamia nuts and the like) and saturated fats, mainly found in animal products (meat, and dairy, as well as nuts, coconut, chocolate) have both played a pivotal role in nurturing and evolving our bodies, brains and nervous systems into the fantastically structured beings we are today. These fats contribute to a healthy liver, enhanced immune system, depression of tumour growth, hormone production, successful blood clotting, satiety (when we feel appropriately full) and the transport around the body of essential fatty acids. None of these things would be possible without these fats.
Have you ever wondered why you don’t feel full on a fat free diet? The satiety your body reaches after eating enough isn’t an accident. Your body knows when it has replenished the stocks needed to function correctly and naturally tells you so. If you’re on some fad juice diet, of course you’re not going to feel full, because without fat, your body can’t distribute the essential compounds you’re ingesting. You’ll find your body will continue to insist on more food until it gets it. In the short term, it will use up its fat reserves, which is why fad diets sometimes appear to work in the first instance. Your body, however, cannot continue to function without input of more good fats, which is why it’s tiring, miserable and ultimately unsustainable remaining on those diets.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance, made in the body by the liver but also found in some foods such as egg yolks. It plays a pivotal role in the function of every cell and is also needed to make vitamin D, bile for digestion and some hormones. Too much cholesterol, however, can increase your risk of getting heart and circulatory diseases. Cholesterol is distinguished between ‘good’ HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and ‘bad’ LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein), depending on the density of the protein used to carry it around the blood. The good stuff is protective, whereas the bad stuff compiles to form a gloopy substance in your blood.
Although I am telling you both saturated and unsaturated fats are fine, health boards have consistently favoured unsaturated fats over saturated fats. But why? Unsaturated fats, both polyunsaturated (omega-3 fatty acids, fish, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil) and monounsaturated (avocado, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and sesame oil) are categorized by the number of bonds between the carbon atoms present in the fat, accentuated by the solidity the fat exhibits upon refrigeration (monounsaturated fats tend to be rigid at lower temperatures). These unsaturated fats have been linked to reducing LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, helping to lower the risk of coronary heart disease and strokes.
Monounsaturated fats also have the added benefit of being high in vitamin E and helping the body to maintain or develop cells. Omega-3s and Omega 6s both contribute to brain function, Omega 3s being able to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and reduce inflammation.
An over-indulgence in saturated fats is commonly thought to provoke bad cholesterol, which in turn will increase your chances of cardiovascular disease. There is actually very little evidence, however, to fully support the presumption that this bad cholesterol is linked to saturated fats and a few studies have proven that the links are very tenuous, if present at all.
Trans fats are the real evil of which you should be wary. Although originating from a naturally unsaturated fat, these are fats that have been hydrogenated (where a liquid fat is turned into solid fat through the addition of hydrogen) in order to increase shelf life. This is what stops shop-bought biscuits going soggy and makes margarine and spreadable butter, spreadable. Manufacturers created this product in part to provide a food that was not associated with saturated fat (because of the bad press that type was receiving) but that still supposedly tasted and behaved the same way. Numerous studies have since been published to show how trans fats can clog your arteries and are far worse for your body than saturated fats. Your body is designed to be able to break down and make use of natural fats such as those found in real butter but when confronted with this altered, effectively manufactured fat, things can go wrong.
So why the perpetual fat-bashing?
As soon as a health board announces its reasoning behind a world problem, teams of people club together to come up with ways to ameliorate it and rightly so. When the rationale for the initial conclusion changes its path, though, the teams of people (who have by now invested a lot of money into fixing the first problem) are not so keen to re-evaluate. They would have to change their business model to address the scientifically proven, updated formula, and are understandably reluctant to do this, for fear of losing out on lots of money and looking foolish for acting so hard and fast on the first hypothesis.
I’m talking about the companies that produce the low-fat, fat free and weight loss products. You can’t go into a supermarket now without seeing an abundance of items that have been processed in such a way as to cut out or diminish the naturally occurring fat that was always meant to be there. I think one of the first things to be altered was milk. It’s even cleverly colour-coded so that you know how much or how little you are going to enjoy it.
Semi-skimmed I can just about understand, although you don’t get the thick creamy layer at the top of the bottle (actually, due to homogenisation, you don’t even with full fat now unless you buy that special gold-top stuff) but skimmed milk? WTF. It’s the most rancid, tasteless gruel I have ever had, yet people buy it on a daily basis because they believe the lack of fat in it will stop them from getting fat. No! The only thing it will stop for you is your enjoyment of milk the way it should be – and some of the processes your body should and would be able to conduct if you drank the proper stuff instead. Having said this, professional athletes and long distance runners do actually imbibe skimmed milk to hydrate, owing to the water, electrolytes and protein content; so I mustn’t vilify it too much. It might be more useful, though, for the purposes of an everyday healthy diet, to think of it as protein-rich water, rather than actual milk.
One of my biggest bugbears of the low-fat upheaval is crème fraîche. Its deliciousness is all to do with the high amount of fat it contains – and high it is, at up to 45%. When some well-intentioned food activists decided to introduce a low-fat version, it completely destroyed the very essence of crème fraîche, altering its consistency to such a degree it’s no longer possible to cook with it in the same ways, because it curdles under high heat. ‘Don’t buy it then’ I hear you cry, which would be the obvious answer. Unfortunately, due to the populist supermarkets’ approach, those around me only stock a limited amount of the full-fat version; so limited, in fact, that it is rarely possible to purchase this nectar of the cream world as the other savvy high fat consumers got there before me, because they’re so healthy and nimble. The erroneous common belief that fat is the devil’s friend is actually preventing us from accessing and eating what we should. Don’t even get me started on yoghurt.
Dairy products were the starting point for the negative food revolution (maybe because they are in the dreaded saturated fat bracket) but, as is the way, nothing was safe from its steely grip. I was a ‘fat is evil’ believer many years ago, when I carried the paunch, and remember buying a low-fat oil to spray onto my food before frying it. It a) cost significantly more than a bottle of olive oil; b) tasted pretty gruesome; and c) took away all of the beneficial nutrients that I should have received from a high fat oil.
Not only are these products going to give you far fewer essential nutrients, they are also priced considerably higher than any of the foods they are trying to emulate. The manufacturers of all of these low-fat products have profited so much from this revolution that it will take years before fat is no longer seen as the enemy, because they control the market and they don’t want to stop cashing in on it. When it comes to fat, there is no ‘wonder product’ you need to buy; just eat and cook the naturally-sourced foods that our ancestors did, who didn’t get fat and who didn’t have chronic heart disease. The low-fat food manufacturers can’t make any money out of this, so they’re not going to advertise it. Take it from me – I’m only interested in spreading the happiness (and the butter).
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