Healthy Fats

Healthy FatsI grew up in the seventies and eighties, which means I had my fair share of margarine; was taught to fear fat and cholesterol in food (eggs were limited to three per week and we only consumed low fat cheeses); and believed that butter, sour cream and full-fat yogurt were evil.

As far as meat goes, we mostly had chicken and lean beef. Fatty cuts of meat were either not bought, or the trimmable fat was trimmed before cooking.

When my parents did use fat for cooking or in salads, they used soybean oil (seventies) and corn oil (eighties). There was always much talk about how my Dutch grandma “cooks everything in butter,” “bakes only with butter, never with margarine” and eats full-fat cheese. These statements were whispered reproachfully, “well, no wonder her cakes are so tasty with all that BUTTER!” and the only logical explanation for grandma’s robust health and longevity (she lived into her nineties) was “lucky genes.”

While fat was the enemy, carbohydrates, including grains and sugar, were fine. We knew that candy was bad for you, bad for your teeth, and fattening, but thick slices of whole-grain bread spread with margarine were a staple, as were low-fat, sugary dairy products.

1970s and 1980s: The Fat Phobia That Started the Obesity Epidemic

Sadly, these principles that I grew on – that everyone grew on during the seventies and eighties – and that menu of toxic margarine, industrial seed oils and sugar is, many experts agree, what had brought on the unparalleled obesity epidemic we’re currently battling.

We were told to eat low fat so we did, and food companies produced what we wanted – low-fat and nonfat foods, so bereft of any inherent flavor after the removal of fat that they had to be filled with sugar and added flavors. So we ate toxic fats (margarine and industrial seed oils) and lots of sugar and carbs (the dose makes the poison, and in sugar’s case, lots of it is definitely poison to our bodies), and we became fatter and fatter because we were eating more carbs than our bodies were able to utilize, so they went into storage – as body fat.

Of course, a too-high carb consumption is not the only reason behind the obesity epidemic (although the epidemic started pretty much when the instructions to eat low-fat and high-carb were published); there are also the issues of out-of-control portion sizes, supersizing, drinking our calories in soda, smoothies and caffeinated drinks, and our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

1990a and 2000s: Um… Some Fats Are Healthy

I believe it was during the nineties, that we started hearing that “actually, not all fats are bad.” Slowly the word got out that some fats are in fact healthy – for example, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), the fats found in olive oil and avocado, have been shown to reduce bad cholesterol levels, and possibly benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control.

During that time, we were finally told to stay away from trans fats – hydrogenated vegetable oils in processed foods and margarine. Trans fats are extremely harmful to the heart – it’s amazing to me that for so many decades, they were considered harmless and that margarine was thought to be healthier than butter.

We were also finally told that we can relax a little about our egg consumption and ditch those egg-white omelets. Research showed that even though egg yolks contain cholesterol, they do not impact our serum cholesterol.

Still, at this point we were told that saturated fats (natural animal fats such as butter and lard) are “bad” and that polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), found in liquid vegetable oils, are “good.” This advice disregarded the fact that PUFAs, when heated, create oxidation products that have inflammatory effects linked to cancer.

And “low-fat” was still the norm.

Essential Fatty Acids

These fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, are called “essential” because the body can’t produce them and must obtain them from food. But while omega-6 fatty acids, found in corn, grains and grain-fed beef are important, too much of them can cause inflammation. To prevent inflammation, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (found in oily fish, enriched eggs and nuts) should be 1:1, but in the typical western diet, it’s more like 10:1, “thanks” to processed foods high in seed oils, and to the consumption of grain-fed beef.

2014: Saturated Fat is Good!

Time Cover Eat ButterFor a decade now, Paleo experts have been telling everyone that saturated fats, found in animal products and some tropical oils such as coconut oil, are fine. Mark Sisson recommended them back in 2008 “as part of a healthy diet. Saturated fats serve critical roles in the human body. They make up 1/2 of cell membrane structure. They enhance calcium absorption and immune function. They aid in body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids and provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins.”

But the mainstream kept insisting that saturated fats are bad. In fact, as I write these lines, in June 2014, the Mayo Clinic website still classifies saturated fats together with trans fats, labeling both as unhealthy:

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But in 2014, following a new meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, fats in general and saturated fats in particular were exonerated.

Time Magazine, in an amazing article, said everything we’ve known, but now it was accepted into the mainstream (or at least this was the first step of accepting it): the removal of fats from our diet has led to an increase in consumption of carbohydrates and processed low-fat alternatives, which has contributed to record levels of diabetes and obesity; mankind has been eating satuarted fats for thousand of years. These natural fats are far superior to industrial, processed trans fats and seed oils.

Conclusion

1. A low-fat diet is harmful. Our bodies need fat, including cholesterol (what they don’t get from food, they make).

2. A low-fat diet is especially harmful because it makes us eat more carbohydrates and causes food manufacturers to remove fat from food, replacing it with sugar and junky fillers.

3. Saturated fats, just like monounsaturated fats, are harmless and can be consumed freely.

4. When it comes to polyunsaturated fats, a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be kept, which means that we should eat more fatty fish, and avoid liquid seed oils and the processed foods that contain them.

5. Eat: fatty grass-fed beef, fatty cold-water fish, eggs (whites and yolks), butter, lard, whole milk, whole-milk yogurt, full-fat cheeses, olive oil, avocado, coconut and coconut oil.

Eat in moderation: nuts (most are high in omega-6 fatty acids). Keep them in the fridge to prevent them from going rancid.

Avoid completely: trans fats (anything labeled as “hydrogenated or “partly hydrogenated”), liquid vegetable and seed oils (corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil).