THE CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT OF FAT
I want to start off my series on diet talking about the controversial subject of fat. There have been many different opinions on what is healthy in the way of fat consumption in the diet over the last few years. Starting a couple of decades ago, the advice was to eat a low fat, low cholesterol diet to prevent heart disease. Consequently, the food industry came out with a low-fat version of just about every food you could imagine. After 20 + years as a country on a low-fat diet, the rate of heart disease and obesity is higher than ever. This demonstrates how little we knew about the science of nutrition and disease. The fat connection to heart disease was based on one or two very poor studies where massive conclusions were made without further investigation.
One of the primary problems in the low-fat diets came about when food manufacturers increased the amount of sugar in low-fat foods to make up for the loss of taste when the fat was removed. It has become apparent that this increase in sugar has been the culprit behind a massive increase in obesity and heart disease. We now know much more about the use of sugar, fat, and proteins than we did 30 years ago.
Sugar or carbohydrates are our fuel food, the gas in our tank if you will. The problem comes when we eat too much of it! What your body can’t burn for energy it converts to triglycerides and cholesterol, which are stored in the tissue as fat. The hormone Insulin serves as the primary control over our levels of blood sugar. All tissue, with the exception of our brain, needs insulin to make use of sugar. The brain can only use sugar for its source of nutrition, however too much sugar is harmful. Part of the function of insulin is to protect the brain from sugar overload, so that when you eat a meal with a high sugar content your body will do whatever necessary to hold your blood sugar at a certain level (including converting the surplus sugars to fat).
So if a low fat, low cholesterol diet is not the answer, how much fat should we be eating? Actually, our bodies have a feedback system that makes you physically ill if you eat too much fat. (Unfortunately, we do not have this same feedback system for carbohydrates.) The key is not how MUCH fat but what KIND of fat we should be eating. Fat and cholesterol are vital molecules for many things in our body. Cholesterol is still looked upon as the bad guy by most people even though it is a vital molecule that your body makes every day and is involved in such things as:
--Forming insulation around nerves to keep electrical impulses going,
–Helping maintain a healthy immune system
–Keeping cell membranes flexible and permeable
–Keeping moods even by stabilizing neurotransmitters
–Making important hormones
–Necessary for brain function
It is true you can have too much cholesterol, but there are much better solutions to lower your levels than taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. These drugs basically block the enzyme your body uses to make its own cholesterol. A more conservative but very effective approach would be to cut the processed sugar and high glycemic foods from your diet and/or increase your exercise level. This will, in most cases, bring your cholesterol within a normal range. Remember that excessive sugar consumption is converted to cholesterol!
A cholesterol level of 170 is often the figure used as a healthy benchmark but some say up to 200 is still within normal range. Another important fact is that cholesterol itself is not the primary problem in heart disease. Oxidation of cholesterol in the blood stream is usually the cause of plaques associated with heart disease. Our bodies fight oxidation with antioxidants which are compounds we get from raw fruits and vegetables, foods that most of us never get enough of on a daily basis.
JUST WHAT ARE HEALTHY FATS?
First of all, it should be said that fatty acids are some of the most important molecules you can consume in your diet. Their involvement in the construction and integrity of cell walls could not be more essential to the health of any living organism. In addition, they are a primary molecule in the production of all hormones that control most every biological process in our body. So, what are the good fats?
Let me start with the bad first. After 20 years of significant scientific data about the dangers of trans-fats, the FDA finally came out with recommendations to avoid these dangerous molecules. Trans-fats are fat molecules that have an abnormal hydrogen bond configuration. Most of these occur when poly-unsaturated oils are heated beyond a certain temperature, which damages the fat molecule or when a hydrogen molecule is added to what is normally a liquid vegetable oil to make it a solid (better known as margarine). You want to avoid these trans-fats at all cost. Your body not only has a hard time using and getting rid of them, but they also interfere with the production of normal fatty acid molecules that your body needs to make on a daily basis. They have been traditionally found in processed foods (most often labeled as hydrogenated oil) as they taste good and are very stable on the shelf. They are also found in huge quantities in deep fried foods, especially French fries. The more unsaturated an oil, the more susceptible it is to trans-fat damage. The polyunsaturated oils include all of your vegetable and nut oils, so they are not suitable for cooking.
WHAT TYPE OF FAT IS BEST FOR COOKING?
Olive Oil is my favorite for both cooking and salads. Olive oil is a mono-unsaturated oil (meaning it has only one double bond) and is stable under moderately high heat. It also has high levels of antioxidants. Butter is also a good fat despite its sinister reputation. It is a saturated fat and is very resistive to trans fat damage but can be oxidized by high heat. When you see butter turn brown in a hot pan, it is being oxidized which is another form of a fat damage. (Try to avoid burning butter.) Coconut oil is another saturated fat that is also very stable under high heat and has a lot of positive nutritional benefits that I won’t go into at this time. Saturated fats do contain cholesterol so they should be used in moderation. I tend to use olive oil for my primary cooking oil and butter for a little flavor. I also prefer to use whole dairy products (as opposed to low-fat) when I do eat dairy. Processing food to remove fat alters the fat molecule structure, thereby making it more difficult for your body to use.
So the take-home message here is:
1) Avoid low-fat processed foods.
2) Avoid trans-fats as if they are poison. Remember, anything deep fried in a restaurant will have trans-fats unless they used olive or coconut oil which is rare.
3) Use Extra-Virgin Olive or Coconut Oil as your primary cooking oil.
4) Use only cold-pressed organic vegetable oils and do not heat them.
5) Don’t be afraid of good saturated fats, but do eat them in moderation. (ie: butter, organic whole dairy products, and organic meat, etc.)
6) Keep your total fat under 30 percent of your diet.
I will follow this up with the equally important subject of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids: their functions and the need for balance.
Yours in Health,
Dr. Roy Murrell, DC 200 NE 20th Avenue, Suite 140 Portland Oregon 97232 - disclaimer - 971-312-9497