Lipids, or fats and oils, as they are more commonly known, are a much misunderstood macronutrient that includes everything from vegetable oil to lard to butter to coconut oil.
I want to help take the mystery away around fats and explain the differences and varying benefits and health issues about the choice of fats in your diet. Let us start with the much maligned family of saturated fats.
The discussion around fats and their effect on health has been a long one, going right back to the 1970’s and the introduction of the ‘low fat’ diet. The craze for the low fat diet is one we still bare the scars of today. The low fat diet in itself has not been the main concern for health, but the choice of fat. Saturated fats became the ‘baddies’ and so the shift from butter to margarine and from cooking with lard and dripping to vegetable oils started. If we had taken the time to look at these foods properly and not just taken for wrote advertising campaigns telling us to switch to these fats, then the story of growing diabetes and obesity over the last few decades, may have been a different one.
In their bid to make huge profits from us, processed food manufacturers have for years perpetuated the myth around cholesterol and saturated fats long after extensive scientific research has proved otherwise. Sadly the legacy lives on and even to this day many still believe that butter, a natural saturated fat, should be avoided in favour of highly processed, hydrogenated margarine that often contains trans fats. Margarine is made from low grade, processed oil, laced with additives to give it the colour, taste and texture for ease of use. Margarine is actually a grey colour without its yellow additive friend.
The food industry in westernized countries is a huge employer, the second largest in the USA and in the UK it is the largest sector employing over 2 million people and is worth over £96 billion. Of course food corporations are obliged to maximize shareholder returns and therefore have to oppose any policies that could potentially reduce profitability and therefore a good advertising story for a big selling product will always win over. Convincing consumers over the last 40 years to eat low fat has certainly been a profit winner along with quick, convenience foods. The UK government has been unwilling to step in and regulate and so the food industry very much relies on self-regulation, so we continue to see anything with a ‘low fat’ label being marketed as healthy. Let’s put this in perspective when we look at 2 very different food products; a can of diet coke and a bunch of carrots. Both are fat free, but can both be considered healthy?
Many people looking to lose weight will reach for fat-free products not realizing that the damage to their health and the tendency to increase their weight will come from these choices with chemically ladened, toxic foods full of artificial sweeteners like the deadly aspartame. Trans fats are widely considered the most dangerous of all. Trans fats are made from vegetable oils that are chemically altered to prolong shelf life. You can spot these ‘food’ products as they will sit around for years without degrading. Processed foods with chemicals and damaged fats are a recipe for disasster for the liver and the reflection of this is the massive increase in non-alcohol related liver disease, giving alcohol damaged livers a real run for their money.
If you watched the recent BBC Horizon documentary around fat and sugar you will know that the one fact they reported accurately is our body’s addictive tendencies to not just sugar or fat alone but it is the combination of the two that our body’s biochemistry cannot control and it is this combination that is never found in natural foods.
If we go back hundreds of years fat and sugar in nature were a scarcity and not abundantly available as today. Our bodies have been naturally programmed to store fat and sugar when it becomes available to ward off times of food shortage. We are biologically programmed to seek out fat and sugar and store it as fat and of course for most of us there are no longer times of famine and we are choosing to eat the wrong kinds of foods too often and in too large quantities.
At this juncture we could make a huge leap to considering a low fat diet once again, but it is the type of fats we are eating now that are the real danger. Admittedly our bodies need very little fat. If we look at the highly acclaimed '80:10:10 balancing your health' book by Graham Douglas then estimations are at around 10% and it is highly preferable that the fats we do have are not heated. The liver is far more able to deal with unheated fats and the fats that are most stable when heated are the saturated fats like butter ghee, goose or duck fat and coconut oil and NOT vegetable oils. Saturated fats have a very stable molecular structure even when heated unlike vegetable oils. It si also worth noting that saturated fats help form the structure of every cell in your body.
Our bodies need healthy fats to keep in good health and there has been so much confusion, proliferated by convenience/processed food companies for profit, as to what those healthy fats are. Even then, some of the healthy fats are so highly processed that they bare no resemblance to their original form once they reach the supermarket shelf, having had all the goodness processed out. Lets look at the important role that fats play in our health.
The polyunsaturated fats, omega 3 and 6 initiate the vital role the prostaglandins perform within the body. These are chemicals that your body needs in an emergency. Prostaglandins respond to stimuli, such as inflammation or trauma. Incredibly, they are used in every tissue and cell within the body.
Prostaglandins are responsible for mediating all sorts of important functions around the body including control of blood pressure, the contraction of smooth muscle, blood clotting and pain management. When they have performed their role they are destroyed, so their lifespan is very short. Prostaglandins can be found in any cell membrane around the body and can be produced in any tissue cell or organ. They are never stored but produced reactively as needed.
The importance of omegas cannot be overemphasized in keeping the body in good health. The essential fatty acids omega 3 and 6 cannot be produced by the body and so are taken from the diet. Omega 6 fats very rarely need supplementing as they are found in many sources in the diet including meat, egg yolk and many vegetable oils. The main sources of omega 3 fats are fish, particularly oily cold-water fish, krill oil and flax oil. It is vitally important to get the balance right between the omega 3 and 6. Omega 3 deficiencies are found in most chronic degenerative disease. In many cases the deficiency may be as a result of too many omega 6 sources in the diet or too much processed hydrogenated trans fats. Our westernized diet provides us with approximately 10 to 20 times more omega 6 than 3. It can actually be harmful to supplement omega 6 as the ratio to omega 3 would be increasingly difficult to balance. The ideal ratio of omega 6 to 3 would be 4:1.
Omega oils are the most important for good health and the most fragile of all the oils. Due to the oils delicate nature they must be processed and handled with care so as not to oxidise and turn rancid. Their function is severely blocked by damaged fats in the diet.
Omega 6 essential fatty acids are found abundantly and there are potentially 2 pitfalls with these oils. Too many omega 6 oils in the diet are at the detriment of the omega 3 oils and will stop the 'good' prostaglandins doing their work to reduce inflammation in the body. The second problem with omega 6 oils is that much of their presence in the diet is in a highly processed form. Like the omega 3 oils they are very delicate and will easily damage through heating and processing. Much of the processing of vegetable oils is deliberate to prolong shelf life and make them more aesthetically pleasing as a clear liquid in the plastic bottle on the supermarket shelf.
Getting the right fats in your diet will pay massive dividends to your health a thousand times over so don't miss my next blog.
My next blog 'Fat Truths' will arm you with all the information you need to restock you kitchen cupboards and fridge with the best quality, health giving fats and oils.
If you feel you need to help in rebalancing your fat intake and want to move towards healthier alternatives then you can contact me on the link below ‘or through my page How to work with me.’
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