Welcome to another blog post on nutrition and more accurately, macronutrients. This week it is the turn of fat.
Fat found itself demonised in the latter part of the 20th century so much so that some are afraid of eating it in any food and it was largely shunned by all government advice around the world.
Is this trend on the wane though?
In this post, I’m going to look at what fat is, why it has been seen as both a wonder food and a food that will kill us all.
Also keep reading all the way to the end as I give you my honest opinion on what I think is wrong with he way we eat in modern day society.
What the hell is fat?
Well, this is probably a little more confusing than you or I would like but hold on as I explain in as simple terms as I can.
Fat is one of the 3 macronutrients that make up our diets. Along with protein and carbohydrate we get pretty almost all our nutrients from it. As, such, fat is the most calorie rich of the three and is probably the most shunned.
- Each gram equals 9 kcals
- Fat can be broken down into two groups – saturated and unsaturated
- The body stores fat in adipose tissue for long-term energy storage
- The body needs fat
- Your brain is made up of a large proportion of fat
- Your cells need fat to stay healthy
- Fat is needed to process certain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K
These fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules and because of this are solid at room temperature. So, this would include fats such as butter, lard, palm oil and coconut oil.
Most saturated fats come from animal sources but as you can see by my last sentence they can also come from other sources.
For a long time, the accepted advice was to eat as little saturated fat as possible. This was mainly due to its link with to an elevation of bad cholesterol (LDL) which can cause early death and heart disease.
As our fat intake increased so too has our levels of early death from other diseases such as cancers, dementia, diabetes and stroke.
But were we looking at the problem of early death from the wrong angle? Was it natural saturated fats causing the issues or was it another saturated fat that had snuck into our diets causing all the problems?
Trans fats are still technically a saturated fat but were another fat but have been altered using a chemical process.
Food producers like to have a product that will last a long time on the shop shelves. Because of this, making foods that contained “good fats” spoiled very quickly and didn’t last long.
It was discovered that if you heated vegetable oils with hydrogen and a heavy metal (Who figured this out?) you can add hydrogen molecules, creating saturated fat or a trans fat.
The upside for food producers was that they could make cheap saturated fat that would preserve food in the shops for longer.
As the methods became further refined and as producers are always wanting to cut costs, trans fats were added to more and more food stuffs until almost all processed foods contain or at one time contained trans fats. This includes, cakes, biscuits, pastries etc…
The problem with trans fats is that they are not healthy, at all.
Instead of adding nutrients to the body, they give nothing at all and are dangerous.
Trans fats promote dangerous levels of inflammation in the body. By just having 2% of your daily intake of calories from trans fat can increase your chances of heart disease by 23%.
Our bodies also can’t tell the difference between trans fats and an essential fatty acid called omega 6.
I’m going to get into omega 6 in while but:
Could a substance that is man-made and masquerades as something it isn’t be the root cause of our woes?
The second category of fats are known as unsaturated and are a liquid at room temperature. These are what have been historically called healthy fats.
Unsaturated fats in the main come from vegetable, seed, nuts, olives and fish and differ from saturated fat as they have fewer hydrogen molecules.
This family of fats can be broken down further into:
These fats are found in olive, peanut and sun flower oils, seeds, nuts and avocados. These are healthy and there is no daily limit for how much you can eat.
Just don’t forget they still contain 9 calories per gram and over eating them will cause you to gain body fat.
These fats form a major part of the Mediterranean Diet which is one of the healthiest in the world.
These are another class of “healthy fats” and come from oils such as sunflower, corn and safflower.
They are called essential fats, meaning the body needs them for certain functions but can’t make them itself.
These essential fats are needed to build cell membranes, for the covering of nerves, blood clotting, inflammation and muscle movement.
Poly-unsaturated fats can be broken down further into two more categories, the first of which I know you will recognise.
These fats are found in fatty, cold water fish such as pilchards, sardines, salmon and mackerel. This is lucky for us in the UK as we have some of the best cold-water fish around.
They are also found in flax seeds and walnuts.
There have been studies linked to the benefits of eating fats rich in omega 3 and have included a decrease in heart disease, strokes, reducing blood pressure, reducing inflammation and raising the levels of HDL (good cholesterol). There have also been studies that seem to show a reduction in pain from arthritis and a reduction in the symptoms of dementia, though this has yet to be confirmed.
Probably less well known but just as important is omega 6 fatty acid which can be found in oils as sunflower and safflower and also walnuts.
There has also been a link between omega 6 and a reduction in heart disease.
The ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in our diets should be 1:1 as our bodies are carefully balanced eco-systems.
But through our modern diets this is rapidly changing and is more like 40:1 in favour of omega 6.
Could this be part of the reason that we suffer more from modern day diseases?
Evolution vs the last 60-odd years
In relation to fats, it’s clear that there has been a massive shift change in advice that has been given from health sources.
Before agriculture was introduced around 10,000 years ago we were hunter gathers and as such would scavenge for food but also trap it. This meant that we would only eat food that could swim, run, fly or grow in or on the land.
This food contained both saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated from the meat that we caught and unsaturated from the seeds and nuts that we picked and the fish that we caught.
It’s no coincidence that the majority of early settlements were by the sea. We ate a lot of fish.
Back then, people rarely died of any modern day diseases. Including forms of heart disease, cancer, diabetes or dementia.
As agriculture increased, we started to move away from the hunter-gatherer life and grain became a staple.
Since the end of the War, mechanised farming became a cost-effective way of producing food for a decimated world. Factories that once built tanks and bombs now began to churn out cheap industrialised food.
Due to the mechanisation of the food industry and our growing need for food to last longer, more and more trans fats were introduced to our diets.
Was it a coincidence that instances of modern day disease began to increase at the same time?
In the 1960’s a Dr called Ancel Keys decided that he had the answer to all of society’s heart disease problems. He conducted a study called the Seven Countries Study, looking into the instances of heart disease and the population’s intake of saturated fat.
The study showed a clear link. The more a country ate saturated fat, the more they suffered with heat disease.
Critics of the study believed that Dr Keys had hand picked the countries that he studied to prove his theory.
However, this criticism was push aside and his theory revolutionised the way we were to eat fat for decades to come.
The US government adopted this study and gave advice that every citizen should cut out all fats from their diets.
With that advice proliferating the eating guidelines of the modern world, heart disease and other modern disease rates should have come down surely?
In fact, the opposite happened.
The rates of all these diseases multiplied. And then multiplied again.
Until more people were dying of these diseases. More than anyone could have ever imagined.
What I think
I think that we have gotten it so wrong that we don’t know what the hell is going on.
I believe that trans fats are a major part of what has gone wrong in our modern diets.
You see, the body can’t tell the difference between a trans fat and an omega 6 fatty acid. We also don’t eat anywhere as much fish as we used to. Se we consume smaller amounts of omega 3.
This increase of what the body thinks is omega 6 but is actually trans fat is causing us all sorts of issues, including massive amounts of inflammation within the body. Which Leads to an increase of modern day disease.
Our brains are 10% smaller than they were 60 years ago. (Brains are made of fat!)
The advice given by Ancel Keys in the 1960s also opened the door to massive food companies cutting down fat in our food.
However, when you cut fat, the food starts to taste bad.
So, what do they add?
And crazy amounts of it.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the healthiest places on earth to live is Crete.
On the island of Crete more people die from old age than of heart disease and diabetes.
Do you know what they eat there?
Fresh, cold water fish, fresh meat, salad, olives, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
Be all you can be