From Fire to Frying Pan.
It’s hard enough tying not to be swayed by advertising, but its even more impossible to pick out the real expert advice from the different sources. I have looked into it a lot and find that conflict is the norm. There are official experts like government agencies, specialist health ‘foundations’ and societies, and ‘independent’ bodies who lay down ‘guidelines’ and then there are different sorts of scientific experts and research organisations, who may have conflicting ‘evidence based’ advice. There are medical researchers, biochemists, chemists, nutritionists, and then there is the mighty pharmaceutical industry. All may be highly trained in their fields. You would expect them to work together to reach an unbiassed consensus but this is just not the case. So how are we to know the truth?
The only way is to do a comprehensive search of the literature yourself, read digest and understand it and, most importantly, understand what it doesn’t prove, and to note especially what has not been researched properly yet. Who can do that? It’s a minefield!
But, for what it’s worth, here is my (very inexpert) stance on fats (no ‘experts’ were harmed in the drawing up of this this opinion, I on the other hand have a lot more grey hair) Here are the main points as I understand them:
FATS AREN’T EVIL.
Contrary to what we have been told over the last 50 years or so. They are essential for health, are a valuable source of energy and are good for the brain, (which is 60% fat.)
FATS DON’T MAKE YOU FAT
(unless you consume them within an unheathy diet that contains way, way too many calories over all.) CARBS, on the other hand DO make you fat and low fat products will (by simple arithmetic) inevitably mean higher carb… or higher protein which is very unlikely as this is more costly.)
NOT ALL FATS ARE EQUAL
and you need to ditch most of what you believe about saturated v unsaturated fats.
Fats aren’t evil.
For most of my adult life I lived under an ‘irrefutable guideline’ broadcast by every official agency and the mass media that fats need to be cut down, if not eliminated. The supermarket shelves are lined with ‘low fat’ and 0%fat products that are lauded as ‘healthy options.’ A nice, neat message; unfortunately it has now been found to be, largely, utter rubbish. The belief that fat raises cholesterol, furs up your arteries, gives you high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks, makes you obese and gives you diabetes, and more importantly the avoidance of fat will stop you getting these, is inaccurate at best and plain wrong at worst. What is more, the anti-fat lobby has consistently ignored the fact that your body, and your energy production, and in particular your brain cells, cannot function without fats. Our bodies do NOT need carbohydrate! There is no such thing as an essential carb; on the other hand there are many essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot synthesise and without which we become sick and die. I do not pretend to understand all the metabolic pathways involved but I want to focus on three important ‘fat factors’ and explore the ‘war between fats and carbs’.
Here we go: I want this ‘Fat Fact’ written in neon lights across every supermarket shelf
Fat doesn’t make you fat!
Back in the day, when I was a school girl, those wonderful scientists discovered an association between obesity and type two diabetes and heart disease. They knew that fat cells contain fat, ergo fat makes you fat? NO! It turns out it doesn’t. Public heath campaigns taught us to cut down on fat and, later, cholesterol (which is a whole other crazy ball game that I wont go into here). Ever since then marketing, packaging and advertising has made sure we have a wide range of low fat products that we can consume to make us feel we are getting healthy. A whole, highly profitable industry has grown up around it, brainwashing us into believing it. Result: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndromes, instead of going down (as they predicted), have become even more prevalent.
As a teenager I battled my (perceived) bulges with unsatisfying fat-free yogurts and gagged on low fat spreads on tasteless fat-free crisp-bread for lunch. I should sue someone for that misery alone! The problem is, this 50 year population wide human ‘experiment’ has not delivered the health benefits it promised. Recent studies have shown that the original study linking fat and heart disease was flawed but, worse, contradictory evidence was suppressed. Theories postulate that it was the vested interests of sugar industry accounted for the cover up. Now I’m no conspiracy theorist, and couldn’t possibly judge the truth of these theories but I do think that not only have we allowed dodgy evidence to fool us into demonizing a healthy fat diet but the ‘fat-is-bad’ message has been so indoctrinated into our phyche that it is very, very hard to break… Even when we know the truth!
I am not personally interested in weight loss. Before my illness I was happy with my weight. I may have had a few pounds ‘in the wrong places’ but at my age, who doesn’t and overall I was probably in normal range for my height. But I began to look at metabolic pathways as a way of making sure by body had all that it needed to combat the cancer. What I found was that there were two energy pathways in the body: one that derives energy from sugars (and carbohydrates), and the other from fat. Without these energy pathways we die. And what particularly interested me was that cancer cells largely have to rely on only one: the sugar/carb pathway. But, given the horrendous press fat had, I needed to interrogate that more, it was no good jumping from the (low fat) frying pan into the high-fat fire!
I started by looking at a range of standard sources of ‘expert’ guidance on these things. But sadly they, by and large, supported my old ingrained theories. “Fat is to be avoided for the sake of your health, and in particular saturated fat which should be no more than 11-12% of the diet.” The NHS and British Heart Foundation urge us to use low fat spreads rather butter and so called poly-unsaturated oils for frying, like vegetable oils. Coconut oil (because it is a saturated fat) is positively discouraged and the NHS 2015 guidelines even go so far as to issue a stern warning “Watch out for curries that contain coconut milk.” Vegetable oils are promoted and in particular sunflower and rapeseed oils. In USA a specially modified version of the latter called Canola oil was peddled as the most healthy oil (indeed I listened to a bbc documentary only this week recommending this as the best oil for frying) This advice is lamentably out of date and I am afraid up to date information from any of the official issued guidance aimed at the layman is hard to come by. This does not surprise me in retrospect – doctors know precious little about nutrition; they are not trained in it at med school. (I know, I have been there!)
So here’s what I learned from reading papers and from consulting properly trained nutritionists . You can make your own judgments but at least it will explain why I eat as I do.
Not all Fats are equal
Trans Fats: Everyone is in agreement that trans-fats are very bad for you. These are sometime called partially hydrogenated fats. They are chemically modified fats in which hydrogen atoms have been added to turn a liquid oil into a solid (to make it more convenient and have a longer shelf life). They used to be made into margarines and spreads and used for fried foods. They were shown conclusively to be very bad for heart health and as a result have been largely removed from the spreads in UK but still pop up in some processed foods. Watch out for these in the small print and avoid at all costs. Unfortunately they are often omitted from labelling. So my stance is just avoid all processed gunk.
Saturated and unsaturated Fats:
This term refers to the amount of hydrogen and the type of bonds that link the carbon chains in the fat.
Saturated fats: the bonds in these fats are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen ions’. These are typically solid at room temperature and examples are butter, meat fat, full fat cream and coconut oil.
un-saturated fats have the hydrogen missing from one or more of the bonds. An unsaturated bond is also known as a ‘double bond’. They are usually liquid oils like plant and vegetable and nut oils. There are obviously some oils that are more unsaturated than others: olive oil is ‘mono-unsaturated’ (it has only one double bond and the rest saturated with hydrogen) and avocado and some nuts like almond and their oils are also sources of mono-unsaturated oils. ‘polyunsaturates’, as you might already have worked out, have many (if not all) double bonds. Fish oils are examples of this and some plant oils like sunflower. Many oils and spreads are a mixture of fats for example rapeseed oil is 60% monounsaturated (which, as you will see below, are generally ‘healthy’ but, oh-oh, was found to have other properties that caused disease… see what I mean: it’s complicated!)
The blanket ban on fats as the ‘baddies’ of the nutrition plate began to be modified as researchers came to understand more about the role and influence of different types of fats. So we were taught to know that, though fats are bad, some are worse than others. At least partly true. Pity they got it the wrong way round; oils and spreads and polyunsaturates that experts initially tried to encourage as “the lesser of the evils” turned out not to be so good after all, and little wonder as the more they were tampered with and processed the less natural they became.
Topsy turvy times.
‘Good’ fat that turns out to be bad:
The favoured polyunsaturated are unfortunately more unstable and they are oxidised by heat. Frying in vegetable oil releases products that cause inflammation and contributes to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and obesity. Sadly for many years we were urged to fry and roast in vegetable oil instead of solid fats like butter and animal fat. And that message still persists to our detriment. Polyunsaturates (as a category) are NOT, as we have been taught, better for you than saturates. (Think of all of those deep-fat fyers that used to contain covenient, solid, saturated fats that, in the interests of health, were replaced and replaced with inconvenient liquid vegtable oil! What a disater!)
But wait, even the new bad (unsaturated) fat it isn’t all bad.
The first type of unsaturated fat that is not bad for you is:
mono-unsaturated fat (olive, avocado, almond). These actually reduce cholesterol, heart disease and stroke. Though still less stable than saturated fat in cooking they are very healthy and tasty in dressings, dips, drizzles, and salads and to be added to recipes. (And not to mention eaten as they were intended – as avocado, olives and almonds!)
The second type of poly-unstaurates that are also good for you is known as essential fatty acid (as in the body is unable to make them and needs them for vital processes) :
The Omega Fatty Acids. Anyone who has not heard of these must have lived in a cave for the last 10 years. We all know they are “good for your heart/eyes/brain/joints” and they are something to do with fish oils. Beyond that, how many of us know they actually belong to the poly-unsaturated fats group and how many of us know the difference between 3 and 6? (There are others but let’s not complicate it even more!)
Omega 3 oils are found in flax seed and, of course, oily fish.
Omega 6 is found in sunflower oils, corn oil, vegetable oils, sesame oil etc.
We need omega 6 and omega 3 in a ratio of between 1:1 and 1:5
Unfortunately, especially with the push to make us turn from butter to vegetable oils, we now consume mainly omega 6, which, though essential, must be consumed in balance with omega 3. Though not bad in itself, omega 6, if consumed in relative excess becomes inflammatory and increases incidence of heart disease as well as exacerbating other inflammatory conditions like arthritis, autoimmune conditions and cancer. In contrast, clinical studies have shown that decreasing the ratio of omega 6 significantly in relation to omega 3 reduces mortality. Yet another reason not to fry or douse our food with vegetable oils. We need more Omega 3 oil (fish, flax), it balances the essential fatty acid ratio and improves heart/brain health and inflammation.
That said, not all Omeg 3 is the same (Argggghh! how complicated can things get?) It seems that there are several types of active omega 3 :
ALA which is a short chain fatty acid, found in plant foods like flax and seeds and to a lesser degree walnuts.
EPA, DPA and DHA, which are longer chain fatty acids found in seafood.
ALA can be synthesised into the other three but not very effectively and unfortunately the most beneficial effects are thought to be mediated mainly by DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is the most difficult to synthesise of all. The surest way to make sure you get enough DHA is to eat oily fish.
A good review of the importance of DHA to the brain in particular can be found here
But what about the Omega 6 rich oils, present in those poly-unsaturated fats that were once the favourite of the healthy eating propaganda? Well, there are different forms of this too. LA (linoleic acid) is obtained from vegetable oil and is converted to GLA (gama linoleic acid) in the body. Whilst both of these contribute to health and are essential to cells, they complete for the same enzymes as the omega 3 oils, causing them not to be utilised, and this is why a relative lack of Omega 3 and DLA are detrimental to heath. High consumption of these omega 6 poly-unsauturated oils can lead to imbalance. The amount of supplementation with omega 3 needed is dependant on relative over-consumption of omega 6.
the old ‘Bad’ fat that has turned out to be good fat.
saturated fats! Butter, coconut oil, animal fats.
As I explained in the introduction, we have been conditioned to see fats as bad and this was further refined to emphasise that it was saturated fats that were the main culprits. For years we have been filling our supermarket shelves, shopping bags and glossy magazines with so called ‘healthy’ low fat, low saturated fat, products. Diets focus on calories and fat contents, and fat alone is erroneously associated with calories. “Good for your heart” has become the mantra of so many processed foods awash with carbs and liberally laced with processed polyunsaturates. Lately, however this has been called into question. Many nutritionists have been saying this for years but I am afraid a lot of dietitians, many medical practitioners and advisory bodies, have mocked their stance. But very recently the case has been taken up by chefs and foodies, who have taken note of the science and now urge us to fry in butter or coconut ‘oil’, and eat heathy free range organic meat basted in its own fat, avoiding vegetable oils.
So, how did the ‘experts’ and public health organisations get it so wrong? Hard to say. I think much of it is to do with the difference between cause and association. The association between by cardiovascular disease and obesity is real. The relationship between obesity and unhealthy diet with too many processed calories and not enough exercise is real. It is true that people who are fat, unhealthy and eat poor diets often consume too much saturated fat but, note, they also devour even more carbs. But the evidence that saturated fat alone is causing all these things, and especially heart disease, simply isn’ t (and never was) there. What has been shown, categorically, is that SUGAR causes weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. NOT FAT. And this was ignored. Why? Maybe because the low fat message was good for business? It certainly sparked a whole new industry as new exciting products were invented to help us ‘mend our ways,’ whereas to blame sugar would have have spelled doom for the sugar and confectionary industry, whist the low-fat craze actually expanded their product range.
A word about coconut oil
This is a saturated fat (good) that is unusual in that it contains a high amount of medium chain triglyerides (MCT or fatty acids) which unlike long chain fatty acids (DHA/fish oil) do not enter the lymph system but go direct to the liver and are used direct by the mitochondria for energy. For many years criticised and even now warned against on official web sites (NHS) it has in recent years been shown to have huge benefits in terms of energy production, endurance, weight control, heart health, blood sugar control and immunity. Clearly a very heathy saturated fat, however make sure you use unrefined, virgin, organic Coconut oil. There are refined coconut oils on the market which are hydrogenated to become a trans fat and shown to have the opposite effect, raising ‘bad’ cholesterol and LDL.
In summary: Good news on Fats
(as far as I can tell)
saturated fats (butter, animal fat, full fat cream and virgin coconut oil) are, in the main:
- natural, not highly processed
- stable and safe at high temperatures so do not break down into toxic metabolites when used in cooking
- do not raise your omega 6 ratio (good)
- are good source of energy
- contain fat soluble vitamins
- are essential for brain, heart, lung and liver health
- actually improve cardiovascular risk
- increase HDL (‘good’ cholesterol)
- decreases liver fat
- decrease the risk of stroke
- actually can aid weight loss as part of a healthy diet.
mono-unsaturates (olive oil, avocado, almond) though not saturated, confer many benefits above the poly-unstaurates because they:
- like saturated fats they improve lipid profiles
- they lower risk of heart disease and stroke
- they lower inflammation
- they may be associated with reduced risk of breast cancer
omega 3 and 6 polyunsaurates
- Are both essential and must be consumed in the right balance
- for most of us that means concentrating on getting more omega 3 from oily fish
- in the right balance they improve heart and brain health and reduce inflammation.
Sauté in coconut oil, or organic butter
use olive oil for salads, dips and dressings etc
eat oily fish, loads of avocado and nuts (macadamia, walnut, almond).
don’t be afraid to treat yourself with organic, full fat cream and healthy, pasture fed, organic meats
shun anything processed.
use vegetable oil for what its best for – a lubricant, not a food.
References and articles
1. Reasons not to fear saturated fats, Includes explanations why the original advice to avoid was wrong
2. Article on fats Includes helpful chart of omega 3:6 ratios in differentiate oils
3. Why ketogenic diets are advised for brain tumour. Research paper
4. Polyunsaturates, bad (veg oils and omega 6) and good (omega 3 and fish)
5. Monounsaturates fats (good/olive oil)
6. British heart foundation attempt to counter strong criticism of their guidelines to avoid saturated fats and consume low fat foods with only polyunsaturates. They back off a little and waffle on about getting a balance and the evils of processed food (correct advice) but refuse to change their advice until ‘more research is done’ (pity the original researchers who came up with current guidance didn’t do this and prevent us being in this mess in the first place.)
7. News article on dangers of cooking oils
8. . More research on ketogenic diet and glioma, some will be more responsive than others
9. Review of evidence for ketogenig diet in brain tumour and call for more avenues of research
10. News article explaining ketogenic diet
11. Explaining energy pathways and difference between use of carbs, fats and protein. (Diagrams)
12.Canola oil is good? Really?
Yes, I am using their own ‘promotional’ video to put you off! Higher smoke point maybe, and modified to loose the bitter, toxic content of rapeseed oil, but it is still one of those polyunsaturates rich in omega 6, (the video says it has ‘more omega 3’ but it omits to add that it still contains plenty of omega 6) plus it is highly processed and most is produced from GMO rapeseed.
Altenative view here: http://draxe.com/canola-oil-gm/
12. Video explaining a lot of stuff better than i have, despite (because of) being aussies 😄. It’s mostly about low carb high fat diets but by default is bound to explain the benefit of fats as alternative sources of energy. And part way through there is a good explanation about saturated fats etc. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RNUh7P3TrAE
13. Useful table of proportion of different fats in various foods and oild. in this wikki page https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monounsaturated_fat