The Real Skinny on Dietary Fats

If a low-fat lifestyle is good for our health and for weight-control, then why are we a nation of chronically ill people who are overweight or obese?

The Status Quo:

For the last 30 years we’ve been brainwashed to believe that a low-fat diet is healthy and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. This message was first presented by the government and health care providers, and then reinforced by the food industry. Riding the wave in the 1980s, food producers began to stock the shelves of grocery stores with low-fat processed foods. The news – “Saturated Fats Make You Fat & Unhealthy!” sounded good in theory, but after thirty years and more research, the findings proved otherwise. According to three large studies published in February 2006 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, low-fat diets don’t result in a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer or invasive breast cancer. In fact, the low-fat diet regimen was associated with a slightly increased risk of heart disease among women who participated in the studies. And, as we have all seen, more and more people are overweight.

It’s important to understand that scientific study has never supported the low-fat propaganda, so you may be wondering how the low-fat myth came to be so widely accepted.

A History Lesson:

There was widespread use of healthy saturated fats like butter, cheese, meat and coconut oil before World War II and much less heart disease, cancer and other conditions that are so prevalent today. During the war, the Japanese military occupied the Philippines and other South Pacific islands, where bloody battles were being fought and the once-plentiful supply of coconut oil was effectively cut off from the United States. Coconut oil had been popular both as a cooking oil and ingredient in numerous food products, but the occupation interrupted the supply for several long years as the war slowly dragged on.

To replace this loss, American manufacturers began to develop alternative sources of cooking oils, and the polyunsaturated oils phase was born. By the time the war was over, there was a lot of money at stake in the promotion of these polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

By the end of the 1950’s, public opinion had turned totally against saturated fats like butter, meat, cheese (and coconut oil). Saturated fats were blamed for raising cholesterol, and cholesterol was now viewed as the enemy, the culprit responsible for the steep rise in heart disease.

Butter, eggs and coconut oil were out. The new vegetable oils were in… and erroneously touted as “heart-healthy.”

Coconut oil continued to be demonized by the vegetable oil industry throughout the ensuing decades. Adding insult to injury, the soybean industry began to condemn the use of tropical oils, particularly coconut oil. The reason being – competition and millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, the tropical oil industry, centered in poorer nations like the Philippines and Indonesia, could not afford to counter the negative propaganda spread by rich American industrial conglomerates.

Science and good health took a back seat to profits, as they have on more than one occasion.

The Bottom Line:

It’s the type of fat that matters in addition to how much you consume. Reducing your intake of some types of fats (hydrogenated vegetable oils) reduces the risk of several chronic diseases, but other types of fats (cold-pressed olive oil, virgin coconut oil, butter, meat) are absolutely essential to our health and well-being. Why? We all need adequate levels of healthy essential fatty acids for our bodies to function properly. Saturated fats, found in animal products like butter, cheese and fatty meats, are not as dangerous as you may think. Saturated fats offer a host of health benefits and play many important roles in the body.

Importance of adequate fat intakes:

  • Fat serves as a source of energy for the body by supplying 9 calories per gram (compared to 4 calories per gram from carbohydrates and protein).
  • When fats are removed or reduced in food products to increase taste and satisfaction, sugars, chemicals, and other additives are added to replace the flavor lost due the low-fat content. Fat gives food its flavor as well as sustainability.
  • There are certain fats that are essential to every cell in your body, which is why they’re called “essential” fatty acids. Your body cannot manufacture these fats. You must consume them in your diet or you will suffer disease. But there are many other reasons why low-fat intake can be detrimental. Fat is also critical to help your body absorb certain vitamins and nutrients – such as CoQ10 and vitamins A, D, E, and K – which cannot be properly absorbed without fat.
  • A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low-fat diets were associated with 20% less calcium absorption than higher-fat diets. The State University of New York at Buffalo found that people who eat low-fat diets develop weaker immune systems. And another study found that people eating very-low-fat diets showed no improvement in body composition, blood sugar levels, insulin levels, or blood pressure. The study’s author called low-fat diets “counterproductive” to health.
  • A healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet is necessary for a wide variety of important physiological processes. These essential fatty acids can not be made by the body and must be consumed though dietary sources. But just as important as getting these fatty acids in your diet is the ‘balance’ of the two.

The story on the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids:

Both omega-6s and omega-3s are essential fatty acids. According to experts and the World Health Organization, the optimal ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 is approximately 5:1. The average American’s ratio is 15:1. The typical western diet is to blame. Our food supply contains an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. Many metabolic/physiological functions depend on a balanced ratio between these two essential fatty acids. It is recommended that people try to improve this ratio as good health depends on it. To achieve optimum balance, we should attempt to consume fewer omega-6s (vegetable oils) and more omega-3s (fish and fish oil). A very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3s exert suppressive effects.

The American Heart Association Dietary Guidelines recommends consuming two fish meals per week, with an emphasis on fatty fish (i.e., salmon, herring and mackerel). Commercially prepared fried fish (e.g. from restaurants and fast food establishments, as well as many frozen, convenience-type fried fish products) should be avoided because they are low in omega-3 and high in trans-fatty acids. For those who do not, or cannot eat fish, taking a quality omega-3 supplement is a good option. Also, walnuts, flaxseeds, beans, olive oil and winter squash constitute part of the cornucopia of foods that will provide you with concentrated sources of omega-3 fats.

We should all be increasing our intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which we need for body functions like controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. And in turn, we should be decreasing our intake of omega-6 fatty acids. We’re still learning about the many benefits of omega-3, but research has shown this fatty acid can have a positive impact on:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (CVD): epidemiologic and clinical trials have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce CVD incidence (American Heart Association), by: decreasing risk of arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden cardiac death, decreasing triglyceride levels, decreasing growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lowering blood pressure (slightly)
  • Liver Cancer: Omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective therapy for both the treatment and prevention of human liver cancers. (University of Pittsburg study)
  • Depression: Omega-3 fatty acid DHA reduces symptoms of depression probably because it increases gray matter in the brain (University of Pittsburg study)
  • Dementia – Eating fatty fish, high in omega-3, lowers the likelihood of developing “silent” brain lesions that can cause memory loss and dementia (University Study in Finland)

If you choose to take an omega-3 supplement, keep the following in mind:

  • One 500-mg capsule per day is sufficient – any more than that is extraneous and could even be detrimental to your health.
  • Choose supplements that are mercury-free, pharmaceutical grade and molecularly distilled. Make sure the supplement contains both DHA and EPA. They may be hard to find, but supplements with higher concentrations of EPA are better. A good ratio to look for is 3:2 (EPA:DHA).
  • Check the expiration date!

Why commercial vegetable oils are not good for you.

A trans-fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. No amount of trans-fat is healthy because if your diet doesn’t contain enough good fat, your body will use the deformed trans-fats instead, which could possibly contribute to major health risks from heart disease to cancer.

So why are trans-fatty acids (TFAs) so prevalent in commercial foods? Partially hydrogenated oils (what comes out of the hydrogenation process) are more stable (less likely to spoil), can be transported more easily, and can withstand repeated heating, which makes them perfect for frying up those French fries and burgers at your favorite fast food establishment.

Trans-fats may be found in foods like:

  • Baked Goods — cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns
  • Fried foods — doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken including chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
  • Snack foods — potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn.
  • Solid fats — Hard margarine (stick margarine) and semi-solid vegetable shortening.
  • Pre-mixed products — cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix.

TFAs tend to raise total LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower HDL (good cholesterol). This can contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer. No amount of trans-fat is healthy, and should be kept below 1 percent of your total calories.

When shopping, read the labels and watch out for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients. Even if the food claims to be trans-fat free, this ingredient tells you that the product is a trans-fat suspect.

When eating out, put fried foods, biscuits, and other baked goods on your “skip” list. Avoid these products unless you know that the restaurant has eliminated trans-fat.

Most states have no labeling regulations for fast food, and it can even be advertised as cholesterol-free and cooked in vegetable oil. Eating one doughnut at breakfast (3.2 g of TFA) and a large order of French fries at lunch (6.8 g of TFA) adds 10 grams of TFA to one’s diet, according to the American Heart Association.

Okay, the take-home message here is learn to incorporate the good fats into your diet while reducing your consumption of the bad fats. Ironically, cutting fat out of our diets seems to have had the opposite effect from what we’ve been told for years — while Americans have been eating less fat, we’ve been getting fatter. In place of fats, many people turn to foods full of easily digested carbohydrates, or to fat-free products that replace healthful fats with sugar and high-calorie, refined carbohydrates.

The obesity rates for Americans have doubled in the last 20 years, coinciding with the advent of the low-fat revolution. In the 1960s, Americans ate 45% of their calories from fat – and only 13% of us were obese. Now, while most of us get only about 33% of our calories from fat, 34% of us qualify as obese! And last, but certainly not least, our health has suffered in many ways. There is a dramatic increase in the use of prescription medication for countless conditions. Perhaps it’s time to re-think our diets and take charge of our own healthcare.