Despite the supermarket shelves being packed with products marked ‘low fat’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘zero fat’, ‘fat-free’, many nutritional experts are less and less convinced by the demonising of fat. In fact some state that we actively need fat in our diet and that, if we want to lose weight, the last thing we should do is to avoid fat – we should actually be upping our intake. But how much and what kind? Should we really be loading on the lard?
‘A fat-free diet is actually a very unhealthy diet,’ says Stephanie Moore, chief nutritional therapist at Grayshott Spa in the UK. ‘There are so many critical roles for fat that without the right fats coming in to the body, we die. Every cell in every single part of the body is made up of fats.’ Furthermore she insists: ‘Saturated fat does not make you fat.’
In fact she, and many other experts, believes that including saturated fat in your diet could actually help you lose weight. Firstly, she says, the fat in food helps keep our blood sugar levels stable (preventing us from having energy crashes and reaching for sugary snacks). It helps us to feel full and to stay satisfied for longer. Also, when fat is removed from food, the food tends to lose a lot of its flavour which is then replaced with artificial flavourings or sugar.
So the new fat doctors recommend eating meat, fish, eggs, even formerly forbidden cheese, butter and lard. ‘There is a great deal of confusion about which fats are healthy and which are not,’ says Moore. ‘Eating meat with the fat results in better digestion of the proteins in the meat. We are designed to eat meat, so how can we not be designed to eat the fat in meat? Fat is not the problem.’ She also insists that fat is not only good for our health but for our beauty too. ‘Skin gets wrinkles if we don’t eat enough fat. Fat is the raw material for sebum.’
So, if fat isn’t the problem, what is? ‘Sugar,’ she says categorically. ‘The problem is not fat, but refined carbohydrates in our diet. Don’t demonise fat – demonise sugar.’
Marilyn Glenville, author of Fat Around the Middle (Kyle Cathie), agrees. ‘Eating fat can certainly help you lose fat,’ she says. However, like Moore, she believes there are two parts to the equation: eat the right kinds of fat but also reduce refined and simple carbohydrates.
Glenville explains that the problem with simple and refined carbohydrates (such as sugar, white bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits and a lot of processed food) is that they raise insulin levels (insulin is the fat-storing hormone in the body). So the more you eat, the more insulin has to be produced and the more fat ends up being stored. If this goes on for too long, insulin resistance is caused and, in worst case scenarios, people don’t just get fat – they develop Type 2 diabetes.
However certain fats, essential fatty acids (EFAs) in particular, can help balance the insulin equation. ‘So many people avoid them thinking that all fat is bad,’ says Glenville. ‘Contrary to what you would think, essential fats really can help you lose weight because they boost your metabolism. The Omega 3 essential fatty acids specifically help with fat burning.’
However she does urge caution around eating too much saturated fat. ‘There’s a trend now to go overboard with high levels of saturated fat. High intakes make it more difficult for your body to absorb the Omega 3 fats efficiently which in turn increases insulin resistance.’ She also warns that many animal based saturated fats (from meat, cheese, cream, lard) may contain high levels of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. ‘Meat and the fat from animals that eat contaminated grass, grain or water is likely to give more exposure than a plate of vegetables which has been sprayed with pesticides,’ she says. Both she and Moore advise eating only organic animal products and wild (rather than farmed) fish and seafood.
But before you reach for that vast plateful of steak, Janis Morrissey, Dietician for the Irish Heart Foundation, sounds a note of caution. ‘Trendy diets come and go but are often based on fads and selective interpretations of nutrition research,’ she says. ‘The Irish Heart Foundation recommends following the national healthy eating guidelines based on the Department of Health’s Food Pyramid. Red meat and eggs do not need to be avoided and can in fact be included as part of a heart healthy diet. Both are nutritious foods and are especially great sources of iron which is necessary for healthy blood. Many people especially women and children do not have enough iron in their diets.’ She also agrees with Moore and Glenville that we should lose the sugar in our diet, or keep its consumption right down.
However she is concerned about the trend towards a diet high in saturated fat. ‘There is a wealth of robust scientific evidence demonstrating the links between dietary fat, especially saturated fat, and blood cholesterol levels,’ she says.
So, what is the answer? ‘Balance,’ says Laurence Grosjean, chief dietician at the famous Swiss health clinic Clinique La Prairie. ‘The best diet involves variety, a little bit of everything. Red meat is fine, as is cheese, cream, eggs – but in moderation.’ She says that a balanced plate is 50 percent vegetables, 25 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrate. ‘We need fat,’ she says, ‘but the right kind and the right amount. Too much of anything will throw you out of balance. Above all, you have to learn to listen to your body.’
Fats – the good, the bad and the ugly
Not all fats are created equal. These are the fats to enjoy – and those to avoid.
• Coconut oil (ideally extra virgin) is 90 percent saturated fat – made up of medium-chain fatty acids, it is very readily converted to energy in the body. It helps lower blood pressure; supports thyroid and immune function; helps blood sugar balance, liver processing and may even improve Alzheimer’s. It is highly anti-bacterial and anti-viral and is a ‘beauty’ oil, improving skin and hair health. It is very safe to cook with, even at high temperatures. There is no need to keep it in the fridge.
• Essential fatty acids (EFAs) – these cannot be made in the body; we have to get them from food. EFAs have been showed to have a remarkable range of benefits for the body – in the right balance (ideally in a ration of 2:1 Omega 6- Omega 3), they can speed up metabolism, decrease levels of unhealthy fats in the blood, and mobilise stored body fat and turn it into energy. They also protect the brain and bones, can lower blood pressure and reduce the risks of heart attacks, stroke and dementia. Omega 6 oils are readily found in the average diet but we often lack Omega 3 (found in cold water fish, krill, pasture-fed (grass, not grain) meat and eggs, algae, nuts, seeds and greens). Flax and hemp seed oils are great but don’t cook with them – use in salad dressings or drizzle over hot food.
• Unsaturated vegetable and seed oils (sunflower, rapeseed, soya) are very volatile and exposure to light, heat and oxygen can easily cause them to become damaged, turning them into trans fats (see The Ugly). Avoid cooking oils in clear plastic bottles which will have been highly processed to make them more stable.
• Trans fats. Oils that have been heated will contain trans-fatty acids (TFAs), unsaturated fats with an altered chemical structure. They have a damaging effect on the body at a cellular level and may trigger a range of health issues. They are also very easily stored as body fat. Avoid oils used in spreads (low-fat spreads and margarines) and commercial salad dressings and sauces. Also check ingredient lists in baked goods, snacks, even ice-cream and cereals.
How fat heals
Fat offers benefits to other parts of the body, not just the belly.
• Lungs. Our lungs are coated with a substance made from saturated fat – when the body can’t get enough saturated fat, it can cause breathing difficulties. Some researchers blame the increase in asthma on a lack of natural saturated fat.
• Brain. Without saturated fat, the brain can’t easily repair it and function at optimum levels.
• Bones. Saturated fat is required for calcium absorption.
• Liver. Saturated fat helps protect the liver from toxins. It also signals to the liver to dump stored fat.
• Heart. Saturated fat helps the body to reduce its levels of lipoprotein (a risk factor for heart disease). It also helps raise HDL (good) cholesterol and, as we’ve seen, helps reduce weight (which, in turn, reduces the risk of heart disease).
Marilyn Glenville: www.marilynglenville.ie
Irish Heart Foundation: www.irishheart.ie
A version of this feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail