The difference between fat and getting fat
It really does all start with the word itself: “Fat.” We have been taught to link the fats in our food to us getting fat. Or we have just made what seems like an obvious assumption. And to be fair, we have and continue to be misinformed by the food industry, media and other powerful bodies we have put our trust in. But we need to understand this better because not all fats are the enemy.
In fact, most are just fine, and eating the right fats will not only not make you fat – but actually help you control your weight. Getting 40% of your calories from fats from the right food sources will work to keep hunger under control while ensuring your body gets a number of vital nutrients.
So just what are fats in foods?
A step back: Fats are one of three macronutrients – the other two being protein and carbohydrates. While we need all three for normal function and good health, nutrition becomes a very complex discussion because carbohydrates, proteins, and fats can come in both healthy and unhealthy forms (and most of what we eat today falls into the latter category).
And so it is true that not all fats are created equal. And it is also true (right about now my regular readers will be hearing an echo) that the influence we humans have on our food sources is what so often turns them into an unhealthy end product.
The chemistry of fats could fill a book, but to sum it up in a sentence, fats are compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that exist in various different formations. There are different types of fats in our diets, and many foods contain more than one type of fat. Let’s take a look at the main fats in our diet:
-Saturated fats: These have been demonized in the past but we now know the attacks were unjustified. Let me make it clear: They do not clog arteries or lead to obesity. We have been taught that LDL (the bad cholesterol) levels drop when we reduce saturated fat intake, but only the type A particles of LDL drop, which are not the ones causing damage in the first place. Type B particles (those linked to heart disease) do not drop. That’s because type B is controlled by consumption of unhealthy carbs and sugar. Saturated fats in fact promote good health, having a positive effect on hormone function, liver health, and your immune system. Of course you still need to get it from good sources. A few of these include meats (unprocessed and ideally from naturally fed animals), whole eggs, butter, and coconut oil.
-Monounsaturated fats: While many have and continue to (mistakenly) demonize the saturated fats, monounsaturated fats have never really had that problem. This type of fat is found in a variety of foods, including avocados, nuts, olives, seeds, and a number of oils including olive, sunflower, and peanut. Why are they so loved? They can help reduce LDL, they provide nutrients for cell development, boost vitamin E levels, positively affect insulin and blood sugar control, and more.
-Polyunsaturated fats: Another darling of the fat world is the polyunsaturated variety. Providing health benefits similar to the monounsaturates, we like the way these fats help improve blood cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure, and aid in cognitive health. What are some key food sources of polyunsaturated fats? Certain type of fish, a variety of nuts, and oils including olive and flax seed.
-Trans fats: Ok folks, you need to understand one thing when it comes to trans fats: These are man made – created by turning liquid oils into solid fats through a chemical process which increases the shelf life of food and helps with flavor control. Oh wait, there is something else you need to understand about trans fats: They are deadly. They will destroy your cholesterol levels and damage and clog up your arteries, they will raise your diabetes risk, they will drive up blood pressure, and they will do so much more. They also cause us to gain weight fast and badly – with a very ugly distribution of body fat, particulary noticeable in the abdominal area. What foods contain them? The “drug” foods. That is, the foods that make your brain light up like a Christmas tree with each bite. Cookies, donuts, muffins, chips, fried chicken, french fries, and bread. It is a long list, and I want you to read the label of any food you buy to make sure trans fats are not on there. It was only in 2006 that the FDA in the United States started requiring food manufacturers to include trans fat information on food labels. Hopefully in your country the same rules apply.
Ok, so what does this mean for your diet? Well, first off, let’s attack the “fat-free,” “low-fat,” and “reduced-fat” labels. In the United States, fat-free means less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, low-fat less than 3 grams, and so on.
Why should we ignore this silliness? For the simple reason that they are pulling things out of our foods that don’t need to be pulled out – and all as a distraction technique. That is, with or without fat, most of the packaged and processed foods containing these labels are very very unhealthy, containing large amounts of sugar and chemicals (higher doses of which are added to non-fat foods to improve taste that disappears when you strip the fat out). And of course it is sugar that causes not only obesity, but all of those terrible noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – that are claiming so many lives far too short.
The stats are all we need to look at, with worldwide obesity rates now up three-fold since the 1980s (about the time the food industry really got into high gear) and diabetes rates more than doubled over the same period. And deaths from NCDs continue to rise at a rapid rate: According to the World Health Organizatin (WHO), of the total global deaths in 2008, 63% were caused by NCDs. By 2012 it jumped to 68%. The figures are going to continue to rise rapidly in the years ahead.
Humans were never meant to eat foods in the way they are prepared and packaged today, and this is not going to change in the future. But as I tell all my clients, there is a very simple solution here: Step out of the argument by dropping those foods altogether. Stick as often as possible to foods that are in their natural form, such as meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts, and seeds. And in the process you can stop worrying about analyzing food labels that will anyway never tell you the real story.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath. intelligenthealth.ae