Sunday, 5 August 2012

Fats in the diet - friend or foe?

When you complete your studies in something, anything, the teachings you learn become ingrained in you.  It gives you a lens to which you see everything through.  And whilst you do build greatly on that in the years following, the foundations are set early and are the reference point to which you always return.

Studying science has been a learning curve for me not just from the information I have learnt over the years, but also by forcing me to be someone open to and accepting of change.  I found this was something personally I wasn't too comfortable with - a creature of habit you may describe me as!

This year my eyes have been opened to nutrition beliefs that differ greatly from my studies and practice, and it has taken a fair bit of reading to get my head around it all.  Having said that I am really enjoying learning things from a 'real foodists' perspective and actually a lot of it sits quite comfortably with me and where my head is at these days.

In particular their view on fats is very interesting.  Most of us would be aware of, and most likely even live by the view that saturated fats such as animal fats, coconut and palm oil are the 'bad' fats, whilst vegetable oils such as olive, canola, sunflower etc as well as fats from fish, avocado and nuts are considered 'good' fats and should make up the bulk of the fats consumed in your diet.  Yes that is what I studied too and live by as a general rule.

Interestingly though as I read more and more about the reasons why there is a 'ground swell' movement that argues against a part of this theory, it is making quite a bit of sense.  They suggest that saturated fat has been wrongly accused of being 'bad' and in actual fact the supposed research that was responsible for giving this group of fats a bad name was actually not all that rock solid and many research papers since then (including some very recent) have suggested to the contrary.

From what I've read it seems confusion caused saturated fats in general to get a bad name however the problem with saturated fats actually comes when it is hydrogenated (copha is hydrogenated coconut oil and many cakes and pastries etc are produced using hydrogenated vegetable fats).  Hydrogenated saturated fats and trans fats (originally used to produce the first margarines although in Australia use of trans fats in margarine were banned in 1997) are chemically altered saturated fats and have been found to be detrimental to health.  WHY did we have to mess with naturally occurring saturated fat???

It was actually in the 1980s that the 'low fat' craze really began, although pro low fat research was published back in the 50s-60s.  Interestingly it was not even 10 years later that obesity and heart disease skyrocketed and become major global health concerns.  The 'low fat' craze essentially changed the way we ate - from a greater proportion of minimal processed, naturally sourced foods (including higher levels of natural saturated fats), to foods that, due to reducing their fat content, became highly processed.  Interestingly these foods were often not proportionally lower in overall kilojoules, as sugar and processed carbohydrates in general replaced the fat.

So we had fallen into a situation where, to eliminate the evil fat from the diet, we had fundamentally changed the way we ate, moving further away from 'food as nature intended it' and closer to 'altered food by heavy processing'.  More additives, fillers and sugars are being consumed than ever before and a lot of this is due to the low fat/faux healthy craze as, to provide consumers with a 'like tasting' product, thickeners and sugar are generally added in place of the fat.

Do you ever wonder why we are all eating low fat foods now, yet in many countries around the world, the rate of adult obesity sits at around 1 in 3?  And heart disease is still a leading killer?  Shouldn't we all be healthy and of an average weight?

And why, in the South Pacific Islands where coconut has always been the staple food of their diet and accounts for up to 60% of their total energy intake, do they have very low rates of heart disease?

And why, in remote and largely 'traditional' cultures where high saturated fat diets exist, do they not have the major associated health problems that Westerners do?

So what does all of this mean to me now? Well.....

Fats certainly have a place in the diet.  They are essential for maintaining healthy skin, functionality of your brain and organs, energy production, hormone regulation, and transporting fat soluble vitamins around the body, among other things.  Choosing the right oils that have been minimally processed will give you added nutrition.

I still believe in 'everything in moderation', so I'm not cutting chunks of butter onto my toast or eating coconut oil out of the jar!  Regardless of what type of fat it is, it still contains the same amount of kj/g and therefore needs to be eaten in moderation to maintain health.  Current recommendations are no more than 30% of daily energy intake coming from fats, and less than 10% should be from saturated fats.  I still agree with that but think we should be making the right choices for our fat intake, and specifically saturated fat - being from natural, minimally processed forms.  Don't let processed foods be your source of saturated fats.

I still believe in 'eating what nature created' and probably even more so since being exposed to the 'real food' movement, and now, yes, coconut is being eaten more often in our house (in moderation!) as well as switching from margarine to butter (and still using it sparingly).  If it comes out of the ground or created by nature, it must serve a purpose to us and keeping it as close to that state as possible will provide a health benefit.  Fish (particularly oily fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines), nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut and good quality full fat dairy products are sources of fat that should be taking up the 30% RDI of fat.

Just as an aside, I have actually found that I gain greater satiety from eating 'real foods' than anything processed.  Munching on a piece of fresh coconut, some full fat natural yogurt or even raw chocolate keeps me satisfied for longer than a pack of chips, a snack bar or a fat free yogurt tub.  What about you? 

So my message to you is to look at your diet in its entirety and ask yourself the following questions:
* What are the main sources of fat in my diet?
*  Are these highly processed (from prepackaged foods) or minimally processed (fish, olive oil, nuts/seeds, meat etc)?
*  What percentage of your total food consumption would come from fat? (would it be around 30%?)

Do you agree with my thoughts?  I'd love to hear and learn from your comments.

Just a few small changes can reduce the amount of highly processed fats (and foods) you consume and increase/replace fats from naturally occurring sources.  Small changes on the way to optimum health and happiness!



  1. New Diet Taps into Pioneering Idea to Help Dieters Get Rid Of 15 Pounds within Only 21 Days!

  2. 3 Studies REVEAL How Coconut Oil Kills Waist Fat.

    The meaning of this is that you actually burn fat by eating coconut fat (including coconut milk, coconut cream and coconut oil).

    These 3 researches from big medicinal journals are sure to turn the conventional nutrition world upside down!