The skinny on fats…

Why eating the right kind of fat is essential for weight loss, a healthy heart, and overall health

Does fat make you fat, or skinny? Does it increase or lower your risk of a heart attack? With so much conflicting advice about fat in the media, it is no wonder that people aren’t sure what to eat anymore.

One group advocates a high-fat, low-carb approach; the next shuns animal fats and promotes a low-fat, wholegrain-rich diet. Between these extremes is a myriad of other diets, each promising better health and improved weight loss than the former. In this article, I hope to shed some light on the fat debate, so that you can make an informed choice about the types and amount of fat you include in your diet.

In the 1980s, the low-fat trend convinced the majority of the world’s health-conscious population to give up their full-cream milk, butter, and bacon, and to opt for low-fat dairy, margarine, and lean meats instead.

Sparked by medical research reports asserting that fat will increase cholesterol, and that cholesterol will cause heart attacks, food manufacturers promptly started decreasing the amount of fat in their products, and making up for the void with added sugars, sweeteners and flavourants. Simultaneously, people also started increasing their carbohydrate consumption to still the hunger pains.

Today, with sugar and refined carbohydrates being linked to a host of diseases including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, the error of our ways is obvious.

Diets that advocate full-fat dairy products and meat consumption are back in fashion – as long as we remember to cut the carbs. But where does the balance lie?

Today, one of the biggest debates is whether saturated fats are good for us or not. Saturated fats are predominantly found in animal products – meat and dairy – as well as some types of vegetable oils like coconut and palm oil. The former contain cholesterol, while the latter don’t.

The American Heart Association recommends that individuals should not obtain more than 5% to 6% of their total daily calories from saturated fats. This is because saturated fats are responsible for raising LDL cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease.

They also recommend an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, poultry, fish and nuts. Currently, there is much controversy in research circles about the association between dairy and red meat and heart disease.

Supporters of a high-fat, low-
carbohydrate diet claim that the cholesterol size also counts – you want large particles – and not merely the amount. They also claim that is the sugary carbohydrates that bind to blood proteins and damage the artery wall which results in cholesterol sticking to the artery wall. Due to inconsistent conclusions, we must be careful not to make blanket statements about the role of these foods in cardiovascular disease.

My personal view is to include these foods in moderation in combination with a whole food – unrefined – diet which includes seven or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day: two fruit and five vegetables.

If anything should be avoided, it’s trans fatty acids (TFAs). TFAs are considered an affordable, long-lasting, tasty substitute for liquid oils and butter. They are used in margarines, shortening, commercial baked goods like cookies, crackers, and pastries, and many fast foods.

TFAs are particularly dangerous to human health because they are double-acting: they simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol, while lowering HDL cholesterol, which has a protective effect against heart disease. In fact, the Danish government considered TFAs such a health risk that they banned its use in industrially-produced foods – including fast foods – in 2006. Numerous other governments have also made moves to either ban, or regulate its use. In 2011, the South African government issued a notice that TFAs cannot exceed two grams per 100g of oil or fat. This applies to all commercial entities in the food industry, including restaurants.

For a product to be labelled as “trans-fat free”, it must contain less than one gram of TFAs per 100 grams of total fat or oil in the final product. Make sure to check your labels carefully when shopping – if one of the ingredients is “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”, the product contains TFAs. I suggest rather making your own snack foods using whole foods – that way you never have to wonder what you are eating.

Instead of only focusing on which fats to avoid, it is also essential to know which fats to eat for optimum health. Without dispute, decades of research confirm the benefits of regularly consuming polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – found in nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, and cold-pressed vegetable oils such as olive, flax, and macadamia.

These fats reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels. They also assist with appetite regulation – a plus if you are trying to lose or maintain weight – and healthy skin, hair and eyes. Cutting healthy fat intake can cause dry eyes, hair and nails.

As a last piece of advice, remember that quality counts when it comes to your diet. Consume high quality – whole, unprocessed – foods, triple check ingredient labels, cook your own food often, and don’t be afraid of the healthy fats – your body will thank you for it.

This is Tracy’s last Health Matters column in Bolander. Thank you for the wonderful advice and encouragement! – Ed