The truth about fats

Want to learn the truth about fats? Here goes: eating (the right) fats will not (a) make you fat, (b) give you high cholesterol or (c) cause heart disease. Just let that sink in a moment…Most women don’t eat enough of the right, healthy, fats. For a topic so vast, so nuanced, and so important, all I can hope here is to scratch the surface – and perhaps encourage you to learn more and question what you think you already know!

Why do we need fat?

Our livers use dietary fats to make cholesterol, the building block for our most important sex hormones including oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone – and even vitamin D (which isn’t really a vitamin at all!). There’s a reason women have 10% more body fat than men: we need enough fat to convince our hypothalamus (in the brain) that we are well-fed enough to ovulate, have a period and therefore conceive. In other words, avoiding fat is a recipe for hormone havoc.

But it’s not only about our cycle: cholesterol makes up our cell membranes and is found in literally every one of our cells. We need it for a healthy functioning metabolism and immune system. Did you realise, too, that we need enough fat to allow us to absorb certain vitamins (A, D, E and K)? All of which are key players for hormone balance and fertility. Fat fills us up and reduces the likelihood we will graze (terrible for gut health and blood sugar balance!) or overeat. It does this by triggering a hormone called leptin. If you still need convincing, consider this: fat makes up 60% of our brains. So if you’re keen for it to work properly(!), banish the brain fog, and preserve your memory and marbles long into old age – now you know the truth about fats think twice before reducing how much you eat!

Some fats are essential

There are two types of fat we MUST consume in our diet because our bodies can’t make them: omega-3 which most of us are probably familiar with, and omega-6. Ideally, we should have roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 in our bodies (and therefore in our diets) for optimum health. Unfortunately, most of us have 10-20 times more omega-6s (yikes!) due to the overwhelming abundance of these in our food (sadly pretty much all packaged foods with a label, most restaurant foods and meat/dairy (due to animals fed on corn/soy). This is an issue because omega-3s (the best source of which is oily fish) are strong anti-inflammatories. Too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 promotes high levels of unhealthy inflammation in the body. Omega-3s are also critical for hormone balance (evidence suggests they reduce PMS and period pain) and help us cope better with stress.

Good riddance “low fat”

Thankfully, the height of the “low-fat everything” era (remember the 90s and their “go-ahead” bars?!) is officially behind us, and YET….official dietary recommendations to replace saturated fat (i.e. animal fat in meat and dairy – plus coconut/palm oil) with polyunsaturated vegetable oils remain, and with them, much of the prevailing fear, paranoia and misinformation…. For years we were sold a lie: that eating saturated fat increased “bad” cholesterol, blocked arteries and caused heart attacks and strokes. The facts that the original dietary guidelines in the US and UK were based not so much on scientific evidence as one man’s dubious study (I’m looking at you, Ancel Keys!), and that the theories (all they ever were) have since been completely and utterly debunked, have not translated into public health messaging now we do know the truth about fats.

Context matters

Research shows that not all saturated fats behave the same way in the body and the “food matrix” has an important part to play in how the fat affects us. Saturated fat in diary, specifically yoghurt and cheese, actually appears heart-protective! I would always advocate choosing olive oil, fatty fish, nuts and avocados over too much meat, butter and cream BUT there shouldn’t be any reason to avoid these foods entirely – and replacing them with more starchy and refined carbs and sugars (because you have to get your calories somehow!) is far worse for our health.

Why doesn’t everyone already know this stuff?

Financial interests, it seems, trump health. The lobbying power of the worlds’ 10 biggest food companies (that, between them, make and sell every manufactured food you buy to eat and have made their trillions from industrially-processed fats), together with the interests of Big Pharma and easily-swayed government, have stopped us learning the truth about fats and been a DISASTER for our collective health. The Great Cholesterol Myth explores this topic expertly and eloquently. I also recommend The Great Cholesterol Con and A Statin Free Life. The state of the nation’s health might look a lot different if these were compulsory reading in medical school and legislators and government did the right thing….Until then, remember knowledge is power: you now know the truth about fats, so do with that information what you will!

Fats to avoid

The best thing you can do is ditch the ultra-processed foods, packed with industrially produced, refined plant and seed oils, all of which are super high in omega-6 fatty acids. How can you spot them? Read labels and look for and avoid vegetable oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil peanut oil and palm oil where you can. The processing caused the natural fats to become oxidised and damaged, and more likely to trigger an inflammatory response in the body.

If industrial seed oils are bad, trans fats are worse still: if you see the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on a label, run for the hills- they will likely be banned 10 years from now! Commercial (supermarket and bakery) baked goods (like cakes, biscuits, pies, pastries and bread, invariably with oils or margarine) and fried foods are the biggest culprits. The FDA in America banned manufacturers form using trans fats in their products in 2020. No such ban currently exists in the UK where government (once again under the thumb of the food industry) has resisted pressure from the World Health Organisation and campaign groups to legislate to ban them. After all, numerous studies have shown trans fats increase harmful inflammation and increase risk of heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes and some cancers. They also disrupt hormones and interfere with fertility.

Fats to embrace!

Instead, choose natural fats that haven’t been chemically altered: think extra virgin olive oil (which should be your main oil at home for all uses except super high heat cooking), coconut oil, perhaps some cold pressed avocado, walnut, rapeseed etc oil for drizzling, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, avocados and – assuming you’re not vegan/vegetarian – the best quality meat, dairy and eggs your budget allows. I don’t know about you, but I would far rather eat some organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised meat with a healthy fatty acid profile once a week than tuck into inflammation-promoting, hormone-disrupting, factory-farmed chicken every day!

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