Dietary Fat: You needn’t be so afraid after all!

Despite years of official bodies advocating low fat, low calorie diets, and an avoidance of saturated fat in particular, Type 2 diabetes and obesity continue to be on the rise. Current healthy eating guidelines are out of date, particularly with their reference to dietary fat, obesity and cholesterol. Official guidelines should be revised to stop steering people away from eating saturated fats, because recent research no longer supports the previously reported link between high saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease.

This is, in a nutshell, the gist of a report entitled Healthy Eating Guidelines and Weight Loss Advice, submitted by The National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration (PHC). Both these charities, but PHC in particular, are set up by people working in the medical and nutrition professions to investigate and inform on official health and dietary guidelines. The publication of this report caused some controversy in the UK media. The above-mentioned recommendations were not well received by official sources, calling the advice irresponsible. Given this contrasting views, you could be forgiven for wondering whether you should continue to avoid saturated fat or not.

What’s the story with dietary fat?

Fat has been associated with weight gain and heart disease, and we are advised to limit it, particularly saturated fat. Well, that’s all very well, but the thing about fat, like any other nutrient, is that you need to eat some of it to be healthy: it’s all about balance. An avoidance of fat and optimum health do not go hand in hand.

Some vitamins are ‘fat-soluble’ (vitamins A, D, E and K): this means that your body can’t absorb them properly without adequate levels of dietary fat. Several systems in our body also need a regular intake of dietary fat in order to work as they are designed to do! Not to mention that some fats, such as Omega 3s, found in things like flaxseed and oily fish, and omega 6s found in things like nuts and seeds, are called ‘essential’ because you can only obtain them from food. If we could do without them they wouldn’t be essential would they?

Therefore, the official guidelines do make a point about the necessity of eating essential fats. But there is still the Bogeyman of the fat world to consider, and I think it’s possibly safe to say that many of us are afraid of saturated fat because of its cholesterol content, and the association between high cholesterol and heart disease.

Is Cholesterol bad for you?

Cholesterol is actually vital for lots of different bodily processes.

  • It is a component of cell membranes, helping to keep them flexible so nutrients can get in and waste can get out of the cell. This includes fat cells: inflexible membranes make it difficult for fat to get out of cells, and if you’re trying to lose weight this is not a situation you want;
  • It is required to produce certain hormones, including male and female sex hormones, and stress hormones;
  • It is necessary for the vitamin D we absorb from sunlight to be converted in our bodies into the form we can use;
  • It is important for the production of bile acids, chemicals which help us digest and absorb fat in the diet, and also help our bodies regulate any excess cholesterol in the body;
  • It also helps with the transport of the end components of fat digestion to where they are needed in the body.

The liver actually produces most of the cholesterol needed by the body, and should regulate that production according to how much dietary cholesterol is eaten, but if the liver is under pressure this regulatory process could become compromised. Unless you are vegetarian or vegan, meat, eggs and butter from grass-fed or organically-reared animals, and wild fish, definitely have a place in a healthy diet. Even though coconut oil is a highly concentrated form of saturated fat, yet is believed to have several health benefits. That’s not to say that there aren’t some fats which should be avoided.

Identifying the ‘bad guys’

Some vegetable oils have hydrogen artificially added to them to make them solid at room temperature. It is a manufacturing process which prolongs the life of the fats, and as a consequence,  the shelf-life of the foods they are added to. They are known as hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated/trans fats, and they are inflammatory and an enemy to good health. Even the two sides arguing about the benefits/dangers of saturated fat agree on this!

If you like shop bought baked goods, particularly those that last for ages, then be aware that they contain these kind of damaged fats in them. Cooking with vegetable oils is also another practice best avoided. Vegetable oils contain omega 6 fats, and these are prone to oxidation – that’s free radical damage – when heated. Ironically, cold-pressed, unprocessed vegetable oils – not the run of the mill cheap ones you buy from the supermarket! – are a good source of omega 6s when sprinkled cold over food just before you eat it! In contrast, saturated fat is very stable at high temperatures, and so healthier to cook with. Olive oil, which mainly contains omega 9, is also ok.

The Way Forward

Here are a few tips if you want to achieve optimum health:

  1. stay away from trans fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats);
  2. don’t be afraid to eat some quality foods which contain saturated fat;
  3. aim for 3 helpings of oily fish per week (unless you are pregnant, then no more than 2);
  4. consume a range of nuts, seeds, cold pressed vegetable oils (unheated), avocados, coconut oil and olive oil;
  5. use your appetite as a gauge, and stop eating when you’re no longer hungry.

I think your body will thank you for it.