The Fat Debate
Fats and oils have received largely negative press in recent years as obesity in the Western world climbs to record levels and people become more obsessed about losing weight.
But is the press that fats have received of late fair?
Is it really fats that are making us overweight?
Are fats responsible for the huge increase in heart disease, developed nations have experienced over the past century or so?
And do you actually understand which fats are good and which are bad?Fats and oils are essential to our health. They are important building blocks for the cells of your body, as well as for key hormones. However, as with all foods, it is important to source high-quality fats for your body to effectively use them, and to understand which fats are good and which are not.
Essential fats are those that our bodies are unable to manufacture, but still require for optimal functioning. We must therefore acquire these fats from our food. Essential fats can be divided into two groups: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids are present in whole grains products, meats and many commonly used cooking oils such as corn and sunflower. Omega-3 fatty acids - critical to the development of a child's brain and nervous system and for the maintenance and repair of an adult's - are found mainly in leafy green vegetables and oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, anchovies. Comparatively smaller quantities are found in free-range eggs, walnuts and animal meats.
The ideal intake ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is 1 to 4.
Saturated Fats - Truth or Myth
Saturated fats, found in animal fats and tropical oils, constitute at least 50% of our cell membranes, giving our cells stiffness and integrity. They are also needed for calcium to be effectively incorporated into our skeletal system, they protect our liver from alcohol and other toxins and enhance our immune system.
However, fats from animal sources have been lambasted in recent years as villains of healthy eating. Because fats from animal sources contain cholesterol, they have been credited with creating the huge rise in heart disease seen in the Western world in the past century or so.
But is this correct? If it was, would any of us would be alive today? Because saturated fat was the main energy source for the majority of our ancestors.
Studies of Eskimos and other tribes suggest that as much as 80% of their daily calorie intake comes from fat, most of which is saturated animal fat. But they have very low levels of heart disease compared with those of us in the 'developed' world. Today, at least 40% of all deaths in the USA are caused by heart disease. A century ago, there were virtually none. If animal fats were responsible, it would be logical to assume a corresponding rise in the consumption of animal fats. In fact, the opposite is true. During the sixty years from 1910 to 1970 the proportion of animal fats in the typical US diet reduced from 83% to 62%.
Conversely, during exactly the same period the average American's consumption of dietary vegetable oils in the form of margarines and refined oils increased by around 400%, and sugar and processed foods by about 60%!
Which leads us onto.....
Fats to Avoid
Structurally trans-fatty acids (TFAs) are closer to plastic than fat, which is why they are best avoided. Consumption of trans-fatty acids has been linked to heart disease and increased cholesterol.
Trans-fatty acids are a specific type of unsaturated fatty acids that are solid at room temperature, for example, margarine (designed as a 'healthy' alternative to butter) and shortenings. They are formed from the conversion of liquid vegetable oils into solid fats by an industrial process known as hydrogenation. Therefore, trans-fatty acids are found in foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or fats. High levels of TFAs are often found in fast foods, for example deep fried fish and chips.
The 'Fat Debate' has raged for many years and will no doubt continue to do so for many more. Low-fat has become a national obsession, whilst people continue to eat sugar and processed foods with gay abandon!
However, what it is important to realise is that many fats, including saturated animal fats which have been lambasted as being the 'enemy' are critical for our health and avoiding them altogether is setting ourselves up for future health problems.