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Go easy on fats!

Posted on September 3rd, 2011 by Alf | Print

Fats get a lot of bad press. Doctors, nutritionists, authors of fad diets, august government departments and disease-focussed not-for-profit charities have for years pointed an accusing finger at fats as villain in a host of degenerative diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. They have been blamed for the epidemic of obesity in Western countries, although the role of carbohydrates is rightly coming under increasing scrutiny. Industry has responded to our fear of fats by introducing a raft of low fat products labelled “no fat”, “99% fat free” and “lite”, which now line our supermarket shelves. Yet at the same time as we were told fat was bad and urged to reduce our fat intake, we were told some fats were really good for us. Olive oil, evening primrose oil, fish oils, borage oil, flaxseed oils are apparently good for us, as are the so-called “smart fats” or “functional fats” like phosphatidylserine and lecithin. Then there are the “Good fats” – the omega-3 fats, which we were told assist in maintaining better brain function. And, of course, we have the fatty vitamins A, D, and E all of which must be important for our health because they wouldn’t be called vitamins if they weren’t! Given these mixed messages, is it any wonder we are confused? So what is the bottom line? Are fats good or bad for us?

The truth is they are both! Some fats are good for us and some are bad. There are literally dozens, even hundreds of different substances present in our food and in our bodies, which could be called fats. Far from being villains, fats are essential in a whole range of vital processes within our bodies. Without them, we wouldn’t survive. They are major structural components of our cells, vital to keeping the cell intact. They are the basic framework of every tissue and organ; a major fuel for the heart and a reserve source of fuel for many of our other bodily functions. They are essential for the function of our nervous system, providing much of the chemical “insulation” or myelin covering our nerves. Many of the vitamins are fats, while other fats such as ubiquinone are essential for the generation of energy from food. Many hormones are made from fats while others are converted into a staggering variety of hormone-like substances termed “eicosanoids” with potent effects on the function of different organs, including the immune system. Other fats are protective and act as antioxidants. Some fats are even classed as “essential fats” because we cannot make them ourselves, so must get them in our diet. And if we don’t get them in our diet, we get sick. Even cholesterol, that most “evil” of fats, is an essential part of every tissue and organ and is the basic building block for many of our hormones and for the bile acids, which assist our digestion. Cholesterol is made into vitamin D, which is important for the nervous and immune systems and for regulating cell growth. Hardly the actions of a villain! Fats also provide much of the flavour and texture to our food – they contribute to the crunchiness and taste of macadamias, the rich smoothness of avocadoes, the “mouth feel” of chocolate, the “melt-in-the-mouth” texture of pie crusts and croissants and the taste of butter. So how can fats be so maligned when they taste so good and give us so many benefits?

It really is a question of balance. Sure, too much of almost anything can be bad for us and fats are no exception. But not enough of something important is also bad for us. For example, not enough of one fat, vitamin D, may cause rickets, while insufficient vitamin A, another fat, may cause blindness. Many other fatty substances present in our food help us maintain our health and wellbeing. So if we eliminate all fat from the diet, we are also throwing away some of the good guys. Of course, we could artificially add back some of the good fats and fatty vitamins to these “no fat” foods. But this begs the question: If the fats originally in the food were good, why take them out in the first place? And what other good things were also taken out of the food to make it “no fat”? Just as importantly: How do we know the fats we have added back to the food can be taken up by our bodies as they would be in the natural, untreated food? After all, food is not just a random mass of chemicals. Our food is highly complex and organised, both structurally and chemically. Our bodies have evolved over eons to absorb and utilise food in this form. In view of the increasing variety of so-called “functional foods” available to consumers and the myriad of substances added to our food to supposedly make it healthier or better for us, it is doubtful many of the producers and manufacturers think of food in this way.

One fat has always had good press over many years. It is actually an oil – which means it is a liquid if kept in the dark in your pantry and varies in colour from gold through to green, has a delicate aroma, and been a staple food for millennia. You guessed it: Olive oil! But there are oils and oils. What is “Extra Virgin” oil? What is “pure olive oil”? What is “lite” olive oil? How is olive oil made? What is in it? Is it really a healthy oil and, if so, why? These are just some of the questions answered in the new Promoting Good Health e-book “Olive Oil: Everything You Would Like to Know”, available from this website.

Meanwhile, stay healthy and happy!