Billy stared up at his mother, Margaret, with eyes full of tears. His lip quivered slightly as he quickly turned and took off toward his room. You see, just a moment beforehand, little Billy had asked his mother if they could have “cheeseburgers” for dinner that night. Mom’s response? “I’m sorry Billy, but cheeseburgers are too high in fat. We want to grow up strong and healthy, don’t we?” Just the night before Maggie tuned in to an evening news “special report” on how America’s fat intake, particularly saturated fat, is killing this glorious country’s inhabitants. And while Mom was far from a nutrition scholar herself, this was nationally televised news – surely it had to be legit. Unfortunately, the media, and many others, have it terribly wrong.
Setting the Record Straight
Since the research exposing the health risks of certain fats first came to public light over thirty years ago, a great deal of subsequent research has been conducted on dietary fat intake as it relates to health. Initially, saturated fats were thought to be the leading dietary contributor to heart disease and a multitude of other negative health issues, but more recent data has shown the original research connecting saturates to these conditions to be both poorly conducted and interpreted. In addition to the review papers evaluating earlier research, new studies have emerged, and believe it or not, the most recent findings are more in opposition to the conclusions of the past than they are in their support. Over the last decade, more and more evidence has been uncovered vouching for the safety of naturally occurring saturates while revealing the possible health risks of other fats once thought to be “healthy.” Let’s take a look.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol—A Bad Rap
Saturated fats and cholesterol are necessary to ensure bone health and density as well as liver, immune, digestive, endocrine, and central nervous system function. Additionally, they are the main constituents of the trillions and trillions of cell membranes within each of our bodies. How then, do nutrients so essential to our health carry such a negative reputation? The demonizing of saturated fat and cholesterol can be traced back to the late 1950’s when researcher Ancel Keys formulated his “Lipid Hypothesis” after collecting and analyzing nutritional data from seven countries. The lipid hypothesis basically states that the more saturated fat and cholesterol individuals consume, the higher their blood cholesterol will be, and the higher their blood cholesterol, the greater their risk for developing cardiovascular disease due to clogged arteries, etc. Since these findings surfaced, a myriad of subsequent research has emerged questioning Keys’ conclusions; however, the medical community and public media have been very slow to recognize any research opposing the lipid hypothesis and to this day continue to falsely incriminate saturated fat and cholesterol for America’s health problems. Repeatedly, we are advised to avoid red meat and other animal products due to their saturated fat content. In fact, the terms animal fat and saturated fat are used almost interchangeably by the media and many health professionals today. But did you know that more than half the fat in red meat is unsaturated. Furthermore, the most common saturate found in beef and dairy products is stearic acid—a saturate whose consumption has been shown to decrease plasma and liver cholesterol by reducing intestinal cholesterol absorption. And as if that isn’t enough, a high stearic acid intake also helps to prevent arterial clotting and the formation of fatty deposits within the arteries. And still, the media has brainwashed us into feeling guilty if we do so much as think about enjoying a meal with red meat. And what about cholesterol? For years we have been told that cholesterol intake should be kept to a bare minimum as doing so will help to decrease blood cholesterol levels. But where is the evidence supporting this theory? It seems to make logical sense, but as we’ve learned quite a bit throughout this book already, our bodies are rarely so simplistic. Putting this theory to the test, it doesn’t quite work out, as lowering cholesterol intake causes the liver to compensate by producing more cholesterol, leaving total cholesterol levels relatively unchanged. In the same way, if cholesterol consumption is increased, the liver produces less cholesterol, and again, total cholesterol values will not be substantially altered. In reality, changes made in dietary intake of cholesterol will alter total cholesterol levels by a few percent at best. But why would the body do this if cholesterol is so “bad?” Well, let me ask you this—if cholesterol were truly a harmful substance, do you really think the body would fight your efforts to lower it by purposefully producing more? No way! The truth is, cholesterol acts as an antioxidant against dangerous free radicals within the blood and is also necessary for the production of certain hormones that help to fight against heart disease. When there are high levels of undesirable substances in the blood, cholesterol levels rise in order to combat these substances. Blaming heart disease on high cholesterol is like blaming infection on high levels of antibodies (special proteins produced by the body in order to defend against foreign bacteria and infectious agents). If the body allowed cholesterol to fall in the presence of large amounts of free radicals, risk for heart disease would skyrocket, and fortunately, despite what we think is best, our bodies know what’s best
The problems with dietary fat and cholesterol arise when we consume fats and cholesterol that have been damaged or oxidized by heat, oxygen, and light. Oxidized fats and cholesterol contain high amounts of dangerous free-radicals that contribute to the build up of plaque in arteries and damage to the arterial wall, as well as the development of cancer in the colon. Saturated fats are very stable and thus are resistant to oxidation, while unsaturated fatty acids, particularly polyunsaturates (abundant in vegetable oils), are much more delicate and prone to rancidity. Up until a few generations ago, denatured fats and cholesterol were few and far between (and interestingly enough, so were incidences of heart disease) as the majority of dietary fat consumed prior to the mid 1900’s was of the saturated variety. But, thanks to modern processing and the campaign against saturated fat, the presence of denatured fats and cholesterol in the typical American diet has increased dramatically over the last half century.
Damaged Fat and Where It’s At
As stated above, the dietary shift from saturates to unsaturates has greatly contributed to the amount of damaged fats and cholesterol presently in the foods we eat. This is mostly a result of how easily unsaturated fats become oxidized when subjected to modern processing methods. Take, for example, modern extraction methods. Prior to the twentieth century, oil was removed from fruits, nuts, and seeds by slow-moving stone presses; however, today, seeds and the like are crushed and then heated to extreme temperatures in order to obtain the oil they possess. Such extreme temperatures wreak havoc on the fragile unsaturated fats of these oils, leaving the final product extremely denatured and full of dangerous free radicals. Therefore, the consumption of most commercial vegetable oils, vegetable oil blends, and vegetable oil spreads, as well as other products containing considerable amounts of these oils should be avoided. Hydrogenation is another common processing method that is very detrimental to fats that are exposed to it. In this process, hydrogen is bubbled through naturally occurring unsaturated fats, transforming them into the man-made dietary demon known as trans-fatty acids or trans-fats. Because trans-fatty acids do not occur in nature (with rare exception), our bodies are not equipped with mechanisms to “deal” with them once ingested. Even extremely small intakes of trans-fats have been shown to result in negative health consequences; that said, trans-fatty acid consumption amongst the American public is anything but small. Trans-fats are everywhere. They are commonly used as a preservative to increase the shelf life of packaged goods, and are frequently substituted for saturated fats in many products to give consumers the ridiculously false impression that said products are healthy. Consumption of trans-fats has been linked to many diseases and health problems including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction, and dementia. Because the FDA has not yet made it mandatory for manufacturers to list the trans-fatty acid content of their products (although some do), it is important that we are sure to read all labels very carefully, strictly avoiding any product containing “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogentated” oils on its list of ingredients. Other sources of denatured fats and cholesterol include foods that have been deep fried at high temperatures, such as fried chicken or French fries, as extreme heat damages the delicate oils these foods are cooked in.
What About Those Omega Things?
Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are considered to be essential (meaning, the body is unable to make them and therefore they can only be obtained by dietary means); however, the average American intake of omega-6 fatty acids greatly exceeds what is necessary, while the intake of omega-3 fatty acids leaves much to be desired. Just about every source of fat that we can consume contains at least some omega-6 fatty acids (animal products, vegetable oils, nuts, etc), but very few sources contain substantial amounts of omega-3s. With regards to omega-6 intake, research has shown that excess consumption can have adverse health effects such as increased risk for cancer and heart disease, immune dysfunction, low testosterone and sexual dysfunction in men, high blood pressure, and liver damage. And again, the demonizing of saturated fat has further added to the problem by causing consumption of vegetable oils—oils whose fatty acid profile is anywhere from 35-70% omega-6—to skyrocket. With these fatty acids, do not strive to consume them; doing so will only cause you to overshoot the recommended intake and put yourself at risk for the aforementioned negative side effects. Instead, eat without them in mind and you’ll likely obtain all that you need (but not too much) as they are present in most fat sources already.
On the other hand, we have omega-3 fatty acids—fatty acids that possess a myriad of health benefits, but as a result of modern processing and agriculture, are scarce in the American food supply. Still, they are abundant in cold water fish and marine oils and can also be found in more moderate amounts in flax seeds and flax seed oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely delicate and prone to rancidity; therefore, unless encapsulated, they should be refrigerated and stored in containers where their exposure to light is minimal. To name just a few of the health benefits these “wonder” fats possess, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease the risk for developing heart disease and cancer, decrease blood pressure, improve liver and kidney function, reduce joint pain, improve vision, improve diabetic conditions, decrease occurrences and intensities of migraine headaches, increase circulating levels of fat burning hormones, reduce stress, and increase metabolic rate.
There is one last group of fats that we’ve yet to discuss—monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are relatively stable, making them a good choice for cooking at moderate temperatures. They have been shown to boost immune function, support healthy hormone levels, and decrease the risk for developing cancer and heart disease. Additionally, olive oil—a great source of monounsaturated fatty acids—is rich in antioxidants, particularly Vitamin E, which further fight disease and aging by attacking dangerous free radicals. Just be sure to choose extra virgin olive oil as EVOL is extracted via a much more gentle process than commercial olive oils, leaving the fats and antioxidants it contains undamaged. Other sources of monounsaturates include canola oil, almonds and almond butter, avocado, hazelnuts, pecans, and Brazil nuts.
- enjoy beef and most other natural animal sources of fat
- consume modest amounts of olive oil and nuts for their high monounsaturate content
- value cold water fish and marine oils for the many health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids
- do not strive to consume additional omega-6 fatty acids
- avoid hydrogenated oils, deep fried foods, and other sources of damaged fats and cholesterol such as polyunsaturated vegetable oils and vegetable oil spreads
For more information on the value of dietary fat and choosing healthy sources of fat, check out my book, The Cheat to Lose Diet. I’ll also teach you how choosing some not-so-great fats and carbs periodically can actually accelerate fat loss.
There’s no getting around the fact that Americans suffer from a myriad of health problems as a result of poor eating habits. Still, the demonizing of dietary fat and saturated fat is hardly helping the cause. Instead, examining things like trans-fats intake, total calories, and the overconsumption of highly processed carbohydrates (and the neglect of health-boosting compounds like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids) may lead to better mass-media nutrition advice. Today, I gave Billy a copy of this article to give to his mother. Hopefully, he’ll be enjoying a cheeseburger again sometime soon—on a whole wheat bun, of course.
About Joel Marion
Joel Marion, CISSN, NSCA-CPT, and 2001 Body-for-Life Champion, is an authority on the use of dietary cheating tactics to accelerate fat loss. His ideas and theories have reached people all across the globe through his frequent contributions to popular health and fitness magazines, both in print and on the Web. Additionally, he’s a highly sought after consultant to doctors, lawyers, athletes, and models as well as the average Joe and Jane looking to improve his or her appearance. While having trained clients worldwide, Joel resides in New Jersey. To learn more about Joel visit www.JoelMarion.net and www.CheatToLoseDiet.com
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