Gotta love fat

Park that notion that fat is bad. It is not. In fact, most of us aren’t eating enough of it. Fat can help you lose weight, protect against heart disease, absorb vitamins and boost your immune system.

Here’s why fat is essential in the body…

  • It’s a concentrated energy source.   Gram for gram, fat is twice as efficient as carbohydrates in energy production. Or in other words: fat has twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein, and here lies the problem: If we believe that a calorie deficit (calories in < calories out) is required for weight loss, then obviously the easiest way to achieve that is by reducing fat.
  • Fat can be an energy store. Excess fat is stored for future energy production (excess calorific intake). We can only store very little carbohydrate and no protein.
  • Protection – internal (visceral) fat protects your internal organs, like the kidneys and spleen. Too much of it is not desirable though, because we now know that this kind of fat secretes pro-inflammatory chemicals, making us sick.
  • ‘Subcutaneous adipose tissue’ (that’s code for the fat that you can feel by pinching your skin) helps to maintain normal body temperature and provides padding. Who wants to sit on their pelvic bone?
  • Fats regulate inflammation, mood and nerve function.
  • Every cell membrane in our body is made of fat – the brain is 60% fat. Without fat, there is no life.
  • Many hormones are made from fat. These are known as steroid hormones and they govern stress, sex, and immune function.  
  • Fats are actually essential for survival (experiments on rats in the 1920s showed that, then fat was removed from the diet they died).
  • Fat is the preferred fuel for muscles and the heart. The brain can also burn fat for fuel.
  • Essential fatty acids are required for healthy skin, healthy cell membranes, healthy nerves, healthy joints and to help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

In the world of nutrition “essential” means: We need to eat it, our body can’t make it. There are essential fats (omega-3 and omega-6), there are essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), but there are no essential carbohydrates. Do you think there’s a clue there?

How did fat get such a bad name?

Fat has got a bad reputation. Over the last 70 years low-fat products have been marketed as the saviour of our health. And the message from governments and the media was – and largely still is – that, when eaten, fat gets stored as fat in the body and puts us at greater risk of heart disease. However, when it comes to the human body, things are hardly ever that simple, and they are not in tis case either.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we use the same word for the fat we don't want (on the hips, around the middle and so on) and the fat we eat. Our current dietary guidelines imply that if we don’t eat (much) fat, we won’t get fat. Have a look around you and check how well that is working for us. If you listened to The Food Programme this week you will have heard Prof. Louis Levy of Public Health England (the people behind the Eatwell Guide) say:

The real thing about the Eatwell Guide is that it’s there to help people understand what a healthy diet is. What it won’t do is make you eat it.
— Prof. Louis Levy, Public Health England

So there we have it: If you are overweight or obese, suffer from diabetes and/or heart disease then evidently that’s your own fault. If only people would do as they're told already, we would not have a major public health crisis. Yet, statistics show that we actually have listened: We are eating less meat and butter, buy a lot more low-fat products than we used to and base our diets around carbohydrates – just as instructed. I see it in clinic every day: Clients tell me that they do follow a healthy diet, they are cutting the fat off their meat or avoid meat altogether - let alone butter or cream - and always go for low-fat yoghurt, cheese, hummus and guacamole. But it's not working! Obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe has taken apart the SACN report Prof Levy quotes in the interview. If you would like to read it, click here, but the gist is that the evidence Public Health England claims to have based the Eatwell Guide on does not actually hold up.

The demonisation of fat began when an American scientist called Ancel Keys produced the first ‘evidence’ linking saturated fat to heart disease in 1953. He based his scientific opinion on observational data of heart disease, death rates and fat consumption in six countries (ignoring statistics from a further 16 countries because they contradicted his hypothesis) and assumed a correlation between heart disease and eating fat. (As an aside, when another scientist looked at the same research, this time considering all 22 countries’ data, no correlation was found. The data is still available and what researchers now find is that there is actually a much stronger correlation between sugar consumption in all of the countries! A possibility that Keys did not even consider.)

Although there might have been correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease (there was a relationship), it was not causal (didn’t actually cause the situation).

A further study on rabbits compounded Ancel Keys’ hypothesis: The rabbits were fed cholesterol (which doesn’t normally form a part of their 100% veggie diet) and went on to develop fatty deposits in their arteries. And then, guess what happened? Poor bunnies!

Governments (and their health care agencies) across the world began advocating a low fat diet on the basis of this flawed research.  They told us to fill up on bread, rice, cereals and pasta, and opt for low-fat or no-fat alternatives wherever we could. And we did. 

Soon, the food industry jumped on board to create products that better satisfied this new advice. They replaced saturated fats with ‘healthier’ vegetable oils, like margarine and shortening – ironically trans fats are now one of the few fats research shows are linked to heart disease. The biggest problem is that, when you remove the fat from foods, you need to replace it with something else to make those foods palatable – and this replacement is sugar. This was a really bad move.

We have been ‘good’! People around the world have listened to the low-fat recommendations since the 1970s and put them into practice. And it is from that point onwards that obesity, diabetes and heart disease really took off. Go figure!