Biochemistry

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!

To cook or not to cook

To cook or not to cook?

My clients often ask me whether it’s better to eat their food – particularly vegetables – cooked or raw. It’s not one or the other, it’s both, really. Raw vegetables, especially if eaten or frozen very soon after harvest, contain more vitamins than cooked. Scientists think that the discovery of cooking might even be what gave humans the edge over other primates: It allowed us to consume a lot more food – and thus calories – which then enabled us to grow a bigger (and very hungry) brain. Moreover, cooking of course reduces the risk of infection as it kills most microbes.

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Yes, vitamins tend to degrade through cooking (and storage), minerals are indestructible, but they, too, may be lost if you throw out the water you cooked your veg in. However, all the vitamins in your vegetables will do you no good if you cannot absorb them. You are, after all, not so much what you eat, but what you absorb. Some foods even contain ‘anti-nutrients’, compounds that can be harmful if overconsumed, and cooking or soaking can render those harmless or reduce the amounts present in the food.

Carrots, for example, are not easy to digest. They are a good source of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient (plant nutrient) that is converted into vitamin A in the body. But you must first be able to absorb it, and that is easier when the carrots are steamed or roasted. Add a little olive oil, because beta-carotene is fat soluble and needs fat for proper absorption.

Tomatoes contain a phytonutrient called lycopene. It is responsible for the tomato’s red colour. Lycopene is thought to protect the arteries from oxidative damage and is anti-inflammatory, and cooking significantly increases the absorbability of lycopene, so don’t eat all of your tomatoes raw, make sure to have some cooked, whether that’s as tomato sauce, soup or in a casserole or on a homemade pizza.

Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale etc.) contain nutrients called sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, which are said to have cancer protective properties. These are made available when you simply chop the veg … but are destroyed by heat. So, to make the best use of those nutrients, you would want to eat your cruciferous veg raw. The downside of that is that they also contain goitrogenic compounds, which can affect the thyroid. Cooking renders those harmless. So, it’s a bit of a toss-up, depending on what you need and how healthy you are. If you have thyroid issues, it is best to limit raw brassica, but if you are healthy, you’d have to eat an awful lot for the goitrogens to affect your thyroid. The best of both worlds may be to lightly steam and soften the veg, which will still preserve some of the sulforaphane and I3C.

Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, rocket, and kale, are a great source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, B vitamins (incl. folic acid), vitamin K, magnesium and calcium and of course fibre. Vitamin C is very sensitive and quickly diminishes once a vegetable is harvested. Heat reduces vitamin C even more and folic acid is lost as well when the leaves are cooked, so salads and raw green smoothies sound like a good idea. But green leaves are also a source of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid interferes with the absorption of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and iron – the very nutrients that are so abundant in green veg. Oxalic acid also contributes to the formation of kidney stones, so if you have had problems with those in the past, you’ll want to be more careful. Cooking the leaves destroys the oxalic acid, while – remember – leaving the minerals intact and then ready to absorb. Now, don’t let me scare you: A couple of handfuls of green leaves per day are not going to kill you. Rotate your leaves (i.e. don’t eat the same every day) as different plants contain different types of oxalates. Make sure to cook some of your leaves, too, for the improved absorption of minerals.

Mushrooms, too, are not easy to digest. Their cell walls don’t break down easily, so it’s really quite difficult for us to get to the nutrients they contain. Again, cooking helps us out, breaking down the cell walls for us. And a rather peculiar thing happens with mushrooms: While normally vitamin C decreases with cooking, in mushrooms it increases – at least in shiitake mushrooms.

Whole grains, beans, lentils and nuts contain a substance called phytic acid. If it binds to minerals in the gut, it takes prevents them from being absorbed and they will be excreted in the waste. This could, for example, affect your iron levels. Cooking, soaking, sprouting and fermenting reduces the amount of phytic acid in foods.

Does cooking decrease fibre? No! Like minerals, fibre is virtually indestructible until it reaches the large intestine, where our good bacteria get to work on it. Processing (chopping, blending, cooking) and chewing breaks fibre down mechanically, making it easier to digest, but it is not going to disappear and will still work its magic in the digestive tract.

How to cook?

Steaming is one of the gentler ways of cooking. Either use a steamer, where your food doesn’t touch the water at all, or cook it in very little water with the lid on. Most veg soften in just a few minutes.

Slow-cooking is a great way to gently cook your veg. The temperature is kept low (that’s why it takes hours) to preserve as many nutrients as possible. As slow-cooked meals are usually soups, sauces, or stews, you won’t be throwing out the water and therefore get to eat the minerals.

 

Eat for your skin!

Most of us have been plagued with acne at some point in our lives. In most cases, this was during puberty and it resolved itself once our hormones calmed down and normalised. For many, however, acne can continue into adulthood or even appear for the first time later in life. In adults, acne is not so likely to resolve itself and it is necessary to take a look at one's diet. Read on to find out how hormones and diet affect your skin. 

Stressed, fat, tired and depressed - because you're 50?

Is that how you feel? I speak to so many women around that age – not least because I am one of them – and am surprised and saddened by how many of us feel that way, have accepted it as a normal consequence of ageing and have given up. After all: Everyone else says the same.

Many of us have battled with their weight for our entire lives. We grew up surrounded by magazines that showed us what a woman should look like. A quick comparison between what we saw in the mirror and what was depicted in the magazine confirmed that we certainly didn’t fit the ideal. So we went on a diet. I was probably on my first one at around age 14. Looking back at the photographs now, I can’t really see what the problem was: OK, I wasn’t a stick insect, but I certainly wasn’t as fat as I thought I was (and as I was going to become!) by any stretch of the imagination.

 Me as a teenager in the early 80s.

Me as a teenager in the early 80s.

I wish I had known then what I know now: That going on diets is just a downward spiral – or upward, in terms of weight. Diets don’t work and serve only to make us feel miserable. After all, we keep failing at them. We eat less, move more, are starving all the time … and then fall off the wagon. Before we know it the weight we just lost is back and then some.

And then the exercise … We work all day and are lucky if we get away with 9-5 only, we’re commuting for 3-4 hours a day, braving London transport, do household chores when we get home and are still replying to work emails when we’re finally on the couch. Those of us who don’t work in London may be even worse off, stuck in traffic on the Southend Arterial Road twice a day, inching forward in the summer sun and losing the will to live. We pass the time by making mental lists of all the things we have to do when we get there. If we ever get there. We’re stressed, we’re tired, and hungry all the time. Where are we supposed to find the time and energy to exercise? Which is not even fun! Unwinding with a glass of wine and some chocolate in front of the telly sounds much more like it, and there’s barely even time for that.

Many of us around 50 are facing major life changes: The kids have left the nest, instead our parents are getting older and demand more of our time, maybe even need our care. There is a house to maintain, food shopping to be done, a social life to keep up with and a job to hold down for our contribution to the household income. The days never seem to be long enough.

And then that age … 50! Even that number alone! We’re officially middle-aged. It’s downhill from here. Yes, ok, there seem to be some of those annoying ‘healthy’ types who never seem to age, still run marathons with ease, keep their youthful figures, golden tresses and wrinkle-free faces apparently effortlessly. But that’s not us. We’ve acquired a spare tire around the middle, crow’s feet around our eyes, and no sooner do we get our roots dyed and they show again. The last thing we need are hot flushes and night sweats to rob us of that desperately needed beauty sleep, but, hey, things weren’t bad enough already, so why not add that to our misery and remind us that we’re now officially old. Thanks a bunch!

So what’s the answer? Is there even one? After all most of the women we know are in the same boat, going through similar things. It must be normal to be stressed, fat, tired and depressed at 50. Right?

Well, no. It depends on how to define normal: Is it how the majority of people feel? Then yes, it’s ‘normal’. Is it inevitable to feel like that at 50? I think not.

Given my profession, you’ll already know that food is going to come in here somewhere. And it is! You cannot underestimate the power of food. After all, everything that happens in our bodies is chemistry, and that requires chemicals, which in the food world are called nutrients: fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients. That’s what you need for your body to work properly and it is fully capable of doing that even at 50 (and beyond).

You wouldn’t put diesel into a petrol car and expect the engine to run on that. And that’s just a machine. How is the human body – an intricate biological organism – supposed to function on artificial 'foods', laden with sugar, damaged fats, flavourings, thickeners, emulsifiers, preservatives, herbicides, pesticides, plasticisers, colourings and other questionable additives?

It won’t, and you already know that a) from experience and b) because you’re not stupid, but it’s near impossible to get away from the stuff! Fake foods are made for us to love them. The food industry spends billions on research to find that ‘bliss point’, that perfect combination of fat and sugar, that melt-in-the-mouth feeling, that will trigger our brain chemistry to release endorphins that will make us happy and keep coming back for more. It’s not you, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s chemistry.

Knowing that is power. If you know what to do, you can take the reigns back and can get your health – and with it your life – back on track.

I didn’t mind turning 50, because … what’s the alternative? My father died from a heart attack when I was 4. He was only 39. When I was approaching 50 I was determined to celebrate my age, because I knew that he would have loved to turn 50. Getting older is nothing to complain about. It’s great!

And you know what? I’ve never felt better! And if I could achieve that, so can you!

Here’s me at 36 (left) and now. Need I say more?

50 stressed fat tired depressed menopausal

What if it's histamine?

Do you experience allergy symptoms, but no allergy has been found? Are you quite sure that you are reacting to certain foods, but can't pin them down because you seem to be fine with the suspicious food one day, but react on another? Maybe it's not an allergy, maybe it's histamine intolerance. Not great if you've got it, but you may be able to do something about it.