heart disease

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!

... and all this time we thought coconut oil was healthy!

Last week the American Heart Association issued a Presidential Advisory with an 'update': Coconut oil is just as unhealthy as beef fat and butter, because it is a saturated fat, just like those. That's true, it is a saturated fat. But that's where the truth ends. Saturated fat is not unhealthy, and the recommendation is not actually an 'update'. Read on to find out why. 

A gluten-free diet is hard! Or is it?

You've just started to eliminate gluten from your diet, but gluten is in everything. There's nothing left to eat. Is that how you feel? You're right, it is omnipresent, but does avoiding it mean that there is nothing but a life of dietary misery in front of you? I think not! There is a growing community of people out there whose diets happen to be gluten-free by default and they are not missing a thing. Read on to find out more. 

Why balance blood sugar?

Do you eat to balance blood sugar levels? If you would like to lose weight, regain more energy, stop cravings, improve your digestion, balance your hormones and speed up your metabolism, it is crucial to learn how to balance blood sugar. 

A Noble Family of Vegetables

cabbage, brassica, cauliflower, cruciferous, heart health, cardiovascular, anthocyanin

At this time of year, it is a little trickier than in the summer to get your fill of fresh fruit and veg to cover your needs for vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals, such as magnesium. But only a little. Even in the winter and even in Northern Europe, there are fresh local crops that provide the nutrition we need.

Now in season are Brussels sprouts, white and red cabbage, kale and cauliflower, with purple sprouting broccoli joining them soon (in January). All of the above are members of the Brassica family and have similar properties, which I have written about last year in a blog post about the lovely little Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage and its relatives are not getting very much credit as a delicacy, because it reminds many of school dinners with overcooked, smelly and soggy cabbage. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cooked right, cabbage can be delicious.

So, how do you cook it right? To avoid the pungent smell and sogginess, cabbage is best cooked very briefly and with as little water as possible. Slice it into ribbons or shred in a food processor and then either stir-fry or steam. If you don’t have a steamer, use your widest lidded pan, pour just a little water in the bottom (it doesn’t have to, in fact shouldn’t cover the cabbage) and cook very quickly, just so that it is just soft.

Red cabbage – a pretty type of cabbage that is rich in anthocyanin – is lovely when cooked long and slowly. In my native Germany, it is popular to go with the traditional Christmas dinner of goose and potato dumplings. Traditionally, it is cooked with cloves, cinnamon and chopped apples. But sliced raw red cabbage also makes a beautiful addition to a winter salad, where it goes well with winter leaves such as lambs lettuce and sliced orange. Anthocyanin is a phytonutrient with antioxidant properties. It is the pigment that gives the cabbage its vibrant colour, the same as is found in blueberries, red grapes and beetroot. Anthocyanin fights free radicals and has anti-inflammatory effects, so red cabbage (and similar coloured fruit and veg) help protect us from heart disease. Apart from anthocyanin though red cabbage is also a good source of the vitamins and minerals we need, including vitamin C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium. It also contains beta-carotenes, the precursor to vitamin A, including eye- and skin-healthy lutein and zeaxanthin.

Cabbage won’t break the bank, and white and red cabbage even keep really well for quite some time – unlike cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, which should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. You’ll find the best deals at your local farmers’ market or the green grocers, who also thankfully sell kale still on its stems. Supermarkets usually sell bagged, chopped kale, but it gets chopped with the stem on, which means that there will always be that hard bit in each bite.

Here some ideas on what to do with it:

  • Cut a white (or red) cabbage in half and then slice thinly. Steam the strips and then smother in (homemade) pesto for a super low-carb meal.
  • Strip kale leaves off the stem and then use either in a salad – massage the dressing in and then let it sit for a little while, the leaves will become much softer – or to make kale chips. Chop and add to pasta with some roasted squash and goat’s cheese; or add it to a hearty white bean soup.
  • Steam chopped kale or stir-fry, seasoned with a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and tamari, sprinkle with toasted sesame. This works well with sliced white or red cabbage, too.
  • Sauerkraut is excellent food for gut health, but make sure that it is raw, not cooked. The kind you find in supermarkets – whether in jars or plastic bags – is usually cooked. Some health food shops sell raw sauerkraut, but if you want raw sauerkraut, i. e. with live bacteria, you’ll most likely have to make your own.

Note: Avoid raw cabbage, incl. coleslaw, if you have thyroid problems, particularly when iodine levels are low. Most members of the cabbage family contain goitrogens, naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the function of the thyroid. Cooking deactivates goitrogens, so cooked Brassica are fine. If your dietary iodine levels are low, you can top them up by consuming sea vegetables, seafood and iodised salt.