We have a strange relationship with fat. We either avoid all fats like the plague and opt for low-fat diet rubbish, or we indulge in gallons of the wrong type of fat. Dale Pinnock believes that for decades we have been fed the message that fat is the enemy and will kill us faster than anything. We have been encouraged to cut out fat at every opportunity, and also to swap around the fats we use – avoiding the saturated and increasing our intake of the supposedly 'good' or 'heart-healthy' vegetable oils. Pinnock says this recommendation represents one of the biggest public health disasters of all time. Fats are a vital group of nutrients, essential for virtually every aspect of our health.
What is good fat and what is bad? This is one area that has been the subject of great debate in recent years, and advances in research and data analysis have revealed that the recommendations we have been given for years have been horribly wrong. These recommendations caused us to change the types of fats and oils we use, and as a result have altered our intake of vital substances called essential fatty acids that have significant effects on our health.
Essential fatty acids are a group of fats that are biologically active and critical for our health and the health of every single cell in the body. They are called 'essential' because we have to get them from our diet; our bodies cannot manufacture them. There are two main classes of essential fatty acids: omega 3 and omega 6. You have heard of omega 9, too, but the body can actually convert omega 6 into omega 9, so obtaining it is of far less concern. These fatty acids play such a vast and varied role in human physiology that it is really rather mind-blowing.
All great so far. However, our intake of these fatty acids cannot just be left to chance. We need to get some balance, and I strongly urge anyone reading this to become acutely aware of how to achieve omega balance (my previous book The Power of Three goes into great detail about this and shows you how to achieve this in the food we eat.)
So why do we need balance? If we consume too much of one fatty acid, then we can unleash a whole world of problems upon our physiology. The problematic one that I am talking about is omega 6. Omega-6 fatty acids are used for normal brain function, growth, and development. However, we only need a very small amount of these per day in order for them to achieve their physiological goals. The good thing is that omega 6 is so ubiquitous in foods, you will only be deficient if you become a breatharian and stop eating!
When we consume both omega 3 and omega 6, they go through a series of metabolic pathways. These are streams of chemical reactions that alter them and transform them into end products that play various roles in our bodies. When we consume our required amount of omega 6, it is converted into several important substances that do their jobs nice and quietly. The problems arise, however, when we consume too much omega 6, which then gets shuttled down a slightly different metabolic pathway and begins to form something called a series 2 prostaglandin. This active compound actually switches on and exacerbates inflammation. Here is the lightning bolt: in the West we are consuming - PER DAY – on average 23 TIMES more omega 6 than we need. This means that the average person following a typical Western diet will be putting themselves in a state of chronic (i.e. ongoing, long-term) sub-clinical (i.e. not immediately obvious and only revealed by blood tests) inflammation within tissues.
Why is this a problem? Well, low-grade chronic inflammation is linked to many of the chronic diseases that plague us in the West. Heart disease, for example, is essentially caused by inflammation. Inflammation of the endothelium (the inner skin of the blood vessels) is the first thing that occurs. The body then responds to this and attempts to repair it, and this is when substances like cholesterol get caught up in it and plaques begin to form in the arteries. Inflammation of the endothelium also makes the vessels less responsive to natural variations in blood flow, contributing to elevated blood pressure.
Chronic low-grade inflammation is also an important factor in the aetiology of cancer. Ongoing inflammation in a tissue can activate certain genes and affect the natural cycle of cell replication. So being in this state is serious, but you won't be aware of it, as it is a slow burner that gives no signs.
So, how on earth did we get into this mess in the first place? Thanks to the public health recommendations I mentioned earlier. It was the the mid 1970s onwards that the message about our eating habits and what constituted a healthy diet started to change drastically. Massive public-health campaigns persuaded us that saturated fat was the devil and was the thing in our diet that would ensure an early grave. We were encouraged to opt for 'heart healthy' vegetable oils and margarines and we were all cooking with sunflower oil and slathering margarine on our toast. Food manufacturers, wanting to appear the good Samaritans, heeded these campaigns too, and started using 'healthy' vegetable oil in their foods. And there we have it. Suddenly our intake of vegetable oils was way beyond anything that would have ever occurred in our natural diet. Bang: the fatty acid balance took a nosedive.
What are the good fats, and why do we need them? Oleic acid is a fatty acid found in abundance in olive oil, and is believed to be one of the factors that make the Mediterranean diet so healthy. It is an omega-9 fatty acid that is known to reduce LDL cholesterol. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are found in oils like coconut oil. They are a type of saturated fat that displays very different behaviour from many saturated fats from animal sources. They require little or no digestive intervention, and pretty much go straight into circulation to be used as a convenient energy source. A regular intake of good fats can have an amazing impact on heart health. They can lower cholesterol, reduce systemic inflammation and reduce blood pressure. They can help with inflammatory conditions. They help to maintain a healthy brain and nervous system, too.
Top foods for healthy fats
I try to encourage people to get some good fats into each meal. Not only does this ensure you get a good spectrum of them into your diet, but they also help to fill you up as they slow gastric emptying and influence 'satiety' hormones.
If you can, buy eggs that are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. Drop sunflower and 'vegetable' oil and switch to olive oil and coconut oil for your cooking. Drizzle olive oil onto your salads or cooked vegetables.
Oily fish: Salmon, mackerel, herrings, tuna, sardines - these are the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids on the planet, and the omega-3 fatty acids they contain are preformed, which basically means they can be used by the body straightaway. Top tip: Swap bacon or ham in the sandwich for some smoked salmon.
Avocados: A great source of oleic acid and GLA. Top tip: Try adding some sliced avocado to your cooked breakfast in the morning.
Seeds: Rich in GLA, vitamin E, and the plant form of omega-3 – ALA. While ALA isn't used as an omega-3 source per se, it does reduce the metabolism of excess omega 6, so has a role to play.
Coconut oil: A rich source of medium-chain triglycerides. Top tip: Coconut oil is especially good for Southeast Asian and Indian cooking.