Fats That Kill
And Fats That Improve Your Health
nother alarm for dietary vigilance has gone off, and it is ringing with the clarity and force of an explosion. Trans-fatty acids, found in many margarines and vegetable oils, have now been found to increase breast cancer by as much as 40%. In a European study involving nearly 700 women between the ages of 50 and 74 years, body tissue was examined to determine any correlation between breast cancer and trans-fatty acids. The research scientists discovered that those women whose bodies contained the highest level of the trans-fatty acids had a 40% increased likelihood of developing breast cancer compared with those who had the lowest levels. Because American women have a trans-fatty acid dietary intake twice that of European women, the alarm should be seen as a warning rocket careening across the sky of health consciousness. Read on to learn how to make sure that when next it lands, it does not fall on you.
There are probably no more misunderstood nutrients than fats. Each day it seems, we hear new warnings that too much fat causes heart disease and cancer; that we should avoid butter and eat margarine instead (or vice versa); that we should eat less meat and more fish; that the less fat we eat, the better, especially if we already have signs of atherosclerosis or heart disease; that cholesterol is public enemy number one and should be avoided at all costs; that any steps you can take to bring your cholesterol levels down, including taking cholesterol-reducing drugs, you should take.
While some of this is good advice, like a lot of the public health information we are exposed to, much of it is oversimplified, misleading, or downright wrong. In fact, follow some of this advice, and you're likely to do yourself more harm than good.
Increasingly, it seems, people are listening to this "conventional medical wisdom" less and less. They are giving up on the traditional low-fat, low-protein, high-carbohydrate road to weight loss and health for one simple reason: it gets you nowhere - at least nowhere you want to be. As Dr. Barry Sears has stated in his best selling book, The Zone, "Eating fat does not make you fat. It's your body's response to excess carbohydrates in your diet that makes you fat."
Extremely low-fat diets, such as the Pritikin and Ornish programs (as well as cholesterol-lowering drugs), have been shown to result in increased aggressiveness, depression, and suicide. People on these demanding and difficult-to-follow programs, may reduce their risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke - if they can stay with them - but they may also increase their risk of dying in an accident or even from suicide, because they are disrupting the normal hormonal environment. In fact, Sears argues, "You have to eat fat [balanced with protein and carbohydrates] to lose fat."
But all fats are not created equal. Which ones should we be eating and which ones should we be avoiding?
One of the most authoritative - and accessible - sources of information on dietary fats is a book called Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill, by Udo Erasmus, Ph.D. According to Dr. Erasmus, some fats are absolutely essential for health, whereas others can be detrimental. "Whether a fat heals or kills depends on several factors," he writes. "What kind of fat is it? How has it been treated - has it been exposed to light, oxygen, heat, hydrogen, water, acid, base, or metals like copper and iron? How old is it? Is it fresh? How has it been used in food preparation? How much was eaten? What balance of different fats are we getting in our diet?
Erasmus believes that one of the most important keys to health is getting the right kind of fats in the right amounts, and to store and prepare them using the right methods. "The wrong kind of fats, the wrong amounts or balances, or even the right kinds of fats wrongly prepared, cause degenerative diseases that we call diseases of fatty degeneration" (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, etc), he argues.
Which are the right fats? The wrong fats? How should fats be handled and stored for optimal health? There are many answers to these questions, and many of the explanations are too complex to go into here. We recommend that you read Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill if you want to learn more. In the meantime, though, here is a sampling of "fat facts" that will open your eyes to the intelligent use of dietary fats.
- Fatty acids are the key building blocks of all fats and oils, both in foods and in our bodies. They are also the primary ingredients in all cell membranes, playing a vital role in the construction and maintenance of all healthy cells. Cut your fat intake too low, and you may disrupt these vital functions.
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are necessary to stay healthy and must be obtained from food sources. The two essential fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). Perhaps the most concentrated source of EFAs is fresh raw flax oil but smaller amounts are found in most other, high-quality food oils. (The keyword here is "high-quality" - see the other guidelines below.)
- EFAs are very sensitive to destruction by light, oxygen, and heat. Light can induce free-radical chain reactions that break down EFAs into aldehydes, ketones, and other toxic and nontoxic products as well as destroy their vital properties. Oxygen causes EFAs to become rancid, giving them a scratchy, bitter, or fishy taste and smell. Heat destroys EFAs by twisting the molecule into an unnatural shape. Thus, by frying or deep frying at high temperature, much of the nutritional benefit of EFAs is lost.
- Fish oil is another excellent way to get health-positive fats into your body. Strictly speaking, fish oil does not contain the EFAs, but it does contain two other fatty acids - EPA and DHA - which are probably the most important metabolites of the EFAs. Fish oil promises many important health benefits that we will be covering fully in a future issue.
- Although you can buy fish oil capsules in any health food store, most of them are already significantly oxidized before you even buy them. At this time, Life Enhancement recommends a specially prepared, low-peroxide value fish oil capsule. We also recommend eating a fatty fish (such as salmon) two or three times per week.
- Stored oils tend to oxidize (go rancid) when exposed to air. Different oils spoil at different rates. Those oils high in EFA content spoil faster. Ideally, oils should be stored in the refrigerator in completely opaque glass or other inert containers and packed under nitrogen or other inert gas to exclude oxygen. Since this is often impractical, oils should be purchased in small quantities and used up quickly.
- Hydrogenated oils should be avoided at all costs. Hydrogenation turns a liquid oil into a solid or semisolid product, such as margarine, but, in the process, hydrogenation creates trans-fatty acids which are quite toxic. They may also be contaminated by metals such as nickel or aluminum that are used as a catalyst in the hydrogenation process.
- Given a choice between butter or margarine, choose butter. Margarine is a hydrogenated oil product containing a large amount of trans-fatty acids. Trans-fatty acids have numerous negative effects in the body, including making platelets more sticky, increasing the likelihood of clots forming in small blood vessels (heart attack or stroke), reducing heart muscle performance, changing cell membrane permeability, impairing energy flow, and disrupting the function of EFAs. Trans-fatty acids have been associated with increases in atherosclerosis and cancer. Margarine is usually made from oils containing large amounts of EFA molecules, but the hydrogenation process destroys or changes them. Thus, margarine is low in EFAs.
- Butter is low in essential fatty acids. Although this means it is not a good source of these nutrients, it is also less subject to peroxidation than margarine. Critics argue that butter contains cholesterol (about 1 gm/pound), but new research suggests that atherosclerotic disease is more likely to result from a lack of antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients than from a reasonable amount of cholesterol in the diet. Butter is also good for high-temperature cooking, because it is composed primarily of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids that are relatively resistant to destruction by light, heat, and oxygen. It's true that butter can become rancid, but heating it will remove the rancidity. On balance, butter is neither healthful nor harmful; call it neutral on health.
- Olive oil is often praised for its healthful properties, especially for cardiovascular health. It also appears to improve brain maturation and function in animals (and probably humans, too) that are deficient in EFAs. While this is true, it is true only of virgin and extra virgin olive oils, which are unrefined. The process of refining olive oil, which involves heating virgin olive oil above 302F (150C) to remove "impurities" also destroys EFAs and may actually increase the toxicity of the oil itself. Unfortunately, frying with extra virgin oil also removes many of its health benefits. To get the full health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, use it on salads and other dishes that do not require high-temperature frying.
- Frying your food is not particularly advisable because it turns the fats into unhealthy molecules. However, you can make frying less unhealthy by frying with oils that are relatively resistant to the harmful destruction that happens to oils when you heat them. In order of preference, the best oils for frying are: butter, tropical fats, high oleic sunflower oil, high oleic safflower oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, canola oil, and olive oil.
- Prostaglandins are powerful, short-lived, hormone-like chemicals the body produces and uses for a wide variety of vital regulatory functions. There are many prostaglandins but the ones we generally need more of are made from the conversion of the EFA linolenic acid (LA) to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). This conversion may be blocked by a variety of factors including excess dietary cholesterol and saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids (too much meat, eggs, dairy), processed vegetable oils, trans-fatty acids, heated oils, alcohol, aging, zinc deficiency, diabetes, and high sugar consumption.
- The main reason people get fat is not from eating too much fat but from eating too many carbohydrates at any one time. This means that a great pasta dinner followed up with a giant piece of chocolate cake leads to a large surge in insulin, which, in turn, increases the storage of calories as fat and blocks the release of energy from stored fat. A piece of grilled salmon and a bowl of fresh fruit, by contrast, would have far more modest effects on insulin release.
- Saturated fats (e.g., beef, dairy) generally increase insulin levels whereas monounsaturated fats (e.g., olive oil) have no effect on them. Beef fat is unhealthy for another reason: it contains large amounts of arachidonic acid which has been shown to interfere with the production of the healthful prostaglandins. So, eat more fish and chicken and less beef, but when you do eat beef, make sure it is very lean.
- Not all saturated fatty acids are bad. Some, such as stearic acid, can actually lower total cholesterol. Lamb and venison have higher levels of stearic acid.
- MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides) is a fat made from fractionated coconut oil. It is fully saturated but has been found to possibly improve your cholesterol balance rather than what you might expect from a saturated fat. MCT oil is a good choice for adding a fatty texture to foods and for low-temperature frying. It does not supply any positive nutritional benefits but no negative ones either. It is, like butter, fairly neutral.
To summarize, try to follow these fat guidelines when planning your diet:
- Always avoid products containing hydrogenated oil or high-temperature processed oil. Use only cold-processed, raw, unrefined oils selecting high oleic oils whenever possible. If you cook at high temperatures, such as in frying, use butter, tropical fats, or high oleic oils.
- For all other food purposes, use monounsaturated oils (such as olive oil or high oleic oils) or MCTs.
- Add fish oil by eating fresh fish twice a week, especially the cold-water ocean variety such as salmon, mackerel, swordfish, cod, etc.
- If you eat meat, make sure that it is lean.
- Select meats high in stearic acid such as lamb or venison. Chicken is generally lower in fat than other meats, especially if you avoid eating the skin.
- Of your total fat consumption, try to consume about 80% monounsaturates, 10% stable polyunsaturates, and 10% saturates.
- Kohlmeier L, Simonsen N, van't Veer P, Strain JJ, Martin-Moreno JM, Margolin B, Huttunen JK, Fernandez-Crehuet Navajas J, Martin BC, Thamm M, Kardinaal AF, Kok FJ. Adipose tissue trans fatty acids and breast cancer in the European community multicenter study on antioxidants, myocardial infarction, and breast cancer. Canc Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1997;6:705-710.
- Sears B, Lawren B. The Zone: A Dietary Road Map. New York:HarperCollins;1995.
- Erasmus U. Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill. Burnaby, BC, Canada:Alive Books; 1996.