Editor's note: This is the third part of a series focussing on nutrition that will run every other Thursday.
In my last article I addressed the fact that carbohydrates, or "carbs," were neither good nor bad. When eaten as whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits or minimally processed foods like oatmeal and brown rice, they are healthy and nutritious. It's when we refine them into products like juice, soda, pastries, white rice, sugar and the like that they contribute towards obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Today we are going to discuss fats, and you shouldn't be too surprised to find that much the same is true of them. Fats found in whole foods are not unhealthy. Fats extracted from these foods and otherwise altered can have horrendous effects on our bodies.
In the '60s and '70s, researchers studying the epidemic of heart disease in Western societies noted that their diets were around 45 percent fat. They also noted a link between high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. Fat must be the cause of heart disease they reasoned and cholesterol fats must be the worst offenders. The solution, then, was to decrease the amount of fat in our diets and dramatically decrease the consumption of foods with cholesterol.
Unfortunately, there was, and are, several problems with this approach. The most glaring of course, is that ingesting cholesterol has very little effect on our blood levels of cholesterol. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol which is needed for a variety of proposes, not the least of these are creating hormones which control most body systems. We now know that much more important than the overall level of cholesterol is the ratio between the "good" and the "bad" cholesterols.
Another problem with simply eating a low fat diet is that they tend to be quite high in processed carbs. Processed carbs are actually a leading cause of high triglyceride and cholesterol levels and a negative balance of HDL (bad) and LDL (good) cholesterol. Many patients whose blood lipid levels don't improve with a low fat diet are put on Lipitor or other statin drugs when a diet of whole unprocessed foods hasn't been tried yet. Of course, many people are not able to stay on a low fat diet for long anyway because fat is necessary for satiety.
We don't stay full or satisfied for long after a low fat meal for a few reasons. One is that fat slows down the absorption of sugar into our blood stream and therefore keep our blood sugar levels more even. Another is that we crave fat because it's needed for hormone production and for constructing cell membranes. That's why folks who do manage to stay on very low fat diets often have dry skin and fragile hair.
If fat is necessary for health, yet the fat in our standard American diet (SAD) leads to such a host of problems, what kinds of fat should we be eating? Again, we need to look at how much this food has been refined.
Whole food sources of fat include raw nuts, nut butters without added oils, avocados, eggs, butter, milk, cheese and yogurt. One of the greatest triumphs of marketing over science has been the outright lie that margarine is healthier than butter. Even if you knew nothing about omega 6 vs. omega 3 fatty acids, or the reasons why trans fats are so health-destroying, it's easy to see that butter much more closely resembles milk than margarine resembles the vegetables or soy beans that the oil in it came from.
From the standpoint that the food has been refined and the calories concentrated, any oil is a processed food. Even here, though, some oils are more processed than others. Oil that is cold pressed or "extra virgin" has not been subjected to heat. This is good because it keeps the fatty acids intact. The opposite end of the spectrum is partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils which contain trans fats.
If you are going to use oil in cooking or dressings, extra virgin olive oil if by far and away a much healthier choice than any vegetable oil. Another good choice is extra virgin coconut oil. Coconut oil is especially good for cooking because it has a high burn point. Again, without knowing anything about biochemistry, one can see oils that come from foods with high fat contents like olives and coconut require less processing than oil from corn and other vegetables.
While the concept of eating whole foods is simple enough, I believe it's worth going a little deeper and understanding about omega 3s and omega 6s. The distorted ratio of 6s over 3s is one of the main causes of inflammation which causes a whole host of physical ailments. Not surprisingly, this distorted ratio is a direct result of food processing, including how we raise livestock.
That discussion, however, is going to have to wait until our next column. Until that time, eat as much of your foods as possible in their whole unprocessed state and you won't go too far wrong in your fat consumption.
Dr. Corey Pavitt is a chiropractic physician, competitive bodybuilder, and a recreational yoga, cycling and hiking enthusiast. He and his wife Ellen own and operate Pavitt Health and Fitness. His Wednesday Juneau Empire column has run over nine years and will continue in addition to this bimonthly article.