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Setting the fats facts straight
Saturated fats have taken a beating in recent years. It seems hard to believe we once consumed them so liberally, making bread and pies with lard and eating toast with butter or the Sunday dripping.
Saturated fats have been held responsible for everything from obesity to heart disease and stroke, but whilst heart disease rates have come down (due in large part to the decline in smoking), these other conditions are on the increase.
In the 1950s an American researcher named Ancel Keys released a study claiming to find a straight-line correlation between heart disease, saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels: it was called the Seven Countries study.
The trouble was that if one went back to the data and picked any other seven countries, one could prove the exact opposite. Since that time, with the discovery that clogged arteries contain cholesterol (they also contain a large proportion of linoleic acid - the vegetable-derived fat that we are all supposed to be eating more of, but that’s another story) and the advance of statins, the overwhelming consensus seems to point to saturated fat = a bad thing.
Yet dig a little through the research and you’ll find that many major long-term studies have failed to prove that saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease, and in fact low cholesterol levels may be a risk factor for cancer and stroke.
The fact is that the liver makes 90% of the cholesterol we need, increasing production if our diet contains too little, decreasing production if we eat more.
This process would not occur if cholesterol was poisonous. Our bodies need cholesterol to function- to build hormones, digest our food, repair cells and nerves. Simply put, without it, we’d be dead. Interestingly there is a type of cholesterol that we want to avoid making: small, dense LDL cholesterol (the kind that is found in furred arteries) is manufactured in response to stress, rancid fats and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour.
Neither does it make sense that saturated fat should be deadly; half the fat in breast milk is saturated; the lungs and heart couldn’t function without saturated fats for energy and saturated fat helps absorb minerals including calcium.
Many indigenous peoples around the earth such as the Masai and Inuit thrive on a high-fat diet and only develop heart disease and other problems once they introduce western foods into their diet.
As a nation we’ve become fat-phobic.
Advertisers only need to claim their product is low in fat or ‘fat-free’ to dramatically increase their sales.
Yet look closer and there’s something odd about this. During the 1930s our fat intake was about 45% of calories; these days it hovers around 33%, yet we’re all getting fatter, including our children.
So it seems we are eating less fat than ever before, and avoiding saturated fat in particular.
This begs some important questions: why are we getting fatter, and what have we replaced our traditional dietary fats with?
If fat is essential to our diets, which ones should we be eating?
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