Monday, 16 January 2012

Everything You Wanted to Know About Fats (But were afraid to ask!)

It's great to hear more and more people embracing the many nutritional concepts I've discussed over the past year in my blog.

Nobody seems to dispute that heavily refined or processed foods rank at the very bottom of the healthy eating scale and the penny is even dropping that “diet” or “healthy” variants are far from the paragons of virtue they pertain to be.

People need little convincing to start eating more “real” natural foods, green leafy veg, nuts and berries etc.

Few, have any problems with upping intake of Omega 3's, the undisputed king of healthy fats found in oily fish (and cutting down on those nasty Trans Fats – more later).

The majority realise that too much sugar / refined carbohydrate is a bad thing and not just for your teeth. (Although there are still some that don't fully understand that starchy carbs such as white potatoes, bread and pasta can be just as bad when consumed in excess and at the wrong time!)

And few (vegetarians and vegans aside) would have any objection to tucking into a nice Rib-eye once they realise the multitude of health benefits it is likely to provide.

I could talk about such nutritional concepts with just about anybody and have their unanimous support, nodding heads and even a few “whoops” and “high fives”.....

Until I drop the “S” word.....

Saturated fat!!

Discussing this topic seems to activate some dormant, primeval circuit buried deep in people's DNA. Their body language changes, their arms might cross and their faces tighten into a scowl. Their brains are suddenly alive with images of thick, sticky gloop blocking arteries, obese people fighting for breath and clutching their hearts or shocking headlines in newspapers and magazines warning us to stop eating fat or die!

Oh My God! You eat What!!??

“Saturated fat causes heart disease and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise!”

Close the book, end of debate, next subject please!

It's a view I hear time and time again and it's a view so ingrained in our psyche that it makes meaningful discussion on the subject almost impossible.

“Saturated fat blocks your arteries”. Everybody knows that. We are taught it as kids. It's drummed into us through the media and it's written in virtually every book you care to read on the subject.

You'll even find this view supported on the NHS and British Heart Foundation websites!

Trouble is, anybody with even the most basic knowledge of human digestion knows that the stuff we put in our mouths does not go directly, unaltered, into our arteries.

If it did – imagine the damage a fork full of mash potato could do! Or humus!

You'd literally be risking a Coronary Embolism (heart blockage), every time you accidentally swallowed a pea without chewing it first!

This is clearly a ridiculous concept, but it's one that even highly educated individuals hold onto when applied to saturated fat.

You eat it, it ends up in your arteries. Simple.

Almost like there is some secret short-cut, that only saturated fat knows about, which leads straight from our mouths to our arteries!

Ever thought it was odd that saturated fat doesn't block the much smaller vessels and chooses instead (apparently) to block the widest, fastest flowing parts of our circulatory system??
We are talking GCSE stuff here. There is the small matter of the human Alimentary Canal to get through first along with a myriad of mechanical, chemical and biological processes along the way.


Ask anybody, who subscribes to this concept, to explain the biological process by which dietary saturated fat winds up in your arteries and blocks them. Then tell me please, because nobody I've spoken to has been able to adequately explain it!

Why? You may ask – Why does fat (and saturated fat in particular) have such a bad reputation?

It's not always been the case.....

My grandparents ate fats in large amounts and their parents before them (lard, butter, eggs, dripping, fatty meat, fish etc). Hell we've been eating fats in large amounts for a couple of million years (give or take a few thousand years). My grandparents weren't morbidly obese, nor were the vast majority of their generation. They didn't go to the gym everyday – I'm pretty sure they didn't even “work-out” - not sure the phrase had even been invented!

The imagined “evil” of fats is an idea that is probably only 2 or 3 generations old.

What happened?

Why did we fall out of love with fat?

It may have started following a big dollop of really bad science.

This little video clip by Tom Naughton sums it up really well....

I also urge you to read my earlier blog on Fats and watch the Big Fat Fiasco videos that I link to.

It was Ancel Key's text book example of really bad science, the so called “Lipid” hypothisis and a few studies the followed that gave birth to the notion that fat was gonna kill us all so was best avoided.

This flawed concept has remained unquestioned by Governments, medics and those responsible for healthy eating guidelines ever since and, worse still, has been helped along by yet more misinformation and brainwashing through the media .

We are constantly bombarded with negative imagery which associates dietary fat intake with poor health and obesity.

Say “fatty food” and few people think “avacado” or “nuts” or “oily fish”. Most people think of “fast food”, cakes, crisps and biscuits. The irony is of course that most of these foods are, first and foremost, high refined carbohydrate, nutritionally weak foods. If they do contain fat, it's the worst kind (more on this later). These foods aren't high fat – they are high carbohydrate, bad fat foods. Yet the fats get tarred with the same brush and take the blame for the ill heath caused by consuming them.

High Sugar - High "Evil" Fat junk food

The media has another roll to play – Sensationalism, Scaremongering and shoddy reporting

Who wouldn't sit up and take notice of a headline in a National Newspaper or health / sports magazine proclaiming the following...

Eating a High-Fat Diet May Rapidly Injure Brain Cells That Control Body Weight!

Hells bell! I've read enough! I'm gonna cut fat out of my diet wherever I see it! All that stuff I've heard about evil fat is right – pass me the Special K!

And that's the trouble. Few people would bother to read beyond the headlines or they might hear tit bits of information from a friend who had forgotten the details.

Those that do read further (and you can read the article here...) might realise that actually, the study was conducted on rats and mice. How many of us would realise or acknowledge the critical biological differences between rats and humans that render most rat studies meaningless for humans?

Spot the difference!

How many would bother to dig any deeper??

How many would bother, for example, to find out exactly what the rats were fed?

Call me a geek – but I did!!

Now to me, a high fat diet is what I eat. It's based around nutrient dense, natural foods like oily fish, nuts, avocado, fatty grass fed organic meat, eggs, whole dairy etc etc. You know the stuff, I talk about it enough!

Is this the kinda stuff our lucky lab rats got to graze on during the study in question?


They're not really big into that stuff. They'd much rather root through your bins. No, to get rats to eat fat – you gotta lace it with stuff they go mad for!

You gotta lace it with sugar!

And lots of it!!

Lace it with enough sugar and they'll eat just about anything. supplies many of the labs conducting rodent studies, with lab produced “feeds” that aim to reproduce certain types of diet.

Their proprietary feed which aims to reproduce a “high fat” (American Western Diet) is called 5TJN. You can find it here..

What you will notice is that 40% of the calories come from fat, 44% from carbohydrate and 16% from protein.

Look a little deeper, and you will see that the almost half the fat comes from hydrogenated vegetable oil (Crisco), soya bean oil and corn oil. You won't find any more evil fats than those! Personally I don't go any where near them!

Now look at the carbs.

Corn starch, Dextrin and Sucrose!! - All refined, poor quality, empty carbohydrates – pure calories. No sweet potato and qunioa there!

Even the protein is poor – for rats at least. 5TJN contains casein (milk protein) – known to give them cancer!

Then Look at all the other chemical crap that is thrown in there for good measure!

These poor animals. They are fed this high sugar, high “evil” fat, poor quality protein, nutrient weak, chemical diet and they get sick – BIG SURPRISE

But the take home message we get to see........

Eating a High-Fat Diet May Rapidly Injure Brain Cells That Control Body Weight!

You see the problem?

Don't Believe the Headlines!

So lets try and right some wrongs.....

Most people will be familiar with the types of fat that are available. They are Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated. There's another type of Polyunsaturated fat that's worthy of being considered separately and they are “Essential Fatty Acids” or EFAs , Most people are familiar with Omega 3 and 6 – well they are your EFAs.

I'll also talk about Trans Fats. Again, these can be either Monounsaturated or Polyunsaturated BUT NEVER SATURATED! They are also deserving of separate discussion.

To understand the difference between these types of fat, we need to get down to a molecular level. Not the most exciting subject but worth a quick summary.

In essence, all fats are combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen linked together in chains of varying lengths and shapes. With me so far? Good.

Firstly, a brief side note. Please understand that most fats we consume in our diets, contain a mixture of different types of fat. We don't consume these different types of fat in isolation. Hold that thought for now but lets look at each different type of fat individually to start with.


Monounsaturated Fats have a single “Double Bond” in their fatty acid chain. The fewer double bonds a fat has – the more “liquid” it tends to be, so Mono-unsaturated fats “tend” to be liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, corn oil are good examples but remember, even these fats are a mixture of different types of fats. Oils such as this are often “universally” held as “healthy”. While there are healthy monounsaturated fats – there are plenty which are not! Oils like olive are best used for dressings – not cooking


Polyunsaturated Fat have many (Poly) double bonds in their fatty acid chains – they are very liquid, even when refrigerated. Polyunsaturated fats are found in grain and soy products. The problem with these numerous double bonds is that they allow the fat to oxidise and turn rancid very easily, particularly when heated (this is why cooking with vegetable oil is such a bad idea).


On the scale of evil, Trans-Fats or “Hydrogenated Oils” are at the top of the tree!

These are either monounsaturated or Polyunsaturated plant based fats, that have been meddled with by man. (Moved the position of the Hydrogen atoms within the fatty acid chain - for the geeks out there)

Trans Fats do occur in very small amounts in nature as “vaccenic acid” in beef and dairy for example, but don't stress – like all other naturally occurring fats, these natural Trans Fats have been shown as beneficial to health (by lowering LDL and triglycerides in this case) .

“Unnatural” Trans-Fats were dreamt up by scientists in search of replacements for the (wrongly accused) evil saturated fats that Ancel Keys had (wrongly) warned everybody to stop eating.

By messing about with fats at the molecular level, scientist were able to develop fats that were still unsaturated but also solid at room temperature. What they actually developed was a fat that was a molecule or two away from plastic, and a perfect catalyst for killer illness and disease like cancer, Alzheimer's , diabetes, liver disfunction and infertility.

Fancy doing a little experiment?

By a tub of maragarine, remove the lid and leave in a cool corner of your garage or garden shed. The dirtier and more germ ridden the better.

Come back in a 10 years time...

The margarine will still be there, looking pretty much the same as the day you left it. Flies will not have laid their eggs in it. Germs will not have multiplied in it!

Why not?

BECAUSE IT'S NOT FOOD and bugs know better!

Our bodies don't recognise Trans-Fats as food either – Trans-Fats confuse our bodies and make us sick.

Don't confuse your body. Don't feed it plastic. Do it a favour and only feed it fats that are found naturally – not ones that come out of a lab!

This is easier said than done thanks to food labelling. This is a corker.....

Trans-Fats do not have to be listed on ingredients of food providing the amount PER SERVING is not above 0.5g.

Those biscuits you had as a quick snack – “Zero Trans-Fats” it says on the pack. What that actually means is “Less than 0.5g per serving” – which might be conveniently classed as 1 biscuit!!

So that pack of biscuits, might actually contain 10g of Trans-Fats!

If it says “Vegetable Fat” of any kind (corn, Canola, rape, sunflower, etc etc) avoid it. Cos it'll contain Trans-Fats! Remember also that Trans-Fats can't be saturated. (One of many gold stars that can be bestowed on saturated fat!)

Trans-Fat Lies!


Now these guys are important, because the body can't sythesise them. We MUST get them from our diet and we need both types - Omega 3 and 6.

What's critical, is the ratio – ideally this should be close to 1:1 and right there is the problem.

Most western diets are pretty high in Omega 6, but woefully low in Omega 3. We get Omega 6 from grain products and grain fed meats. Something we are encouraged (wrongly) to eat more and more of. We get plenty of Omega 6 – no need to actively eat any more!

We get Omega 3 from oily fish, nuts and fatty grass fed meats, eggs, stuff that we seem to be eating less of these days!

Remember, we are striving for a ratio close to 1:1.

This is made very difficult when we consume so much Omega 6 and when oils such as Corn Oil are touted as “healthy” with it's 46:1 Omega 6 / Omega 3 ratio!!

See the problem?

The solution is pretty simple, watch Omega 6 intake by limiting consumption of grain products and grain fed meat and, at the same time, increase consumption of grass fed meat, oily fish and eggs.

Even these dietary modifications may not be enough to ensure a healthy Omega 6 / 3 ratio so you may wish to consider taking a high strength Omega 3 supplement. I do.

Like a number of other dietary requirements (Vitamin D for example) the recommended daily amount for Omega 3 is inadequate. Some nutritionists are recommending mega doses – up to 1.5g for each 1% of body fat. Personally, I'm somewhere in between. 3000mg is a good place to start and make sure you get a supplement containing EPA and DHA. High strength 500mg capsules are pretty common. 2 capsules 3 times per day – game on.

This is important stuff, because when your Omega 6 / 3 ratio is dramatically out of whack, it's a recipe for inflammation, high blood pressure, blood clots, a weakened immune and poor brain function.

Saturated Fat

Saturated fats are so called because they have no double bonds, which makes them very stable, even at high temperature. So they are perfect for cooking.

There is absolutely nothing, chemically speaking, that makes saturated fat bad.

I can say here and now that  nobody has been able to prove that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease (though some have told big porky pies to make you believe it!). Nobody has even managed to prove a reliable association between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. The study has not been done and, due to unavoidable confounding variables, likely never will be.

Saturated fats are actually critical for maintaining a healthy body. They account for 50% of every living cells membrane structure. They improve absorption of calcium and support immune function. Importantly, they provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins and one of my favourite compounds in the human body CHOLESTEROL!

I've already done one blog post on Cholesterol but I feel another coming on! The importance of this incredible compound is still being ignored – the body makes it, but consumption of saturated fat supplements the body's own natural production.

For me it's enough to acknowledge that saturated fat occurs, in nature, alongside monounsaturates and polyunsaturates. It occurs in foods alongside vitamins, minerals and proteins which are essential for life.

Apparently, the average UK adult consumes about 40g of butter per week, almost 1½ kg of flour and ¾ kg of sugar – but it's the 40g of butter that's killing us right? Along with the fat in half my pork chop. (The other half is doing me good apparently?)

The paradoxes continue....

Saturated fat makes up a large percentage of human breast milk.

It's been in our diets for millions of years long before the words “Coronary” and “Bypass” had even been invented.

Ancient civilisations like the Inuit live long, disease free lives on a diet high in saturated fat, based almost exclusively on animal products.

Recent studies are starting to uncover the real mechanisms at play here and scientists are finally being forced to conclude that (when combined with reduced carbohydrate intake) saturated fat intake, rather than detrimental to health would appear to be associated with LOWER VLDL and Triglyceride levels!

Anecdotally speaking, after years following a high carbohydrate – very low fat regime it took the re-introduction of fat into my diet (saturated fat included) to get my body burning fat once again. This has not only seen me loose several kilograms of “dead weight” (while maintaining, even increasing, lean muscle mass) it has also improved my fuelling dramatically over long training sessions and races.

One thing I hear all the time is that I, and people like me, can “get away” with eating fat because we train for long hours. I'm sorry, but this is just not the case. I'm not “getting away” with anything. I'm benefiting hugely from increasing fat consumption (and reducing carbs) and so can everybody whether physically active or not.

There is no reason why somebody who is less active would not experience similar benefits once they start to re-introduce fat into their diets (and reduce carbohydrate intake) providing they keep an eye on total calories.

I can site numerous examples of friends and relatives who have lost weight by following this advice – people who don't race Ironman Triathlons. People like my Mum, who are physically active, enjoy walking – but aren't slaves to the gym or treadmill!!

The great thing is, that as well as loosing weight and maintaining a healthy body composition, people following a higher fat / lower carb diet will be doing their general health and resistance to illness the power of good.

Sadly there are still those following the many dreadful, extreme low calorie, low fat, nutritionally weak, branded “diets” out there (and trying to work out every day!). The bitter irony is, while these people may loose a few kilograms, most of it will be glycogen (stored carbohydrate), water and muscle tissue – which is literally consumed to keep them alive! While the body fat stubbornly hangs on. All this while risking ill health and increasing disease risk. When they finally fall off the wagon (as nobody can live on chemical milkshakes for too long!) the weight will almost always go straight back on!

"Skinny Fat" - Not a good look!

The take home message here is simple. Yes to lose weight you do need to be in “calorie deficit” but it's not a simple mathematical equation. Where those calories come from is crucial.

Do not imagine that cutting fat from your diet will maximise body fat loss – It won't.

It will simply down-regulate your body's own ability to burn fat as fuel and keep your body burning sugar. The very last thing you want if body fat loss is your goal.

Reduce calories by a small amount but do this through dramatically reducing carbohydrate intake. Fats and protein should both be retained, even increased as a percentage of total calories.

Good fats are all those found in nature. Simple as that. Whether saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.

Fatty grass fed meat, lard, butter, dairy, eggs, coconut oil, avacodo, nuts, oily fish and an Omega 3 supplement are your “fat friends”

Cut out vegetable oils (olive oil is ok, if not used for cooking)

Eliminate all hydrogenated oils and Trans-Fats wherever you see them (and wherever you don't!)

Monitor weight loss and target no more than 2lb per week.

Hopefully this blog post has gone some way to vindicating some fats of their sullied reputation.

Spread the word people – fat rocks!!