Why are we so afraid to eat fats?

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Has the nutrition world gone mad? Time and time again, I hear the words; “Cass, why are you eating that!? It’s full of fat! or “Cass, why are you putting olive oil on your food? It’s full of fat!”

For years we have been told that eating dietary fats, essentially makes us fat. This message has been drilled into us so much so, that “low-fat” products are taking over our lives and are often considered to be the healthier choice. The link between saturated fats and coronary heart disease (CHD) was made many years ago1,2, since then, manufacturing has gone crazy over the “low-fat product” scenario that we associate the word fat with “bad” or “weight gain”. It is important to take each fat at face value because not all dietary fats are created equally, and not ALL dietary fats are bad for us. Has the demonization of the word fat, scarred us forever?

So what’s the issue?

The issue is that there are too many chefs in the kitchen! Once the link was established between a high consumption of saturated fats and CHD, the world went bananas with removing the fat from products such as yoghurt or cheese, and ramping up the refined carbohydrates and increasing the protein intake (Chef 1: manufacturing companies). By doing this, it appears to lay individual that this product is a healthier alternative than the full-fat version. Simply, we eat heaps of these sorts of products then we can deem ourselves as being healthy.

The media are also having to take some responsibility on this (Chef 2). As we know, the media overdramatises most news headlines, as a result, misleading headlines about any type of fat immediately sends the public into whirlwind. What we need to focus on, is what sorts of fats can promote good health and remove the taboo around the word fat.

Then on top of all of this, we have “celebrity nutritionists” whom like to ramp that saturated fats are healthy (Chef 3). These individuals claim that coconut oil is healthy and we should lather all our food in coconut oil and add butter to our coffee for optimal health and wellbeing. Sorry, if you bought into that, but adding butter to your coffee isn’t any healthier than adding full-cream milk. Furthering on from this, some of these so called “healthy” products are 90% saturated fat, so eating them in excess, can increase our risk of chronic health diseases. Instead we should be focusing on dietary patterns that have implemented high-healthy fat diets to improve our health.

But, I am still confused about what types of fats I should be eating?

We should be enjoying a variety of foods, both healthy and not-so healthy. But we do need limit our intake of saturated fats and trans fats, as the link between saturated fats and heart disease and stroke is very real and not something scientists “made up”. Physiologically, increased amounts of saturated fat increase our levels of “bad” cholesterol or more scientifically known as LDL cholesterol3. LDL cholesterol has been proven time and time again to be atherogenic, meaning that, there is an increased formation of fatty deposits in the arteries3,4. If this continuously occurs, it can lead to a plaque formation and a blockage of arteries, which will reduce the blood flow to heart and cause a heart attack4. Hence why we have been told to limit foods that are high in these saturated fats. 

Instead, we need to focus on the consumption of unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). There is ample evidence that has shown a high consumption of MUFAs and PUFAs can promote heart health5,6. A prime example is, the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet consists of ~40% dietary fat, of which, monounsaturated fat is the main source of dietary fat. The archetypal traditional ‘Cretan’ Mediterranean diet was first established three decades ago as a cardio-protective diet in the Seven Countries Study7. Keys and co-workers7 found that residents in Crete in Greece had the lowest mortality from heart disease and this was positively associated with the consumption of their dietary pattern. Keys and co-workers proposed that the high consumption of MUFAs and low consumption of saturated fats through the high intake of olive oil, plant-based foods and nuts and seeds contributed to the low mortality rate seen within this population group.

So the inclusion of a high-healthy fat diet has been continually proven to reduce mortality rate. Furthermore, there has been new and emerging evidence surrounding the implementation of a high-healthy fat diet (enriched in olive oil) on reducing or stabilising weight8. Watch this space everyone.

Okay, so what sorts of foods are high in unsaturated fats?

If you are wanting to include more unsaturated fats into your diet, try adding things like:
• Avocado into your sandwich instead of butter
• Instead of reaching for the chocolate at 3pm, try reaching for a handful of almonds
• Drizzle your salads and vegetables with extra virgin olive oil
• Other foods that you could include are: oily fish such as salmon, sardines or tuna, plant-based spreads, nut butters or adding seeds to your muesli.

Take home message:

At the end of the day, eating the right sort of fats are not bad for you, in fact, they have been continually proven to reduce mortality. We, as health professionals, need to help remove the taboo that was created around dietary fats. Fats are an important part of our diet and we need them for a range of functions in the body, so please do not be scared to drizzle that olive oil onto your vegetables tonight!

References:

1. Micha, R., & Mozaffarian, D. (2010). Saturated fat and cardiometabolic risk factors, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes: a fresh look at the evidence. Lipids, 45(10), 893-905.
2. de Souza, R.J., & Anand, S.S. (2016). Saturated fat and heart disease. BMJ, 355, i6257.
3. Whitney, E., Rolfes, S.R., Crowe, T., Cameron-Smith., & Walsh, A. (2014). Understanding nutrition. South Melbourne VIC: Cengage Learning.
4. Sowers, J. (2003). Obesity as a cardiovascular risk factor. The American Journal of Medicine, 115(8), 37-41.
5. Estruch, R., Martinez-Gonalez, M., Corella, D., Salas-Salvado, J., Rulz-Gutlerrez, V., Covas, M., et al. (2006). Effects of a Mediterranean-Style Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors. Annals of Internal Medicine, 145(1), 1-11.
6. de Lorgeril, M., Salen, P., Martin, J., Monjaud, I., Delaye, J., & Mamelle, N. (1999). Mediterranean diet, traditional risk factors, and the rate of cardiovascular complications after myocardial infarction: Final report of the Lyon Diet Heart Study. Circulation, 99(6), 779-785.
7. Keys, A., Menotti, A., Karvonen, M.J., Aravanis, C., Blackburn, H., Buzina, R., & Keys, M.H. (1986). The diet and 15-year death rate in the Seven Countries Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 124(6), 903-915.
8. Estruch, R., Martínez-González, M., Corella, D., Salas-Salvadó, J., Fitó, M., & Chiva-Blanch, G. et al. (2016). Effect of a high-fat Mediterranean diet on bodyweight and waist circumference: a prespecified secondary outcomes analysis of the PREDIMED randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 4(8), 666-676.

Cassandra Bendall

Cassandra completed her Bachelor of Human Nutrition in 2015 at La Trobe University. Upon completion, Cassandra undertook her Honours year at La Trobe University the following year and ended the year with First Class Honours. Cassandra had the opportunity to work on the AusMed Heart Trial, which aims to prevent 12-month cardiac re-event rate using a Mediterranean diet intervention in a multi-ethnic cohort. Her Honours research focussed on the Effect of Mediterranean Diet on Visceral Fat in Australian Patients Post-Cardiac Event. Since cessation of her Honours year, Cassandra has been accepted into the Masters of Dietetic Practice at La Trobe University in 2017, which will allow her to fulfil her goal of becoming a clinical dietitian. At present, Cassandra is in the final stages of preparing to submit her systematic review for publication.

Cassandra’s areas of interest include: Mediterranean diet, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

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