There are certain things we understand to be beneficial to our health. Getting enough quality sleep, getting enough exercise and eating the right amounts of healthy food are generally understood to be the foundation of healthy living.
And on the first two areas there is a general consensus as to how much sleep is necessary as well as the benefits conferred by the different types of exercise options.
But when it comes to nutrition there still exists some beliefs which don’t have support in the primary literature.
For example, there are still a number of people that maintain the position that saturated fat is bad and must be eliminated from the diet. These same people will then eliminate foods that contain this fat in an attempt to be healthier.
I don’t eat red meat anymore.
I have egg whites for breakfast.
I eat only low-fat dairy.
Do these statements sound familiar?
When we do a consult and assessment with a new client we go over the nutritional habits of the clients as this will play a huge role towards realizing their results. And many of them give the answers above to demonstrate the efforts they are making towards healthier living.
While it’s not a new position for us to recommend our clients eat a balanced diet including all three types of fat I was still out to learn more. And so I recently attended a seminar at Kelowna General Hospital on Fats by Dr. Sanjoy Ghosh from UBC-O.
Dr. Ghosh presented some interesting notes during his 75 minute presentation. Some were common sense such as the fact we have increased our portion sizes dramatically over the last few generations.
And some foods in particular have seen huge increases such as our consumption of soybean oil which in the 1950s was 0.02 lbs per person per year to over 25 lbs. This is 125 times more soybean oil.
But it’s not just soybean oil that has increased. We have seen a number of PUFA (poly unsaturated fatty acids) and mono-unsaturates increase over the years. As for saturated fat this has stayed the same since 1975 at about 28% of total fat calories. With saturated fat think of foods such as lard, beef tallow, palm oil, butter and coconut.
What we have seen is an increased consumption of safflower, sunflower and corn oil which all contain higher amounts of omega-6, one example of a PUFA.
And while for a long time i.e the early 1950s, until very recently it has been suggested that a low-fat diet was the way to go. Ansel Keyes led the way with this position and the American Heart Association jumped on the band-wagon to push the position to eat low-fat for better health.
Much of the evidence for this position came from a popular study know as the 7 Nation Study which showed a correlation between the level of fat in the diet and cholesterol levels in the blood. Note that the correlation was to cholesterol levels and not necessarily cardio-vascular disease.
Later it was learned that this was actually a 22 nation study but the majority of the countries didn’t show the observed trend and thus were discounted from the paper. And when you consider that many of the 22 countries were mis-coding deaths you end up with no association between fat intake and cardio-vascular disease.
A more interesting and relevant study, which I’ll follow up with Dr. Ghosh if you’d like the reference, is that the countries with the most cardio-vascular disease eat lower levels of fat at around 20-22% whereas the countries with the lowest levels of CVD eat much more fat.
So what is the take home message?
Well we need to understand that fat, including saturated fat, is not necessarily bad for us. And when eaten in moderation confers many health benefits. What we should aim to do is to reduce our consumption of total calories and omega-6 fatty acids while increasing our consumption of omega-3s. Besides the list provided above look to make the switch to grass-fed rather than grain-fed animal products. Grass-fed animals will have lower omega-6 and higher omega-3 fat whereas the opposite is true in grain-fed animals.