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Fats: Friend or Foe?
In my last blog post about whether or not grains are gifts or garbage (spoiler alert: garbage!), I mentioned that around the 1970s the Farm Bill starting subsidizing corn, wheat, and soy that farmers planted in order to provide them a little safety net for times of bad weather. Around the same time, the agencies that research food and decide which foods are healthy versus unhealthy began analyzing studies investigating food fat, food cholesterol, blood cholesterol, and causes of heart disease. As the result of some very poor science (if you can call it that) leading to some very inaccurate conclusions, our country became fat-phobic. I would argue that this fat-phobia has led to the majority of our modern-day chronic health issues, and that making the decision to get friendly with the right sources of fat can be a huge game changer to anyone, child or adult suffering from any of the following low-fat related issues:
- Weight issues
- Inflammation, including autoimmune diseases and chronic pain
- Frequent illness
- High blood pressure
- Memory loss, brain fog, and decreased attention span
- Stress, anxiety, or depression
- Lack of libido
- Dry skin or eczema
Before I tell you all the reasons why fats should become your best friends, I want to thoroughly cover the bad science that led to our fat-phobia (this is going to get a little long, but at the end I am going to give you bacon and cream cheese, so it will be worth it to hang with me!).
How can the entire medical and dietician fields be getting such a huge issue wrong, especially when it directly causes all of the above issues (you know, the majority of the chronic health issues that exist in this country!)?
Well, you know how we are all so amazing about fact checking all of the things we read and post on social media (insert sarcasm emoji)? Well, this isn’t a new issue. The series of events that led to fat phobia have a pretty embarrassing history. In science, there are two types of studies: controlled studies that have a control group and many constants so that the results can lead to a claim of causation (“from the results of this study, we can see that A caused B”), and correlational studies that just compare two possibly related factors and see if they increase (positive correlation) or decrease (negative correlation) together on a graph. Because correlational studies do not have a control group and do not hold things constant, there is no way to claim causation from their results. You can only say “from the results of this study, we see that A positive correlates with B”. Correlational studies inaccurately claiming causation are the largest source of inaccurately applied conclusions in science.
Let me give you an example. If there were a study that compared the regions in the world with war zones to the regions of the world with bunnies, you would find that in regions with little war there are tons of bunnies! You might be tempted to then conclude that bunnies cause world peace! Especially if you just really love cute tiny widdle cuddelwy bunnies! However, you can’t claim that. Not scientifically. Scientifically all you can say is that bunnies are negatively correlated with war. While this example makes it obvious why this logic is flawed, this same faulty logic is used in many correlational studies that then claim factor A caused factor B.
Then the media runs with it, and then entire industries that fail to fact-check or use scientific literacy incorporate those faulty conclusions into their paradigms. This is exactly what happened with fats.
Unfortunately, in the field of nutrition controlled studies are very difficult to implement. It is almost impossible to keep factors constant in human lives, and therefore studies that investigate nutrition and nutrition-related diseases are often correlational, comparing hypothesized related factors to each other. In the case of heart disease, correlational studies were done between different cultures’ diets and their rates of heart disease as well as between peoples’ levels of blood cholesterol and rates of heart disease. In the former, the studies that suggested that high-cholesterol (in other words, high saturated-fat) diets were correlated with heart disease were published while all of the data that showed cultures with high-fat diets and low amounts of heart disease were ignored and not published. I don’t have to tell you why completely ignoring a whole set of data just to create a coherent story is bad science. However, in the latter case there was always a positive correlation between high levels of blood cholesterol and heart disease. The more studies that showed this, the more inflammatory (haha, pun intended) the story got, and eventually the medical and dietician fields were practicing under the paradigm that cholesterol caused heart disease and began treating heart disease with low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol diets and cholesterol-reducing statin drugs. Furthermore, the entire population was told that in order to lose weight and avoid heart disease we should be avoiding fat in food because food fat causes body fat and heart disease. Hopefully, thanks to our bunny example, you can see the flawed logic here.
Just because blood cholesterol and heart disease were positively correlated does not mean that cholesterol causes heart disease, just like bunnies don’t cause world peace!
But this relationship between blood cholesterol and heart disease is a lot harder to ignore than the bunnies/war correlation because we know diet affects the heart, we know people with high blood pressure have high cholesterol, and we know cholesterol comes from food. How can one not cause the other? Well, as you will see one DOES cause the other, but not in the way we have been led to believe.
Now, before I go on, I just want to say that I truly don’t feel the medical and dietician fields know that they have this information wrong. If they did, they wouldn’t treat heart disease with low-fat/low-cholesterol diets and drugs (in fact, there are many MDs and dieticians that have completely abandoned the low-fat, low-cholesterol paradigms). If they knew how essential saturated fat and cholesterol were to mental, heart, immune, and hormonal health, there is no way that they would give people with heart issues drugs that remove cholesterol from the blood. I am not demonizing them: this is just what they are taught in medical school and dietician training.
However, this doesn’t change the fact that they are wrong and that the modern treatment of heart disease is actually making the disease worse.
In fact, the USDA recently lifted its ban on cholesterol in foods upon reviewing these studies (side note example of correlation: for the past 5 years I have had my nutrition students sending letters to the USDA about the flaws in these studies, and then last year (2015) the USDA changed their rules! Totally correlation, but it proves that their interpretation was flawed and that they admitted it. Now, if I wanted to be a bad scientist I would say that my students’ letters CAUSED the USDA to change their ruling. But I can’t. Because it’s just correlation). So how can we have this story so wrong?
Doesn’t food fat cause body fat?
Doesn’t cholesterol in the blood cause heart disease?
The answer to both of these questions is “no”.
Let me explain.
Simple biology tells us that when our blood vessels are damaged, our body uses the antioxidant (a group of molecules that remove the free radicals that cause damaged arteries and damaged DNA) cholesterol to HEAL the blood vessel, which explains why cholesterol is high in people with heart disease. A DID cause B, but we got the A and B mixed up.
Cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease; heart disease causes high cholesterol because cholesterol comes in to rescue and repair the damaged arteries!
So when we take statins that remove the cholesterol and go on low-fat diets to avoid cholesterol, we are robbing our bodies of the healer that is swooping in to rescue us from the damage we have done. Statins may make blood cholesterol lab values decrease, but they sure don’t cure heart disease. In fact, they exacerbate it by removing the healer! Unless we remove the cause, we don’t remove heart disease.
So what DOES damage arteries and cause heart disease?
It is well known that trans-fat releases free radicals into our blood, and that free radicals damage arteries and DNA which leads to heart disease and cancer. Trans-fat can be found in any packaged food with the word “hydrogenated” on the food label or in any food with fried vegetable/corn/canola/soy/sunflower/safflower oil (just read the ingredient list to look for these oils)-like potato chips and french fries and maybe things in your kitchen if you cook with these oils. Any unsaturated fat (oils that come from plants, except for coconut oil) that is heated will become damaged and oxidized, and therefore release free radicals into your blood.
But aren’t we told that vegetable oils are the oils we SHOULD be cooking with? Yeah, we are. But that’s also based on bad science!
Once cholesterol got a bad rep thanks to the above bad science, controlled studies started to be done so that they could claim causation between food fat and heart disease. This was a great idea, but again the studies were done incorrectly. The studies all (and still do, to this day!) lumped solid trans-fat and solid saturated fats into the same group because they were both solid. However, that’s bad science. You can’t have two different things in one group in a scientific study, especially just because they look the same! This would be like lumping squirrels and bears into the same group because they are both brown. Then of course these studies showed an increase in heart disease in the trans-fat/saturated fat group compared to the unsaturated (plant oils) fat group, which is how saturated fat got its bad name and why all doctors and dieticians tell us to avoid saturated fat and why our kids don’t get served saturated fat at schools and why we all have a huge bottle of canola oil or vegetable oil in our pantry (how’s that for a run-on sentence, and a run-on lie of a diet paradigm!).
As we already discussed, we know that trans-fat releases free radicals in our blood and causes heart disease and cancer, but does saturated fat?
Well, there have been no accurate studies that put these two fats into different groups to accurately answer this question, except for this study that showed no correlation between saturated food and heart disease.
Food science is still based upon this flawed experimental design. Even health insurance is based upon these flawed studies and put potato chips and french fries into the same group as whole-food meat and dairy. HOWEVER, judging by all of the amazingly awesome things our bodies use saturated fats to do (see below), and how we know for sure that trans-fats cause heart disease and cancer, my guess (and experience, and logical deduction) is that trans-fat is the culprit and that whole-food saturated fat is a food we should all be getting pretty darn friendly with.
Ok, so to recap we know that we shouldn’t be heating or eating any packaged food with the word “hydrogenated” on the food label or any food with the words vegetable/corn/canola/soy/sunflower/safflower oil in the ingredient list.
But should we be eating saturated fat? And if we can’t cook with plant oils, what oil can we cook with? Let’s dive into the questions!
Let’s look at all the amazing things that saturated fat and cholesterol do so you can fall in love with your new best friend!
- Saturated fats coat EVERY brain cell with insulation called myelin sheaths, making them work (this is why low-fat diets cause depression, anxiety, brain fog, memory loss, ADD, and fatigue-your brain cells just can’t work without saturated fat).
- Saturated fats make up at least 50% of every cell plasma membrane in our body. Low-saturated fat diets can make our cells flimsy and susceptible to damage, leading to damage issues in literally every cell in our body!
- Saturated fat is the preferred energy-source for your constantly beating heart and very busy immune system (which, ahem, is why low-fat diets hurt the heart and make you sick all of the time).
- Saturated fat makes you feel full! Food fat releases the hormone leptin, which causes satiety, or the feeling of fullness between meals. Ever been on a low-fat diet and felt constantly hungry all of the time and needed to eat frequent meals?
- Saturated fat is used to make cholesterol, which
- makes bile, allowing us to digest fats, absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and excrete toxins and excess hormones (which is why low-fat diets leave us sick and fatigued and full of toxins).
- is used to make Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a hormone whose deficiency symptoms include increased risk of cancer, high blood pressure, low immune function include flu, colds, other illness, allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, inflammation, skin issues like eczema, diabetes, depression, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain. Sound familiar? Hmmmmmmmmm.
- is used to make sex hormones like estrogens and testosterone, which is why low-fat diets lead to infertility, PMS, and low-libido!!!!! (Wait a minute? Aren’t many males on testosterone hormone and Viagra? Hmmmmmmm.)
- is used to make stress hormones like cortisol, which is why a low fat diet can lead to increased stress and anxiety!!!!! (Wait a minute? Aren’t many Americans on anti-anxiety meds? Hmmmmmmmmm.)
Considering the above issues that arise simply from NOT including saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet,
I think it is pretty essential to make saturated fat a daily staple.
But wait….not so fast….doesn’t food fat cause body fat and weight gain? If I eat saturated fat, shouldn’t I eat as little of it as possible so I don’t gain a bunch of weight (if you still believe the lie that weight loss is an important goal, check out my blog post here)? Well, as you can probably guess, the idea that food fat creates body fat is just as flawed as every other idea about fat that what have.
- First of all, food fat doesn’t create body fat. Sources of excess glucose from grains, complex carbs, and added sugar are turned into body fat. As I mentioned above, food fat gets special treatment in digestion and goes straight to feed the constantly beating heart and provide energy to the lymph (or your immune system).
- There is no research that shows that eating food fat creates body fat. In fact, all of the data suggests otherwise: diets higher in fat and lower in carbs showed a decrease in body weight. Food fat helps you LOSE weight! Just another study here in case you don’t believe me yet!
- But shouldn’t I still cut my calories in general in order to lose weight? Check my post out here for your answer to that question.
Wow. We have really investigated the entire US paradigm around fats and found some really important answers:
FOOD FAT DOESN’T CREATE BODY FAT
FOOD FAT MAKES YOU LOSE WEIGHT
SATURATED FAT IS ESSENTIAL FOR HEALTH
CHOLESTEROL IS ESSENTIAL FOR HEALTH
CHOLESTEROL HEALS DAMAGED ARTERIES
REMOVING CHOLESTEROL FROM YOUR DIET AND WITH DRUGS MAKES HEART DISEASE WORSE
SO IS THERE BAD CHOLESTEROL?
YES!!! But it’s not cholesterol that you can measure with a blood test (at least not the numbers our doctors look at). Bad cholesterol comes from damaged fat, and damaged fat comes from damaged food: fried foods, heating vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, canola, olive, etc.), powdered eggs and milk, processed and packaged foods, and hydrogenated fats. Knowing if you have bad cholesterol comes from knowing what you eat, and only you can answer that. Decreasing corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, canola, vegetable oils, fried foods, and hydrogenated foods while increasing whole-food sources of saturated and unsaturated fat like whole-food meat and full-fat dairy, avocados, nuts, seeds, and coconut can go a long way in decreasing the symptoms listed above. Try it and see!! Disclaimer: pesticides and herbicides do store in fat, so they will be higher in fat products. If you can switch to organic versions of these foods, that is beneficial. If you can’t, your body still needs that fat to maintain proper health.
So what are some practical steps you can take to make fat your new best friend?
- Make sure and eat breakfast every day choosing a breakfast of proteins, healthy fats (think eggs, whole-fat block cheese, unsweetened whole-fat yogurt, and avocados), and veggies (sliced tomatoes, sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms) instead of cereal and bagels.
- Include whole-fat sources of saturated fat with every meal, including grilled chicken skin, dark meat, beef, fish, butter (not margarine), whole-fat block cheese, whole-fat unsweetened plain yogurt, coconut oil and butter, and bacon and sausage (save the grease to cook with!): you can cook with all of these!
- Add butter and cheese to your veggies, use cream cheese and sour cream to create amazing sauces, and you will never miss those noodles!
- Don’t forget whole-food sources of unsaturated fat, like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados!!!!
- Replace vegetable oils like corn oil, canola oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil with walnut oil, almond oil, olive oil, and sesame oil: don’t heat or cook with these; add them to food after the food has been cooked.
- Make your own salad dressings!!! Using ¾ cup of any of the above listed oils + apple cider vinegar or lemon juice + any herbs that you like is simple, easy, and guarantees you aren’t getting any harmful fats! The kids can do it each week as their contribution to family meals!!
- Replace fried foods with grilled or roasted foods.
- Avoid the word “hydrogenated” and processed foods with corn oil, canola oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil on the ingredient list.
How can you do this when you are away from home?
- Switch from fried to grilled meats.
- Instead of French fries, chips, rice, pasta, and tortillas, don’t be shy about adding cheese, sour cream, and guacamole! They will taste good and make you feel so full!
Already eat fats and want to take it up a notch?
- Soak your nuts and seeds. Raw nuts and seeds have nutrient-binding chemicals in them. Soaking them overnight, discarding the water, and then drying the nuts (or eating them as is) allows your body to maximize the nutrients you get from the nuts and seeds. You can buy nuts and seeds pre-soaked!
- Go organic. Most pesticides and herbicides store in fat, so switching to organic fats can go a long way in clearing up inflammation, immune, energy, and skin issues. Switch to one organic fat product per month until your budget gets used to it, then add another.
- Go raw! Find local dairies to buy raw dairy products from. Raw dairy has more enzymes, are less inflammatory, and support local farmers! Make sure and visit your dairy first to certify that you approve of their growing processes. realmilk.com is super helpful!
I do want to point out that the holistic way to support blood pressure and heart issues wouldn’t just focus on food fat and sugar. There are other things that can cause free radicals like smoking and over-exercising, there are other factors that are essential for healing arteries like antioxidant foods, herbs, and supplements, and other things that can cause high blood pressure that would need to be addressed like physical, emotional, or mental stress. Working with a holistic-trained practitioner is the best way to find long-term solutions to blood pressure and other chronic health issues. However, just starting to add healthy fats back in to your diet is a great, simple way to see HUGE improvements fast in any of the above health issues!
Make sure you don’t miss my next blog post about ways you can GET OVER A SUGAR ADDICTION:
I make your health my priority so you can make your dreams your priority!
Lori Valentine Rose, PhD, CNP, BCHN, RH (AHG) is a college biology, nutrition, herbal, and wellness instructor, board certified nutrition professional and holistic nutrition consultant, registered herbalist, wife, mother, organic vegetable, fruit, and medicinal herb gardener, school garden planter, city class teacher, and passionate Zumba dancer! She created, developed, and instructs the Hill College Holistic Wellness Pathway, the most thorough, affordable, degreed wellness program in the country. She loves spreading love and light, and helping others feel awesome on the inside and out so they can live their dreams and make this world more awesome! Lori Rose Holistic does not replace medical advice or working with your doctor, and she does not diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Her goal is to educate, and any actions you take are voluntary and of your own free will.
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