Mays Al-Ali, Nutritionist and Yoga Teacher from HealthyMays.com
All nutritional advice is dependent on the individual in question and personalised nutritional advice should always be sought by a professional before changing your diet.
Contrary to popular opinion a low-fat diet is not a healthy one. Fat is not the devil – it’s sugar. When low-fat guidelines first came into mass media, sugar consumption actually increased. The sugar industry was very much behind the popular media news in the 1960s which linked “saturated fats” with heart disease rather than “sugar consumption”. They were unfortunately able to derail the discussions on the negative impact of sugar for years by blaming fat as the culprit. So, a label that reads “low-fat” gives a deceiving assurance that you are consuming healthy food, however low-fat may still contain high amounts of sugar and unhealthy additives, as they are often added in high concentrations to products that have removed the fat to ensure a better tasting product.
Low-fat is normally associated with weight loss, but fats are actually needed in order to lose weight. This is because fats are more filling when you eat them, hence the popularity of Keto or Atkins diets, that are lower in carbs and higher in fats (since eating a hearty fatty meal will keep you full for much longer than a meal full of refined carbs.) When low fat foods are produced lots of carbs are often added to replace the calories lost from fats so you’ll have to eat two low fat donuts to feel full instead of 1 fattier one and guess what? You are still eating the same amounts of calories - so you could in fact gain weight. And if you eat excess refined carbs, your body’s metabolism actually turns them into fats which are stored as adipose tissue.
Fats are actually essential for every one of our cell membranes to function. Whilst high levels of blood cholesterols are known to be detrimental to our health, cholesterol plays an important role in improving brain function. Fats are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E & K which means without fats in the diet, our bodies would end up being deficient in these super important vitamins. Fats are also necessary as a source of energy – without them our bodies metabolic functions would falter, and we would have no fuel, resulting in feeling excess fatigue and weakness.
Therefore, eliminating all fat from the diet is definitely not to be recommended as it will negatively affect health, but the important thing is to make sure you are eating the correct type of fat. Sometimes these are known as “good fats' ' and “bad fats” – LDL is considered the “bad cholesterol” and HDL is more known as the “good cholesterol” and the one we want to increase in our blood. Having higher amounts of HDL in the blood means that the LDL’s get cleared more efficiently and this is something that we want to maximise. Poly-unsaturated fats which are associated with lower blood cholesterol and are found in foods such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, and the all-important omega 3 rich oily fish. Mono-unsaturated fats come more from plant sources such as avocados, olives and nuts and are usually liquid at room temperature (e.g. olive oil and vegetable oils).
Saturated fats are not to be excluded but may cause problems in large amounts and in the wrong type – these are found in animal products such as meat, butter, cheese and some plant sources like coconut. However, in non-processed healthy sources these should not be a problem in the diet e.g. eggs and coconut – it's only if you are eating a large quantity of non-organic meat and dairy that trouble may arise.
If you think back to our ancestors - the cavemen - their diets consisted primarily of wild animals, foraged leaves and fruits and vegetables. Fast forward to today’s modern world and most diets are centred on grains and carbs, which are foods that we were never evolved to consume in large amounts. Many of them contain microbiome damaging, gut triggering gluten which can cause systemic brain effects as well as gut issues. Eating large amounts of these grains and carbs also spikes blood sugars much more rapidly in ways that fats don’t and to keep weight under control and stop sugar cravings we need to have our blood sugars stable, steady and balanced.
Trans fats are the ones to be totally avoided. They have been heavily processed and heated to make them more shelf-stable using a process called hydrogenation which is very toxic, creating free radicals and reducing antioxidants. These are found in processed foods and baked fried goods like cakes, biscuits and margarines. Taking an oil that is naturally liquid at room temperature and solidifying it as in the case of margarine renders it to excess toxicity and is not recommended. Similarly heating vegetable oils should be avoided completely as they become carcinogenic due to their low smoke point. So, again, the type of fat is really important and not just eliminating it entirely. Coconut, olive and avocado oils are all much safer to consume when heated as they have a lower smoke point – but overall… When working to optimise health with my nutrition clients I always recommend to avoid heating any oils as they may all become inflammatory since it’s very hard to control the oil temperature when frying to make sure it stays low. I always recommend cooking with water, juicy tomatoes, lemon juice or tamari sauce and adding healthy extra virgin olive oil once cooked and off the heat for the flavour and heart healthy goodness.
It also doesn’t mean you should eat as much fat as you want. After all, every gram of fat contains 9 calories compared to 4 calories per gram of carbs or protein, so portion sizes need to be controlled so as not to over consume calories (I always say one thumb size portion of fat per meal for a woman, or 2 thumb sized portions for a man). My overall recommendation would be to make sure you are eating enough healthy fats in your diet – these include nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and oily fish. And the bottom line is: healthy foods are healthy and unhealthy foods are unhealthy regardless of the amount of fat they contain in them, so focusing on eating low-anything isn’t that effective. Instead try to focus on eating more plants and a wholefood healthy diet with a variety of rainbow colours, lots of veggies, fruits, legumes and wholegrains.