Eat Good Fats, Be Healthy!

Eat Good Fats, Be Healthy!

By Dr. Brian

     I recently read Eat Fat, Look Thin, by Bruce Fife, N.D., and Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4 Hour Body and with the help of those books I’ve made changes in my diet that had been relatively the same for over 20 years.

Before I talk about what I changed, I should begin with what I was eating and why I ate it.  In 1989 I started cycling for recreation and racing.  The conventional wisdom at the time was for distance athletes to consume large portions of carbohydrates to fuel sustained efforts from long training rides.  I didn’t eat processed foods, but over the years my consumption of healthy oils and fats like butter and olive oil became fairly low.  I ate a vegetarian diet that consisted of around 65% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 15% fat, a diet that would fit in with the recommendations of Dr. Dean Ornish or the American Heart Association.

The AHA recommendations are based on the theory, introduced in the late 1950’s by Ancel Keyes, that a diet low in fat, specifically saturated fats will reduce the risk of artery disease, heart attack and stroke. Following their recommendations, if you remove dietary fat, you should lower your risk from heart attack and stroke.

As many people changed their diets, vegetable oils became popular.  In the 1980’s manufactured “low-fat” foods and “no-fat” foods became available.  In Eat Fat, Look Thin, Fife states, “from 1910 to 1970 butter consumption fell from 17 pounds per person each year, to 4 pounds.   During the same period, consumption of “healthy” vegetable oils (margarine and shortening) increased 400%.”

Ancel Keyes’  “lipid hypothesis” of disease has some good points, but it is not a complete picture.  It doesn’t account for cultures that eat high amounts of saturated fats but have little incidence of heart disease, and it doesn’t explain the high incidence rates of heart disease and stroke even though dietary consumption of fat has decreased over the last 40 years from 40% to 32% of total calories.

What the lipid hypothesis didn’t take into account was a sharp rise in mechanically processed foods starting in with the industrial revolution.  Sugar, white flour, and pre-prepared foods were now more readily available.  Also, the consumption of rancid, heated or processed oils, now known as “trans fats” increases systemic inflammation which increases heart disease and stroke (even if the oil starts out as a “healthy oil”.  Meanwhile other cultures that didn’t have the advancements of the industrial revolution just kept eating the same diet they had been for thousands of years, and their rates of disease stayed the same.

About the time Keys was promoting his lipid hypothesis, others were promoting different ideas.  Researchers Alan Kekwick and Gaston Pawan found that when overweight participants of a study were given calorically similar diets that differed in protein, fat or carbohydrates the ones on the high carbohydrate diets gained weight, but those on high protein or high fat diets lost weight.

A more recent study at Harvard Medical School used two groups of people on calorically similar diets, but one had 35% of the total calories from fat, the other 20%.  What do you think the results were?  The ones who ate more fat lost an average of 9 lbs., and the other group, they gained an average of 6.3 pounds, which is a difference of 15 pounds!

Fats Are Important

Fats make up the membrane of the cell – the outer shell that holds it together.  Your brain is composed of 60% fat and cholesterol.  Dietary fats are used to make hormones that control body functions. Vitamin D, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA are made from cholesterol.  Hormones are the main regulators of metabolism, development, reproduction and many other processes.  In addition, a diet lacking in fat can reduce the efficiency of your immune system and make your more susceptible to disease.

Starting in the 1960’s, saturated fats got a bad reputation and the market for vegetable oils skyrocketed.  Did your parents have a large vat of Crisco too?  Vegetable oils are high in poly-unsaturated fats, and they are made mostly from seeds like sunflower, safflower, canola and vegetables like soybeans and corn.  Extracting oils from seeds and vegetables was almost impossible without the utilization of the hydraulic press.  Vegetable oils have only been a part of the human diet for less than 150 years.

Conversely, coconut, palm, butter, tallow, olive oil and lard are high in saturated fats.  They have been a staple in the diet of civilizations for thousands of years.  To this day if you go to rural Pakistan you will find people using butter and goat fat, in rural China: lard, India: ghee, and in Italy and Greece: olive oil.

On the islands of Pukapuka and Tokelau in the South Pacific you will find people who, for the most part, are isolated from Western culture and influence. Their native diet remains what it has been for centuries. The standard diets on both islands are high in saturated fat derived from coconuts.  Every meal contains coconut in some form, from green coconuts for drinking, the meat of the coconut, and coconut oil for cooking.  In the 1960’s a long term health study was completed on the islanders, and despite a diet high in saturated fats the population of 2,500 was found to be healthy.  Some of the findings of the study were:

  1. No signs of kidney disease.
  2. No signs of hypothyroidism.
  3. No high blood cholesterol.
  4. Ideal height to weight ratios.
  5. Digestive problems were rare.
  6. Heart disease, colitis, colon cancer, hemorrhoids, ulcers, diverticulitis, and appendicitis were all unfamiliar conditions on the islands.

They weren’t following the American Heart Association guidelines of 30% of calories from fat, and no more than 10% should be saturated.  The islanders obtained close to 60% of their calories from fat, most of it in the form of saturated fats from coconuts.  Ian Prior, M.D., one of the researchers stated, “Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.” Other islanders who left for New Zealand were also tracked and Dr. Prior commented, “The more an islander takes on the ways of the West, the more prone he is to succumb to our degenerative diseases…gout, diabetes, atherosclerosis, obesity, and hypertension.”

A saturated fat is one that has no double bonds between the individual carbon atoms.  This makes it less prone to going rancid and forming trans-fats. Oils higher in poly-unsaturated fats go rancid easier, in the presence of air, heat or light.  This is why it is important to keep oils, especially olive oil in your refrigerator.

High fat diets – are they good or bad?  What do you do when faced with opposing health information?  Use your body as a guide.  How do you feel?  Do you have energy in the morning?  If you wanted to sprint 100 yards to beat an impending downpour, could you?  Have you had your blood values tested lately?  Take your body measurements: weight, body fat percentage.  These will all tell you if you are on the right track.

What do I eat now?  Since reading The 4 Hour Body, I have significantly lowered the amount of carbohydrates I consume in a day.  To make up for the loss of calories I am eating more eggs, and more fat in the form of butter and coconut oil.  I’ve lost 5 pounds and have stayed there for 5 months, and I’ve lost an inch from my waist.

The change in my body I’m most impressed with is one I didn’t realize was a problem.  In 2006 when we moved to our new house I over-worked my body and it took its toll on my hands; you could say I was having “arthritis” symptoms: painful, swollen hand joints.  I didn’t think it was serious, and after the initial “flare-up” in 2006 it improved, but another episode would occur if I used my hands a lot when engaging in an activity like gardening or waxing the car.  For the most part I became used to my hands being a little bit sore and stiff all the time.  About two months into the diet change I noticed my hands were moving more freely, and the joints didn’t look as swollen and enlarged.

How will you know your diet is working for you?  Within a couple months of adding healthy oils to your diet and removing vegetable oils, you should notice a difference in energy, weight, body dimensions, body fat, and joint mobility. I’ve combined healthy oil intake with an increase in protein and I haven’t felt this great in years.

Keys to Good Health with Healthy Fats:

  • Use the wisdom of cultures who have used whole foods for thousands of years, and be skeptical of manufactured foods offering “low fat” goodness.
  • Healthy fats are essential for cellular, hormonal and nerve system health.
  • Coconut oil for sautéing and extra virgin olive oil for topping salad and other dishes are essentially the only two oils you need.
  • Use healthy oils, and you won’t have to worry about the harmful effects of industrially produced and chemically altered oils.

12/23/2011 Update:

For a more scientific article from Dr. Ron Rosedale on the importance of eating good fats, read this article: