Kitchen series – Fat Facts 1

Almost everyone I meet is scared of fat.

Ask your grandma (who probably lived to celebrate her 90th birthday and never had a heart disease) to name the fats she ate (and cooked with) and she would finish the count in the fingers of half of one hand. Coconut oil (or Mustard oil, depending on which part of India you are from) and Ghee. Period!! In the western world, it was lard and butter. Full stop!!

I am very fat-friendly, but the fact remains that all fats are not created equal, and there are some awful ones around these days. And these awful ones have given a bad name to the entire community. These awful ones are the ’nouveau-riche’. They are the new kids on the block. They were never around 50 years back. So who are they? Where did they come from? Let’s take a peek behind the fatty lot (… not the fatty behinds ;)) and see who is who.

The English language has a lot to do with the fat-phobia. When we say eating fat makes us fat, the word fat has an all too evident connection between dietary fat and body fat. If we said that consuming lipids (dietary fat) may cause an increase adipose tissue (body fat science speak), suddenly the association seems rather less obvious. Now, suddenly, we can be open to the possibilities that increase in our adipose tissue could also be related to a whole lot of things, for example, carbohydrates, or proteins, or oils, or animal fats or fructose.

For simplicity, I will refer to fats and oils collectively as fats. Basically lipids in liquid form are oils and in a solid state are fats. To truly exorcise the fat phobia you need to know:

  1. What the different types of fat really are
  2. The background of this phobia
  3. What are the different functions of different fat types in the body

What are fats?

When you hear the word fat, different images probably come to mind, like a big gob of goo or a chunk of meat dripping with oils. But fats are much more complicated than gobs of goo that you try to avoid.

Chemically, a fatty acid is a chain of carbon atoms paired with hydrogen atoms, with an “acid group” (-COOH) attached to one end of the molecule. They exist in chains of varying lengths, shapes and orders. They are one of the vital nutrients required by the body for both energy and the construction/maintenance of structural elements, such as cell membranes.

There are so many…it’s so confusing!!

There are different types of fatty acids, based on how many of their carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen:

  1. Saturated Fats (SFA’s): Fully loaded with hydrogen atoms forming straight chains, and are typically solid at room temperature (for example, butter, ghee and coconut oil). It means one thing and one thing only – it just means that all available carbon bonds are saturated (paired) with hydrogen atoms, hence the name saturatedIT DOES NOT MEAN THAT SATURATED IMPLIES SOMETHING STICKY AND GOOEY THAT WILL CLOG THE ARTERIES AND PIPES!! It is the name given to the molecular structure!! It’s a term used in biochemistry! That’s it !! It does not equal a heart attack, atheroschlerosis or obesity.fa_fatacids01These are highly stable fats. Saturated fats serve critical roles in the human body. They make up 50 percent or more of the fat in our 70 trillion cell membranes (fatty bi-layers) structure. They enhance calcium absorption and immune function. They aid in body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids and provide a rich source of fat soluble vitamins.
  2. Unsaturated Fats: These fats have lost at least one of their pairs of hydrogen atoms from their carbon chain, resulting in molecules that kink or bend at each double bond. The more hydrogen pairs that are missing, the more bent the molecules. The more bent the molecules, the more space they occupy, thereby making the fat a liquid at room temperature (oil). Unsaturated fats come in two varieties:
    1. Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs): Missing one pair of hydrogens. They have one (mono = one) double bond between carbons. fa_fatacids02This ‘so-called magical’ double bond (being sarcy) in monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid, mainly found in olive oil, mustard oil) for reasons that have nothing to do with biochemistry has been anointed with the powers of making your heart ‘healthy’. Sesame seed, avocado, flaxseed, peanut are other such oils. These oils contain varying levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, the rest is a mix of saturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are liquid at room temperature, but solidify when cooled.
    2. Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs): Missing more than one pair of hydrogens . fa_fatacids03They have more than one double bond (poly = more). And by ‘expert’ opinion, if one ‘missing’ bond is good for you, more must be better, right? (more sarcy). These oils tend to be liquid even when refrigerated. The problem is they also get rancid easily (those stale smelling fried peanuts, remember?). They are found in grain products, soybeans and fish oils. When we heat them (and we often do), they often get oxidized and we open ourselves to all kind of free radical pillaging – everything from cell membrane damage to wrinkles to arterial plaque build-up. Vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed are high in PUFA’s.

All foods containing fat- even pure oils- contain a mixture of three kinds of fat- saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. (Foods are often identified by their predominant fat- for example, olive oil as “monounsaturated”, butter as “saturated” – but all real foods contain mixtures of the three).

Most vegetable oils are high in ‘unstable’ PUFA, whereas most animal fats are high in SFA and MUFA (except for palm, coconut, and olive oils which are from plant sources). Comparison_of_dietary_fat_composition

Mustard oil has about 60% monounsaturated fatty acids (42% erucic acid and 12% oleic acid); it has about 21% polyunsaturated fats (6% the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid and 15% the omega-6 linoleic acid), and it has about 12% saturated fats.

All three types of fats are necessary and important to human health and should be incorporated into the diet in a balanced proportion.

What about the OMEGA’s ?

Unsaturated fats are further comprised of Omega-3, Omega-6, Omega-7, Omega-9 fatty acids, which is basically the position of the double bond in the carbon chain (Omega-6 -the double bond is in the 6th carbon in Linoleic acid pictured above).

Vegetable oils such as corn have low level of saturated fats, but are very high in polyunsaturated fats, the majority of which is omega 6.  There is virtually no omega 3 fats here. Whereas the main component of animal fats (e.g butter) is saturated fats with omega 6 fat content being extremely low. Butter-vs-corn-oil

The unintended consequence of vegetable oil industry boom was that intake of omega 6 oils increased significantly (the yellow part in corn oil).  To be more precise, this was a known consequence.  We just closed our eyes to it’s detrimental effect on human health.  These are highly inflammatory mediators.  This is not good.

Omega-6Increasing inflammatory molecules could conceivably contribute to worsening atherosclerosis, heart attack and strokes. Omega 3 fats tend to oppose the effects of Omega 6 fats and therefore increasing attention is being paid to the ratio of these fats. Vegetable oils have extremely high Omega 6:3 ratios.

It is estimated that humans evolved eating a diet that is close to equal in Omega 6s and 3s. Throughout evolution the balance between O6:O3 was thought to between 1:1 and 3:1. However, in the modern diet the ratio of O6:O3 is estimated to be closer to 25:1! It takes a pea-sized brain to realize how much damage we are doing to our body by consuming such levels of Omega 6 from vegetable oils. 

The massive increase in consumption of omega 6’s in the diet can be traced to technological advances that allowed modern methods of making vegetable oil. Overproduction of seeds, the invention of the continuous screw press (Expeller), steam-vacuum deodorization and solvent extraction techniques were critical to the production of vast quantities of vegetable oils.

Vegetable-oil

It’s actually a minor miracle (and with a little help of huge advertising budgets) that vegetable oils were (and still are) considered healthy at all.  Consider the substantial amount of processing  – pressing, solvent extraction, refining, degumming, bleaching and deodorization – that is required to squeeze the oil from a non-oily vegetable such as corn. There is virtually nothing natural about it.

The Chemical Instability of Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)

Because your tissues are made up mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fats, your body requires more of them than polyunsaturated fats (which is true of all mammals). The main dietary PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 fats. These are called ‘essential fatty acids’ because our bodies cannot make them and they must be obtained from dietary sources. Although your body does need these, it needs them in relatively small quantities. And we have always got them from natural, unprocessed food sources like fish, nuts, seeds, grains.

One of the problems with PUFAs is that they are very chemically unstable, and highly susceptible  to being altered and denatured by what’s around them. Think about what happens to the oils in your pantry—they are susceptible to going rancid as a result of oxidation. In your body, PUFAs undergo a similar process when exposed to the toxic byproducts of proteins and sugars—especially fructose.

When we talk about “oxidized fatty acids,” we’re talking about oxidation of the carbon atoms that lie between double bonds (the ones with the missing hydrogen atoms). PUFAs are highly unstable because they have two or more double bonds; that’s two more weak spots vulnerable to oxidative damage. SFA’s are highly stable, resistant to oxidation, because they have no double bonds, no weak spots. MUFAs, with their one double bond, are theoretically vulnerable to oxidation—but it rarely actually happens. The literature shows that MUFA-rich oils, like olive, mustard and avocado, are generally resistant to heat damage during cooking.

When you eat too many PUFAs, they are increasingly incorporated into your cell membranes. Because these fats are unstable, your cells become fragile and prone to oxidation, which leads to all sorts of health problems, such as atherosclerosis, maybe even cancer.

Quite literally, the chemical structure of saturated fats will not be easily damaged by things that will easily damage (or oxidize) unsaturated fats, namely: heat, light and air.

Ever wonder why your high-quality olive oils are sold in a dark green glass or other opaque container? It’s to keep light from damaging the oil until it reaches your shelves. Ever wonder why coconut oil doesn’t go “off” or smell rancid from sitting out on the counter without a lid on it but a vegetable oil like corn or soybean oil will? Air, heat, light oxidizes those oils and makes them rancid. That is, damaged beyond the point that they are already just from the point of bottling.

You have to understand this, guys! It is all in the structure of the molecules.

TRANS FATS

What the processed food and fast food industry needed was a cheap stable oil to increase the shelf life their products. Think about all the packaged food you see in supermarkets – muffins, cupcakes, chips, packaged ready-to-eat sauces, soups, cookies, biscuits, frozen meals (this list can go on…but you get the idea, right?) – which hardly ever get spoilt. How did they use these cheap, industrial oils which were prone to get rancid and manage to make them stable? Welcome to the world of new plastic fats!!

You saw the missing hydrogen in a PUFA’s above? These oils are hydrogenated (the missing hydrogen atom is added but they don’t get the same structure as a natural fat) to give them stability and long shelf-life. In food industry, liquid PUFA’s such as vegetable oils are hydrogenated to produce saturated fats called Trans fats. Margarine, is a chemically processed vegetable oil which has been hydrogenated to make it saturated and therefore solid at room temperature. It’s structure is actually very close to the plastic tub it is packaged in!! These hydrogenated saturated fats flooded the processed/packaged food industry.

The other ‘new kid on the block’ is Interesterified fats: (terrified…you should be!) What are these? Also artificially saturated! We see it everywhere. These are a new breed of chemically modified fats created to avoid the trans fat label now reviled and even outlawed in many countries. Now get this. Research is showing that the effects are not just similar to trans fats but worse. Turns out these fats “may raise blood sugar levels even more than trans fats.” Just what we need in this country! The researchers suggest that this new fat actually “alters metabolism in humans.”

A little known fact is that even vegetable oils often contain massive amounts of trans fats. In one study that looked at soybean and canola oils found on store shelves in the U.S., about 0.56% to 4.2% of the fatty acids in them were toxic trans fats.. If you want to reduce your exposure to trans fats (you should) then it’s not enough to avoid common trans fat sources like cookies and processed baked goods, you also need to avoid vegetable oils.

(GUYS : Is it very difficult to understand that these industrially made saturated fat is not the same as natural occurring SFA’s like butter, coconut oil).

I will refer to Trans fats and Interesterified fats collectively as ICSFA ( Industrially created saturated fatty acids!). You have to understand this. One (SFA) is an integral part of our cells in structure and function while the other (ICSFA) is created chemically to increase the shelf-life of otherwise unstable oils and is a destroyer of cellular integrity. They are both called ‘saturated’ fats and have been collectively demonized.

When you hear the words, “avoid saturated fat,” ask which one?  ask WHY? Will you avoid the one which offers a variety of nutritional and physiological benefits, including providing structure and stability to our 70 trillion cell membranes?

From the chart (Comparison of dietary fats), the predominantly blue oils are most susceptible to damage (high in PUFA). The bottom 4 are best suited for cooking.

Despite what you’ve heard, saturated fats are not all animal fats. As an example, 18 carbon saturated stearic acid in beef, 18 carbon  stearic acid in chocolate, and  18 carbon stearic acid in olive oil are identical.

I hope you have some idea of the ‘WHY’ of fats by now. Once you understand that, you will not get carried away by some magazine article or your well meaning neighbour claiming that saturated fats will kill you. Ask, which saturated fats? ask why? ask about unsaturated fats being prone to oxidation. Ask them if ghee or chocolate or chemically created saturated fats from vegetable oils are the same.

aid1822317-728px-Balance-Omega-6-With-Omega-3-Step-1You now know the importance of Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio. If you read a ‘latest research’ about the greatness of Omega-6 , you should ask ‘WHY’ because now you know that oils high in Omega-6 can cause cellular damage without the balancing act of Omega-3. It is known fact that we have always got our essential Omega’s from food sources and not from oils. You don’t need the Omega’s from industrial vegetable oils and nobody can convince you to buy this poison with a heart shaped picture. When you see an Ad like this you can laugh it off because you know the WHY!!

Our ancestors have always cooked in saturated fats (butter, coconut oil, animal fats) because of the stability it provided in high heat conditions. And no latest industry-sponsored-research can make idiots of us unless we have left our brains in the toilets this morning.

If you ask me today to name the fats we eat I would finish the count in the fingers of half of one hand, just like my grandma.

 

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Good or bad? Moving on to the do’s and don’t’s…

Until now, I have talked about importance of real food and ancestral wisdom, abject failure of the science of reduction-ism and oversimplification of nutrition in preventing diseases, calories-in calories-out fallacy in dealing with obesity and the big bad influence of BigFood and BigPharma along with their big bad influence on the medical community. If you have read my earlier posts, some alarm bells are likely (and hopefully) to be set off when you are told to eat ‘Whole-grain cereal fortified with calcium, fibers , iron, magnesium’ or when your doctor tells you that an ‘aspirin a day’ will prevent you from getting a heart attack in some future date.

I also dedicated 2 posts on the ‘Energy’ series to explain that the whole essence of our life is the production of energy by our cells 24/7. We are a power plant and when we shutdown, we shut down forever. Our cells need the right fuels to keep the energy furnace burning. I explained how our fat reserves have tons of stored energy waiting to be used. I will come back to this topic later to explain how to unlock your fat stores for energy.

Off the blog, my friends and family, are already getting endless ‘funda’ on the good and bad stuff of everyday life. Which oil to use? Which salt? What about carbs? Can I eat rice? …….It just makes sense to bring those ‘fundas’ here on this blog as well.

Okay, look. I know I’m pretty bad at keeping things short and sweet. All I really want to do is make clear what we should eat and what we shouldn’t eat. But I don’t want to just make lists of “good foods” and “bad foods,” or say that you can eat as much x, y, and z as you want, but you should limit intake of a, b, and c. I think it’s important to explain ‘why’. WHY should we limit some things and not worry so much about others?

I can tell you that ghee is great, cereals are bad, eggs are super, wheat is mostly bad, milk is not required, high stomach acid is essential, good salt is very important, cola is a killer, fruit juice is a no-no etc. etc. There are a million websites where you will probably read just the opposite.  Why should you believe me  or anybody else unless you know WHY? You must know WHY! And then, HOW do you start implementing the changes?

During my long-ish hiatus from blogging I was thinking about how to bring these aspects of everyday food choices in my writings. Instead of bashing the bad guys (BigFood, BigPharma) all the time, I wanted to move on and start talking about ‘what can we eat to stay healthy’ given the situation we are in. How to move on and start the change in our homes and kitchen. I want to tell you about super foods, reasonably good food, the okay-ish food and the  throw-it-out food, and at the same time get a bit ‘sciency’ to explain in simple terms the ‘WHY’ and the ‘HOW’ as I understand it.

I feel like it’s irresponsible of me to trash-talk cottonseed oil and praise butter if we don’t even know what those things are on a chemical level, or to say we should eat certain foods and avoid others without knowing what they do inside us because of their chemistry. When we stick to the facts, we can tune out the TV pundits, the supermarket tabloids, the misinformed practitioner, and our ‘wannabe supermodel’ neighbour, who lost 30 pounds by drinking shakes for a month but will gain back 40 next month.

Good or Bad?

‘Are you feeling good or bad? good or bad?’ – words of a song written and sung by a very talented kiddy girl band from Germany, the Singing Flowers.

I am often asked whether a particular food is good or bad.  My answer might be “good for me or good for you?” or “ handful of it or a whole lot?” or “today or last week?” or “how often?”. That’s because the answer depends on these questions. They are:

  • What food?
  • Who is eating?
  • How much are they eating?
  • How often?
  • When are they eating?

From our traditional Ayurvedic point of view, food and nutrition can be sub-divided for individuals based on a number of variables like prakriti (constitution), agni (metabolic status), kal (age/time/season), desh (geographical location), satmya ( compatibility) and many more.

Matra (quantity) is individualized, dynamic and flexible, contrary to the serving size idea of modern nutrition. In Ayurveda, food requirements may differ among people of the same gender and of similar age. In real life I see it everyday with my twin daughters.

Ayurveda recognizes that food quantity may vary depending on the individuals agni bala (digestive capacity) at a given time. This too may change depending on season, time of day and age. Prakriti is a genetic- epigenetic conceptualization of Ayurveda which also influences food requirements. Depending on the metabolic levels the 3 body types are categorized as Vata (or irregular metabolizers) who require smaller and more frequent quantities of food, Pitta (or fast metabolizers) who require large quantities of food per meal also frequently and Kapha (or slow metabolizers) who require smaller quantities of food less frequently. This is extremely important in determining the fasting tolerance of individuals.

Even the same person is a Kapha dominant in early age, a Pitta dominant in middle age and a Vata dominant in old age.

Even the time of day requires consideration – morning is the time of kapha ( therefore small meal). Daytime is marked by pitta (substantial consumption). Evening again is a period of kapha.

Not just in Ayurveda. In “Regimen in Health” written in the fifth century BC, Hippocrates, who we recognize as a father of western medicine, outlined guidelines for healthy eating which profoundly influenced western thought for two millennia. Later classified by Galen in the second century AD, the system describes foods according to their natures (hot, cold, dry, damp and so on) and advocates that we eat to balance the nature of the prevailing season as well as according to our own temperament. Although the modern scientific view no longer describes foods in these terms, such an understanding of food has characterized western thought until very recently (until the advent of smarty-pants nutritionism).

In Chinese thought, the five flavours (sweet, pungent, salty, sour and bitter) are a literal description of a food’s taste as well as indicators of a food’s effects. Each flavour, for example, moves the body’s energy in various directions. Sweet foods moisten, harmonise and nourish; pungent foods move energy from the centre to the surface, stimulate circulation, disperse stagnation and tend to be drying; salty foods sink, moisten and detoxify; sour foods are contractive, move energy inwards and tone the body’s tissues; bitter foods have a drying action and tend to move downward. Balance is understood to be the skillful blending and inclusion of the “five flavours” and the balance of “thermal natures”. The question of balance also includes balancing the person with their environment, eating in harmonious relationship with the climate, weather and season. A balanced diet is also one which is individually tailored according to a person’s constitution, condition and lifestyle.

So, the answer to whether a food is good or bad will be moderated by for whom, when and where it is being eaten. At the midwinter solstice in the arctic circle you are offered the choice of a slice of watermelon or a slab of chocolate. Which do you choose? It’s a no-brainer really. At midday in the heat of Dubai desert?

So, the answer to whether a food is good or bad will always be, it depends…

There is no ‘one size fits all’. There never was!! Some ancestral diets were very high in meat and fats – such as the Inuit.  Others, like the Kitavans and Okinawans, were heavily carbohydrate dependent.   Yet both traditional diets were associated with good health. Balancing our genetic make-up with climate, seasons, local bio availability play an extremely important role in the diets we need to predominantly eat.

Obviously, none of the traditional diets included large amounts of processed food – whether they were processed meats or processed carbohydrates. The toxicity is in the processing.

If we go about copying the highly processed Standard American Diet (SAD) or any other diet which is not in harmony with all factors (genetic and epigenetic) which influence us as individuals, we will be sick. That is the simple truth.

Even though every persons requirement of food is unique, there are some basic rules for everybody. I will start with those.

One thing I must warn every one of you reading this blog and hoping to incorporate some lifestyle changes: YOU HAVE TO START COOKING (or have someone cook for you) !! There is no way around this, I’m sorry. This is the real deal. This was a given, a normal, when we grew up a few decades back. My grandma and mother would cook meals for us everyday. So why not do the same for our kids and give them the chance to be healthy individuals.

Cooking is fun, it is a family activity, no gender bias, you can be creative, you can experiment, you can make the tastiest treats and sometimes not so great dishes. And most importantly you know what you are eating.

First things first: Clean out your kitchen of all the junk. Whether you cook or someone cooks for you, lay down the rules. Even if you have only seen your kitchen from the outside and left everything that goes on inside to your trusted cook, please make sure that you buy the right stuff.

Let’s move on to the ‘Kitchen series’ where I will kick off with the most debated subject – FATS !!