Did you ever find yourself daydreaming about a nice bit of lard? Maybe you were overcome by a craving for animal fat, slowly melting in a pan? No? Well, understandably so. Large amounts of fat or oil are not considered a palatable food but more than anything else, you could literally watch your arteries clog up and hear your heart gasping for oxygen….. or could you?
You can already tell that we have many questions to ask when it comes to fats. The message about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats is emphatic but their definition has become somewhat distorted, heavily influenced by the food and drug industry, the media and a propagated fear of saturated fat. For decades we have been told that we eat too much saturated fat and we should be increasing the amount of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) in our diet to harvest their health benefits. It certainly looks like we have succeeded because the average American now consumes around 40g of PUFAs a day in comparison to just 20g in the 1950’s. According to this wisdom, our heart health policy should have been successful but, instead, nearly every condition related to chronic inflammation is on the rise.
Up until the early parts of the last century we cooked with traditional saturated fats such as butter and lard. As it turns out, this was a very wise and natural choice because saturated fat is very stable at high temperatures. It does not contain double bonds in its chemical structure, making it much more resistant to oxidation and damage. It did not take long before the first hydrogenated or trans fats started to appear in the shape, form and taste of margarine. It was the spread and cooking oil of choice for many families in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties. Hydrogenated fats only began to be frowned upon and largely banned in the 21st century. These artificial, chemically altered fats carry so many health hazards it is almost hard to believe that they were ever approved as fit for human consumption. They only ’got the boot’ because our medical system, which is chronically obsessed with cholesterol, has observed an increase in LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol after the consumption of foods such as margarine.
Still, we have not seen empty fridges in our supermarkets because of a lack of margarine! Shelves are full of plant-based spreads, manufactured from hardened vegetable oils largely containing processed PUFAs. Nearly every cookie, pastry, microwave dinner, ready meal and packaged food will contain one or other of these solidified vegetable oils.
I came across an interesting story recently about a large fast food chain that changed the oil in their fryers from hydrogenated to processed sunflower and corn oil. The cleaning company who was scrubbing dirty ovens and cooking utensils had brought it to their attention that these new oils form residues on walls and on equipment that is impossible to scrape off with conventional cleaners. New chemical cleaners had to be invented to deal with this new generation of mutated plant oils. Unfortunately, at present, NOBODY KNOWS what these fats might do to the human body. Another interesting bit of evidence comes from rural China. Women who spend a lot of their time stir-frying with linseed or rapeseed oil have a considerably high risk of developing lung cancer. Responsible for this dramatic side effect are the toxic fumes produced by heating polyunsaturated vegetable oils. In fact, processed PUFAs and plant oils might be even more dangerous than trans fats.
Due to their chemical structure, they are highly unstable and vulnerable to oxidation. These oxidation by-products are highly inflammatory and damaging to healthy cells. In truth, processed plant oils are a much greater risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and cancer than any amount of butter or lard will ever be. As I write, The Guardian has published an article confirming what we have feared all along: recommendations to reduce saturated fat intake to prevent heart disease is not backed up by scientific evidence and should have never been issued. The study published online in the journal ‘Open Heart’, states, more precisely, that, and I quote: “Dietary advice not merely needs review; it should not have been introduced!”
It is staggering to believe that 220 million Americans and 56 million UK citizens have been given unscientific and wrong advice by their health care practitioners for more than 30 years. I am not surprised that many people feel confused and cheated and don’t know what to believe anymore!
Let me try to summarise for you which fats to eat and which ones to give a miss. Firstly, should cheese, butter and animal fat be part of a healthy diet? Absolutely! Should you avoid processed vegetable oils at all cost? Absolutely! Here are a few reasons why it’s smart to eat one of my all-time though much maligned favourites…… butter.
Butter is rich in vitamins A, D, E and K, all of which promote heart health and improve blood viscosity. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is found in abundance in butter and shown to help maintain a healthy weight and protect against cancer. Many compounds in butter may also help to combat arthritis, infertility and even asthma. The saturated fat helps to strengthen lung tissue and butyric acid provides soothing and antibacterial protection for your small and large intestine. My first choice would be raw, unpasteurised butter which can be quite hard to get hold of. More readily available is butter from grass-fed cows, which is also excellent as a spread, in cooking or even in coffee!
In a nutshell, here are some of the most important reasons why you should avoid vegetable and plant oils (unless they are raw, cold-pressed and not heated):
Free radicals are rife in processed PUFAs, as are chemical by-products that are highly damaging and contribute to numerous health problems, including cancer and heart disease. Hexane and other solvents are used in the extraction process and industrial chemicals are frequently used for preservation. Processed vegetable oil is grey, so bleach and colour is often added to make it ‘palatable’. Processed and hardened vegetable fats are not natural compounds, your body has no idea what to do with them, they have no nutritional value and only wreak havoc with bodily function!
Natural, saturated fats like butter and other animal fats have been used safely as long as man has had access to them and should form part of every healthy diet. For those who wish to avoid produce of animal origin, coconut oil is an excellent alternative. Rich in saturated fat, it is stable enough to cook with and who wouldn’t mind a bit of exotic flavour during a drab and cold English winter!