Chewing the fat!

For far too many years, the diet industry has been encouraging us to limit our intake of calories in a quest to lose weight. A low calorie diet inevitably means a low fat diet, as gram for gram fat contains more calories than the other macros in our diet, providing 9kcals per gram compared to 4g from protein and carbohydrates. On paper a low fat diet seems to make sense and over the years, low fat and no-fat foods became staples in our trolley in a quest for health and a svelte figure.  

 But here’s the rub – fat is essential for life. Every cell in our body depends on fat, and yet plenty of us are terrified of the stuff. Wrongly aligned with increasing our risk of obesity and coronary heart disease, we were convinced that fat would make us fat. In fact, it seems that our lack of fat is one of the major dietary factors that is making us fat and sick.  

Eat more (good) fat  

What if I told you to eat more fat for the good of your health? If you have ever been on a diet, then the idea of adding more fat to your diet can sound like the stuff of nightmares, and yet the low fat myth that has driven our consumption of processed low fat foods is probably the biggest driver of weight gain and obesity.   

Here are a few signs that your diet may be deficient in fat:  

  • Feeling hungry all the time 
  • Dry skin 
  • Low mood 
  • Feeling cold  
  • PMS 
  • Fatigue  
  • Dry hair or hair loss 

Let’s chew the fat on this important nutrient. Without fat in our diet, we will lack the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. We need fat for satiety, for our cells to communicate, to regulate metabolism and inflammation in our body, to keep our hail, skin and nails looking shiny and healthy and yes, we need fat to help us lose weight. Without it, our thyroid works harder to regulate our metabolism, our hunger hormones are thrown into havoc leaving us ravenous even after eating and our fat storage mechanisms go into overdrive.  

Good fats, bad fats 

There are lots of different types if fat in our diets, but only two that are essential. In other words, our body can’t make them, so we need to get them through the food we eat. These are omega 6 and omega 3. Omega 9 is not an essential fat.  

 Good sources of omega 3 include:  

  • Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies and trout. Aim for 2 portions each week. If you don’t like oily fish, then a supplement of fish oil or krill oil is a good idea.  

If you are vegan or vegetarian then plant based sources of omega 3 are a good alternative, although they don’t contain the active EPA and DHA.  

  • Oils like flax, hemp, walnut 
  • Walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts 
  • Pumpkin, chia and hemp seeds 

Omega 6 comes mainly from nuts and seeds. This is an essential fat, but most of us get too much of it in our Western diet. Oils with the highest content include safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, corn, sesame and soyabean – oils food manufacturers tend to use a lot of. This high intake has caused an imbalance of our omegas, and if we get too much omega 6 relative to omega 3, we trigger increased inflammation, which we now know is at the root of so many common diseases like heart disease, cancer, IBS, arthritis to name a few.  

For most people, it is not necessary to add omega 6 to our diets, although a small handful of unsalted and unroasted nuts or seeds a day is a healthy habit.  

Next week I’ll take a closer look at what fats are recommended for spreading, cooking and drizzling.  

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 30 June 2018.