Health is Wealth. Anyone who has nursed a cancer patient or who has suffered from a debilitating illness themselves will wholeheartedly agree. Over the years I've had many opportunities to observe the behaviour of very successful people, when they became ill. I also know my own behaviour when a migraine strikes! When we're sick, nothing much else matters any more. This is why it is important that each one of us better understands how the food that we fuel our body with influences our wellbeing. In doing so, it may come as a surprise to many that there are, in fact, good fats that we need to stay healthy.
I can't remember ever being told as a child that there was 'good fat' and 'bad fat'. In fact, I can't remember being told ever anything about 'healthy food' or 'unhealthy food'. This is probably because, growing up on a farm where practically everything we ate was 'home grown' and sweets and white bread were small luxuries for special occasions, this was not at all a topic that ever came up for discussion. It is only when I started becoming responsible for my own meals as a student that I realized the incredible impact that food was having on my mind, my body, because of that, even on my relationships and ultimately, on my spirit. Instead of knowing that I needed to look at food as a fuel and not as an emotional crutch, I found emotional comfort in sweet and fatty foods in times when I was generally feeling uncomfortable in my skin. I did not understand that sugar is addictive or that fat can have a good or bad impact on your body. Sure, I knew eating too much fatty foods resulted in skin outbreaks and overweight, but for the rest I simply did not have the facts about fat, because no one spoke about them.
I do remember that the word 'cholesterol' suddenly became fashionable in the 70's. And that, in addition to the home-made butter that my mom made as a matter of course, a pretty looking plastic container of soft margarine made its regular appearance on our table. Because it was good for the heart, as the many advertisements on television were quick to explain.
It was only in the 80's when I discovered the book that has since become my 'guideline' on eating, 'Fit for Life', by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. I followed the advice given in the book and have benefitted ever since. At the time when I found the book, I was in my early 20's and had increased by three dress sizes from my normal size 10 to a size 16. Also, my skin was a constant source of embarrassment to me, because it was never without a spot or three. This, and some other emotional issues, had resulted in me withdrawing from my usual circle of friends, who at the time were all showing off engagement rings and planning lavish weddings. This was a time during which I felt very lonely. And I felt that being fat was really the main culprit for my sudden lack of confidence. My personal experience in finding the 'Fit for Life' book, then actually seriously following the advice because it made so much sense to me, really emphasized for me the fact that we human beings can take knowledge we read about and apply it to our lives successfully!
When I found myself at a loss in having become a victim of over-eating, especially unhealthy foods, it was an incredible relief to be empowered through the knowledge offered by the book 'Fit for Life'. Obesity is simply not a problem you can fix with a pill, no matter how many claims are made to the contrary. The only thing that really works, is changing our eating habits. Following the advice in 'Fit for Life', I lost 8 of the 13kgs of pure fat that had bulged my body out of shape in four weeks and the remaining 5kgs I lost slowly over a longer period. For the last 20 years since then my weight has been stable, more or less, and best of all, my skin just went back to 'normal'.
One of the things that this way of eating taught me was to discern between 'good fat' and 'bad fat'. While it is practically impossible to avoid 'bad fat' completely, because so much of it is hidden in processed foods, a great rule of thumb is to cook or bake 'from scratch' at home, instead of relying on 'convenience' foods, so that you are the one that chooses which fat to add to your food. But when you visit people or go out to eat in a restaurant, don't bore everyone around you with tales of 'good fats' and 'bad fats'. Just enjoy whatever you've chosen from the menu. Our bodies are able to deal with lots of bad food, as long as we eat it in moderation.
What I also learnt is that 'good fat' is actually critically important in your diet, because our bodies need this and cannot produce it on its own. In 'good fat' you find essential fatty acids (EFAs), namely linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid, which your body needs. Also, fat carries vitamins A, D, E, and K - known as the fat-soluble vitamins - into and around the body. Fat is necessary for keeping your skin healthy, making sure babies and kids develop proper eyesight and brain development. A layer of fat is also positioned around all our nerves in the body, keeping us calm and better able to handle stressful situations. This is why skinny people with exceptionally low body fat are often perceived as 'nervous'.
So why is fat seen as 'Public Enemy Nr. 1' when it comes to obesity? Because it has more than twice the energy (calories or kilojoules) per gram than either carbohydrate or protein. So even a small amount of fat can cause you to gain weight, especially if you're not used to moving a lot. But similarly, eating too much protein and carbohydrates can cause too much body fat, even if you cut out dietary fat completely! Over-eating anything is what makes us fat, not any particular food. Stuffing ourselves with too much food will always have an impact on the scale.
However, in looking at 'bad fat', there is a well-documented link between fat intake and heart disease and stroke risk. If you eat a lot of saturated fat (animal fat) and trans fat (processed fat - hydrogenised) this may increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which in turn causes your arteries to clog. Cholesterol sits like a layer on the inside of our arteries, narrowing the opening through which oxygen-rich blood can flow to the heart, muscles, organs and brain. As a result, the body becomes sluggish and the brain also struggles to function at 'full power'. This is why it is important to reduce fat that causes cholesterol levels to rise, but continue to use 'good fats' that are necessary for the body.
This means that when it comes to the fat we eat, quantity and quality count. So avoid the following fats as much as possible:
Saturated fat found in meats, butter, cream, or ice cream, and other foods with animal fat. Highly saturated vegetable fats include coconut oil, palm, palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter are also unhealthy. They're widely used in packaged foods including milk chocolate, cookies, crackers, and snack chips. We don't need to eat saturated fat because our bodies make everything that it needs. But you don't have to avoid them completely, just make sure it is a fraction of all the fat you eat.
Trans fat, a man-made fat found in some margarines or packaged baked. Similar to saturated fat, trans fat can cause your arteries to get clogged up. But what makes it worse, is that it has been linked to certain cancers, including breast and colorectal. Most of the trans fat we eat is as a result of a process called 'hydrogenation'. Sadly, hydrogenation - meaning adding hydrogen to oil resulting in some of the unsaturated fat in the oil to becomes saturated. While this process converts oil into a firmer, tastier product with a longer shelf life, partially hydrogenated fat - trans fat - is harmful to humans. As a result it is gradually being removed from most packaged foods. But it's still found in some stick margarine, shortening, fast food, cookies, crackers, granola bars, and microwave popcorn. So check those labels!
All this really means is that try to avoid saturated and trans-fats, and instead, include so-called 'unsaturated' fats in your diet, because they can reduce the risk of clogged arteries.
While foods tend to contain a mixture of fats, monounsaturated fat is the primary fat found in:
- olive, canola, and sesame oils
- nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and pistachios; peanuts and peanut butter
Polyunsaturated fat is prevalent in:
- corn, cottonseed, and safflower oils
- sunflower seeds and sunflower oil
- flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- soybeans and soybean oil
- certain types of tub margarine
There is one type of fat that is really good for you. This is called omega-3 fat. This fat is found only in seafood and is apparently very important for a child's brain development, eyesight and heart health. Human bodies can make this type of fat from alpha-linolenic acid, found in foods such as walnuts and flax, but research seems to prove that less than 10% is actually converted. As a result, it is a good idea to eat fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna, all of which are rich in omega-3 fats.
Overall, there are three easy ways to avoid bad fats, including trans fat:
1. Avoid 'convenience' or processed foods when possible. Keep them in stock for an emergency, but as a rule, cook and bake 'from scratch'.
2. Eat sources of protein that are 'lean', such as, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, legumes - such as garbanzo beans and black beans - and fruits and vegetables.
3. Use healthy oils such as olive, canola, and sunflower oil, and small amounts of tub margarine for cooking and flavoring foods. Also, keep an eye open for unusual oils like sesame, grapeseed and avocado and start experimenting with them. Usually, you will use much less of these oils, while still getting fantastic taste results.