The hysteria against fat has got out of control. In the US, Fat Free Food (F3) stores are springing up, with shelves lined with highly processed food containing virtually no fat. In the UK, too, more and more foods make a virtue of being fat free.
While it is true that excess fat can stress the liver and contribute to health problems, two important points are overlooked: a) fat is one of the three essential macronutrients; and b) some fats are health promoting.
Like protein and carbohydrate, fat is an important source of calories. We need essential fatty acids (EFAs) such as linoleic and linolenic acid, or omega-6 and omega-3, for many important functions, including:
To keep us warm, especially in the winter, as the breakdown of fats creates heat. The diet of Eskimos gets about 60 per cent of its calories from fat and, on their native diets, they don't have heart disease;
For proper hormone function, especially for women;
To keep our cell walls strong;
To absorb and store the fat soluble vitamins, especially vitamin D, needed to help absorb calcium from the intestines. Without good quality fatty acids, we may end up with low vitamin D stores and, consequently, bone thinning.
Saturated fats, which have been much maligned in the past 30 or 40 years, play an important role in our health. According to Mary Enig, PhD, (Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, Silver Springs, MD: Bethesda Press, 2000), they are the body's natural fats, critical for properly functioning cell membranes, and for providing energy to the heart and other muscles.
In addition, good quality saturated fats enhance the immune system, protect the liver from alcohol ingestion, have antimicrobial properties and play a major role in bone modelling by protecting calcium deposition in bones from free radical disruption.
Fats also affect the nerves. There is a high fat diet (the 80 per cent fat 'ketogenic diet') used to control seizures, which works better than drugs (Epilepsia, 1992; 33: 1132-6).
It is entirely possible to become fat deficient. Among the health problems associated with a lack of fatty acids, we can count dry skin, eczema, low energy, impaired kidney function, slow wound or infection healing, depression, and even miscarriage and the inability to start a pregnancy.
Insufficient EFA intake can have a devastating effect on the nervous system, particularly on the brain development of fetuses, infants and children.
It can also aggravate behavioural and mood problems, such as violence, aggression, social isolation and self mutilation (Schmidt MA, Smart Fats: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence, Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd, 1997).
Fat free eating does not ensure loss of weight. Fat in foods delivers a feeling of satiety, the sense that we've had enough to eat. If there is no fat in the meal, we can keep on eating until we're truly stuffed, ending up with many more calories than we would have had with a little olive oil in the salad and some butter on the bread. The replacement of fats in 'fat free' foods such as fat free sour cream and in similar so called 'light' or 'lite' foods is usually with gums, sugars and starches. Such foods end up being not only unbalanced, but also unsatisfying. You're better off with a half teaspoon of the real thing than two tablespoons of the fake.
Some fats are definitely unhealthy. Among them are heated, bleached and deodorised oils, and hydrogenated fats such as margarine and shortening. These contain transfatty acids, which can double the rate of heart attack and raise LDL, the 'bad' cholesterol. Pregnant women who consume margarine and other hydrogenated fats may be at risk of having low birth weight babies. Heated hydrogenated fats, such as used in deep fried foods like fried chicken, and fish and chips, are associated with cancer and heart disease (Enig M, op cit; Schmidt MA, op cit).
The good quality fats include extra virgin olive oil, unrefined sesame and sunflower oils, unrefined flaxseed oil, walnut oil, organic butter and clarified butter or ghee. Animal fats from healthy and naturally raised animals are good and have a long history of human consumption without being associated with degenerative diseases or obesity.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fresh, dark cold water fish, like salmon and mackerel, as well as in flaxseed and borage oils. Omega-6 is found in sesame and sunflower oils. Fresh organic butter from healthy cows fed green grass is an excellent source of natural vitamin A. Organic coconut oil is high in lauric acid, an anti inflammatory and antimicrobial fatty acid, and an excellent food fat, particularly good for baking; it also provides less calories than other fats because of how it is metabolised (Enig M, op cit).
On average, when cooking from scratch, a total of about two or three tablespoons of a variety of healthy fats per day will provide all the EFAs we need. At the same time, it's important to avoid deep fried foods, chips, hydrogenated fats, and fats from unhealthy, commercially raised animals.
Fat free processed foods and snacks will always make you eat too much, encourage sugar cravings and keep you unsatisfied. Good quality fats, with their EFAs, are good for your skin, hair, nails, immune system, heart, liver, brain, nerves, and your satisfaction with food.
Annemarie Colbin is a noted American writer on natural food and nutrition, and author of Food and Healing (Ballantine).