The “F” Word

Diet Myths Debunked

FAT! There, I said it.

For years I feared this dreaded word. Trained that fats should be limited and always unsaturated, I was very choosy with what entered my mouth. Skim, low-fat, non-fat, 99% fat-free…the less fat, the more I ate.

FAT As We Know It

Fats have been blamed for many of the health problems plaguing Americans- obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer,… We’ve been taught that fats are either good or bad, and one false move could be hazardous to our health.

We know that fat is a necessary part of our diet, for things like: providing essential fatty-acids, skin health, cell membrane structure, and delivering fat-soluble vitamins. Some fatty acids even have anti-inflammatory properties, but despite these positive roles in our health we’ve been convinced that they should be mostly minimized.

Margarine: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

This supposed nutritional doctrine (fat bad, carb good) has been the precipice of an entire food industry. Lab-created, chemically derived “better than butter” spreads now dominate grocery store shelves. Before plant sterol spreads infused with omega-3s hit the market, margarine was the most popular butter substitute donning yellow dye #3.

It looked like, tasted like (sort of), melted like, and was healthier than butter thanks to its lower cholesterol content. Unlike bad butter’s animal origins, margarine was made from vegetable oils (and what could be more healthy than vegetables, right?). The problem was, that in order to get these liquid-at-room-temperature soybean, corn, and cottonseed oils into a creamy, solid spread, scientists had to add hydrogen atoms to their fatty acids. (Caution: Geeky science speak ahead! Feel free to skip to the end of this section where I conclude that margarine is the root of all evil).

Food manufacturers sneak in trans fats without having to label them. They are only required to list >0.5 g trans fat per serving. Always check the ingredient list. Photo courtesy The CDC.

Food manufacturers sneak in trans fats without having to label them. They are only required to list >0.5 g trans fat per serving. Always check the ingredient list. Photo courtesy The CDC.

Partial hydrogenation, as in Crisco and margarine, causes some of the double bonds in an unsaturated oil to be changed into single bonds. Naturally occurring double bonds are in the cis formation (we’ll call this one the innocuous structure), whereas the trans formation is favored during the process of partial hydrogenation.

When the body is busy digesting trans fatty acids its digestion of essential fatty acids (like omega-3’s and omega-6’s) is inhibited. This is why trans fats have been found to: increase bad LDL cholesterol, decrease good HDL cholesterol, increase triglycerides and start an inflammatory response throughout the body.

trans-fat and the body

And it turns out that scientists have connected trans fats to problems like cardiovascular disease since the 1950s. (Let me let that sink in. Conspiracy much?)

The Red Herring of Food Industry Fat

We’ve spent the past six decades trying to figure out how countries like France, Germany and Switzerland can have diets high in butter and cheese and continue to have lower incidence of heart disease than the western world. What if there’s more to the story than we’ve been taught for the past 60 years? A growing body of research has found that eating a moderate amount of saturated fat can reduces the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and reduce blood pressure as well as blood sugar. British scientists looked at the diet of half a million subjects and concluded “Saturated fats do not cause heart disease”. Saturated fat raises HDL cholesterol (the good kind) more than any other food compound, so some argue that even though it raises the “bad” cholesterol, it has no effect on heart disease risk. What’s more, popular oils like canola, soybean, and olive oil can produce lipid peroxides and aldehydes (read “CANCER”) when cooked at high heat. This is because those wonderful double bonds that are so good for our hearts end up combusting when heated, whereas saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, and lard are more stable.  Like so many nutrition “truths” out there, the vehement demonization of saturated fats has once again come into question.

Bottom [waist]Line on Fat

All of this is not to give one vindication to gorge on peanut butter and ice cream, but there are some great take away points:

  1. Not all fat is bad. When choosing fat, omega-3’s are great, omega-6’s are good, and some saturated fat is okay. Saturated fat from avocado, raw coconut oil, hormone-free, antibiotic-free grass-fed beef, pastured pork and free-range chicken (and their eggs), and milk, cheese, and butter from grass-fed beef are the best options.
  2. Trans fats are all bad, and should be avoided at all costs. Hey, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by getting rid of all that processed junk you’ve been gnashing on.
  3. How fat’s been processed and how you use it matters. Look for cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils that have minimal processing e.g. bleaching and deodorizing. Use your canola and EVOO in dressings and leave high-heat sautéing and frying to the saturated pros (or peanut oil if you don’t have an allergy).
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The Dish on Eggs

Diet Myths Debunked

For the past few decades we’ve been taught to decrease our consumption of eggs for fear of increasing our risk of heart disease. This is a major bummer for people like me, who crave that tasty gold yolk swimming alongside their pancake syrup. The medical and scientific community long thought the high cholesterol content of eggs would increase levels of cholesterol in our bodies. More recent studies have shown that regular consumption of eggs (one egg per day) has actually been found to prevent heart disease. So, let’s unscramble the egg conundrum. (That’s the one and only egg pun, promise).

 

Say It Ain’t Science

Shall we begin with the mind-numbing science globblety gluck? Feel free to skip this paragraph as complete disinterest wills. Without delving too deeply into chemical structures, it is helpful to know that in order for cholesterol to be transported through our circulatory system it has to be gift-wrapped in protein. Depending on the ratio of fat to protein in this cutely packaged “micelle”, the cholesterol inside it is either delivered to:

a)  the liver, where it is processed and eventually leaves the body (I’ll spare you the gory details, as you can probably imagine its route). This is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as the “good cholesterol”. Or,…

b)  the tissues, where it can add to plaques in our arteries, which lessens the amount of blood that can travel through them, thus increasing the likelihood of stroke and heart problems. This is called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, forebodingly coined the “bad cholesterol”. The bad news is: we all have plaques in our arteries. The good news (for the humble egg and all of its admirers) is: we now know that the mix of fats in our diet has more of an impact on our heart health than the amount of cholesterol.

 

What does this mean for us? The long-accepted idea that eating cholesterol has a direct positive correlation on our blood cholesterol has now been largely disproven. Several studies on healthy subjects have not found an increased risk of heart disease with regular, even daily egg consumption. The USDA has also recently revealed the amount of cholesterol content within eggs has been overestimated by 14%. What’s more is that most of the fat eggs contain is the kind that’s good for you- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (the stuff that decreases inflammation, which includes, ironically, heart disease).

 

Nutrition in an Egg Shell

The nutritional content of eggs cannot be eggsagerated (okay, I lied about the lack of puns). Eggs are the highest quality protein you can find (which makes sense when you think about the fact that they’re an entire animal in a neat, little shell). This means that eggs contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need and they are readily available for us to use (not so for plant proteins). One egg is only 70 calories, and contains 11 different vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants (lutein and zeaxanthin). Because of their wholesome goodness, eggs are attributed with building/maintaining muscle, brain development and prevention of dementia, as well as vision health.

 

Egg on Your Plate

If you’re not sold on eggs yet, you may be once you find yourself in the kitchen for any extended period of time. The culinary uses for eggs are impressive. Eggs leaven, emulsify, aerate, bind, glaze, coat, enrich, and thicken. Alton Brown has been quoted as calling them “the Rosetta Stone of the kitchen”. Eggs are a staple and they should be handled appropriately because of their moisture/protein content (two things bacteria love). To ensure minimal risk of Salmonella poisoning, cook eggs until yolk is firm and heat egg-containing products to an internal temperature of 160°F.

 

Yes, Do Get Fresh with Eggs!

As the proud parent of ten dozen laying hens I could tell you that eggs from pastured/free-range/grass-fed chickens (and by this I mean chickens who can spend their days with the wind in their feathers, snacking on grass and bugs in the great outdoors) look, smell and taste better than their grocery store counterparts. The laughable definition of free-range offered by the USDA- “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside”- doesn’t stipulate diet, time frame, or other conditions. But I digress…The yolks of these eggs are often a bright or deep orange instead of the pale icterine of store-bought varieties and they lack the all too familiar smell of hydrogen sulfide. I’d never experienced a fried egg with such depth of flavor until my husband whipped two up for me on our fourth date. The words bliss and divine came to mind. People often ask me if farm fresh eggs are better for you. Anecdotally I could vehemently exclaim, “YES!” but it wasn’t until a recent article from my friends at Mother Earth News came out that I was able to quantifiably say farm fresh eggs have: 4 to 6 times as much Vitamin D, 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, twice as much omega-3 fatty acids, triple the Vitamin E and 7 times as much as beta-carotene.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but I’m sold. Anyone else hankerin’ for an omelet?

 

References

Harman Nicola L, Leeds, Anthony R, and Griffin, Bruce A. Increased dietary cholesterol does not increase plasma low density lipoprotein when accompanied by an energy-restricted diet and weight loss. European Journal of Nutrition.2008; 47:287-293

Qureshi A, et al. Regular egg consumption does not increase the risk of stroke or cardiovascular diseases. Medical Science Monitor. 2007; 13(1): CR1-8.

Tran NL, et al. Balancing and communicating risks and benefits associated with egg consumption – a relative risk study. Presented at Experimental Biology 2007, Washington, D.C.

Lee A and Griffin B. Dietary cholesterol, eggs and coronary heart disease risk in perspective. Nutrition Bulletin (British Nutrition Foundation). 2006; 31:21-27.

Katz DL, et al. Egg consumption and endothelial function: a randomized controlled crossover trial. Int J Cardiol. 2005; 99:65-70.

Kritchevsky S and Kritchvesky D. Egg consumption and coronary heart disease: an epidemiological overview. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000; 19(5): 549S-555S.

Hu FB, et al. A prospective study of egg consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease in men and women. JAMA. 1999; 281:1387-94.

Long C and Alterman T. Meet Real Free-Range Eggs. Mother Earth News. October/November 2007. http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/tests-reveal-healthier-eggs.aspx#axzz30sxNBQOK. Accessed May 5, 2014.