Nutrition: Fats Chapter 2

Facing the Fats


Fear of Fats

It’s hard to imagine a time when fats were not controversial and did not strike fear in the hearts of dieters. Just the mention of fat-loaded words like butter and bacon can trigger powerful reactions! And yet it has only been in the past 50 years or so that our relationship with fats has become such a problem. We used to describe desserts or meals loaded with fat as “rich,” meaning that only the wealthy were lucky enough to eat this well. But that all changed when researchers noticed that heart disease was becoming a growing national problem.

On the Trail of Heart Attacks

In the late 1950s, a pioneering researcher launched what would become known as The Seven Countries Study. It was the first study to systematically examine the links between diet and the rates of heart attack and stroke in different populations. The researchers looked at traditional diets in Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Finland, Netherlands, the U.S. and Japan. The bottom line was that there seemed to be a strong connection between the type of fat found mostly in meat and dairy foods and heart disease deaths. Dietary fat in the form of olive oil, however, was associated with lower rates of heart disease. READ MORE

Other studies came to similar conclusions. The country was worried. What could be done to change the way that Americans were eating? Even though researchers had a pretty good idea that the type of fat, not just the amount, was a critical factor in the link to heart disease, this point seemed to get lost. The most effective public health message was the simplest: we eat too much fat and it’s killing us.

“Fats are bad.” Few public health messages have packed as much punch as that idea. For decades, fat was “Dietary Public Enemy Number One,” according to Harvard researcher Walter Willett, and even now food marketers still tout the benefits of “low fat” or, better yet, “fat free!” This attack on fat, however, has been misguided. The truth is that many fats are good for you, and it is important to include these good fats in your diet. In fact, eating more good fats (and staying away from bad ones) is essential to any sound healthy nutritional strategy. LESS


Using Fat for Energy

Fats in our diet are broken down in our small intestine with the help of bile salts and enzymes produced by the pancreas and liver. Fat doesn’t dissolve in water, however, so these tiny blobs of fat must be packaged in ways that allow them to move easily through the blood to all parts of the body. These fat packets go by different names (such as cholesterol) depending on their size and composition. READ MORE

Fifty years ago, fats were thought to serve two basic functions: providing fuel for energy-hungry cells and serving as storage depots when fuel wasn’t needed. And fats do indeed serve us in these roles very well. A gram of fat contains more than twice the energy of a gram of carbohydrate or protein. So fat is an efficient fuel to burn or store. Even a lean person can easily have some 120,000 calories of stored fat. (That’s the equivalent of a 2,000 calorie diet for 60 days, or 285 double-cheeseburgers!) LESS


Fats for Growth and Development

We now know that fats have many other important jobs. Fats are a crucial source of raw materials. “Dietary fat is a fundamental building block,” says Dr. David L. Katz, Director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University's School of Medicine, “and our bodies use it in a variety of ways.” We use fats to build hormones and neurotransmitters. Fats also aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and play key roles in regulating inflammation, chemical signaling and the metabolism of other nutrients.

Babies Need Fat

Babies thrive on fat. About 50% of the calories in breast milk come from fat. Babies need fat for the same reasons that adults do, but certain types of fats are also crucial for normal infant brain and eye development. READ MORE

The small size of an infant’s stomach and digestive system is another reason there is so much fat in breast milk. Gram for gram, fat is the most efficient fuel available for a digestive system with limited capacity. And at two weeks, the baby’s stomach is still the size of a walnut! LESS


Fats Are Critical Construction Materials

We are what we eat. Literally. “Just as the three principal building blocks of our food are carbohydrate, protein and fat,” says Dr. Katz, “those are the building blocks of the human body as well.” The analogy to construction materials is handy, notes Katz. “If you are building a house, you need some stone and you need some wood and you need some tile, you need electrical wiring. Well, it just wouldn’t do if you found that you didn’t have any electrical wiring, but you had extra wood. Or that you had more material than you needed for the floor, but not enough for the roof.’ You can’t build a functional house that way.” READ MORE

Ditto for a human body. Especially since, according to Katz, “the average adult is turning over 50 billion cells a day. That’s an astonishing figure. We are never the same two days in a row because we are constantly re-fabricating ourselves. We need and use up our basic building materials (fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients) over and over and over.”

It’s an especially dramatic analogy, notes Katz, when we think of growing children. “The growing body of the child is being manufactured out of food as raw material and nothing else. There is nothing else. I make that point to make it clear that junk food is not a cute or innocuous concept. You wouldn’t build a house out of junk. Would you be willing to build a child you love out of junk? It’s unconscionable.” LESS


Building Houses on a Good Foundation

The idea of cut-rate, poor-quality human construction materials can certainly make a parent wince. But, on the other hand, don’t a lot of kids survive just fine those years when they seem to only eat chicken nuggets and plain macaroni? “We are astonishingly good omnivores,” acknowledges Katz. “We really are amazing. You think about how we function as machines and it really is credit to the engineering prowess of evolution... I mean you couldn’t get a car or boat to run on anything you threw into it!” READ MORE

But there’s a big difference between running and running optimally, says Katz. “And similarly, if you build a house out of rotten wood, the house may look fine. But eventually, the lack of structural integrity will cause that house to fall down. Maybe it will take a storm to knock it down, but it’s a storm that wouldn’t have destroyed a house made of better materials.”

The construction of children is very similar, says Katz, and ultimately, poor construction materials take a toll. It may not happen right away and it may take a storm or two, but there will be hell to pay somewhere along the line. We are seeing that now in the appearance of type 2 diabetes in children.” LESS

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.