In our discussion of our excessive consumption of carbohydrates and our debate over the negative consequences of consuming gluten, there are two more items that need to be addressed: fat and cholesterol. Since the mid-1980s, the US Department of Agriculture has asserted: “fats are bad.” However, that comment is wrong – if you are labeling “all” fats as bad. The same rebuttal also applies to cholesterol. If you step into any doctor’s office, the physician typically expresses a concern for any high levels of cholesterol, often discussing “bad” cholesterol versus “good” cholesterol. Many of those remarks are still off target.
Let me start with some observations on fat. Our ancestors used to eat a diet with around 75% fat. Today we eat a diet with around 20% fat. Remember: for today’s diet, that’s 20% fat versus 60% carbohydrates. Hopefully, with the past two blogs, I have established that 60% carbohydrates is a massive overload, damaging to our health. But what about fat? Yes, the trans fats, found in margarine and processed foods, are damaging to our health. However, the monounsaturated fats in avocados, olives, and nuts are healthy. The polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids) in cold-water fish (like salmon) are also good for you. My message is simple. Many fats are not only good for you; they are essential for good health.
Every cell in our body contains saturated fats. The saturated fats contribute to the structure of every cell, and they also contribute to the function of our lungs, heart, and bones, plus the function of our immune system. Our bones require saturated fats for the assimilation of calcium. Our liver needs those saturated fats to help clear toxins. Our white blood cells also utilize fat in their role in our immune system. This list of healthy functions for fat is extensive, but the point is basic. Fats are crucial for a wide variety of physiologic reactions in our body – reactions that are crucial for good health. In fact, fats are the preferred fuel for many biologic functions. To be healthy, we don’t need to eat less fat: we just need to eat the right type of fat.
Healthy fats can be found in extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, grass fed tallow, pasture-fed butter, ghee, almond milk, avocados, coconuts, olives, nuts, nut butters, and seeds (flaxseed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and chia seeds). Healthy fats can be obtained from cold-water salmon. So, here is the key. Don’t worry about the right type of fat. Instead, worry about the right type of food. It is a lot easier to pick out the healthy foods than it is to read labels on the fat content, especially when some of the figures are not accurate. At the same time, take caution with fat-free products. In many cases the fat is replaced by sugar, which is exactly what you do not need.
Cholesterol has also received unfair criticism. We have even taken to differentiating “bad” cholesterol and “good” cholesterol when they are the exact same chemical structure. They are just carried by two different containers. Cholesterol, like fat, is crucial for healthy functioning of the brain. Our brain is 2% of our weight, yet it contains 25% of our total cholesterol. Higher cholesterol levels have been linked with reduced cognitive decline and increased longevity. That is probably not what you expected. In the brain, cholesterol forms membranes around the cells, maintaining their integrity. Cholesterol helps form the sheath that protects neurons, which transmit crucial brain signals. In fact, new neuronal synapses don’t form – at any age – without sufficient cholesterol.
At the same time cholesterol serves as an antioxidant, protecting the brain from free radicals and inflammation and aging. It helps absorb Vitamin A, D, and K, all valuable for health. Cholesterol is also active throughout the body, well beyond the brain. It is important for the creation of bile, helping digestion. It is important for maintaining our electrolyte balance. So, a low cholesterol level may be encouraged by your physician, but it will not be encouraged by me. Our cholesterol levels should not be excessively high, but too much emphasis is placed on reaching the lower range. For good health (and good cognitive function), any cholesterol level below 220 is acceptable to me.
At this point I would like to return to my long-standing position: I think we should reduce dairy and meat products until those products become less contaminated, less chemical, and less toxic. I think we should increase our vegetables and fruit, plus increase our nuts and seeds. As usual, I favor a glass of red wine and a piece of dark chocolate. With the material discussed in these three blogs, I think we also need to reduce our carbohydrate intake and eliminate our gluten intake, plus increase our consumption of the healthy fats. My long-term recommendations are easy. However, with the carbohydrates and fats, people are going to wonder what to eat – and what not to eat.
To reduce carbohydrates I would encourage a reduction in bread, pastas, pastries, and desserts. I would also limit our consumption of corn, yams, potatoes, crackers, biscuits, chips, energy bars, and ice cream / yogurt. Notice that I did not use the word “eliminate.” The key is to shift our percentage of calories away from these particular carbohydrates. Instead, enjoy our vegetables and fruit, especially low hanging fruit with low sugar content. For protein, shift from meat to fish. For healthy fats, I will repeat my earlier recommendations for extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil for cooking (and use with salads). I also support consumption of avocados, coconuts, and olives. If we can just add those changes to the long-standing suggestions, I think our overall physical health and cognitive function with improve. For me, that is the best of both worlds – and well worth the eating style changes, yes?