Fat makes you fat. Sugar makes you fat. Carbs make you fat — or is that just refined carbs? But protein — that makes you muscly, yeah? Eating after 7pm makes you fat. Dairy foods — better avoid them, they’re full of fat. Detox teas — they burn fat. Right?
In a country where more than half of us are carrying excess body weight, we are awfully obsessed with the thing — and in particular, with avoiding fat. As a society, we’re constantly thinking and obsessing over what we eat. What’s more, we’re thinking about foods in terms of “macros” or nutrients such as fat and carbs, rather than thinking about foods as a whole. And it’s not working for us. So, pour yourself a (detox free) tea, add some milk (soy, skim, low fat or full fat — whichever you most enjoy), and let’s chew the fat…on fat.
First, a story. Once upon a time, adults from different countries of the world were surveyed on their eating attitudes and behaviours. From this came some key learnings from two very different groups — the Americans and the French:
- American females were most likely to eat foods marketed as low fat, low salt, or low cholesterol, while the French were least likely to eat these.
- The French were least likely to worry about the long term effects of their diet on their health, and Americans worried most.
- American females had the greatest level of guilt associated with chocolate cake, as opposed to associating it with celebration the way the French did (chocolate cake should always be celebrated).
- When given the choice between staying at a luxury hotel with average food or an average hotel with excellent food, up to 90% of French preferred the average hotel, whilst most Americans chose the luxury hotel.
- When asked to choose the “odd one out” between bread, carbohydrate and butter, very few Americans kept together the culinary combination of bread and butter. Instead, they associated bread with it’s nutrient carbohydrate. This was significantly lower than the other cultures who saw bread and butter as each other’s other half, and carbohydrates as the odd one out.
What does this all mean? The more we obsess about eating nutrients instead of enjoying and moderating our food; the more we count calories instead of listen to our appetite; and the more we base our happiness on our clothes sizes instead of enjoying tasteful foods; the more damage we do.
The overall consensus amongst Americans is that food is as much a poison as it is a nutrient, and that eating is almost as dangerous as not eating. For a country in which one in three are obese, they are spending an awful amount of time stressing about everything that passes through their lips. Despite the energy exerted worrying about and modifying their diet in the direction of “healthy”, America has an extremely high rate of obesity and lifestyle related disease. Ironic, huh?
It would seem America’s fear of fat is working against them — and Aussie’s aren’t far behind. Our attitudes and practices towards food are yielding similar results on own health report card. Clearly, fearing nutrients — eating in nutrients and calories — as opposed to thinking about food for enjoyment and nourishment, doesn’t work. France proves this — their rates of obesity are significantly lower at 1 in 6. They don’t count calories or macros, they eat full fat cheese, and most importantly, they enjoy and celebrate their food. “The French Paradox” describes this phenomenon where the country indulges in many high fat foods, yet have relatively low rates of cardiovascular disease. So, there is more to being healthy than eating a tub of fat free yoghurt, and clearly we have a bit to learn.
The food marketing departments and the media in Australia have conditioned us to believe we need to stock a fat free pantry along with the special non stick no-oil-needed frypan which means our cooking also follows this fat-free rule. Consider this “healthy diet”:
- Breakfast: 2 Weet Bix, skim milk and a banana
- Morning tea: An apple
- Lunch: Tinned tuna (in spring water) with plenty of salad
- Afternoon tea: Carrot sticks
- Dinner: Grilled chicken breast, potato, broccoli and peas
This gives us a grand total of 6g of fat over the day.
Is this a healthy amount? Good golly, no. We NEED fat — vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble so require fat for their absorption. Our cells need fat for their synthesis. Omega 3 fats are known to have significant cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory benefits. There is a growing body of evidence that an imbalance in the proportions of macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) can increase the risk of chronic disease and may adversely affect micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) intake. Suddenly cutting out carbs doesn’t look so good. When a large number of studies published in peer reviewed journals (top quality research, not your average “my friends neighbour cut out cheese and her arthritis just vanished overnight!”) were pooled, it was determined that the optimal range for total fat was from 20–35% of energy intake. The Mediterranean Diet, known for producing incredibly healthy populations, has fat coming from 35-40% of their energy — so it seems the old “less is more” doesn’t necessarily apply here. To break this down into more than just numbers, the Australian government state the average adult intake is approximately 8700kJ. 20-35% of energy from fat translates to 47- 82g fat per day. Making a few adjustments to the “healthy diet” will reach this range, give us more micronutrients, and make it significantly more satisfying:
- Breakfast: 2 Weet Bix, reduced fat milk and a banana
- Morning tea: An apple
- Lunch: Tinned tuna (in spring water) with plenty of salad, a serving of fetta, and 1/4 of an avocado
- Afternoon tea: Carrot sticks and 1 handful of nuts
- Dinner: Grilled chicken breast, potato, broccoli and peas, cooked in 1tbs olive oil
Whilst this may allude to the need for counting calories and macros, think of it more as a balance. Balance means sticking with less processed foods, not needing to go for the lowest fat option in each food category, and dispersing high fat, nutrient dense foods like Liquid Gold (AKA extra virgin olive oil), nuts, avocado, and dairy throughout the day. It also means not feeling guilty if we eat a piece of chocolate cake — because guilty eating usually means we enjoy it less, and hop back onto the restricting merry-go-round. So enjoy it at celebrations the way cake was intended (keeping in mind celebrations don't come around every week).
However, not all fats are created equally, and it is recommended that saturated and trans fats together should be limited to no more than 10% of energy across the day. If you do the math, ensuring you carry the remainder, this translates to 23.5g saturated fat across they day — equivalent to two Big Macs or about 100g brie cheese or a packet of Tim Tams (so having all three probably won’t end well). There is some room in the diet for less healthy foods, but we should be aiming for saturated fats that come mainly packaged in nutrient dense foods, such as meat, dairy or nuts.
So, (to an extent of course), fat does not make you fat. The French and the Americans have demonstrated this nicely — when fat and food in general is seen and obsessed over in terms of nutrients, we begin to fear each of these nutrients. When we fear nutrients, eating becomes unenjoyable, and affects our health negatively. What makes you fat? Guzzling down your Big Mac out of guilt. Or eating your sugar free, gluten free, carb free processed snack bar that doesn’t satisfy you, so you have a chocolate afterwards, anyway. Instead, try sitting down and enjoying a good quality cheese platter. Or a handful of nuts as a snack. And in the end, you will live happily ever after.
To celebrate the benefits of nuts, here is a sweet, easy to make scroll snack showcasing one of my favourite foods at the moment — nut butters. There’s a whole spectrum of nut butters, from the not so exciting cheap peanut butter (made with added oils, sugar and salt) to spreads that contain 100% mixed nuts, with nothing else added. So always check the ingredients list. These Coconut Cocoa-Nut Scrolls are full of good nut and olive fats, proving that chewing the fat is not only nutritious, but delicious.