THE FATS OF LIFE: Your Brain and Body Depend on Your Choices
Your body is amazing. On average 10,000 of your cells will fit on the head of a pin. Each second about 25 million cellular divisions occur to enable growth, repair and replacement. The executive management of this extraordinary activity has appeared to be under the direction of genes within your cells. But what stimulates disease-causing rather than health-promoting genes into expression when everyone carries both?
The cell’s exterior or membrane is 7 millionths of mm thick and a primary interface between its inner and outer world. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton, in his excellent book The Biology of Belief, says its importance should reconfigure the spelling as ‘mem-BRAIN’ for here is where signals translate into operational experience. These signals are stimulated by chemicals such as derived from your choice of foods, as well as by hormones, allergens, toxins and drugs (see my website TIPS page for Moods and Foods).
The cellular membrane must have healthy fats to be in good repair, and conversely its ability to transmit appropriate signals is especially impaired by poor quality fats. There needs to be sufficient saturated fatty acids and cholesterol for a firm membrane (but not too much to make it rigid). There needs to be sufficient polyunsaturated fatty acids – about a 1 to 1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 – for a flexible membrane (but not too much to make it flaccid). Note the emphasis on balance: hard and soft, saturated and unsaturated, rather than adversarial categories like cholesterol = ‘bad’.
Relaying Information Not Inflammation
This critical communication system is akin to the sensitive wrap of skin that protects your body and constantly relays messages about the environment surrounding it. The quality of the cellular membrane helps discourage infectious organisms (viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic), carcinogens and other toxins; eliminate cellular debris; prevent disease-causing free radical damage (with constituent antioxidants such as vitamin E and carotene); and afford entry to critical nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and sodium (see TIPS for MINERALS).
Eating a wide range of plant foods helps ensure intake of the thousands of dietary antioxidants eager to protect your cells from attack and disease. One of these, Vitamin E (nuts and seeds are a top source) is particularly in charge of preserving the integrity of fats and cholesterol crucial to the function and structure of your brain and body. More important than how much cholesterol may line your arteries, is preventing the oxidation or explosive deterioration of those sticky deposits which can lead to stroke and heart disease.
Cholesterol is a misunderstood player in this medical drama. It is a highly useful waxy substance needed for brain cell function, the production of sex hormones, bile and vitamin D. Too much of the LDL variety though can be deposited as obstructive plaques in arteries. The clever liver also produces an HDL type. This can remove and courier an excess of LDL back to the liver for removal – especially with the help of soluble fibre (high in psyllium, slippery elm, linseed, figs, prunes, rice bran powder, seaweed, oat bran, mango, and legumes – dried peas and beans).
Only when such foods are eaten can the liver discharge its wastes, mix this with soluble fibre and eliminate them. Otherwise excess LDL, unwanted spent hormones, heavy metals such as lead, and the impurities from each of your 100 trillion cells all get reabsorbed and taken back to the overworked liver for storage. These wastes also encourage gall bladder problems. When the liver is functioning sub-optimally this diminishes its metabolic efficiency leading to weight problems; your ability to process fats, alcohol, caffeine and other substances; and how well you can detoxify the inevitable chemical stew of modern living. See The Shape Diet for my therapeutic Linseed Cereal recipe.
Research and Its Reporting Can Obscure Facts
One other dietary factor particularly determines the body’s ratio of LDL to HDL: the quality and proportion of fats that you eat. Although certain foods contain cholesterol – primarily eggs, thus once condemned via misconstrued association – these rarely cause a rise in blood levels of cholesterol (except for the DRIVER body-type; see The Shape Diet). What does elevate LDL production is an excess of poor quality saturated fats.
Early research showing a link between high saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease did not differentiate between types, sources and the quality of saturated fats. It was a useful start to needed scrutiny but rather like saying, “People who wear dresses are more likely to develop breast cancer”. That is true, but it leads to blame being directed in a direction so generalised that it obscures the actual culprit.
There are more than a dozen types of saturated fatty acids (sub-categories of saturated fat). Stearic acid is found in cocoa beans and thus chocolate products, as well as the animal fat in dairy and meat. It has no effect on cholesterol and actually gets converted by your liver into a type of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acid, named oleic acid. Palmitic acid and lauric acid are found in plant foods that are high in saturated fat (and thus often sweepingly maligned) such as coconut and palm fat (see RECIPES for my Better Butter information and recipe). These increase HDL more than LDL and so lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Caprylic acid is highest in coconut and is naturally anti-viral and anti-fungal. Butyric acid assists genetic regulation and so helps prevent cancer especially bowel cancer.
Saturated fats are imperative for good health. They just need to be from top quality sources such as free range egg yolks (these contain antioxidant vitamin A, vitamin D for bones and immunity, and lecithin which helps break down fat); lean, pasture fed meat without added hormones (also a source of Omega 3, zinc, iron and B vitamins); and coconut products (for protein, and pathogen protection).
Commercial Imperatives May Not Match Nutritional Ones
If you want a food villain here it comes: hydrogenated fat. Rarely am I so unequivocal. Unfortunately the commercial quest for cheap products with maximum shelf life is a major headache for your mem-BRAIN. Manufacturers buy cheap plant oils, usually those high in Omega 6, which promote inflammation without sufficient Omega 3 for balance. Then over hours of high heat with toxic metal catalysts such as aluminium, they add an extra atom of hydrogen to fully saturate its bonds. This makes the fat hydrogenated, firm and long lasting. This is the #1 source of saturated fat in the New Zealand diet – not butter, cheese or meat.
This high tech ‘fa(t)simile’ is used extensively in commercial cakes, biscuits, confectionary, muffins, muesli bars, pastry, margarine, chips, snack foods, pizza bases, packet mixes for drink, soup and seasonings. On labels, its shady history may be obscured with the term ‘vegetable oil’, which commonly indicates hydrogenated.
During the lengthy chemical processing of hydrogenated oils, twisted molecules form called trans fatty acids or TFA. These deformed structures are difficult for enzymes to break down; they tax the liver, and impair the protective barrier around cells leading to distorted communication. New research shows that TFA tend to be stored as belly fat or hidden visceral fat (that even thin people can store excessively), which promote diabetes and heart disease. TFA and cell-vandalising free radicals (also generated by hydrogenated, rancid or domestically overheated fats) create systemic inflammation. This is commonly the initiating state behind premature ageing; subfertility; diabetes; dementia; abnormal growth such as cancer; cardiovascular, digestive, hormonal, respiratory and skin problems – in fact most disease.
Eat the Best
However it is not just industrial labs that damage fats but also home cooks. Only buy cold-pressed or extra virgin oils. For cooking, use oils and fats such as olive, palm, high-oleic sunflower, avocado, peanut, coconut, and organic clarified butter which resist the damage caused by heating. Employ the lowest heat possible, for the shortest time possible. Other more heat-sensitive oils (anything high in Omega 6 or especially Omega 3) can be enjoyed raw such as in salad dressings.
Avoid most health-touted table spreads, which are usually hydrogenated or similarly heavily processed and have many artificial additives. Or make one of the several versions of my Better Butter, or Coriander/Basil Pesto (see RECIPES), miso, hummus, avocado, mustard, nut butters (peanut, almond, hazelnut, sunflower, macadamia, walnut, brazil nut – all from health stores and most supermarkets), tahini, Dynamite or Lover’s Pate (The Shape Diet), or soaked and pureed dried fruit.
Balance Not Prejudice
In excess both saturated and Omega 6 fats can be pro-inflammatory without sufficient anti-inflammatory Omega 3. The brain is more than 50% fat and most of that is DHA, a form of Omega 3. So regularly enjoy its top sources such as oily types of fish (salmon, herring, anchovy, mackerel), and linseed or flaxseed. Good sources include walnuts, pecans, and traditional soy products (see HEALTH STORE for Recipes For A Long & Delicious Life).
If you are one of my tertiary nutrition students and want to achieve a low mark on a test or assignment, stipulate that a client should “avoid all saturated fat”. This is not only unwise but virtually impossible. Any food that contains fat almost always includes some saturated and some unsaturated. Foods are classified only in terms of which type dominates. The virtuous olive oil for instance, is 76% monounsaturated, 14% polyunsaturated, as well as 10% saturated. There are few exclusive categories in the realm of natural, whole foods and no need to demonise any of them.