Recently, while flipping through the “culinary arts” channels, in hopes of finding some inspiration for dinner, I came across a familiar face – one of particular roundness, enthusiasm, Southern charm, and characteristic white hair. Perhaps the “Southern charm” gave it away… Of course you know I’m probably referring to the one-and-only Paula Dean. See, being from the South, I’ve been subject to very few culinary trends that stray from the traditional methods of cooking which involve battering, frying, or sautéing with the use of butter. While these cooking methods seem to defy conventional wisdom, it seems that trends in modern nutritional biochemistry might actually support the use of fats in support of “heart healthy diets”. So, after all this time, did Paula actually have it right? Let’s investigate.
What about Cholesterol?
While fats, particularly those of the saturated variety (commonly associated with animal protein-rich diets) carry with them the added inclusion of cholesterol amounts far in excess of what most nutritionists and physiologists would consider healthy. The fact is, they’re right. While this information shouldn’t necessarily be groundbreaking for anyone particularly versed in basic dietetics, it is unfortunately subject to extreme bias and responsible in-part, at least indirectly, for the obesity epidemic that plagues this country and others. Now that I’ve given away the title of my next TWO articles, I shall return back to the topic at hand. While cholesterol isn’t the enemy everyone thinks it is, I will admit, it is still something to be somewhat avoided in excess especially as we age. However, even with the minor inclusion of cholesterol, the benefits of adding increased portions of fat in daily nutritional intakes have been, largely overlooked, until now.
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks.
On the cover of the June 2014 issue of Time magazine, you’ll find the following text: “EAT BUTTER”. This, to most Americans, is probably as much of a crime on wisdom as being told putting sand in your gas tank will improve fuel economy or make your car’s engine run smoother. To most Americans, the mainstream aversion to fat did come honestly, albeit, incorrectly… Back in the 80’s there were some very shoddy pieces of research which labeled fat, and fat-containing foods, horribly toxic to the body; going as far as making them single-handedly responsible for issues ranging from cardiovascular disease, heart disease, obesity, and other metabolic issues such as diabetes. Unfortunately, the damage was already done within the average American psyche and a cry for low-fat foods devoid of natural nutritional content and rich in carbohydrates started filling the shelves of big-box grocery stores. However, as more American’s started adopting these foods under the [false] pretense of health and vitality, what was happening inside their bodies was a reshuffling of the energy matrix once, fat dependant, now became predominantly carbohydrate-based. This change in lifestyle had massive widespread consequences. Over the next 2 decades, obesity rates tripled, 10% of the US population would be diagnosed with diabetes, and cardiovascular disease went up 45%. Now, am I blaming mainstream food production on our health status as a nation? No I am absolutely not. I am, however, blaming our inherent prejudice founded on well-intentioned mis-information for most of our metabolic and cardiovascular issues as a nation especially now that new information has been presented. The fact is this: FAT is the new FIT… and for damn good reason.
So Any Ole’ Fat Will Do?
In reference to the above… Of course, not. As I will discuss later, there are vast differences in types of fat present in different food items that can have a multitude of, yet again, different effects within the body. What I am proposing is a completely new understanding of what happens within our bodies when the proportion of nutritional fat intake outweighs that of carbohydrates.
Let me give you a valuable piece of information: Your body will burn what it has in greatest abundance. While you ponder that, let me set up a scenario for you. Imagine being the backcountry of Colorado, in a cabin, in the middle of winter. Now imagine that cabin loses power and all you have are your reserves of firewood. If you start burning through those stores of firewood to keep the temperature at an acceptable level, at some point you’re going to start running low on firewood, Now you have a choice. Being that you have no idea when the power will come back on, and you start getting cold, chances are you’re going to start burning some furniture… or pretty much anything you have been recently provided in abundance that will give off heat. The body works in the EXACT same way. It has NO idea when you’re going to eat again or what those calories will consist-of. All it knows is that when you ate, your body was given an abundance of sugars, so the obvious choice is to burn them first. So, logic would tell you that if you are consuming carbs, what you are not consuming are your, you guessed it, internal fat stores. Now, imagine the opposite situation. Suppose you just ate an avocado, which has quite a lot of “healthy” fat content. Your circulatory system is now abundantly rich in fat which means it will now be the predominate fuel of choice. The beauty of this situation, as we are now seeing, doesn’t necessarily exist in the moment when the fat is being burned (due to it’s abundance), but the long-term effect that fat utilization has on your muscle metabolism. See, fat is a huge, bulky, heavy molecule that requires an extensive biochemical process and an abundance of oxygen to be broken down for energy. By putting your body in a chronic nutritional status which demands fat usage, you are putting a stimulus on the multitude of systems responsible for breaking down fat which force them to, effectively, get better a doing their jobs… even while you are sleeping. It’s the exact same adaptive process (call it “usage principle”) that forces your muscles to get bigger and stronger in response to continual stress applied to them. In order for the systems responsible for fat utilization to become more efficient at doing their jobs, they first have to have a reason to get better. I.e. they have to be put to work on a regular basis and the only way that can happen is for you to, well… You know where this is going… EAT FAT.
So Paula WAS Right?
Now are there obviously some healthier alternatives for fat ingestion rather than Paula’s characteristic fried green tomatoes or chocolate covered cheesecake? Oh my goodness yes, and please do not mistake my endorsement of Paula Dean’s cooking mediums as agreement with some of her cooking methods or nutritional puns (or body composition). But in regards to her usage of fats, she’s not as far off the mark as most people might think. As a matter of fact high fat diets (=/> 50% Kcal based on 2000kcal diet) have been shown to reduce incidence of heart disease by 30%, was shown to be more successful at regulating blood lipids, hypertension, and reproductive hormone status, and resulted in over 40% more weight loss when practiced 2 years along side clients with low-fat diets. This information resulted of a span of studies that took place between 2008 and 2011 and involved more that 10,000 people.
The simple addition of butter as a cooking medium, the use of olive oils for salad dressings, and the addition of nuts and legumes have been shown to decrease mortality by 30%, which is the central tenant behind Sardinian lifestyle – a small nation about 120mi off the coast of Italy which currently boasts the highest reported longevity. While there are some additional features of fat utilization that pertain directly to performance, the inclusion of fats in abundance within daily nutritional intake IS part (if not a large part) of what constitutes the perfect human diet.
Many nutritional experts maintain that vegetarianism is really the only solution to long-term health, and while I accept that it is the ONLY nutritional regime shown empirically to reverse the signs of heart disease, my thoughts are simple: I. DON’T. CARE. Please do not interpret my candor as disinterest or apathy. The only statement to which I will not yield is that an inclusion of over 40% daily intake of calories should be from sources of fat, whether derived from animal or plant sources is irrelevant to me. There is currently, simply not enough research to justify the use of one strategy over another. My advice to anyone, as a nutritional and metabolic biochemist (chemical geek) is pay allegiance to the method of nutrition that you feel most suits your lifestyle, goals, and/or socio-nutritional deportment. As long as this diet adheres to fat, carbohydrate, and protein ratios (40%, 35%, and 25%, respectively) that provides direction for your body to utilize fat stores over carbohydrates I am satisfied. Doing so will benefit you in ways that you will realize as you perform on a daily basis, the way your body creates energy in the other 23hrs a day you are alive and not exercising, and will safeguard your body against the continual rigors of aging. More importantly, you are making improvements in basic cardiovascular function in a manner that is lifelong and generally focused on making your body a much more efficient metabolic machine.