When it comes to heart attack the main contributing factors for this condition have been either stroke, being overweight or obese. The culprit for all these factors has been fat. However this isn’t the absolute truth. Most of us, particularly the ones who have suffered heart attacks, strokes and have higher blood cholesterol fear consuming fat. Let me brief the readers on the importance of consuming fat to enjoy a healthy life and clarify some misunderstanding about fat and carbohydrates (starch). For this purpose we spoke to Dr K T Sundaresan who is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Health Care Sciences in the Eastern University, Sri Lanka and a Honorary Consultant Physician at the Teaching Hospital in Batticaloa and a UN Physician (Eastern Province of Sri Lanka).
The following are considered as good fats which and have many health benefits which includes protecting the heart and brain from heart attacks and strokes.
Omega 3 fatty acids: It is a type of good fat called poly unsaturated fatty acid. It is very popular in the western world. They are necessary for human health, but the body can’t produce them. You have to get them through food. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, such as salmon, tuna and nuts such as almond nuts, sesame seed and flax seeds.
There are several other good polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats (another type of good fat) found in Avocado (Butter fruit), cashew nuts and peanuts etc.
The above mentioned fats (polyunsaturated including omega 3 fat and mono unsaturated fat) without doubt are important fats to keep healthy our heart, brain and joints and to prevent heart attacks, strokes and several cancers.
Let us look at the bad cholesterol. The below mentioned fats need to be completely avoided as they cause cholesterol deposition in the blood vessels (atherosclerosis) of the heart, brain and other parts of the body which lead to heart attacks and strokes.
“Any food that contains or is labelled as hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated or trans-fat must be avoided. These are often present in man-made fat. For commercial purposes the liquid vegetable oil is converted to hard solid fat by hydrogenation. This is done to extend the shelf life of the food and give them flavour. Examples of food that contain these fat are margarines, fast foods, certain baked foods, some coffees creams, frozen pizzas and fried food” Dr. Sundaresan added.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of United States has already taken steps to ban the Trans fatty acids by 2018 after realizing its contributions to heart disease. The FDA states that by banning trans-fat, as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7000 deaths can be prevented each year in America. The Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine in Sri Lanka too has taken steps to reduce the trans fatty acid consumption in the island.
Controversies regarding fat
The following statements are based on research evidence and expert opinion. Readers should be critical when analyzing facts before accepting them. “A type of fat that is termed saturated fat was considered as the major cause of heart diseases, strokes and many other diseases in the recent past. The following foods are examples of food which contain saturated fat; cow’s milk, butter, cheese, meat, egg etc. In fact after analyzing many studies, scientists affirm that saturated fat being a cause of heart disease is only a hypothesis and not supported by concrete proof. This type of fat increasing cholesterol in the blood and high cholesterol in turn raising the risk of heart diseases is not a well proven hypothesis” he said.
The most important first comprehensive study done in1950s by biochemist Ancel Keys on fat was highly manipulated to prove the above theory. When the investigator analyzed the total fat consumption and heart diseases in 22 countries, he noticed that there were countries such as Holland and Norway which had a higher consumption of fat with decreased incidences of heart attacks. A country like Chile has a decreased fat consumption, but has seen an increase in heart attacks.
He purposefully and unethically removed these countries in his studies to prove his theory. The recent study done in 18 countries taking into account more than 100,000 people in all 5 continents, concluded that higher the consumption of carbohydrates higher the deaths due to various diseases. It was also observed that the higher the fat (including saturated fat) consumption lesser the deaths. Again we need to be very cautious in interpreting this study too!
USA (FDA) after realising that the culprit is mainly carbohydrate and some other fat such as trans-fat and not saturated fat- as there is no proven link between cholesterol and heart attack- has taken action in removing the restriction of daily cholesterol consumption. It seems that the saturated fat is not harmful as we have thought before.
Coconut oil too was once considered as bad fat without there being definite evidence. It has a special type of saturated fat called medium chain fatty acid which has plenty of health benefits to the brain, heart, skin and so on. This oil also has some antibacterial and anti-fungal effects. I firmly believe that we need to consume more coconut oil and coconut milk. This is one of the best oils we have in our region.
It seems that fat in cow’s milk, butter and cheese too may not be harmful. It may have many health benefits. Do you know that human breast milk also contains saturated fat?
It is also a myth that the consumption of fat causes weight gain. Interestingly many studies show that the reverse is true that it helps to reduce weight. Mainly the starch or carbohydrate causes weight gain. The excess starch is converted into fat in the body and stored beneath the skin and other organs. Further it may help in forming the cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels (atherosclerosis).
It seems that lesser the carbohydrate and higher the good fat is a better combination for a healthy life” said Dr.Sundaresan. Even though this article discusses mainly fat and carbohydrate, the most crucial diet component such as vitamins, minerals and a special micro-nutrient called phytonutrients- in green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts and fruits- should not be ignored. These foods prevent many deaths due to heart diseases, strokes, cancers and several other non-communicable diseases.
Fat and cholesterol are essential
Fat and cholesterol are important structural components of the cell wall of all human beings.
“Cholesterol plays an important role in the synthesis of several vital hormones namely sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and other hormones such as aldosterone, vitamin D and so on. Cholesterol is important to have a healthy brain and nerves. It is impossible to live without cholesterol or fat. Most of the cholesterols are produced by our liver” Dr. Sundaresan.
Before looking at the controversies associated with fat let us discuss about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fat accepted universally and backed by research evidence.