All fat is bad. Right?
Actually, this is wrong wrong wrong. All fat is not bad - another myth.We should not live in fear of fats and oils - for starters they make food taste better, but best of all they offer many nutritional benefits, make the gut feel fuller, and would you believe, can even help the body lose weight.
It's all about the type of fat you eat/feed; consuming natural, wholefood-based healthy fats which, shock-horror, includes saturated fats, is absolutely critical for good health. We’ve been conditioned to believe that unsaturated fats from vegetable and seed oils are best, and that butter, coconut oil, lard, ghee, and other saturated fats are toxic. In fact, the reverse is true.
Humans these days are eating frightening amounts of refined vegetable oils, seed oils, and omega-6 fats, all of which contribute to inflammation and chronic diseases. Why? Because they've been industrially produced, highly processed, and chemically treated. We shouldn't put them on our skin, let alone inside our sensitive digestive systems, and the same rule applies 100% for our horses.
We need to feed the right fats which are the preferred fuel for the body's cells, especially what's known as MCT's, aka Medium Chain Triglycerides. Good, healthy, nutrient-rich fats literally lubricate the metabolic wheels.
The real skinny on fat
There's good fat, questionable fat, and downright bad fat, so where did this whole idea that "all fat is bad" originally start? The idea that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad for health? How did we get to the point where two thirds of our human society is overweight or obese? One thing I can tell you for sure - it didn't happen by accident.
We need to go back to the late 1950s, when the western world had been in a panic over the rising tide of heart disease over the last decade, that had pretty much come out of nowhere. In the early 1900s heart disease was rare, yet by the ‘50s it had become the western world’s number one killer.The players in this story are a pathologist at the University of Minnesota named Ancel Benjamin Keys, who was career-driven and had a theory, with one heck of an ego and friends in the right places. We also have President Eisenhower who triggered the whole sorry saga unintentionally, and his personal physician, Paul Dudley White.
In 1955, when Eisenhower was on the golf course on the 9th hole, he had a heart attack. He was out of the Oval Office for ten days, which was unheard of – imagine, a President being out of action for ten days, and all the more so at a time when nobody really knew back then what caused heart disease. The previous generation, peoples' fathers and grandfathers, hadn’t died of heart disease; this was a new killer of unknown origin, all of a sudden killing men in their prime.
Before this, cardiologists had been known to practice for decades, some even their entire careers, without ever running into a heart attack case, but now there was this new phenomena. The previous decade had seen the rate of heart attacks increase dramatically, so the publicity around Eisenhower's heart attack was a pivotal moment in the history of medicine. He was a much-loved President so in the midst of this scary moment in American history, the word ‘heart attack’ became something that people were hearing for the first time, and were immediately terrified of it.
When the discomfort started, President Eisenhower initially thought it was indigestion because he’d just had a giant greasy hamburger for lunch, which he did often, and frequently experienced heartburn soon after. He thought the pain would pass, but it didn't, so his personal physician, Paul Dudley White, examined him, concerned that this was actually a heart attack, but very much out of his depth because there was a very poor understanding of what a heart attack even was. The news broke, and the stock market plummeted six percent, $14 billion in a day.
His treatment involved strict bed rest, and he was told to stop eating butter and switch to margarine, to give up red meat and to eat dry crackers and bread. This didn’t spare him as not long afterwards he had another heart attack which killed him. Maybe now's the time to add that he was also a four pack a day smoker.
Into this vacuum came a professor named Ancel Benjamin Keys, who had an idea that Eisenhower’s heart attack was due to saturated fat causing raised cholesterol, which would "clog your arteries like hot grease down a cold pipe" and give you a heart attack and boom, you were dead. This idea became known as the ‘diet-heart hypothesis’.
What Eisenhower’s heart attack did was enable Keys, a career-driven man with an agenda, to create this mythology around fat and become famous. Keys was able to secure funding for a major study and had already been building a reputation for himself as somewhat of an expert in this area. His idea was starting to establish itself that the cause of heart attacks was related to dietary indulgences, particularly saturated fat.
With all this attention, Keys’ ego was growing. He became known for an aggressive, domineering personality and he was able to convince people of anything, exhausting every objection thrown at him. As a result, he was able to get his ‘diet-heart hypothesis’ implanted into the American Heart Association. He got ono their nutrition committee, and in 1961 issued the first advice worldwide: "Avoid saturated fat and cholesterol in order to prevent heart disease." This was the tiny acorn that grew into the giant oak tree of advice that we now have all over the world.
Now re-enter Paul Dudley White, Eisenhower’s former GP. Keys ultimately compelled him to his way of thinking due to a study he’d done on the causes of heart-attacks. Thing is, there were many flaws in the study.
The "Seven Countries Study" was an epidemiological study (the study and analysis of the distribution (who, when, and where) and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations), which meant it only showed association as opposed to causation, so straight away there was a fundamental flaw. However, it was the only study that people had at the time - there were no counter studies to show anything else. So, this was the study that prevailed, and what it appeared to find was that the people who ate diets higher in saturated fat were more likely to raise their cholesterol and die of a heart attack.
It’s now well known that Keys clearly cherry-picked the countries that he visited; he knew that if he went to the southern parts of Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, they didn't eat a lot of saturated fats and lived long lives.
He also knew to avoid countries like Northern Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany, where they ate a lot of butter and red meat yet they lived just as long, with equal rates of heart disease post WWII. Keys knew that the stats from these countries would contradict his hypothesis.
The Seven Countries Study became one of the most famous cardiology studies of all time, being cited tens of thousands of times by articles later. And it’s this that convinces Paul Dudley White, who also happens to be one of the founding members of the AHA. And when the AHA went from a small, underfunded professional organisation to a much bigger powerhouse, it was Paul Dudley White's doing because he was a great fundraiser; he brokered a connection between Proctor & Gamble that gave the AHA a $1.7 million endowment.
This set the stage for the AHA to become the powerhouse that it is today. And in doing so, it paved the way for Proctor & Gamble to manufacture foods made with vegetable oil instead of natural, unsaturated fat; in other words, the beginnings of a potentially biased connection between big food industry and medicine.
Now here’s another thing. Keys originally made a name for himself originally in the military. He created what was known as the K-Ration (the K standing for Keys), which was a processed foodstuff which fed soldiers during WWII. It was the first complete ready-meal, as in rip and eat, no cooking required.
Jump forward again to the early 1960’s and the AHA’s connection to Proctor & Gamble, and Keys is now opening the door for processed food manufacturers to sell us whatever they wanted as long as it was low in saturated fat.
The dark side
It’s 1961 and by now, everyone’s blaming fat and cholesterol. Keys appears on the cover of Time Magazine in the same year that the AHA, the only health organisation out there counselling people on how to avoid heart disease, takes this message worldwide –
“In order to avoid a heart attack, you need to avoid saturated fat and cholesterol. Eat less meat, less cheese, fewer eggs, more grains, more cereals, fruits and vegetables, and vegetable oils.”
It’s generally thought that Keys genuinely believed fat was bad for health, but he didn’t behave like a scientist, who are supposed to question and doubt their beliefs and try to prove themselves wrong, trying every angle to find the truth, not necessarily the promotion of your own ideas. However, Keys played a different way - he would disregard or actually bully and squash anybody who challenged his ideas.
He didn't just collect data on saturated fat, he also collected data on smoking. The countries that had the most heart disease on his Seven Countries study also had the highest rates of smoking, and he saw this over and over again.
But that's not what he published. That's not what he talked about. He talked only about saturated fat. In his interview with Time Magazine, where Time Magazine talked about the other factors being blood pressure, hypertension and smoking, Keys said, "Those don't play very much of a role. It's cholesterol. It's the saturated fat driving up cholesterol." Despite the fact that he had the data proving otherwise.
The Seven Country Study data was in by 1958. Time Magazine interviewed him in 1961. Yet he lied, knowing it was going to be good for Proctor & Gamble. The real cause of heart attack death in Keys' time was cigarette smoking; it wasn't diet at all because at that point in time, ready-meals was still a very new 'thing' so most people were still preparing their meals from fresh food, and there wasn't that much processed vegetable oil yet. The die was cast for Americans to be lied to by the AHA and by their doctors for the next half century.
As Keys' diet-heart hypothesis grew in popularity and was adopted by the western worlds' established authorities, it became more difficult for scientists to speak out. One prominent lipidologist named Ed Pete Ahrens of Rockefeller University, was an outspoken critic of Keys. Increasingly he would be uninvited from expert panels, had trouble getting his papers published, and he was known to tell his colleagues that his career suffered greatly for opposing Keys.
Another scientist, George Mann, University of Vanderbilt, said in an interview that he used to call Keys and the tight group around him, the 'diet mafia', because they controlled all of expert panels and medical journals. He also claims that Keys ruined his career. He’d been an extremely prominent biochemist and had run many studies for the National Institute of Health. He claims that he was told that if he continued to oppose Keys, it would cost him his research grant. Sure enough, he lost it.
Scientists who spoke out were clearly punished. If the NIS stopped your research grants, it took the life blood away from the progression of science. As the next generation of scientists came along, they’d seen what had happened to the generation before them, and so they self-censored. This practice continued throughout the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s.
It really didn't start up again until 2010 when Gary Taubes (an American journalist, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia educated, writer and low-carbohydrate diet advocate, author amongst many others of The Diet Delusion) had an article on the cover of the New York Times Magazine saying, “What if it's all been a big mistake? Maybe it's carbohydrates instead that are really the dietary villains.”
And so this idea disseminated out through the expert community, and slowly but surely the scientists and professors started researching this idea. By now, with growing rates of obesity, governments and major institutions knew they needed new science. As a result, several ambitious, randomised control clinical trials were carried out to see if they could prove Keys right. Ultimately, over 65,000 people were tested on his hypothesis: does saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease? And here’s what’s astonishing - in none of those experiments could they show that to be true. None of the results supported his hypothesis.
As far as the medical profession is concerned, the only way to lower cholesterol levels is through pharmaceuticals called statins. Which means that the processed food manufacturers have benefitted because they don’t use saturated fat, i.e. butter and eggs and actual, er, food. The pharmaceutical companies have benefitted because the only way to get somebody's cholesterol levels into the alleged healthy zone is with drugs.
Ancel Keys set off an atom bomb in health and it changed the course of history. Back in his day, Type 2 Diabetes was unheard of. These days, the rates of obesity or unhealthy diets have so dramatically accelerated that now children aged 2 are being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, with strokes and heart attacks as young as children age 3 to 4.
Since the early 2000s there have been a huge volume of studies now looking at carbs as the cause, which has led to a large and fast growing volume of literature that makes the case that Gary Taubes was right; that we need to reduce carbohydrates in order to be healthy.
The truth about fats
From a horse carer's perspective, we’ve been taught to think of fat/oil as a creator of body fat, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, good fats/oils are super healthy, yet most of us label all fats/oils as bad. The truth is that all fats are not created equal - just like the many different feedbags out there, there are good fats, questionable fats and downright bad fats, as said earlier, aka FrankenFats, typically what you see on the supermarket shelves, man-made, and highly processed.
Vets and doctors are usually confused about fat, clinging to myths and misinformation that prevents them from understanding the latest science to achieve optimal health, as well as not recognising the ability to actually lose weight with fat in the diet under a controlled eating plan.
So, let’s remind ourselves of the myths that we’re no doubt familiar with:
- Fat makes us fat.
- Fat causes heart disease.
- Fat raises cholesterol.
- One of the most common - fat leads to obesity.
- And finally, the infamous myth, that saturated fat is bad.
Simply put, these and other fat myths are completely wrong, but thankfully the importance of fat is finally starting to catch on. Fat doesn’t make us fat, but the wrong fats can wreak serious metabolic havoc. Eating healthy fat speeds up metabolism, releases fat from fat cells and cuts hunger, while eating carbs does the exact opposite. It’s carbs and sugar that store fat in the body and slows metabolism, while creating cravings and hunger for even more carbs.
Here are just some of the benefits of healthy fat:
- Fats help the body feel full and satiated.
- Fats regulate inflammation and metabolism.
- Fats are needed for healthy cell membranes and to make immune cells.
- Fats are needed to make hormones.
- And, fats are needed because would you believe that over 50% of the brain is fat, which is a whole other subject in itself.
We all know that fat is needed for turmeric digestion, because being fat-soluble means it can’t be digested and absorbed unless fat is present. But perhaps even more importantly for our horses, fat and grass are the perfect pairing, because many of the important nutrients in grass – Vits A, D, E, and K - are also fat-soluble. Without fat in the feedbowl, these fat-soluble vitamins in grass won’t be well absorbed.
Fat is one of the body’s most basic building blocks. The average human is made up of between 15 and 30 percent fat, yet for decades, we’ve diligently followed low-fat diets that almost always equate to highly refined carb diets which simply don’t work. This contributes to insulin resistance, obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and many other health issues. The real truth is that if there's quality, healthful fat in the diet, the better the body will function.
So what’s the difference between all these fats?
Astonishingly, there are hundreds of thousands of studies, as in over 600,000, on fats and their effects on health. Interesting when you consider we’ve been led to believe that all fats are bad ... To understand how fats affect health, we need to understand that there are fats that heal and fats that don’t. Simples.
The myth that all fats are bad comes from one type of fat, and that’s trans fat, aka hydrogenated fat, and it’s important to know that these aren’t natural fats. Trans fats are adulterated fats in that they’ve had hydrogen molecules injected into the fat-making process to make a non-saturated fat a saturated fat. You’ll no doubt be relieved to know that trans fats/hydrogenated fats are no longer permitted in food production, although there are still some sneaky manufacturers that loophole through the regulations and include it, but that’s another story.
Anyway, trans fat or not, the whole fat subject can be almighty confusing, so let’s try to clear up the fat myths and mystery, and explain the difference between saturated fat versus unsaturated fat. Importantly, we’ll also immediately dispel the myth that saturated fat is a bad fat and about to clog arteries.
Put scientifically (here's a tiny Science Alert), a saturated fat has multiple (natural) hydrogen bonds, meaning that there’re so many hydrogen bonds that the fat is literally ‘saturated’. This is why butter is solid at room temperature, and coconut oil is solid above 72-deg F.
This means a saturated fat is stable, which is good; the more structure it has – the more structure anything has - the more stable it is. What it doesn’t mean is that it’s going to clog arteries – it has nothing to do with this. The word saturated is simply about the stability of the fat.
Now to monounsaturated fat, i.e. avocado oil. The mono means it has one bond that isn’t bonded to hydrogen, so it’s almost saturated. It’s still a very stable fat but not quite as stable as a saturated fat.
Now to polyunsaturated, aka PUFAs, i.e. vegetable oils, the type you see in the supermarket, and this includes olive oil*. These fats have many bonds that aren’t occupied by hydrogen so what happens is that they can be occupied by oxygen and become oxidised, i.e. toxic.
Now for the non-scientific way to look at it, yay!
Picture a large dining table, totally, er, ‘saturated’ with everyone sitting down at the table for dinner, all the seats occupied with no open seats available. Meaning the Oxygen Boogie-Man can’t take a seat and turn everyone bad.
But what if there’s one seat free at the table? There’s a very small chance, but still a chance, that a bad oxygen molecule will take a seat. This is your mono-unsaturated fat.
However, if there are multiple seats available, it’s like Open Day for the multiple bad oxygen molecules to come in and turn the whole table bad into unstable PUFAs.
Pulling this together
A saturated fat is the most stable, the most secure, the least likely to go rancid, fat. There’s a tiny chance that mono-unsaturated may become rancid although not that big a chance, but the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are very unstable, or as some like to call them, ‘fragile’.
* A quick note on olive oil. It’s the highest quality PUFA but because of its fragility we really shouldn’t cook with it. Although it’s a healthy oil, its PUFA status makes it unstable to cook with because, as it’s heated its fragility breaks apart so it becomes rancid and unhealthy. It should only be added to food at room temperature or slightly warm. The only fats we should use for cooking are butter or coconut oil.
Here’s the thing with PUFAs; they’re unstable/fragile, yet we think they’re durable enough to sling into the frying pan. So much damage is done to these oils when they’re processed for shelf life; they’re one of our most sensitive nutrients and need the most care when being handled, yet they’re highly processed with harsh chemicals used to 'wash' the oil, so they become very damaged. So many health problems come from these damaged, inflammatory oils which is a tragedy as they begin their life as a natural plant product. If they were manufactured with health in mind, it could be a very different story.
Healthy fats for our horses
Let’s talk EFA’s – Essential Fatty Acids, aka the omegas, which are the building blocks of fats. Mini-Science-Alert again - dietary fats are made up of 3 (tri) fatty acids (omegas 3, 6 and 9 EFA’s) attached to a glycerol backbone, hence the term ‘tri-glyceride’ – 'tri' for 'three' and 'glyceride' for that glycerol backbone. You’ve probably heard of short-chain triglyceride, medium-chain triglyceride and long-chain-triglyceride.
In horse-world there are two classes of EFA’s, omega-3 and omega-6, which need to be in the diet for optimal immune function. Omega-3 contributes to normal homeostatic balancing of inflammation, as well as vision, the nervous system and cellular membrane integrity. However, as with minerals, omega-3 and omega-6 must be in the correct ratios to each other of 2:1, otherwise a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 creates an inflammatory state.
This means that good fats/oils will be high in omega-3’s, i.e. coconut, linseed and some olive oils, but beware the cheaper olive oils as they’re blended from many oils of lower quality. For a reasonably priced, safe olive oil, Tesco’s do their own organic brand, 500ml for around £3.50 (as at summer 2018).
Bad fats/oils are the other way round, higher in omega-6 than omega-3 which means they’re inflammatory. Generally, it’s best to avoid any oil where you see ‘polyunsaturated’ on the label, or to make it easy, simply avoid the supermarket oils such as corn, sunflower, canola, or worse, when it just says ‘vegetable’ oil.
My fats/oils of choice
I think everyone knows I'm a fan of Copra and Linseed (the micronised linseed itself, not the plain oil). Copra is rich in natural coconut oil, which is a highly beneficial MCT (medium chain triglyceride), so a superior healthful fat. Stance Equine’s Coolstance Copra provides coconut oil in its natural form as an equine feed, alongside a good source of fibre and nutrients.
Linseed is best known for its high omega-3 fatty-acid content, with the low-heat micronisation process preserving this valuable EFA. Linseed comes in at around 30%+ fat, with the same high omega-3 profile as fresh grass.
So now we know the real story about fats/oils, the next page explains what I like to feed my horses, and why.