Many patients come to me with dry, itchy skin, cracked heels and flaking nails. The first question I ask is, ‘What does your diet look like?’ and almost invariably, their diet consists of highly processed foods, foods cooked in sunflower or canola oil, take away foods, and the occasional salad or vegetable. Alternatively, the opposite is true. The patient has removed all fat from their diet in an attempt to lose weight and the result, in both case, is problematic.
Our body needs good quality fat to function optimally. Every single one of our approximately 100 trillion cells, is surrounded by a fatty membrane. In addition, the precursor to our hormones, is cholesterol, so a balance between saturated fats and Omega 3, with minimal omega 6, (with the exception of omega 6 oils such as evening primrose), is essential for health.
So how do you know if your body is not getting enough good quality fat?
- Dry skin and cracked heels
- Inflamed and painful joints
- Dry, flaky nails
- Hard ear wax
- Small bumps on the backs of your arms
- Memory and mood problems
- Hormonal imbalances
- Poor stress management
- Weight gain
While the body is an interconnected web and some of the conditions mentioned have a cascade of other contributory factors, low and poor quality fat intake is a player in poor health, in contrast to the outdated belief that fat is bad for you.
Not one of us would consider building our house using poor quality bricks and cement and yet we continue to feed our body with food that ultimately leads to poor health and in some cases, catastrophic challenges such as cancer. Far better is developing a practice of feeding the body with high quality materials that will result in prompt and efficient repair, high energy and efficient cellular communication.
Poor quality fats result in a cell membrane that is stiff and rigid and not soft and fluid. A fluid membrane allows the transference of nutrients, vitamins and hormones that assist the cell metabolism. In contrast, when the membrane is rigid and inflexible, the receptor sites are distorted and do not offer docking sites conducive to efficient transfer.
In addition to that, because communication between cells is poor, this increases susceptibility to inflammation, immune problems and DNA damage, as necessary vitamins and minerals are also prevented from reaching their targets. Consuming healthy fats also helps us absorb the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
What foods must I avoid
- Processed foods. These contain cheap fats, high levels of omega 6 and trans fats
- Sunflower oil, canola oils, cottonseed, safflower, corn oil
Please see the following article on oils and fats used in processed foods.
Deep fried take away and commercial foods.
We all love that heady smell of take- away chips. That delicious aroma of salt with a touch of vinegar, crispy edges, soft inside. Yum. Or what about that quick mid afternoon snack of crisp chips, purchased from the vending machine or the company kiosk.
Aside from the sublime eating pleasure, what are we really putting inside our body and is it worth it?
A few years ago, we were told that saturated fats were lethal for heart health and that margarine or ‘heart healthy’ tubs of spread were suddenly a healthier choice. Food manufacturers were delighted with this. Liquid fats such as sunflower oil, corn oil and canola oil are cheaper than butter and coconut oil but the downside to these liquid fats, is that they destabilize and deteriorate quickly. Light and heat negatively affect their chemical structure. To stabilize these oils, manufacturers ‘hydrogenated’ them (combined them with hydrogen atoms using a nickel catalyst) and lo and behold.. a longer shelf life. However, this process produced trans-fats which are deadly to health. There are no safe minimal levels to trans-fats and as consumers have become aware of this, manufacturers have been forced to re-look at the way they produce their processed foods. Many processed foods such as biscuits, popcorn, frozen pies, pizza, coffee creamers and many others, still contain hydrogenated fats and margarine. Indeed margarine is still sold as a ‘healthy’ alternative to butter in spite of undisputed evidence that it is not healthy at all. On the contrary, it is downright risky.
Now few people are unaware of the dangers of trans-fat. We look for labels that state, NO trans-fats and we believe we are doing the right thing. We use sunflower oil to fry at home and because sunflower seeds are plants, we again believe we are making healthy choices. Butter bad, sunflower oil good!
Some manufacturers have reverted back to the liquid, more unstable fats and this is where the ‘hidden’ dangers lie.
Buying deep fried ‘slap’ chips for example.
The oil in the deep fryers is re-used repeatedly and the degraded oils have health as well as practical disadvantages. One of the practical disadvantages is a ‘mist’ of polymers that clings, like a varnish, to stoves, extractors and even the clothes and hair of the cooks.
Health-wise, the aldehyde, caused by the chemical breakdown, is extremely toxic and has been cited in scientific journals as being responsible for several diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So even though manufacturers are eliminating trans-fats, the alternatives with deep fried foods, is not much better.
What alternative is now emerging?
The latest oil for frying is high in Omega 9. (That’s sounds better we think) We see combinations of omega 3, 6 and 9 in the health shops. Surely this is a healthier alternative. But is it?
Sadly, at high heat, omega 9 (including olive oil) denatures into acrolein, (acrylamides) a strong smelling, possibly carcinogenic aldehyde that irritates the eyes and respiratory tract. The oxidised monomeric triglycerides produced at high heat have also been linked to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Every time the oil is reheated, it breaks down still further and oils in factory settings are sometimes reused for up to 2 weeks. That is a lot of breakdown happening.
That is not the only assault to our health. The oils used are also treated to make them acceptable for commercial use. They are certainly not gently pressed and virgin, as we would hope from our salad oil. They are known rather as RBD oils. RBD stands for refined, bleached and deodorised.
This process involves the seeds being crushed and the oil extracted using solvents such as hexane. Then more chemicals are used to remove as much of the solvent as they can from the residue (not all is removed). The result leaves a bit of a gummy residue, which is then ‘degummed’ using acids or enzymes. At this point the oil is already hot and breakdown has begun.
Oh yes… and now it’s a bit smelly and not very appetizing so now the process of bleaching and deodorizing starts, using clay and then heating it to very high heat, at least twice, to get rid of the smell. ( I am smelling a rat by now!)
Food manufacturers also add chemicals to the oils to extend the ‘fry life’. Some of these are the same chemicals that are added to resins and varnish. One of these is actually the same chemical, propylene glycol, you put in your car as anti -freeze. After that, an antifoaming agent is added (a type of silicon called polydimetholsiloxane) plus an anti-splatter (Lecithin.) (Whew, I recognise that name, thank goodness.)
Oh yes, I forgot. Now there is an emulsifier added and sometimes filters are used such as silica, bentonite and perlite, to filter out the gunk from the previous day.
Deep fried commercial foods include: chicken nuggets doughnuts, chicken Kiev, yet when I looked on the label, none of the above was mentioned. This is because they are ‘processing aids’ and not additives, and therefore there is no legal requirement to mention them, but they certainly do not evaporate into thin air once the food is on my plate, about to enter my body.
In the US, the acrylamide produced by the high heat has been classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a ‘probable carcinogen’, especially to children. Crisps and chips have been identified as the biggest source of acrylamide in the diet of children.
Take Away Point
We all love these convenience foods but the impact on health can be profound. I suggest you have a ‘food holiday’ once a month, where you allow yourself a day of enjoying the foods you love, but have abstained from for the month. You will possibly find that your enjoyment of them changes over time but if you really feel like a ‘cheat’ from health, you know there is a day allocated to enjoy them.
What shall I add to my diet?
- Omega 3. Around 2g per day. Alternatively, add sardines and other small oily fish such as herring. Salmon is wonderful for Omega 3 but sadly most salmon is farmed and full of mercury. omega-3s, help lower levels of bad fats (triglycerides) and raise levels of good fats (HDL). Omega-3 fats make blood more slippery, reducing the likelihood of artery disease.
- Healthy Omega 6 from whole nuts and seeds such as Brazil nuts
- Organic ground Flax seeds or flax seed oil. Add the oil to your salad. Do not heat either olive oil or Flax oil
- Coconut oil for cooking or frying. Coconut oil has beneficial medium chain triglycerides. Organic butter from grass fed cows is very beneficial. Use ghee if you are sensitive to dairy. Butter also does not denature at high heat as oils do.
- Avocado and olives