We have a complex about fat. So ingrained is the message of how fat clogs up our arteries, increases our apple-shaped girths, sends our risk of heart disease soaring and is linked to the hooded claw that is cholesterol. The expression ‘a moment on the lips a lifetime on the hips’ was probably specifically invented for this fat phobia.
The impression given by health writers in the 80s and 90s was that fat was definitely public enemy number one. There were well-meaning diet gurus writing books telling us to avoid it at all costs. However, all fat was not created equal and as we are finding out to our cost, avoiding all kinds of fat is detrimental to our health.
Oil in its unprocessed form is highly perishable and before man moved en masse into the towns, oil used to be sold fresh door to door. Although this is hard to believe nowadays due to the highly processed yellow cooking oils available in supermarkets, if oil wasn’t kept cool it would go off and be rancid in a matter of days. The advertising boys have managed to persuade us that we should go for the polyunsaturated or cholesterol-free oils, but these oils have often been refined very highly using high heat and bleaches that strip them of any nutritional value and may in fact make them unstable and potentially toxic.
The chemical building blocks that oils are made up of are called fatty acids, and the fatty acids that are essential to human health and cannot be manufactured by the body are called essential fatty acids or EFAs. As their name would suggest, these oils really are essential to human health and without them we’d be on the fast track to degenerative disease.
EFAs have a more than magical effect on our health wellbeing. Our skin is waterproofed with oil, and our harmones and brains work with it. In fact, the brain is more than 60% fat, which makes the insult ‘fat head’ actually quite a compliment. The list of essential fats’ great benefits to humankind is really quite impressive. They improve skin and hair condition, aid in the prevention of arthritis and lower cholesterol levels, and that’s just for starters. They’re also helpful in terms of heart disease and eczema, they reduce inflammation in the body and help in the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain, Your body is made up of tiny individual cells, each one crying out for EFAs to make the machine of your body operate. On top of all this, EFAs may help to reduce the likelihood of getting a harmful blood clot.
The two basic groups of EFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 groups. Omega-6 is found mostly in raw nuts, seeds, legumes and in unsaturated oils such as evening primrose oil or sesame oil. Omega-3 is found mainly in fresh deep-water fish, some vegetable oils, flaxseed oil and walnut oil. You mum was right, fish does make you brainy!
Having said all this, the one thing you don’t do is cook with essential fats as they’re highly unstable. The heat destroys the fatty acids and worse it results in dangerous chemical agents called free radicals, which sounds like something out of Star Wars. Better to cook with olive oil, which isn’t an essential fat, but a monounsaturated fat that takes higher temperatures to damage it.
The Fat Guru
The guru of fats is someone by the name of Udo Erasmus who knows all there is to know about oils and what they do for you. In his book Fats that Heal, Fats that kill, fats are examined in some considerable detail. He says that EFAs should be consumed in a ratio of about 3:1 to 5:1 for omega-6 and omega-3 respectively. Reality is that nowadays we consume a ratio of 10:1 to 20:1. We’re cruising for a bruising in health terms as our bodies struggle to use the wrong ratio of fuel to power our system.