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Dissecting the Healthy Living Food Pyramid; Part 1
By: Monika Eskandarian


Biological Normality; "The Conditions to which presumably we are genetically adapted". (page 68, The Fat Cholesterol Hypothesis-Good Calories, Bad Calories; Gary Taubes)

I often think about, as well as Im asked by clients; What are the best foods to eat? Both for health and for maintaing a healthy body weight. The answer used to be simple, after all I went to college, I read all the fitness magazines, I watch TV- they all tell me the same thing.

Nutrition Australia has the answer with the Healthy living food pyramid.
The base layer (that tells us what to eat the most of) includes only plant based foods; vegetables, fruits, nuts, dried peas..?, beans, lentils, breads, cereals-preferably wholegrain. They explain all this by saying; "these foods contain many different nutrients and should make up the bulk of the foods we eat, eating a variety of these foods should provide good amount of energy from carbohydrate, as well as protein, minerals, vitamins and dietary fibre". In other words these foods are nutrient dense i.e each food contains "a lot" of nutrients for each Kj...its not really specific about that. (www.nutritionaustralia.org/healthyliving)

Im willing to bet that there are a lot more foods that are more nutrient dense per Kj than for example 'dried peas'.

The pyramid also tells you to eat fish, lean meat, eggs, chicken (no skin please!!; I mean excuse me, but have you ever seen an animal skinning its dinner before eating it? and aren't we all animals too?), milk cheese and yoghurt. It states that a serving of meat, fish OR eggs and three serves of dairy each day will provide protein, minerals, and B vitamins.

That leaves us with the tip of the pyramid with sugars and fats. It goes on to explain that these foods should be limited because they lack a good supply of the nutrients needed for "growth, good health, and 'quick' energy". Quick energy? Weren't they advocating eating whole grains? And aren't they generally associated with being the best because of supplying us with 'slow release' energy? Don't we already associate 'quick' energy as being derived from simple carbs and sugars? My goodness...

For part one of this series I will look at Fat. Particularly what is considered to be saturated fat (demonized for so long by the medical profession and media) and the nutritional value it has for our body. I found in my research that it is actually critical for many of our bodies functions.

So what is Saturated fat?

All fatty acids are molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The difference between types of fats is a whole bunch of "geek speek" which basically boils down to this. Fat is made up of one or more 'double bonds'. Saturated fats have a single bond and unsaturated fat has more than one. Because of this difference in bonding, unsaturated fatty acid molecules have a bent shape, while saturated fatty acids are straight. For this reason fats that are more saturated tend to be more dense and are typically solid at room temperature. Anyway, unless you are a scientist or perhaps a dietician, this will mean pretty much nothing to you, but I had to include it, to give my article credibility!! :-)

Lets see what nutritional value we have in saturated fat, because as i mentioned earlier it does support many of the bodies critical function as i will outline below.

1/ Fat provides the body with 'physical protection'. It pads the surfaces of your palms, soles of feet, sitting bones. This makes it comfortable to walk and sit. Imagine having no padding on your feet! Fat also cushions your vital organs such as kidneys, intestines and heart.

2/ Energy source; 1g of fat = 9 calories........ 1g carbohydrate = 4 calories.
Fat can be used immediately or stored for later. Saturated fat accounts for nearly half of our body fat. The heart, liver and resting muscles consume most of the energy used by the body and prefer fat as their source of fuel. IN FACT; The saturated fats 'stearic acid' and 'palmitic acid' are the preferred source of energy for the heart which is a major contradiction to the idea that 'saturated fat' causes heart disease.

Unlike most other fats, short and medium chain fatty acids such as Caproic, Caprylic, Capric and Lauric fatty acid are easily absorbed through the intestines without the need to be broken down by bile acids. They go directly to the liver and this makes them an awesome source of energy! Coconut oil and Palm kernel oil are both abundant sources of Lauric acid.

3/ As a chef I have cooked A LOT!! I have used many types of oil for cooking. We always used different oils for frying and dressings because of the different ways in which these oils not only taste but because of their ability to reach the needed temperature and retain their freshness for the longest possible time; restaurants are always desperate to save money! SO i was always aware that the high temperature of cooking will damage oil, but what I didn't realise is that this is a massive health concern. This is especially the case with unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats (remember many double bonds) are the most unstable and when exposed to the high temperatures of cooking they easily become "oxidised". This causes them to form 'free radicals' that cause damage to our cells. in fact, free radical damage from Poly fats is now believed to be a major contributor to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease! Crazy hey? So, the Poly fats vegetable oils that have been pushed as 'heart healthy' (think of the heart foundations tick of approval) alternatives, including soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil and canola are anything but. These oils are unfortunately commonly used in restaurants and in the manufacturing of processed foods as the are quite abundant and CHEAP!

So what to cook with?? Basically you will be better off using fats that contain a higher percentage of saturated fatty acids, such as butter (think France; the country that consumes more butter than any other with the lowest incidence of heart disease and obesity) coconut oil and Palm oil. These fats are very stable, don't oxidise and are also highly nutritious. PLUS cooking with coconut oil smells and tastes amazing. Seriously. Making your stir-fry base of onion, chilli, ginger and garlic in coconut oil is heaven- in stir fry form!

4/ FACT; more than half of the human brain consists of fat and cholesterol. The other half will depend on whether its a male or a female brain...KIDDING! About the second part only.
This fat and cholesterol is in the 'myelin sheath' that surounds the nerve fibres and preserves the proper function of the brain and the nervous system. If this protective layer is compromised- well, youre in trouble! The same applies to our cell membrane, and it is believed that the cell membrane is responsible for regulating gene expression. (The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton 2005)

5/ Stronger Immunity; Short and medium chain fatty acids, particularly Lauric acid found in Coconut and Palm kernel oil, have natural antimicrobial properties that can provide protection against undesirable microorganisms in the intestine and provide a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria. This is important because intestines account for more than two thirds of the immune system and have a massive influence on our health.
Saturated fat helps protect us against toxic substances such as alcohol, they help to reverse liver damage cause by excessive alcohol consumption. Food for thought (pardon the pun) for next time you go on a bender! Maybe that creamy Indian curry is not such a bad idea after all...just forgo the rice. If you're into Paleo or thinking about it :-)

6/ Lastly, as i train outdoors, one of my obsessions in life is moisturising my skin. I hate the idea of getting all spotty and wrinkled up so i moisturise and use sunblock. So the great news here is that saturated fat makes skin more resilient to oxidative damage from the sun. This helps to prevent sunburn, wrinkles and skin cancer. Now, every time i cook with Extra Virgin Coconut oil, i think about all the money Im saving on Botox! On the serious side, the more Im learning about the merits of using real food, the more Im getting a kick of nourishing my body and feeling the benefits.

Were constantly bombarded by the media about 'good fats' and 'bad fats', and how Saturated fats cause heart disease. I find this crazy and unsettling, as this is an unsubstantiated notion! (Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes 2010) If you look for yourself the role of saturated fat in our body, its all conflicting information. It makes me question "who is this really supposed to be benefitting?"

Essential fatty acids (such as Lauric) are critical to our health. Our body cannot produce them, and the only way they can be obtained is through diet. I think its really time to stop being afraid of fat. Eat up!

In part two of 'Dissecting the Healthy Living Pyramid" i will look at what sugar does to your body and how its sneaked into so many of our recommended "good" and "healthy" foods.
Like I stated in my first article, Im neither a scientist, writer or dietician. Im just a fitness professional thats decided to look into the way things are for myself. I hope you found this article useful in some small way.

Thanks for reading!



Added: 24-10-2011