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True to Our Roots: Fat Free Food – A Bad Idea

Posted March 10, 2017

In honor of our 40th anniversary this fall, we’ve dug into our archives to find some of our favorite articles written by Natural Gourmet Institute founder, Annemarie Colbin Ph.D. This series will celebrate her teachings on food, science and nutrition, which are now more prominent than ever in the better food movement. Annemarie was a true visionary: inquisitive, intuitive, relentless, progressive and thoughtful. In the late 1970’s, she recovered important facts about food that humanity seems to have misplaced – namely, that what we eat directly impacts our wellbeing, our communities and our planet.

The article below was written by Annemarie for Free Spirit Magazine in the August-September 1997 issue. Read on to learn how she debunks the myths of fat-free foods and emphasizes the importance of including healthy fats in our diets.

Fat Free Food – A Bad Idea

Mention was made the other day in a class I was teaching about the delights of a specific brand of fat-free cookies. “Have you had them?” one of the students asked me. “Of course not,” I said, “I wouldn’t touch that stuff for the world.” She looked at me puzzled. “But they’re so good!” I realized how far removed I am from the mainstream, how out of touch I am with what goes on in the lives of most Americans. Unfortunately, there is little I can do about it. I keep noticing absurdities and irrelevancies around the issues of food and health, and then I have to point them out. Fortunately, a few people are listening. So let me handle here the issue of “fat-free food,” which I believe can be dangerous.

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The hysteria against fat has gone out of control. While it is true that excess fat can stress the liver and contribute to health problems, what is overlooked in this issue are two points: a) fat is one of the three essential macro nutrients; and b) some fats are health promoting, others are unhealthful.

Together with protein and carbohydrate, fat is an important source of calories. We need essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acid, or Omega 6 and Omega 3, for many important functions, namely:

  • To keep us warm, especially in winter, as the breakdown of fats create heat. The diet of Eskimos gets about 60% of its calories from fat, and on their native diets they don’t have heart disease.
  • For proper hormone function, especially for women.
  • To keep our cell walls strong.
  • To absorb and store the fat soluble vitamins, especially Vitamin D, needed to absorb calcium from the intestines. Women who don’t get enough good quality fatty acids may end up with low Vitamin D stores and therefore bone thinning.

Even saturated fats have a role in our health. According to Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, good quality saturated fats enhance the immune system, protect the liver from alcohol ingestion, have anti-microbial properties, and play a major role in bone modeling by protecting the calcium depositing mechanism in bones from free radical disruption. Fats also affect the nerves, as a low fat diet may contribute to depression; there is a high-fat medical diet (the 80% fat “ketogenic diet”) used to control seizures, which works better than drugs.

Fat free eating does not ensure weight loss. Fat in foods delivers a feeling of satiety, the sense that we have had enough to eat. If there is no fat in the meal, we can keep on eating and eating until we’re truly stuffed, ending up with many more calories than we would have had with a little olive oil in the salad. The women in my class who like the fat free cookies said they can easily eat a whole bag of them. I mention that it is not because the cookies are so good, but because the women never feel that they’ve had enough. In other words, they’re still hungry. Therefore they will continue eating these high-carbohydrate cookies (all the fat calories have been replaced with carbohydrates!) and end up with many more calories than they intended. Thus, no difference in weight!

There are some weird new foods on the market that make absolutely no culinary or dietary sense to me. Take the “fat free mayonnaise.” Regular mayonnaise, which I have made, takes 1 egg yolk and 1 cup of oil, plus some lemon or vinegar and mustard. In other words, it is 98% fat. If it now becomes “fat free,” what is replacing that volume of oil? Reading labels is helpful in these cases. Replacements are usually gums, sugars and starches. Seems much more imbalanced to me, as well as unsatisfying. You’re better off with a half teaspoon of the real thing than two teaspoons of the fake. The same goes for fat free sour cream and similar “foods.”

Just as an excess causes problems, so will a deficiency, and it is entirely possible to become fat deficient. Among the health problems associated with a lack of fatty acids, we can count: dry skin, eczema, low energy, impairment of kidney function, slow wound or infection healing, vision and learning problems, depression, even miscarriage. A low fat diet is also associated with a higher suicide rate.

Some fats are definitely unhealthy. Among them are heated, bleached and deodorized oils, and hydrogenated fats such as margarine or shortening. These contain trans fatty acids, which can double the rate of heart attack and raise the LDL, or bad cholesterol. Pregnant women who consume margarine and other hydrogenated fats may be at risk for having low birth weight babies. Heated hydrogenated fats, such as those used in deep fried foods like fried chicken, fish and chips, are associated with cancer and heart disease.

Is there any good news here? Yes, there are such things as good quality fats. Among the best are Extra Virgin Olive Oil, unrefined sesame and sunflower oil, unrefined flax seed oil, walnut oil, organic butter and clarified butter or ghee. Omega 3 fatty acids are in fresh dark cold water fish like salmon or mackerel, as well as flax seed oil. Omega 6s are in sesame and sunflower oil. Fresh organic butter from healthy cows fed green grass can be an excellent source of natural Vitamin A.

On the average, when cooking from scratch, about 2 or 3 tablespoons of healthy fats per day will give us all the essential fatty acids we need. At the same time, it’s important to avoid deep fried foods, hydrogenated fats and fats from unhealthy commercially raised animals. Fat-free processed foods and snacks will always make you eat too much, encourage sugar cravings, and keep you unsatisfied. Good quality fats are good for your skin, hair, nails, immune system, heart, liver, nerves, and your satisfaction with food.

*This article has been edited/shortened from the source material

Ditch the processed, fat-free foods and learn to incorporate more whole ingredients in your cooking, including the parts of produce you often throw away, in our Root to Tip: Whole Vegetable Cooking class on Friday, March 31.