Betrayed by my body. Well it wouldn’t be the first time, I thought grimly as I sat in my flimsy paper gown listening to the doctor explain the results of my previous testing. (Dear doctor, please at least allow me the dignity of being lectured with my clothes on next time.) Seriously rank flatulence in a crowded TurboKick class, rogue panty liners, acrobatic falls off the treadmill - really I could go on all day - but this time I was torpedoed by own blood.
The Great Dietary Fat Experiment Continues: How Eating Lots of Fat Made Me Lots of Healthy
It was my yearly physical and my cholesterol, while below normal, showed a disturbingly low level of HDL or “good cholesterol.” The doctor told me to eat better (hah – that was coming off my orthorexic phase, if I ate any cleaner I’d squeak!), get more fiber (my colon is so radiant so you can see it from space – I’m a natural wonder, right up there with the Great Wall of China) and exercise more (hello, it says compulsive over-exerciser right there on my chart that you’re holding!). But then he added, “Eat more good fats.”
At that point in time I was still afraid of fat. Nay, terrified. I know. This will be hard to understand for those of you that did not come of age in the fat-phobic ’90′s but back then fat was public enemy #1. Fat free butter spray, Snackwell’s cookies or (worst of all) fat free turkey hot dogs anyone? Eating fat makes you fat – makes perfect sense, right? I learned to count fat grams before I learned to count calories. (Thank heavens I got that pricey graduate degree so I could learn how to make Excel spreadsheets to tabulate all my macronutrients!) And while the zeitgeist in the health community had changed – Dr. Oz went on Oprah and explained to a nation of women about the wonders of extra virgin olive oil and avocados and we all got breathless over the 7 continents study – there was still a lingering fear of fat.
For one thing, we were told there were “good” fats – pretty much anything plant based – and “bad” fats – anything animal based or man made. That made sense to me. At that time I was hovering between being a vegetarian and a vegan and didn’t like animal products anyhow. The health community still instructed us to drink skim milk and eat fat-free cottage cheese and yogurt. We were still warned to keep fat calories under 30% of our daily total. And I’d been doing all that! Perfectly! (That’s me, Type A all the way!) And then here I was with an “extremely low” freaking HDL? I was irate.
So I did what I always do when I’m upset. I called my sister (you have no idea how many ledges she has talked me off of – love you Laura!) and then I made an offering at the altar of the almighty Google. What I discovered after weeks of studying the issue shocked me. Here’s what I learned, in a nutshell: Fat does not make you fat, not even lots of it. The only truly “bad” fats out there are transfats because they’re an unholy abomination created in a lab. American diets are very heavy in Omega-6′s and low in Omega-3′s and while both are good for you, you should be eating much more of the latter than the former. Canola oil, incidentally, is both man-made and very high in Omega-6′s.
I read Gary Taubes, Michael Pollan, Dr. Eades, Dr. Weill and (warning: blog crush ahead) Mark’s Daily Apple. They told me to eat fat. Lots of it. All kinds of it. But to stick to whole foods sources. I decided to try an Experiment but I knew this one had to be longer than 30 days to see an effect. So I spent the entire next year eating a crap-ton of fat.
Veggies stir fried in coconut oil, butter slathered on oatmeal, olive oil generously poured over salad greens, meat eaten with the fat intact*, all my dairy full-fat (back before I discovered I’m severely lactose intolerant and now have to avoid most of it), popcorn coated in coconut oil (before being dusted in chili powder and lime which is a-MAY-zing if you’ve never tried it) and nuts eaten by the bucket. Every meal I ate had a lot of fat in it. (How much I’m not exactly sure as I stopped counting calories years ago as it’s my one-way ticket back to eating disorder land but I can guarantee you it’s well over the 30% recommended by the American Heart Association.) Heavens to Betsy, I ate my two morning eggs whole, yolks and everything!
I certainly enjoyed my trip to Fat Heaven – my skin felt better, I stayed full after meals longer and by golly everything tasted better with coconut on it! But how was it affecting my health?
One year later I again sat uncomfortably in a paper gown giving up all kinds of bodily fluids for tests and I went from borderline bad to having a rockstar lipid profile! (That is if they’re the kind of rockstar that doesn’t live like a rockstar since, as my husband pointed out, rockstars are not known for their healthy living.) This was enough to keep me on-board the fat train and now it’s been THREE years on this fat-stravagnza and I recently had my yearly exam again. The only things that have changed was that my good cholesterol is now even better and I switched from chile-and-lime to tandoori-and-grapefruit on my coconut-oil popcorn.
I don’t normally do numbers on this blog (comparisons are as odious and all that) but I’m going to brag the heck out of these numbers:
My HDL cholesterol, the one which was very low before, is now 84! They recommend being above 39 for good health. I went up 60 points from where I was 3 years ago! (That’s a good thing, the higher your HDL the better.)
My LDL (I’m not calling it “bad” because, as Mark points out, both HDL and LDL serve vital purposes in our bodies and we need both) is 92. For good health you’re supposed to be below 130 and lower is better.
My VLDL (a subset of LDL) is 8. The recommendation is to be below 40 and lower is better.
And here’s where it gets really good: my triglycerides – perhaps the best indicator of health out of the bunch as Mark Sisson writes, “High triglycerides are considered a “lifestyle” measure and strongly correspond with a high carb diet, smoking and low physical activity. They correlate with not only an increased risk of heart disease in general but inflammation and insulin resistance.” So lower is better and they like you to be under 150. My number? 32! The doctor actually told me he’d never seen them so low before. I waited patiently for a gold star to stick on my paper gown. Turns out they only give stickers to kids. Whatever.
Oh and because I know you’re curious: eating that much fat did not make me gain weight as far as I can tell. I avoid weighing myself like the plague but I’m still wearing my same clothes.
I’m sold. Fat is awesome.
Are you holding onto a lingering fear of fat? Is there anything you still can’t handle the fat in – do you still buy skim milk, cut the fat off your steak or stick to Teflon-and-Pam to stir fry? Any good recipes for me that have lots of healthy fat? Anyone have a popcorn concoction for me to try??
*If you’re going to eat animal fat it’s even more important that you are buying quality meat/dairy/eggs – think grass-fed and finished, organic, local, etc – because the fat is where the animal stores the toxins. If I’m in a situation where I’m eating conventionally farmed meat I’ll still cut the fat off because I think the risk of the toxins outweighs the benefits of the fat in that case. Just my opinion though.
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everythingfor more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!