The Fats of the Matter

Posted on 15 Jul 2010 In: Fats

Fats shouldn’t be scary.  I went on Yahoo today, and saw an article about butter and margarine.  Which is healthier?  How do you decide?  If saturated fats and trans fats are both unhealthy, what do you choose?

Let’s go back a bit in history.  Butter has been eaten for centuries.  Saturated fats are found in many foods, including some vegetable fats (basically, saturated fats are solid at room temperature in a cooler climate – here in the UK it’s a hot day when butter melts in the kitchen).  These foods have been an important part of diets around the world for ages.  Are they really so bad?

When did trans-fats appear?  Well, the sort that are causing concern are those man-made ones that occur when we process liquid vegetable oils into hard fats.  These appeared in the early part of the twentieth century when people worked out how to extract oil from seeds and turn it into hard fat (margarines and shortening).  These trans fats are very new in the history of mankind.

More than ten years ago, my friend who worked in the office of our local doctors told me that all the doctors families used butter and olive oil. ‘They don’t use margarines and vegetable oils’ she said.  It has taken me a long time to get round to investigating why. 

You have to make up your mind.  My money is on the foods that people in my part of the world have been eating for centuries – in moderation of course.  In my blog, I explore how to put a healthy, varied diet on the family table on a sensible budget.  And I am particularly interested in fats, which cause such a lot of concern these days.

Sugar, Fat, Salt?

Posted on 25 Feb 2014 In: Uncategorized

Have you felt the floor tilting under your feet lately? There are always stories popping up about what we should and shouldn’t eat, little shockwaves most of us have learnt to be skeptical about. But could this be something bigger?

Is sugar worse for you than fat? I watched a television documentary on this not long ago, but it was inconclusive. This is interesting, because when the presenters, a pair of identical twin doctors, ate two very different diets over a month, their results were very different to longer, bigger and more controlled studies.

I had already made my mind up on this one, having read what Mr Gary Taubes has to say on the subject after a minute dissection of pretty much any reputable information and data he could get hold of.

Prof. John Yudkin’s book ‘Pure White and Deadly’ was re-published recently with a foreword by Dr Robert Lustig (his research has led to the opening of a clinic to treat obesity in children and infants) . It is a more old-fashioned read, but short (and sweet!) and more pertinent than ever.

I recommend these books and those by Lustig if you need to read up on this – it is harder to find supportive science for the all-pervasive ‘fat is bad’ hypothesis because it’s been around for so long, the original data being rather old (and flawed, according to a growing number of doctors and scientists).

Remember, there are libraries if you can’t afford all these books! Or share them with friends. I don’t worry about ‘super foods’ and minor adjustments in my diet too much, I think this is far more important, because these are big food groups, which involve the biggest changes to human diets in recent history. Sugar, and sugar-producing foods (carbohydrates) are a novelty in the human diet. Fats have been eaten and relished for millenia – go figure.


Posted on 9 Apr 2013 In: Uncategorized

I’ve been away from this blog for QUITE some time, but have been learning and doing in the time between.  Healthy eating for families is my starting point, I really want everyone to set down at the table together eating the same food.

I have made a breakthrough (one of these days I’m going to photograph all those weighing-machine tickets that show the gradual change and backsliding!) and that was that the root of weight control is carbohydrate control.  We vary in how much carbohydrate we can take, and as we gain years we have also to gain some insight into this to keep trim.  My little Kindle book explains this simply – go look for Waistline by Anne Smith.  The ‘skinny’ version is only $0.99 but the bigger one is more detailed.

Unless we have type one diabetes, our bodies can produce insulin, and they do this in response to our blood sugar going up, to return it to normal.  Modern, refined carbohydrates (flour and sugar products primarily) raise the blood sugar very fast (they have a high Glycaemic Index or GI), which pushes our bodies to make lots of insulin.  A big rush of insulin then overdoes the lowering of blood sugar and we get a bit low and feel hungry again.  We know about this yo-yo effect, but what does it have to do with weight gain?

From what I understand, our bodies can only store calories (energy both from fat and from carbohydrates) if insulin is present in high enough quantities.  The body is in effect saying ‘ too much blood sugar, store that energy for later and make the blood sugar level safe’.   Over the thousands of years we have lived on earth, fattening carbohydrates were not abundant, and most of the time our blood sugar would  have been much more stable, not rising and falling as dramatically as it does on the modern  ‘western’ diet.  We had lean times and times of abundance, but we didn’t have constant access to high GI foods.

If we can get our blood sugar back where it was before the rise of high GI foods, we can fight weight-gain much more effectively than by semi-starvation (low calorie diets which make our bodies more efficient at hanging on to calories) or exercise.

More soon!


Nettle Soup and Spring

Posted on 20 Mar 2011 In: Seasonal

I always make nettle soup at least once in spring.  The nettle, like other plants credited with being a good spring tonic, has long roots that bring up minerals that may have been washed out of soil nearer the surface.  I get my gloves on, find some young nettle shoots somewhere I am sure they have not been sprayed with weedkiller or polluted and get picking.  My soup this year was all green and white -spring onions (scallions), garlic, leek, a little florence fennel, courgette (not very seasonal but it was there) and a few early chives.  I used some ground almonds to thicken it, left over from Christmas.  Other times I’d make a simpler, more nettly soup with a pint jug of nettles, some onion and a little oatmeal to thicken.  Vegetarian or chicken stock, the choice is yours.

A few winter pounds have shifted, I am delighted to say.  Five less than the January high.  My sister and I have got second hand copies of a couple of GL books recently and she is glad that her son (primary school age) is happy to eat beans in stews and other forms.  I like chickpeas myself – as hoummous and whole in salads and hot dishes.  Butter beans too I find very palatable in winter dishes.  There are so many more – aduki, black-eye, mung, cannelini – that adding a few in the course of the week is not dull.  I’m not a great fan of the bean, but it is very good for lowering the glycaemic load and keeping blood sugar levels steady. 

I sowed some salad in my vegetable bed and harvested a few leaves of lamb’s lettuce.  A few young dandelion leaves will find their way into my salads, before they become too bitter.  People have been known to blanch them (keep them tender by putting an upside-down pot over the top to deprive them of light) but I just get them in season and then move on to other things.

Delighted! Glycaemic Load and Chocolate Treats

Posted on 4 Feb 2011 In: General

Delighted!  Examining my winter waistline, (I did manage four walks over the Christmas week) I resolved to attend to my waist/hip ratio.

This is an important health marker and a poor ratio is a risk factor for both diabetes and heart disease.  In my case creeping middle-age spread has got the better of me – having stayed stable for some months I have put on a few pounds over the winter holidays.  Anyone else?

I was on a quick visit to the library and picked up a couple of useful books; one on self-help for diabetics (diet and exercise largely) and one on Glycaemic Load (GL).  There was a fair bit of overlap between the two.  I reasoned that a diet good for diabetes control would also function for diabetes prevention.

Imagine my delight when both books recommended dark (70% cocoa solids or above) chocolate as a good snack!

Both books were emphasising low glycaemic foods.  I had to learn the difference between GL and GI here – both indices give you a number that tells you how fast that particular food raises your blood sugar levels.  Carrots get quite a high GI because this index is based on enough food to supply 50 grammes of sugar.  As carrots are very high in water, you need to eat over a pound and a half of carrots to get so much sugar!  GL is based on portions, so the humble carrot doesn’t get demonised.  It is much easier to follow when planning meals.

There are demons of course, because sugary and refined starch foods (even wholemeal grain can be high GL if it is very finely milled and highly processed) raise blood sugar rapidly, which ends up with energy being converted to fat for storage.  We often forget that sugar and starch can be turned into fat by the body.  

The heavenly part of this way of eating is that there is plenty of filling food, delicious food and no calorie counting.

For families, the biggest plus is that it is a healthy way of eating for the whole family.   Growing kids need plenty of energy, so your teenager will need bigger portions than you if you are not taking masses of exercise.  Your dinner plate still has vegetables, protein and carbohydrate, but the carbohydrate portion is smaller and it is low or medium GL. 

Following the 80:20 rule I have had Friday night off and had some leeky mash and sausages tonight.  Lots more leeks and less potato would have lowered the GL of the meal, but as long as my indulgent meals are not more than 20% of total, then I am in check if not making progress as fast as I could if I were stricter.

Is My Metabolism under My Control?

Posted on 27 Nov 2010 In: Uncategorized

Well, here we are, all eating heartily in our house, and the kids are growing. Luckily, I’m not growing, but on the other hand I would like to lose a few pounds…
The odd thing is, I haven’t put on any either. Having put on a fair few pounds in the last couple of years, I now seem to have stabilised. Am I dieting? Making systematic efforts to restrict my calorie intake? Nope.
So how come after this fairly rapid weight-gain I’ve not carried on growing outwards? The power of my mind is not enough to get me shedding the pounds and moving towards my desired dress-size. But is will-power still operating on another level?
When I got to 154lbs, I said to myself “Enough”. I had a really strong idea that I didn’t want to go over 11 stones, and I really wanted a few pounds between me and the ‘overweight’ line on the BMI chart. I’d feel a lot more comfortable carrying 1/2 stone less, but I’m really glad my weight is not increasing.
I hate the idea of calorie-counting, and serious planning of food intake, so I just don’t do dieting, (especially not nutrient-poor crash-dieting). I have some time for balancing food groups, and for ensuring that the vegetable, fruit and water intake is taken care of, but elaborate food-control is not me. Where’s the pleasure? I’m just left wondering…
Perhaps at some level I am being effective in keeping my eating sensible, on a weekly if not on a daily (oops, 2oz chocolate!) basis.

Breakfast for all the family

Posted on 29 Jun 2010 In: General

I just read my post for 21 February, and have realised that my waist/hip ratio then was .77! If I do it now in centimetres, I get 0.79, rather than the 0.8 I get in inches, but this is a bit depressing all the same. Easter did become a bit of an excuse to stray from my usual treat of 85% cocoa-solids chocolate! The difference between 70% and 85% is basically sugar content.

Despite this, I am still going to focus on healthy food for all the family, because I feel strongly that even if crash diets worked ( I don’t believe they do long-term) children need to see their parents eating family meals. Some people find that they get good results relying on nutritious shakes for the first few days or even a week, but I am going to stick to a food diet!

Days start well, with all of us getting a breakfast with a protein component. I have read that our bodies don’t store protein, and also that too much at one time is hard on the metabolism. Sounds as if little and often might work. We don’t pay any heed to tradition here – I like kippers, but the children prefer fish fingers, and that’s fine by me – I choose the fat they are cooked in (and use very little). My favourite at the moment is to gently fry some courgette (zucchini) cut to rather chunky matchsticks, and as soon as they are beginning to colour slightly, add beaten egg, to make a scrambe/omelette. Soy sauce instead of sea salt on this goes well. Any greens can be used, but leafy ones I add when the egg has just started to cook.

Other kids’ breakfasts include: cheese on toast, bagel with cream cheese and a smoked salmon (a little goes a long way, and it is quite often found on special offer), bacon on a bagel. All simple stuff, which is necessary seeing it all has to be done in short order before the school bus comes.

If smoked salmon is about, I’ll have a bit of that beside scrambled egg – I just love eggs for breakfast, and eggs with fish is great.

I just have to keep up the good work and not reach for the biscuits at work or when I get home late afternoon. Wish me luck!

Diet failure – beaten but un-bowed

Posted on 28 Jun 2010 In: Fats, General

So, I’m not a success with this restricted carbohydrate diet. But I’m not about to go onto a low-fat diet.

Why? Well, I can’t stick to this diet at present, so I don’t believe I’ll fare any better on another diet. I want the family to eat together, and my kids much prefer white rice, white bread, white pasta, to the wholewheat sort, so for them less calories from fat would lead to a higher intake of high-glycaemic-index carbohydrates. Overloading the body with high GI (glycemic index) carbohydrates makes the insulin system work hard, so I want to avoid training them to eat like that. They won’t eat brown pasta until they decide for themselves it’s healthy!

What else? I think I’m entering the ‘time of life’ (not to be confused with the time of my life) when middle-age spread is hard to fight. Might just have to try to hold back the tide rather than trying to shrink for a while… and maybe start another blog about that when I get further into the territory.

What I do need to do is to prioritise my fats. Here’s my plan: morning for me is the time to get those omega 3s in the door – it seems clear that if these guys have to ‘compete’ with too much omega 6, they get left outside. They share the same metabolic pathway, so morning is a good time – in go the omega 3s on an empty stomach.  My children are allowed a square of chocolate with their fish oil, so I make sure it’s good stuff with no vegetable oils in, just cocoa butter and milk fat.

I know I’ll get my essential omega 6s in the course of the day, and I’m trying to keep the ratio down to around 4:1 omega 6s to omega 3s. 10 to one is generally regarded as too high, so I’m aiming for 4:1 (opinion is divided on the perfect ratio, but it’s well below 10:1).

I prefer to get the omega 6s from seeds than from oils, for three reasons:

1) seeds are a food with other nutrients in them – these are lost in most oils in the processing.  (The exceptions are the cold-pressed oils).

2) Chewing seeds is a slower way of getting omega 6s – so I’m less likely to overdo it.  A spoon of sunflower seeds has a lot less omega 6 than a spoonful of sunflower oil.

3)  Oils often come as part of a food (lots of baked goods use them as they have a long shelf life). Or they are part of a fried food, such as potato crisps (chips).  In the UK, we haven’t banned trans fats yet.  So there’s a lot of label reading involved, as well as the hidden salt and sugar. Not my best food choices for every day.

So, today I ate a salad at a friend’s house with topped with lightly toasted seeds and a dribble of dressing.  Seeds are on my shopping list as my children like them too.  I baked some lightly in the oven with a sloosh of soysauce which dried to a salty, savoury speckle.

The great thing about my strategy is that the occasional eggy or even egg-and-bacon breakfast is fine as long as I choose the right fat to cook it in.  If I can avoid omega 6 at this time, I don’t interfere with my morning intake of omega 3s.

More on oils next time…

Fats shouldn’t be scary

Posted on 22 May 2010 In: Fats

We’ve eaten them for thousands of years; some are essential for our bodies. Fats hold onto flavours in a way that water doesn’t. We like the experience of eating them, but they have had a bad press in recent years.

What do we know about fats?

Have you ever watched butter melting on your toast, or in a pan, slowly and tantalisingly? If it was all one type of fat, it would go liquid much more rapidly, apparently. I could not find listed the fats in butter (there are medium and short-chain fatty acids) but I did find those for olive oil and lard, with approximate percentages.

Olive oil contains around 71% oleic acid, and interestingly, lard has about 44% of the same fat. (As natural products vary slightly, the percentages vary a little between samples.) Both have around 10% linoleic acid, which is an omega six polyunsaturate. Lard has about 26% palmitic acid, around one percent more than human milk has.

Does it make sense to swear never to eat lard and stick to olive oil? I only use lard occasionally in pastry (pie dough), and I don’t like it that much. I bought some beef dripping recently, to use for occasional hot frying, because it has a high smoke-point. From what I’ve read, it seems that when you start to see a faint blue smoke rising off the fat, the heat is damaging and changing it. I never fry in sunflower oil any more because of this, and only use olive oil for low-temperature slow cooking of onions and other vegetables.

For me, an  important area is the polyunsaturates, now often known as the omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

Food Supplements

Posted on 14 Apr 2010 In: Uncategorized

This is something I mentioned in my first post. Should I feed myself or my family any tablets and capsules as well as food? Family food doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing you add supplements to, but looking back, we were raised with some vitamin C from the health visitor as small children, and codliver oil was also a favourite (among parents that is – and they weren’t eating it).

Today there is so much around, but do we really need it? I have been reading for the last several years that the food we eat is less well-endowed with vitamins than it used to be, but nothing had really persuaded me. I felt I needed to read more thoroughly, but didn’t do the research.

Earlier this year, a book ‘leapt off the shelf at me’ in my local library. I started to read the book with some skepticism, but became more impressed the more I read. I am now following up books that appeared in that book’s biography. Your local library may have it too: ‘We Want Real Food’ by Graham Harvey.

The author cites examples from around the world, but most from UK and North America. I never thought I could be this interested in a book that is basically about soil – the stuff that feeds our food plants, and everything that eats them.

Vitamin and mineral levels in plant foods and fodders are affected by the fertility of the soil, and looking after soil is quite an art. It has made me look at my garden in a new light, and think about what else I need apart from packets of seeds.

This whole book has led me to re-asses the need for some supplementation, but I need to look further into this. Meanwhile, I inflict codliver oil on my children, just in case…