Fat: The disease-fighting nutrient

Nutritional myths are tough to eradicate. That’s why food companies are able to keep bamboozling some consumers with the mythical benefits of a low-fat diet. Hopefully, their tall tales will soon be short-lived as researchers are turning up more and more reasons to eat healthy fats and not just avoid all fat, all together.

Fish oil, coconut oil, olive oil and the fat in avocados and nuts all contain fatty acids that improve health. These are the fats you’ve been encouraged to include in your diet to help fight against Alzheimer’s and heart disease. And now research at the Salk Institute in California shows specifically that eating a high fat diet may be able to benefit your health if you suffer from any one of a long list of diseases caused by mitochondrial dysfunction.

Your mitochondria are the hard-working little organelles in your cells that are pivotal in fueling metabolic activity. Salk lab tests reveal that when certain genetic diseases start that harm the function of mitochondria, eating a high fat diet can help mitochondria avoid damage and can thereby slow the aging process.

Diseases that often are linked to mitochondrial dysfunction include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some forms of deafness and blindness, mental retardation, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Along with research like this, even the mainstream scientific journals are acknowledging the folly of limiting fat instead of emphasizing good fats.

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and David Ludwig director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, have published an article in the Journal of the Medical Association (JAMA), noting that fat, per se, is not an inherently unhealthy nutrient.

“Placing limits on total fat intake has no basis in science and leads to all sorts of wrong industry and consumer decisions,” Mozaffarian says. “Modern evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthful fats like nuts, vegetable oils, and fish have protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. Other fat-rich foods, like whole milk and cheese, appear pretty neutral; while many low-fat foods, like low-fat deli meats, fat-free salad dressing, and baked potato chips, are no better and often even worse than full-fat alternatives. It’s the food that matters, not its fat content.”

So the next time you see a food in the supermarket marked “low-fat” as though that’s a good thing, don’t be fooled. Instead, remember what scientists have found: It’s quality of fat not quantity that makes the difference.

For help in identifying those “quality” fats, and avoiding the highly refined oils in processed food that can lead to cellular harm, I’d recommend Dr. Cutler’s article, Fat: The good, the bad and the healthy.

Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.