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"Americans may pour olive oil onto food in the belief that this is the right thing to do."
Nutritionist and researcher Gladys W. Strain, in a letter to the
New England Journal Of Medicine
My "Add A Little Good Fat" article (#18 on this site) provoked a cautionary response from Jeff Novick, MS. RD, LD, Director of Nutrition at the prestigious Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami Beach, Florida. Chef Jeff, as he is called, is concerned that my article might be misinterpreted by the general public. While acknowledging that adding a small amount of "good fat" may "work" for someone like me (good diet, regular exercise, low bodyfat), Novick is worried about the "average American who is overweight and already consuming an excess of calories and fat."
As you'll recall, after I added a little over one tablespoon of vegetable oil (first olive and then flax and hemp) to my low-fat, unrefined, whole foods diet, my total cholesterol/HDL ratio improved from "very good" to "excellent" and my triglycerides dropped 50%. My cholesterol dropped from a high of 228 to under 200 for the first time in decades - it has since fallen from 197 to 181 - and my triglycerides plummeted from over 150 to 76.
Jeff is concerned about the 57% of Americans who are overweight, especially the one-third of them who are obese. He says, "These are the people I see every week who are adding a little good fat to their already bad diet, only making it worse." Adding fat is not good advice, says Jeff, "for most Americans who are not physically active...and already have some atherosclerosis."
Novick, of course is correct. I would never advise an overweight person to simply add fat. Fat - of any type - is a concentrated calorie. It contains more than twice as many calories, ounce for ounce, as protein or carbohydrate. Calories count, and fat is fattening. The Pritikin people are on track when they say adding vegetable oil will "add, not subtract, fat to our already plump waistlines."
As Jeff points out, adding good fat works best when it replaces bad fat or bad carbohydrates. "Switching from saturated and trans fat to monounsaturated fat lowers total cholesterol without lowering HDL," says the May 1998 Pritikin Perspective. "In population studies in the Mediterranean where olive oil is used instead of butter and animal fat, heart disease rates are lower than that of the U.S."
As most readers know, the Pritikin Longevity Centers generally recommend a very low-fat diet - but not just any low-fat diet. In an article provided to me by Jeff Novick, they say, "Critics of low-fat diets are right, though, in chastising those low-fat plans which are loaded with calorie-dense, refined carbohydrates ... For those struggling to lose weight, refined carbs...send insulin levels soaring." As a result, Pritikin says, "They force the body to store, not burn, fat."
As suggested in my "Good Fat" article, refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar, increase triglycerides. (Unrefined, unprocessed carbohydrates such as vegetables and whole, unprocessed grains, lower triglycerides.) Jeff Novick maintains that the benefit of adding "good fat" lies mainly in what is replaced. Most people, he says, replace refined, processed carbs, the bad kind. That, of course, would lower triglycerides, says Jeff. (We'll come back to this point.)
Blood clots are another concern. Jeff says any fat, whether monounsaturated, polyunsaturated or saturated, can increase the risk of blood clots. He says that may not be a problem for a person like me who gets plenty of exercise and eats a good diet, but issues a warning: "For most Americans who probably already have plaque building up in their arteries, this could be dangerous." (Fish oil may be an exception, however. Robert Pritikin writes in Weight Loss Breakthrough (Dutton 1998) that cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, which contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, have "been shown to reduce the tendency of blood to form clots.")
Finally, Novick points out that all oils contain some saturated fat. Even olive oil is about 14% saturated fat. "So the more olive oil you eat, the greater amount of artery-clogging saturated fat you take in," says Dr. Jan Kenney, Nutrition research Specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
As you'll recall, after a short time, I switched from olive oil to flax or hemp oil, which are only 7% saturated. Canola oil is also very low in saturated fats - and very high (over 60%) in monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat, as we've already seen, lowers total cholesterol without lowering HDL-cholesterol.
Okay, we've made it crystal-clear that no one should add fat to their diet without carefully considering all the factors involved. As I said there, my Good Fat article "is not to be interpreted as a license to add fat helter-skelter." My total fat intake is still a low 18%, and the saturated fat in my diet remains a very low 3% - after I added a little fat.
One loose end remains, however. I really did add a little good fat. I did not replace anything. I added good fat in the form of flax or hemp oil and occasionally fatty fish to an already excellent diet.
So I asked Jeff: "Do you question that it was the small amount of added fat that brought my cholesterol under 200 and my triglycerides down 50%?
"Maybe," he replied. "Having followed your work and writings for many years, I am very familiar with your dietary intake and exercise routine. Therefore, I am very curious as to this change you experienced. Something must account for the change."
Yes, but what? Again, the only change was the added fat. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but until there is another plausible explanation, I still believe it was the added fat. By the way, my most recent blood test not only showed that my total cholesterol dropped to 181, but also that my LDL-cholesterol (the bad kind) has now fallen 24%, from 139 to 106. Clearly, good things are happening.
Remember, both John A. McDougall, M.D., a very-low-fat advocate, and Artemis P. Simopoulous, M.D., who recommends a diet containing 30-35% fat, say that omega-3 polyunsaturated fat, the kind found in flax and hemp seeds and in fatty fish, has been shown to lower blood triglyceride levels. What's more, Udo Erasmus, the author of the encyclopedic Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill (www.udoerasmus.com) (Alive Books, 2nd edition, 1993) says, "A diet rich in w3 fatty acids, ... from flax or ... from fish and marine animal oils, can lower serum triglyceride levels by up to 65%." "Cholesterol levels may also decrease by as much as 25%," adds Erasmus. (My cholesterol has now dropped 21%.)
So, that's my conclusion - the improvement in my blood lipids was due to the addition of a little good fat - and I'm sticking with it, at least for now. I will continue to add a measured amount of ground flax seeds (plus a few sunflower seeds for omega-6 fatty acids) on a daily basis, along with small portions of salmon or sardines several times a week. Still, no one should add fat to their diet without careful consideration.
Thanks Jeff, for the valuable input.
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