December 4, 2012

Fat Tuesday Part 5 - A GOOD Trans Fat?!

Hey kids! I know last week I promised I’d finally get to what we’ve all been waiting for—what everything we’ve learned so far about fats means for our food and our health—but we’ve got some more business to attend to first.

If last week’s post about trans fats has you reading food labels more than usual, great! We should all be on the lookout for partially hydrogenated oils. They are nasty, nasty things. (I realize I didn't actually get into why last time, other than how they're made. I will...eventually.) But maybe you’ve heard that some of the foods I regularly talk about as being good for us—like butter, cream, and beef tallow—also contain trans fats. Aaaaah!!  Amy, what are you doing to us?!

Fear not, dear readers. I am not leading you astray, and I have not been sniffing the Elmer’s. It’s true that some animal fats contain trans fatty acids. But we do not need to worry about these or avoid them at the table. In fact, we’d probably all do well to go out of our way to add them to our diets.  Say what now? Keep reading.

There is a type of naturally occurring trans fat called conjugated linoleic acid. (We’ll call it CLA, ‘cuz that is a mouthful!) It is found in the fat of products from ruminant animals consuming their natural, species-appropriate diets. That is, things like cows, sheep, goats, deer, elk, and buffalo eating grasses and greens, and not being fed grains and/or byproducts from the snack food industry as happens in the industrial feed lots—alas, even more corn, wheat, and soy. (Animals who eat grains do produce CLA, but way, way less of it than their grass-fed counterparts.) Please note that I said naturally occurring trans fat. This is something that results when animals eat what nature intended them to eat, as indicated by their own physiology…they don’t have that huge ruminant GI tract for nothing!


(I realize the kangaroo seems a little iffy to those of us in the U.S. of A., but kangaroo meat is enjoyed regularly in other parts of the world, and it’s the richest known source of CLA!)

To be quite honest with you, I don’t have a solid grip on the biochemistry of why CLA doesn’t affect our health the way trans fats that come out of factories do. (And you know I ain’t lyin’, ‘cuz if I did understand it, I’d probably bore you with a huge blog post about it, hehheh. It seems to have something to do with the particular arrangement of these bonds, as compared to the bonds that form in man-made partially hydrogenated oils.) Anyway, there are people way smarter than me who wear white lab coats at work and do cool experiments for a living, and they’ve found that CLA has some very interesting properties that suggest it’s good for our health. Yes, a trans fat that is beneficial for health.

CLA has been shown to help reduce abdominal fat, lower the risk for certain types of cancer, and aid in blood glucose regulation and insulin sensitivity (i.e., help manage type 2 diabetes). And unlike the industrial trans fats, CLA has not been shown to increase heart disease risk. In fact, some studies have shown that it actually reduces heart disease risk. Holy cow…is this stuff the biochemical equivalent of Superman?

I do it all, baby.

CLA sounds like a dream come true. We get to eat things like butter, beef, lamb, Roquefort cheese, and they’re health foods?!  Where do we sign? CLA even comes in supplement form. Maybe we should all pop a few of those pills every day and call it good, ‘cuz grass-fed meats and dairy are not so easy on the ol’ wallet.

Not so fast. Word on the street is that CLA supplements do not have the same positive effects on health as the natural stuff we find in…well…its natural form, in the fat and fattier cuts of meat from ruminant animals. The supplements typically come from safflower or sunflower oil, which we already know are not really the best things to eat in the first place. And just like making fake saturated fats in a factory requires a crazy amount of processing, what kind of chemical tinkering do you think is required to make fake CLA? My guess is a lot. Probably more than I want involved in anything I’m putting in my mouth. Your best bet is to get your CLA the old-fashioned way—and the more fun way, if you ask me—from food! Yes, I am telling you to eat butter, and red meat, and sheep milk cheeses, and anything else delicious and naughty from a ruminant animal.

BUT:  in the case of CLA, where you get your food matters. Remember, there is much less CLA in the fat of grain-fed animals. There’s some, but not as much as there should be if they were eating the diets they are physiologically and biologically suited to. If you can take the time to get some grass-fed beef or butter, milk, or cream from grass-fed dairy cows, please do it. The easiest place to find these things is at a farmer’s market (or by going to an actual on-farm store, if you live near any grass-based farms). Not only will you be doing excellent things for your health, you’ll also be doing great things for your local economy and for your neighbors who are producing nutrient-dense foods just a couple of zipcodes away. (But I’ll stay off the “eat local” soapbox for now. My blog posts are already too long!)
*If you can’t afford the top-level stuff (and believe me, I understand!!), or you don’t have the time to seek out a good local farmer, remember that CLA is still found in the regular supermarket stuff; there’s just less of it. And make no, NO mistake:  I will always advocate eating real food from a supermarket—regular ol’ feedlot meat, industrial dairy, and conventional, non-organic produce—over eating organic, artisanal junk food. Remember, organic, gluten-free junk is STILL JUNK. If all you can afford is whatever beef, chicken, and cheese is on sale at your local mega-mart, I’d much rather you eat that than cereal or granola bars!

You will be just fine even if your food hasn't been blessed by angels,
delivered on the back of a unicorn, or sung to by mermaids. Do the best you can and
just eat real, whole foods.

P.S.  Chris Kresser, a holistic health specialist who is eyeball deep into all the research, put together a fantastic article explaining all this, and unlike me, he’s taken the time to include links to some heavy-hitting, peer-reviewed medical journals to back up all the claims. I highly recommend checking it out, and while you’re there, the rest of his site is pretty frikkin’ awesome, too.

Tuit Nutrition, LLC is not a medical practice and Amy Berger, M.S., is not a physician. The information contained herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be considered medical advice. 

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