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 - yes, just two years ago - I was still afraid of fat. 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. 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 (more on that struggle later) 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.
I read Gary Taubes, Michael Pollan, Dr. Eades 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 for the past year I've been eating a crap-ton of fat.
Veggies are stir fried in coconut oil, butter is slathered on oatmeal, olive oil is generously poured over salad greens, meat is eaten with the fat intact, all my dairy is full-fat (bonus: new research shows that full-fat dairy can reduce your risk of type II diabetes ), popcorn is 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 are eaten by the bucket. Every meal I eat has a lot of fat in it. (How much I'm not exactly sure as I stopped counting calories a while 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 eat 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 tastes better with coconut on it! But how was it affecting my health?
Well, as of today, Experiment results are in and I'm ecstatic. I have 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.) I'll break it down for you:
My HDL cholesterol, the one which was very low before, is now 79! They recommend being above 39 for good health. I went up nearly 60 points! (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!
Oh and because I know you're curious: eating that much fat did not make me gain weight. I was still weighing myself during most of this past year so I can tell you that I've only lost weight or maintained during my Great Fat Experiment.
I'm sold. Fat is awesome.
Are you holding onto a lingering fear of fat? Have you tried full-fat dairy yet? What's your fave way to eat popcorn?
PS. I have two numbers on my test results that I can't figure out if they are good or bad. My serum glucose is 84 and my vitamin D level is 45. My doctor said they're both "normal" but I'd prefer "optimal" thankyouverymuch. I just don't know what optimal is... I'm especially worried about the vitamin D since I take 2,000 mg/day supplement and I still have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Anyone help me?
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!