x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The UAE needs to get the message: eat fat and lighten up

Fat is essential in our diets and can help us lose weight. A Dubai-based nutritionist tells how to choose between good fat and bad.

The nutritionist Rashi Chowdhary. Pawan Singh / The National
The nutritionist Rashi Chowdhary. Pawan Singh / The National

The UAE ranks as the fifth fattest nation in the world, according to a recent study published by the BMC Public Health journal this year. While many factors are to blame, including lack of exercise, education and awareness, it's apparent that the message of eating good fat, to shift stubborn fat, isn't getting through.

And this message has seemingly bypassed every nationality. According to the World Health Organisation, 67 per cent of Emirati men and 72 per cent of Emirati women are overweight, with expatriates heading in the same direction. "When workers arrive in the UAE, their obesity levels are far lower than after they have been here for a period of time," said Dr Mark Newson-Smith, the chief medical compliance officer of Emirates National Oil Company, at a Global Health conference.

So which part of the message went missing? The key part, which explained that not all fat is created equal - some is good and some is bad - which is exactly why the experts aren't giving you a licence to head straight to the nearest fast-food restaurant for a chocolate milkshake. Indeed, waistlines have been expanding rapidly in the UAE, largely because of the fast-food culture.

Based on more than two decades of research, the biochemist Dr Mary Enig, the author of Eat Fat, Lose Fat, believes saturated fats traditionally considered harmful (such as those found in coconut oil and butter) are in fact essential to weight loss. According to Enig, the diet police condemned the wrong culprit. Saturated fat and coconut oil aren't responsible for weight gain. Rather, refined grains and sugars, vegetable fats and trans-fats are the guilty parties.

Here to clear up the good from the bad is the Dubai-based nutritionist Rashi Chowdhary.

Why do we need to eat fat to lose fat?

Fat delays digestion and stays in your system longer than other nutrients. When you eat a meal that is rich in fat you stay fuller for longer and this makes it easier for you to control your cup-cake cravings.

When eaten along with carbs, fat gives you a steady rise in sugar levels which has a blunting effect on your fat-making hormone, insulin. Keeping your insulin levels in check is one of the first things you need to do while trying to lose fat. Also, studies have found that healthy fats, such as omega 3, stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Having a higher muscle mass guarantees a faster, healthier metabolism that contributes to a slimmer waist.

What sort of fat should we be eating?

Most of the fat that you eat, especially if you are working towards burning fat, should come from unsaturated sources, both mono-unsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA). These good fats are present in seeded olives and olive oil, unsalted raw nuts such as almonds, peanuts and walnuts, avocados, almond and peanut butters, fish and seeds.

Why have we all got so confused about fat?

Understanding the difference between the good and bad fats gets too technical for a layman. There is MUFA, PUFA, saturated, omega 3, 6, 9 - hence people tend to categorise everything under the label "fat" and shun it. And to make matters worse, the fat-free frenzy began in the 1950s and marketing experts took advantage of this confusion.

What is the typical attitude towards fat in the UAE?

Here, people are fat phobic. Most people feel buying fat-free, or low-fat, products is the answer to losing weight and being healthy. In fact, our obesity and type 2 diabetes rates are on the rise. We have become a society that equates fat-free with healthy.

Most of these low-fat fat, fat-free foods have more sodium and sugar. Since when did more sodium and more sugar become healthier than fat? We need to get back to basics and start eating whole foods if we want our body to function efficiently.

What type of fat do we need to stay away from?

The trans-fat varieties are the dangerous fats your body cannot process. Manufacturers produce trans-fats by converting liquid oils into solid fats by a process called hydrogenation. These fats are popular because they increase the shelf life and flavour of processed foods. Trans-fats raise total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. You will find a lot of these in your so called fat-free and low-fat products, as well as processed junk foods such as biscuits and cakes.

Which surprisingly tasty snacks contain good fats?

Peanut butter on toast. Make sure it's an organic brand and buy the crunchy version over the creamy.

Cheese on whole-grain bread. Cheese prevents the accumulation of fats in certain parts of the body. Ghee or clarified butter (one teaspoon) on rotis, khaboos or rice provides a slow rise in blood glucose levels. Pineapple slices with grated coconut. Coconuts have saturated fat, but in a form that is easily digested by the body and gets used for instant energy so it isn't stored as fat for later use.

Seeded olives are chock-full of MUFA fat and can be enjoyed as a late-night snack if you are looking to burn fat.

Just as we cannot accuse one nutrient of being the villain of our overweight society, we cannot expect eating more fat to be the solution. Healthy weight-loss that actually lasts is when we genuinely work towards changing our lifestyle habits, understanding our food requirements, nourishing our taste buds and, of course, increasing our activity levels. And one good way to start today is by adding healthy fats to practically every meal we eat.

Fat-fantastic facts

Our bodies need good fat in our diets to burn body fat.

Fat transports the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K around the body.

Our brains need good fat to function properly. Good fats improve memory and learning.

Good fats help us to feel fuller for longer.

Fat cushions, and so protects, our internal organs.

Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to lower blood pressure, combat bad cholesterol, fight inflammation and protect the brain and nervous system.

It is believed healthy fats may reduce the risk of cancer.

Our lungs, eyes, organs and cells all function better with some healthy fat.

When eaten with carbs, fat helps keep our insulin levels in check.

Burning fats for energy provides us with a more consistent level of energy than burning carbohydrates.