Q&A with Dr. Fogarty: The truth about vegetable fats vs animal fats

Dr. Fogarty, a nutrition and exercise expert from the UK, talks to Spinaca on the science behind how eating a vegetable-heavy rainbow diet can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Mark Fogarty earned a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom where he has been researching, publishing and lecturing on natural nutritional intervention in the context of exercise stress for over a decade.


Spinaca Farms: After our last talk with you, we’re decidedly omnivorous…but let’s talk about fats. How does your body process vegetable fats versus animal fats?

Dr. Fogarty: When we’re talking animal vs vegetable fats we’re mostly thinking about saturated (animal) and unsaturated and guess what? Both play a very key role in our bodies.

Saturated fats have definitely gotten a bad name over the years. Saturated fats, when digested, generally go through a double loop around the body because fats find it difficult to dissolve in our blood which is a water-based environment and most people recognise fats and water don’t mix very well. So fats are transported via our lymphatic systems which is a little bit like the back roads if our arteries and veins are the freeways.

The fats are driven in little vesicles called chylomicrons which exit the lymphatic systems and enter the blood system via ducts in the thorax, from here they travel around the body visiting little cites called adipose tissue where they deposit their content (the fat we’ve just eaten). Here the fat is stored as an energy reserve. It’s really after this stage where saturated fat gets its bad reputation but hopefully, you’ll see here this type of fat is extremely important. Once the chylomicrons have delivered its passengers, it then drives to the liver where it stops to pick up a few more visitors. These two new visitors are actually a protein in nature and the chylomicron car transforms into either very low lipoprotein (VLDL) or high-density lipoprotein HDL cholesterol.

Spinaca Farms: Can you unpack those acronyms for us common people?

Dr. Fogarty: Sure! So VLDL then travels around the body again also delivering its lipo (fat) content to adipose tissues for storage as it does so the protein: fat ratio increase and VLDL becomes LDL. LDL is known as the bad cholesterol because it has the capacity to bind to our endothelial cells which are the cells that line our arteries. When this binding occurs, it starts a chain reaction of inflammation that leads to the build-up of cholesterol that we associate with a disease called atherosclerosis.

If the build-up is large enough it can block the artery and cause a heart attack or stroke depending on the location of the blockage. HDL doesn’t have the ability to bind with our endothelial cells and so significantly reduces the likelihood of these events. Most of the research would suggest that a diet high in saturated fats promote more VLDL and LDL production compared to a diet high in unsaturated (particularly poly-unsaturated) fats commonly associated with vegetables, which promotes higher HDL production.

Spinaca Farms: How does coconut oil fit into all this? It seems to be the “it” oil at the moment.

Dr. Fogarty: There is an additional aspect that we have yet to discuss there is the fat type, but a new area of investigation is focusing on the length of the fatty acid chain and not so much the type of fat they’re in. Some vegetable is actually very high in saturated fats the most common and popular at the minute is virgin coconut oil. The length of the fatty acids chain in this type of food is a little bit shorter and science has named them the highly inventive name of medium chain triglycerides or MCT’s for short. MCT’s don’t need to use the back roads to get into the blood because the chain is a bit smaller. They’re able to exit the small intestine and enter the liver via the portal vein. Here they are then available as a source of fuel for the liver itself or can be transported around the body for storage or use as a fuel.

Spinaca Farms: So is a vegan diet healthier because the fat profile is more positive?

Dr. Fogarty: It depends. The evidence is very young with fats like MCT especially when we consider the context I’m about to discuss.

Why do vegans object to consuming eat and then seek alternatives that look, smell and taste and a lot like meat? The answer is because they probably crave the protein from meat and so a lot of effort goes into tricking the brain that they’re getting this type of food.

Ladies and gentlemen like me introduce you to the no-meat Jackfruit Burger. Now, the Jackfruit Burger also happens to contain almost three times more saturated fat than not one, but TWO Big Macs. That fat is largely coming from coconut oil, which as discussed, is a smarter fat option perhaps, but maybe not in such high concentrations. Too much of any single food source, no matter how healthy, is not healthy.

Spinaca Farms: Can you describe or us the most well-rounded diet to maintain optimal health and athletic performance?

Dr. Fogarty: This one is super simple! A well-rounded diet is the optimal health option and should cover all the basic, fruit, vegetable, dairy, protein, salt, and micro-nutrient needs. How much of each one of these largely depends on the type of athletic performance, the volume and type, and intensity of training and also the part of the season they are in. What each athlete should think about is individualising their needs to the food they intake. There are general rules but for the serious athlete, it really needs to be personalised as part of their maco and micro cycles of training.

For the rest of us mere mortals, go for variety and colour (didn’t we start a #rainbowchallenge?). Also, eat what’s in season because these fruits and vegetables will have the nutrients you need at that time of year because it grows to match the conditions. Eat meat as sustainably as you possibly can, organic if you can afford it, and build a relationship with a local butcher that knows where the animal comes from. And get creative. Lamb is a really good alternative to beef—it’s got a better fat profile, produces much less waste and will usually be outdoor reared all year round. Overall, just remember, variety is the spice of life.

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