Rethinking fat. (It’s actually healthy, really!)

Donald-Brun_Beurre There’s been a lot in the news lately about fat, and a lot of it has been contrary to standard beliefs. Our government, organizations such as the American Heart Association, and our medical professionals have drummed into all of our heads that:

  1.  saturated fat should be avoided, and replaced with “heart-healthy” polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and
  2. that cutting dietary fat will keep us from being fat.

The trouble is, these are based on strikingly outdated theories. The problems with our ideas about fat, as well as the fascinating, largely political stories behind their development, have been thoroughly described, for example by journalist Michael Pollan. The good news is, it seems like public opinion is shifting, and these long clung-to ideas may slowly be crumbling.

  • NPR reported on a couple of studies about full-fat dairy in February. They both found that higher dairy fat consumption was associated with a lower risk of becoming obese.
  • In March, a major meta-analysis reviewing dietary fat studies was met with both happiness and head-scratching in the media; the study found that saturated fat is not associated with increased heart disease risk, while polyunsaturated fat is not shown to decrease risk.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported on multiple recent studies about the health benefits of (highly saturated) coconut oil.

So what’s going on? It’s becoming glaringly clear that our polyunsaturated, low-fat crusade has failed, and has left us with ever higher rates of obesity and an epidemic of diabetes. How is it that full-fat dairy help counteract obesity? It is because our bodies aren’t simply combustion engines, in which any old calorie is simply energy that must be burned or stored. Physiologically, we react quite differently to different types of calories, and it’s clear that fats are more satiating than carbohydrates, and don’t trigger hunger-inducing and harmful insulin spikes.

It also is getting harder and harder to ignore the overwhelming evidence that saturated fats are nothing more than a heart disease scapegoat. If you think about it, the polyunsaturated fat that is recommended to us by health authorities is chemically derived from soybeans, corn, etc, in an industrial process that has only been around for perhaps a hundred years. Is it really believable that this is healthier for us than saturated fats, such as from full-fat dairy or coconut, which have been staple food sources throughout human civilization?

In 2010 there was a familiar-sounding major review study that also found no evidence that saturated fat increases heart disease, however this seemed to get little-to-no media attention, unlike the most current meta-analysis, which has received repeated coverage in multiple outlets. You can see the public opinion transformation in action if you look at this series of radio stories/articles by Allison Aubrey at NPR:

  • On February 12th, the pro-fat research is presented as “a paradox”, “counterintuitive”, “unclear”, and “too-good-to-be-true”.
  • On March 28th, there was a discussion of the origins of low-fat, and it was concluded that we’ve been in a “fat-free boom” that “didn’t work out so well”.
  • On March 31st, it is concluded that saturated fat has a better impact on health than carbs, that the days of low-fat diets are over, and that it’s time to add fats back into our diets.

That’s a pretty quick turnaround! There is lots more research contrary to the low-fat message being published, and I suspect that these studies will be more and more likely to receive media attention as time goes on. It is definitely slow going; after all, it was only within the last year that the FDA decided perhaps trans fats shouldn’t be approved as safe. But overall, let’s be happy! Because not only is science and public opinion slooowly but surely moving away from the low-fat fad and towards greater health, but we can also cast aside that nagging, clogged-artery fear in the back of our heads when we eat delicious fats like coconut milk and butter. Hooray!

3 thoughts on “Rethinking fat. (It’s actually healthy, really!)

  1. I’ve actually been thinking on this recently myself what with all of the incredibly widespread fad diets that are based on fat-free or low-fat diets and all of the products that come with that…I also came across this article the other day about not all calories being treated equal- (not specifically based on the topic of fat in foods but interesting nonetheless. The only downside is that the gent who wrote it has done so in part to bring recognition to his own fad diet program- siiigh).
    Anyway, it’ll all pretty interesting I think- but also time for a bit of a wake up call to people- our bodies are not biologically set up to digest chemicals and additives- they are set up to process and digest real food that is grown/raised in real nature…
    interesting blog! Also, a friend of mine just mentioned that they have created 3-d printers that print food- whaaaaat??? insane i say!

  2. Haha wow… yeah I’m very curious to see what oddities the future brings, if we already have 3-D printers, super realistic fake meat, fruit with fish genes in it… I absolutely agree with your point that we’re set up to eat real food grown in real nature… the biological components and interactions in our food are way too complex for us to be able to recreate healthy food from processed, industrially produced ingredients, hard as we try!
    I like that article! I think the broccoli/soda illustration is spot-on. It’s definitely a mess sorting through all the fads and branding to figure out what’s legit… very interesting though. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sage Delicata Squash with Hummus and Caramelized Shallots | Edible Update

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s