Several decades ago the modern world went crazy with its dietary habits. People were told to stop eating fats because they led to weight gain and heart disease. The government was behind this advice as well as the American Heart Association, hospitals, manufacturers of cholesterol-lowering drugs, food manufacturers, dairies and doctors.
Here we are thirty years later and obesity and heart disease rates have gone up instead of down. Now some (not enough) researchers are saying the low-fat idea was a big mistake.
In typical fashion, the Mayo Clinic makes this statement on its website: "[T]here is a dark side to fat. The concern with some types of dietary fat (and their cousin cholesterol) is that they are thought to play a role in cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Dietary fat also may have a role in other diseases, including obesity and cancer."
Is this true, or is it simply an assumption that has been proven wrong? Or is it the kind of misinformation you'd expect from drug companies that manufacture cholesterol-lowering drugs and food giants who make billions selling low-fat, non-fat processed cereal, yogurt, drinks, pizzas, cookies and ice cream?
We need fats in our diets. It's a matter of biology
Fats are essential to human health. The Weston A Price Foundation tells us, "Fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy in the diet; they also provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances. Fats as part of a meal slow down absorption so that we can go longer without feeling hungry. In addition, they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption and for a host of other processes." (westonaprice.org)
So how can we eat fat and avoid fat at the same time? Food manufacturers came up with the idea of altering fats. And this has led to all sorts of health problems, an outcome not altogether unexpected when scientists try to improve on nature. The worst of the creations was trans fats, which are now even recognized by the mainstream medical profession as unhealthful.
Our diets are not natural
Most diets today are not natural. They contain mostly cooked, processed, artificial and altered substances. And far too many refined sugars. Can anything but sickness be expected when ideal diets contain anything but whole, unaltered, unsprayed vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and meats? Of course not. If you believe the cereal ads you'll think the stuff in the box with the cute cartoon character is real food. It's not. It's dead and bad even if the American Heart Association endorses it, and even though it contains zero fat and a plethora of isolated laboratory-made vitamins.
Low-fat, fake-fat is good for food manufacturers only
Public relations has much to do with every movement — whether buying more economical cars, recycling or switching over to a low-fat diet. When it comes to the topic of health, a steady stream of information (even if not particularly accurate) makes for big profits. A population that's scared out of its wits over eating fat will fill their shopping carts with low-fat yogurt, skim milk and tubs of margarine. But statistics show that this has had no role in lowering heart disease, preventing diabetes or reducing weight.
What's good for business can be bad for health.
Gary Taubes stirs the fat
If you haven't read Gary Taubes' books, now is the time. His thorough research and logical thinking defies the idea that fats are bad for your health or that they are as evil as they've been made out to be. His book Good Calories, Bad Calories is a lesson on how carbohydrates are behind many of our modern diseases. And his book Why We Get Fat and What to do About It takes the issue a step further, positing the idea that good science has been ignored and we've been heading down the wrong road by vilifying dietary fats and claiming they are behind obesity.
I asked Gary for his opinion on a few key points in this discussion. Here's our exchange:
Vic: Even doctors with a more moderate view of fats still tell people to avoid saturated fats. Is this advice founded in science?
Gary: Well, it's founded in bad science, as I've described in my books and articles on this. The most compelling research arguing against it are the randomized controlled trials that compare Atkins-like, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets to effectively any other diet -- whether the AHA [American Heart Association] step-one, low-fat, calorie-restricted diet or a very low fat Ornish diet or a Mediterranean diet. In these experiments, the high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet invariably leads to at least as much weight loss -- despite the fact that the subjects on these diets can consume as many calories as they want -- and an overall improvement in heart disease risk factors.
Vic: Why do you think fat takes the blame for obesity?
Gary: [Sugars] influence how much fat is oxidized and how much is stored. So the more carbohydrates we eat, the more fat we end up storing -- particularly refined grains and sugars, which seem to have the greatest influence on the hormone insulin that regulates fat storage. As to why fat takes the blame, I'd say there are two reasons: one is this remarkably naive idea that we are what we eat, so if we are fat this must be due to the fat we eat, and 2). as I describe in my books, once we decided dietary fat caused heart disease, that meant the way to avoid heart disease was eat low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diets. But now we had to deal with the observation that the obese are at higher risk of heart disease than lean people. So carbohydrates couldn't be fattening, right, because then the same diet that prevented heart disease would be a diet that made us fat? So to reconcile this problem, our nutritional authorities decided that it must be fat that makes us fat and now they could recommend low-fat high carbohydrate diets as weight loss diets, too. Their intentions were pure, but the results have been a disaster.
Vic: Do you think the denial of carbohydrate's role in obesity, diabetes and other diseases is based on food politics, lack of education or blind faith that keeps researchers from revisiting the real cause of these diseases?
Gary: A little of all three. They also tend to fall back on simplistic ways of thinking: Southeast Asians, for instance, have low rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity and they ate carb-rich diets, therefore all carb-rich diets must be healthful. The idea that the nature of the carbohydrates can make a difference -- refined instead of unrefined, sugar(s) vs. grains and starches -- can make a huge difference seems to be a level of complication that these people find too much to handle.
Vic: Dean Ornish, MD, claims great success reversing heart disease while using a low fat diet. How has he managed to do this by restricting fats?
Gary: Dr. Ornish's diet restricts refined grains and sugars for the same reason I suggest they're bad -- because they raise blood sugar and ultimately raise insulin levels. So it's quite possible that any benefit Dr. Ornish sees in his studies can be explained by that alone and that his subjects and patients would do even better if they were eating a high fat diet. We don't know if that's true, and Dr. Ornish can't prove it's fat because his studies change so many variables that virtually anything is possible. Again, it's one of the reasons I've been arguing for better science to be done in this field, so that questions like that can be answered unequivocally.
This isn't to say that a high fat diet is the answer either
As of late many people are giving high fat dieting a try. Is this a good idea? Instead of answering this directly, it's better to compare apples to apples, or in this case, fats to other fats. If you are modeling your high fat diet on an African tribe or indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, or even early humans, you have to look at more than just the fat they ate, but also the type of fat, it's source and the other nutrients that came along with the high fat diet.
While a few doctors are saying that you can replicate the healthfulness of the indigenous high-fat diet by eating more coconut butter, butter, cream, cheese, avocados and bacon, think again. These may all be good fats but they do not contain the same nutrient profile of organ meats, cow's blood or whale fat. This leads to a whole new discussion, perhaps fodder for a subsequent article, but suffice it to say that even progressive thinking natural health advocates frequently suffer from the same fault as modern medical practitioners and researchers: It's not helpful to focus so closely on one aspect of the diet without considering it in context. All fat foods are not the same.
The best place to begin
In any event, however, the best place to start to improve your diet is to get rid of all processed foods, refined sugar and refined flour products.