How did we get so mixed-up about fat?
In Part I, we discussed the fats that we need to eat more of and which we should avoid altogether.
Yes, fat is essential for health. So what happened?
How did we get it all so wrong?
For starters, nutrition science is a hugely imperfect field. It's impossible to completely isolate variables and determine an exact "causation." For instance, you can't take a group of people and feed them only butter for 6 months and compare them to a group of people who only ate sugar. It just doesn't work that way.
Because it is so complex, nutrition science has sometimes suffered from researcher bias, faulty research design, and imperfect conclusions.
For example, several of the original studies that "proved" the harmfulness of saturated fat hadn't actually used saturated fat in the study, but rather old-school margarine. In other words, they had tested a TRANS-fat, not a saturated fat. Vastly different fats, but they didn't know it. By the time we discovered the difference between a trans-fat (i.e. margarine or crisco) and a saturated fat (i.e. butter or coconut oil), the "saturated fat is bad" train had long left the station.
To compound matters, the food industry jumped on the "fat is bad" bandwagon and made a TON of money on "healthy" fat-free products.
Not only that, to further drive the message that fat was to be avoided, the sugar industry took part in funding nutrition research that helped to shape health policy.
Here's an excellent article about the industry's 50-year mission to axe its link to heart disease and shift the blame away towards fat. The original study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reads:
"Industry-sponsored nutrition research, like that of research sponsored by the tobacco, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries, almost invariably produces results that confirm the benefits or lack of harm of the sponsor’s products, even when independently sponsored research comes to opposite conclusions."
From ads for fat-free yogurt, mayo and salad-dressings, to magazine dieting articles and doctors' advice, we were told, over and over, that fat was bad and it should be avoided.
Did it work? What were the consequences?
Well, let's see...
"Americans eat more chicken and less beef than they used to. They drink less milk – especially whole milk – and eat less ice cream, but they consume way more cheese. Their diets include less sugar than in prior decades but a lot more corn-derived sweeteners. And while the average American eats the equivalent of 1.2 gallons of yogurt a year, he or she also consumes 36 pounds of cooking oils – more than three times as much as in the early 1970s." ~ December, 2016 -PEW Research Center analysis on the changes in the American Diet since the 1970s
As a group we've heard the rallying call to cut back on saturated fat, and as a consequence:
- We switched from beef to chicken
- We eat and drink less ice-cream and milk
- We replaced our margarine with cooking oils, and then some
- We eat fewer eggs
- And unfortunately vastly increased our consumption of cooking oils, along with products sweetened and thickened with corn sweeteners.
And here's what's happened...
The Framingham Heart study showed that between the 1970's and the 1990's the incidence of diabetes was doubling: rising from an average 2% to 3.7% in women (that's 1.85X greater) and from 2.7% to 5.8% in men (that's 2.1X greater!)
And the CDC historical diabetes rates confirm this. The official Diabetes incidence rose from 2.04% in 1973 to 4% in 1999. And by 2015, it was 9.4%!
We've essentially quadrupled the diabetes problem in the past 40 years.
And let's not forget about the "French Paradox"
As nutritionists in the U.S. insisted throughout the 80's and 90's that fat was bad, they began to talk about the so-called "French Paradox." Their position that saturated fat was a key driver of heart disease meant that the French should all be dropping dead... but instead they had lower heart disease than Americans!
While the French have consistently eaten more fat (as seen in dietary statistics):
- 1.7X more cheese (57 lbs per capita/year in France vs. 33.9 lbs per capita in the US)
- 1.5X more animal fat per day (108 grams/day in France, vs. 72 grams in the US)
- 4X more butter in France on average over the US
Nonetheless, the historical heart-disease rate in the U.S. has been 40% greater than the French! If saturated fat had really been the cause, our heart disease rates should have been the other way around!
Because doctors and policy-makers stubbornly insisted that saturated fat was bad, the best they could do was call this a "paradox."
In recent years, a growing number of doctors and nutritionists have come to say that there is no such thing as a "French Paradox." They point out that the French eat far more fresh produce and fiber from vegetables (and fewer refined starches, boxed cereals, and big breakfasts); more fresh food cooked from scratched (and less fast foods, processed foods, chicken nuggets, frozen pot pies, etc.); and their consumption of red wine is perhaps, heart-protective.
They also eat far more fish, seafood and walnuts. They use olive oil; and have virtually no use of corn and soy oil.
Other cardiologists (most notably Dr. Ron Rosedale) and biochemists (most notably Dr. Udo Erasmus) have come out more boldly to shed light on the fact many of the original assumptions on fat research were wrong (leading to lots of flawed conclusions), and that refined carbohydrates and damaged vegetable oils should be a far greater concern.
So yes, the veil is lifting...
What and who do we believe? What should we eat?
Here are three of my favorite guidelines:
1. I find Michael Pollan's advice (The Omnivore's Dilemma; Food Rules; and In Defense Of Food) spot on:
Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
2. Let's borrow a page from the French playbook:
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, seasonal fruit and seafood.
Buy groceries on an almost daily basis and cook from scratch.
Eat butter and olive oil. No canola or soy oil.
3. Let's follow natures cues:
Eat in season.
What does nature provide at each time of year?
We're at the end of the harvest season, and what nature has provide are plenty of vegetables that keep well through the winter (squashes, onions, garlic). We are also in the midst of hunting season; so this is the season for game meats, organ meats and other animal foods. It's also the season for canning and fermenting, the latter of which helps to boost the immune system in advance of the winter. And we have fat.
Rendered animal fat from dairy, pork, goose and beef have been used in ancestral diets and are a cornerstone of winter eating. They keep forever.
When you skimp on fat in the winter you'll likely notice some of the following: feeling hungry or unsatisfied with your meals; having growing cravings for either high sugar or "rich" foods; and sometimes feeling cold.
Inadequate fats (and especially low omega-3 fats) might show as dry skin, eczema, allergies, join and muscle pain, dandruff and immune system challenges.
Some final ideas for fall and winter eating:
- Get inspired by the French and make seafood soups and stews, like this bouillabaisse or an Italian-inspired cioppino... or perhaps something simpler :)
- Render your own pork or duck fat and store it in a mason jar. Use it to cook your eggs, and sauté your favorite veggies.
- Roast a big pan of winter vegetables with avocado oil or coconut oil (or your favorite rendered fat). Add salt, pepper and your favorite spices. You can eat these veggies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Make a big pot of your favorite chili and freeze it in portion-sized bags or containers so you have a quick-heat dinner or lunch.
- A roasted-garlic and potato soup is another excellent winter staple that can be very satisfying on a chilly night.
- Find a hearty kale and chorizo soup recipe. Kale is the most astonishing green! It'll grow well into the fall and even into the winter if kept covered. And you can even make your own homemade chorizo for your soup.
- Don't skimp on good-quality butter from grass-fed cows.
Let's be mindful of the fats we eat. Our health truly depends on it.
And be sure to read Part I of this article, where I shared the basic guidelines on "fats that heal and fats that kill."