Fat, villain or hero?

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So whats going on? Is fat making you healthy or killing you? Like a number of things in medicine, this one is flip flopping. Now we have medical professionals with passionately strong, and polar opposite, beliefs on the subject of dietary fat and saturated fat

Back in the 1950’s, it was so simple. Doctor Ancel Benjamin Keys from the University of Minnesota did his famous “seven country chart” showing that countries with lower fat consumption had less mortality from heart disease than countries which consumed more fat and they made a really nice curve. After this, saturated fat became public health enemy number one.  “Fat is bad”, so simple to grasp … and so misleading.

As eventually happens with bad science, real research finally comes to the rescue. Trouble is it can take decades to undo the damage done by one bad report that society gets latched on to. There was the fraudulent research by Doctor Andrew Wakefield “proving” that vaccinations caused autism which stopped hundreds of thousands of parents worldwide from vaccinating their children for the next 14 years. Then there is this alarming Benjamin Keys research that linked fat with heart disease and caused a shift away from beef, butter and cheese to Snickers bars and potato chips.

Books like the “Big Fat Surprise” by Teicholz are shaking things up a bit now, as they should be. Its time to realize that we don’t know as much as we think we know so perhaps its time to take a more humble approach.

Lets look at what we DO know:

  1. Obesity is increasing at an alarming rate and along with this rise is a corresponding rise of major health problems associated with obesity like heart disease
  2. Over the last century, hours of physical activity has continued to decline
  3. Over the last 70 years, the planet has gone from eating unprocessed foods to eating highly processed foods
  4. In the last 70  years, the use of pesticides, fertilizers and drugs to increase food yields has skyrocketed.

With all that going on, its pretty silly to pin the blame for all our heart disease epidemic on saturated fat and our obesity problems on fat.  The book  “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss give some great insights about the obesity problem and how modern food engineering can make foods irresistible.

I havent read the book “Big Fat Surprise” but I read about it today and it concerned me. I am concerned that we are over-reacting to the “fat is bad” thing and letting the pendulum swing to the “carbs are bad” side. Equally incorrect and even more dangerous in my opinion.

So what can you do?

So until the dust settles, what should you do?  I say, eat like your great, great, great Grandfather did AND get the same amount of exercise.  Most people forget that second part but more on that later.  A century ago, people ate pretty simple food.  They ate fresh vegetables from their own gardens.  They ate eggs from their own chickens.  They ground their own wheat to make their own bread and cooked their own oats to make porridge.  They ate the chickens, cows and pigs that they raised.   They ate a LOT but they worked a lot too.  Farmers were on their feet all day long – walking, lifting, hauling.  Farming was the ultimate “cross-fit” workout.  Obesity was never a problem with farmers.

So am I suggesting we all start raising chickens in our back yards and growing all our own food?  No, its just not possible.  What I AM saying is that eating simple, unprocessed foods is probably a good thing to do until the researchers figure out what exactly it is about our modern food supply that is killing us.  Before you buy food, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What city, state, country did this food come from?
  2. How was it raised/grown?
  3. Exactly what processing occurred?

If you can’t answer all three questions with absolute certainty then you might not want to be eating it.  Dairy and poultry products in America have the highest concentrations of pesticides of any food on the planet.  Animals concentrate pollutants so when there is a little pesticide on the grain they eat, there ends up being a lot of pesticide in the animal.  Most pesticides are fat soluble so that is a likely place where the pesticides end up – places like egg yolks and milk fat.  For years I have advocated severely limiting use of cheese and egg yolks for this very reason.  When it comes to meat and dairy, buy organic.

Dietary fat and weight loss

Here is the skinny.  Fat has 9 calories per gram where as carbohydrates and protein only has 4 calories per gram.  Maybe saturated fat isn’t the villain you once thought but which of these 800 calorie “meals” do you think is going to be more satisfying to eat?

  • a stick of butter
  • a pound of roasted chicken breast
  • five pounds of carrots

I know that many people are able to lose weight fast with low carb, high fat diets – I don’t dispute this.  The problem is, the weight loss from these high fat, low carb diets is rarely permanent.  You cant eat low carb  forever and when you go OFF your low carb diet, the fat pounds come back on.  The other issues is that it is becoming more and more apparent that fiber is very important for health and disease prevention.  Not only does fiber fill you up with fewer calories so you can keep weight off long term but it helps make you healthier too.  For long term weight control, consider trying having a more active lifestyle and eating more vegetables and whole grains to get your filling and healthy fiber.