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Fat Is Where It’s At

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It’s a shame, really. Because as it happens, experts now recognize fat can be good for you. Aside from the beneficial effects some fats can have on cholesterol–unsaturated fats, like olive oil, tend to raise levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of the bad stuff–fats help deliver vitamins, build cells and regulate hormones. Unsaturated fat also has antioxidant properties, which may help fight cancer; so does meat from grass-fed animals. The oft-repeated hypothesis that links a high-fat diet to breast cancer has never been proved. And when it comes to appetite, hunger and obesity, fats–along with protein, green vegetables and whole grains–take more time to digest, making people feel full longer.

Even critics of high-fat diets acknowledge that people on them tend to eat less because they aren’t as hungry. And according to studies published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), many people even have a type of fat–known as brown adipose tissue, or brown fat–that burns calories rather than piling them on.

Finally, fatty food appears to be shedding its stigma. Restaurants are featuring ever-fattier cuts of meat; cookbooks extol the virtues of lard. And the more scientists and nutritionists learn, the more they’re willing to concede that vilifying fat isn’t the solution. Says Jennifer Lovejoy, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington School of Public Health: “When people are eating whole food, real food diets, obesity is not a problem.”

At a time when weight loss has become prime-time entertainment, a civic responsibility and a multibillion-dollar global industry, it’s easy to forget that for centuries, doctors worried about malnutrition, starvation and underweight children, points out Gary Taubes. A science journalist, Taubes has been beating the drum in favor of fat for almost a decade. His book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage), spends 500 pages dismantling the prevailing ideas about fat, weight gain and health. It hasn’t made him popular.

There was a time, though, when a low-fat diet was just as controversial. Fat–on the plate or the hips–didn’t trigger health concerns until the late 20th century. As recently as the 1970s, dietary guidelines included plenty of fats and protein, because they helped people feel sated, preventing overeating. And obesity wasn’t considered a serious problem in Europe or the U.S.; high-carbohydrate meals were associated with weight gain, and academic articles linked obesity in Africa and the Caribbean with starchy diets.

But heart disease was a growing public health concern. By the mid-1900s, it was a leading cause of death in the U.S., with the rest of the West catching up quickly. Led by University of Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, scientists linked heart disease to cholesterol, and made the leap to fatty foods. While critics of Keys’ research abounded, the U.S. Congress wasn’t among them. In the late 1970s, a Senate committee issued broad dietary guidelines encouraging Americans to eat less fat. Today, we take it for granted that one too many bacon double-cheeseburgers will give us a heart attack for sure.

It’s hardly that simple. While the West started avoiding fats at all costs, researchers continued to study what causes heart disease. As they discovered more about the effects of different kinds of fats–saturated, trans, mono- and poly-unsaturated–on different kinds of cholesterol–HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”)–the weaker the link between dietary fats and heart disease became. Unsaturated fats, like those in nuts, fish, olive oil and avocado, are fluid at room temperature; they reduce LDL, which causes buildup in the arteries. Saturated fats, found in meat and dairy, chocolate and palm oil are solid at room temperature and their effects on cholesterol is more complicated. Coconut oil, for example, has been shown to raise both good and bad cholesterol levels, whereas some of the fats in dark chocolate and beef have a neutral effect.

In other words, as Taubes puts it, when it comes to cholesterol, food high in saturated fats may be, at worst, a wash. “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease,” he wrote in 2002. These days, he says he sees evidence of the conventional wisdom everywhere, from low-fat products on the shelves to the customers at his local bagel shop ordering soy cream cheese and skim lattes. “I always want to ask them why,” he says. “There’s this overarching idea that fat is bad for you–that something has to be the problem with our diets, because we die of heart disease and we get fat.”

Increasingly, researchers and nutrition experts are starting to come around. “I have been in this business for 35 years and I have never been one of those who maintain that fat is bad,” says Daan Kromhout, a professor of public health at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “We don’t even know whether the two things–fat and [being] overweight–have anything to do with each other. The fat issue is much more complicated than it was once thought to be.” Moreover, Kromhout says, stating only the amount of fat in a food product is misleading, since “you have to specify what type of fat is included–saturated, unsaturated, trans-fat–because if you don’t, people will just cut down on all fats, the good ones included.”

Dutch pediatricians were so alarmed by the low-fat trend that they urged parents to ensure that their children receive the essential nutrients only fat can bring. “Children under the age of 6 need fat,” said Elise Buiting, president of the Dutch Youth Service Medical Association, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper this year. “We recommend full-fat margarine with unsaturated fatty acids, for example. Children who are given the same ‘light’ products as their parents do not get enough.”

Next: The History of the Low-Fat Weight-Loss connection

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Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Food, Health, Mental Wellness, Whole Soy Benefits, , , ,

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also by Robyn, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

21 comments

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12:40PM PDT on Apr 27, 2013

Thank you Robyn.

4:38AM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

This is a wonderful article! It's so nice to hear more and more sense being posted about dietary fats. Juanita, you also make a fantastic point. Thank you! I would, however, like to see some of the sources/research cited in this piece... I'm very big on reviewing the literature for myself.

10:12AM PDT on Jul 24, 2009

cont'd
Together, Soy, HFC, Sugar Substitutes & factory farmed meats are all a death sentence. I know there's a lot more to it, but these comments do not allow me to write book, LOL & some readers have dial-up and cannot load the pages. Something I take for granted, so thanks for mentioning that Meridith & Patricia. Have a healthy day and don't forget to eat you 'good fats' ;)

10:08AM PDT on Jul 24, 2009

Tricia, Thank you for including the details to back up my statement. It's an important part of the statement about fat that many are not aware of and could very well be detrimental to their health.
Although this article blames (rightly so) low fat diets for increased weight, again there are other factors not mentioned, which I'd like to. First off, many products on the market no longer contain sugar (sucrose). It's rare to see sugar as an ingredient in anything. Corn syrup or High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFC) is usually the first ingredient on many products. Studies have been done that show Fructose to trick the body into wanting more because it is not digested or metabolized as sugar is. Like sugar substitutes, which may be harmful to your brain, nervous system and digestive tract, Fructose that is not in its natural form (from fresh fruit) will most certainly wreak havoc on the digestive tract, insulin and who knows what else. I wish they would have mentioned it here but you can't include everything unless you are writing a book.
Another issue I believe they are not really in touch with is that all these people on low fat diets "most, or some of the time" will drink diet soda while they are having a burger and fries. What's wrong with that picture? Well, maybe a free range burger with the proper ratio of lipids O-3 & O-6 but also foods are fried in Soy oil. We are inundated with soy & HFC. Together, Soy, HFC, Sugar Substitutes & factory farmed meats are all a de

2:21PM PDT on Jul 21, 2009

I read less and less at this site now because of the lag time loading page after page after page. I guess you need sort of a "teaser" to make people read on? Is that the reason for the fractured articles? I usually just read the e-mail now and then if I see an item of interest, I google it. I usually come up with information on the item of interest to me. Just my 2¢ cents worth.

10:46PM PDT on Jul 20, 2009

*This comment has nothing to do with the content of the article, which I find very interesting and would like to finish reading, if the computer will just load the next page*


PLEASE quit the 3 page articles. If it fits on one page, put it on one page. It takes FOREVER for slower internet connections to load a multi-page article. Putting the whole thing on one page increases tenfold the likelihood of me reading the whole thing, and I'm sure there are slow-connection people out there that would also appreciate the one-page format. Thank you! :-)

2:22PM PDT on Jul 20, 2009

Kuddos to Juanita!

We need to pay more attention to what the animals we eat, eat! Corn feed (as opposed to grass) makes cows unhealthy, and causes their own lipid balance to be off. (When grass farmed, cows have a balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, a 1:1 ratio. If they are feedlot raised, it's a ratio of about 1:6 with the bad fat being in abundance) How can we expect to be healthy eating unhealthy animals?

If you want to be healthy, avoid processed foods, eat pastured poultry, meat and dairy. If you also want to add benefit to the environment, add local and organic to your shopping items as well.

12:34PM PDT on Jul 20, 2009

Wonder if the teacher notes that the Maasai, a Kenyan tribe are active most of the day and not couch potatoes. Not only are they constantly active, be it gathering fire wood, milking livestock, herding livestock, hand washing clothes, and doing manual labour, the amount of meat and dairy they consume is 1/4 what the average American consumes.

And American children as an example, started to get fatter when public schools cut back on physical education, and parents became paranoid about allowing their kids to play outside because of isolated cases of child abductions.

Recently I noticed who was buying the low fat foods at the store. Most had weight issues. Seems to me that people see 'low fat' and think they can eat even more. And what's in the 'low fat' foods when one reads the label, seems to make one never feel satisfied. Julia Child seemed to have the best approach. A little butter for taste is great, but don't use half the cube.

Personally I keep a food journal so that I am assured I am getting enough fruits and vegetables per day since I need to make an effort to eat enough each day. Am like I was as a kid, where I would be having so much fun outside that I didn't want to come into eat, when called.

11:55AM PDT on Jul 20, 2009

Doesn't make much sense, does it? The more we are urged to eat a low-fat diet, the fatter we get! Probably the best thing anyone can do in regard to their diet is to STOP BUYING AND EATING PROCESSED FOODS. The labels on this stuff are enough to make you ill - they are full of high-fructose corn syrup (very odd in so many things which are not actually sweet tasting) and trans fats, as well as other sources of sugars and fats, and they have high proportions of carbohydrates. It's just not that hard to make sloppy joes yourself, with a can of tomato sauce, hamburger and seasonings - there's no need for a can of Manwich. Make your own cookies and cakes, don't buy them - they'll taste better and impress the heck out of people. And if there is anything more satisfying than making bread with your own hands (and eating it warm with butter when it's done), I can't imagine what it is! Your mothers and grandmothers did it, you can do it too. And stop paying the big Food Incorporated companies, like Con Agra and others, who are making your life "easier", your food bad for you, and your weight go up every year no matter how active you try to be. Regain control over your diet and the foods your family eats, and you will be both healthier and happier, and maybe a few pennies ahead in the long run.

11:54AM PDT on Jul 20, 2009

Doesn't make much sense, does it? The more we are urged to eat a low-fat diet, the fatter we get! Probably the best thing anyone can do in regard to their diet is to STOP BUYING AND EATING PROCESSED FOODS. The labels on this stuff are enough to make you ill - they are full of high-fructose corn syrup (very odd in so many things which are not actually sweet tasting) and trans fats, as well as other sources of sugars and fats, and they have high proportions of carbohydrates. It's just not that hard to make sloppy joes yourself, with a can of tomato sauce, hamburger and seasonings - there's no need for a can of Manwich. Make your own cookies and cakes, don't buy them - they'll taste better and impress the heck out of people. And if there is anything more satisfying than making bread with your own hands (and eating it warm with butter when it's done), I can't imagine what it is! Your mothers and grandmothers did it, you can do it too. And stop paying the big Food Incorporated companies, like Con Agra and others, who are making your life "easier", your food bad for you, and your weight go up every year no matter how active you try to be. Regain control over your diet and the foods your family eats, and you will be both healthier and happier, and maybe a few pennies ahead in the long run.

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