“Scientists labeled fat the enemy. They were wrong.” This quote (placed directly above a delicious looking swirl of butter) recently graced the cover of TIME Magazine – a stark contrast to the 1984 cover of TIME, which showed a sad face constructed of eggs and bacon.
This controversial cover has sent many into a frenzy. Some are ecstatic at the thought of being able to eat real butter, egg yolks, and bacon once again – free of guilt. Others (like me) have already emailed and text messaged pictures of the cover to family and friends who all thought my “fat doesn’t make you fat or sick” stance was a bunch of quack (they have to believe me now, right!?). But many are still skeptical.
Whether you’re a fat lover or hater, it’s worth delving a bit deeper into this issue to discover the truth about this dietary staple turned public enemy #1 of the last four decades.
How Fat Became the Enemy
The article in TIME places a large amount of the responsibility for America’s saturated fat hysteria on a scientist named Ancel Keys. The Wall Street Journal Agrees, stating in a recent article titled The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease that Keys pushed his way to the top of the nutrition world through “sheer force of will,” and that he was guilty of, “relentlessly championing the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.”
Keys’ pushy antics came at a time when heart disease was responsible for nearly half of all deaths in the United States. And after President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955, people were seriously spooked. The nation was ready to place the blame on something, and Mr. Keys knew it.
According to TIME,
Keys had an explanation. He posited that high levels of cholesterol–a waxy, fatlike substance present in some foods as well as naturally occurring in the body–would clog arteries, leading to heart disease. He had a solution as well. Since fat intake raised LDL cholesterol, he reasoned that reducing fat in the diet could reduce the risk of heart attacks. (LDL cholesterol levels are considered a marker for heart disease, while high HDL cholesterol seems to be cardioprotective.) In the 1950s and ’60s, Keys sought to flesh out that hypothesis, traveling around the world to gather data about diet and cardiovascular disease. His landmark Seven Countries Study found that people who ate a diet low in saturated fat had lower levels of heart disease. The Western diet, heavy on meat and dairy, correlated with high rates of heart disease.
The Seven Countries Study was ultimately responsible for the 1984 cover of TIME Magazine (shown above) that kickstarted America’s fear of fat. It was also the driving force behind the American Heart Association’s decision to begin advising Americans (for the first time ever) to cut down on saturated fat. The USDA also created their dietary guidelines (The Food Pyramid and now My Plate) for Americans based on Keys’ findings.
It wasn’t long before the American people started listening and responding in the worst of ways. We began ditching nutritious yolks for egg whites, buying turkey bacon (don’t even get me started on turkey bacon) over regular bacon, and choosing margarine over butter. The list goes on and on.
But times have changed. And new (more legit, advanced, and higher budget) studies are disproving Keys’ work — which had some serious flaws to begin with. As stated in the article,
He cherry-picked his data, leaving out countries like France and West Germany that had high-fat diets but low rates of heart disease. Keys highlighted the Greek island of Crete, where almost no cheese or meat was eaten and people lived to an old age with clear arteries. But Keys visited Crete in the years following World War II, when the island was still recovering from German occupation and the diet was artificially lean. Even more confusing, Greeks on the neighboring isle of Corfu ate far less saturated fat than Cretans yet had much higher rates of heart disease.
As a result of this twisted information, we as a nation have been living in fear of red meat, coconut oil, and all sorts of other natural, unprocessed, real food sources of fat that our bodies need and crave. Nearly four decades following our nation’s massive shift from a fat and protein based diet to one rooted in refined carbohydrates, Americans are sicker then ever. Type 2 Diabetes has increased 166% from 1980 to 2012, over a third of the country is obese, and cardiovascular disease remains the nation’s #1 killer.
IMPORTANT SIDENOTE: While the butter on TIME’s cover serves as an excellent attention-grabber (representing a much larger message of encouraging individuals to dump their fat-phobic attitudes), it’s also important to remember that not all butter is necessarily healthy. And not all sources of fat are created equal.
This is a subject for another post. But for now, check out this article by Diane Sanfilippo (complete with PDF Guide!) titled Fats: Which to Eat and Which to Ditch.
Why Fat is Your Friend
Keys based his research on the notion that saturated fats raise cholesterol and that elevated cholesterol levels cause heart disease. But it’s actually much more complex than that. There is evidence suggesting that saturated fat raises cholesterol levels in the blood. However, it raises both HDL (“good” cholesterol) and LDL (“bad” cholesterol). HDL is considered to be cardioprotective and removes the LDL cholesterol that can accumulate on arterial walls.
There are two types of LDL cholesterol particles: small, dense ones and large, fluffy ones. The light and fluffy ones appear to be harmless while the dense, small LDL particles have been linked to heart disease. Can you guess which type of particle saturated fat is responsible for raising? Yup — the large, fluffy ones.
It’s the refined carbohydrates (like whole grain cereal, whole wheat bread, etc. – basically everything that has been marketed to us as “healthy” for the last 4 decades) that actually raise the levels of small, dense LDL particles, potentially contributing to heart disease. For more info on why wheat and other grains are destroying your health, click here.
Aside from the fact that fat does not actually harm us, there also many benefits to consuming whole, unprocessed sources of saturated fat. This article on Tim Ferriss’s blog (author of The 4 Hour Workweek), written by Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades (two of the top obesity treatment doctors in the country) points to all of the major benefits of consuming saturated fats. Here they are, paraphrased and summarized for easier mental digestion:
- Improved Cardiovascular Risk Factors – Saturated Fat reduces the levels of a substance called lipoprotein that correlates strongly with risk for heart disease (there are currently NO medications capable of lowering this substance). It also raises “good” HDL levels (as noted above) and has been shown to promote weight loss.
- Stronger Bones – Mary Enig, Ph.D. (one of the foremost research experts in dietary fats) believes there’s a case to be made for having as much as 50% of the fats in your diet as saturated fats to promote bone mass – a recommendation that is supported by the fact that the vast majority of women who are told to avoid saturated fat and to selectively use vegetable oils instead are faced with a loss in bone mass and the threat of osteoporosis.
- Improved Liver Health – Medical research has shown that adding saturated fat to the diet encourages the liver cells to dump their fat content — a critical first step in halting middle-body fat storage. Saturated fat has also been shown to protect the liver from the toxic insults of alcohol and medications.
- Healthy Lungs – The airspaces of the lungs need to be coated with a thin layer of lung surfactant (the fat content of which is 100% saturated fatty acids) in order to function properly. When the body low in saturated fat and exceeding in other fats, faulty surfactant is made – potentially leading to breathing difficulties and collapse of the airspaces.
- Healthy Brain – Many people are now familiar with the importance of the highly unsaturated essential fatty acids found in cold-water fish (EPA and DHA) for normal brain and nerve function. But the majority of the fatty acids in the brain are actually saturated! A diet that skimps on healthy saturated fats robs your brain of the raw materials it needs to function optimally.
- Proper Nerve Signaling – Certain saturated fats (particularly those found in butter, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil) function directly as signaling messengers that influence the metabolism. Without the correct signals to tell the organs and glands what to do, the job doesn’t get done (or gets done improperly).
- Strong immune system – Without sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells, their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders (such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi) is seriously compromised. The saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil (myristic acid and lauric acid) play key roles in immune health.
Read the full article here.
Despite the rapidly increasing amount of research that continues to debunk the “fat will kill you and make you fat” myth, this message is still deeply ingrained into our psyches. And reversing this false conception (along with all of the 100 calorie snack packs and nonfat yogurt that came with it) is going to take some time.
But that doesn’t mean you need to wait for the rest of the world to wake up before you start eating the yolks (from pastured eggs of course) and regularly enjoying nice, juicy cut of grass-fed sirloin – without the self-inflicted guilt trip.
For more information on the saturated fat myth, check out the articles below:
- The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy by Chris Kresser
- The Definitive Guide to Saturated Fat by Mark Sisson
- Fats: Which to Eat and Which to Ditch by Diane Sanfilippo (also mentioned above)
And for even more myth-busting health information, check out my article, 7 “Healthy” Habits That are Killing You Slowly.