There might not be a more demonized word in the English language than "fat". We fear being called it, fear seeing ourselves as it, and have come to fear consuming it. Fat has such a powerful connotation that it can only be associated with the negative aspects. As babies, our bodies are predominantly fat and we're seen as adorable and loveable. However, as we age, the meaning and perception shifts. How did we get here? Where did we go wrong? Can we free ourselves from the stigma?
How did we get here?
For those of us that have grandparents and great grandparents around that used to cook at home before the processed food industry hijacked our kitchens, it's worthwhile to ask them what ingredients they used to use. This comes at a time when heart disease and obesity were scarce and chronic diseases were nearly nonexistent. Many will tell you that they baked, fried, and sauteed in lard or tallow. These are animal sources of fats and the only ones that were readily available. Not to mention they made meals taste delicious and extremely satisfying. Then, overnight it seems, everything changed. On September 26th, 1955, America’s President Eisenhower had a heart attack. A sitting president of the United States, suffered a heart attack and the country went into a panic to search for a cause and cure. Heart disease had been on the rise up to this point and this event led to a full-on scientific hunt for the cause.
Enter Ancel Keys, a biochemist with a theory that saturated fat, most commonly found in animal meat, was the root cause of heart disease. With this theory, he conducted a study of 22 countries and analyzed the intake of saturated fat against the prevalence of heart disease. He hoped to prove a correlation that with more intake of saturated fat, there would be more incidents of disease. Low and behold, he was able to do so. The problem with his published study was that he only chose 7 countries that supported his initial theory. He basically cherry-picked the data to only show those countries that had a high intake of saturated fat and high heart disease. Pretty convenient, yet fraudulent way to try and prove your point. If you were to take all 22 countries initially selected for the study, there are no data points that show any relationship between saturated fat and heart disease. Furthermore, a correlation does not prove causation. Said a different way, even if the study did show a correlation, without controlling for the infinite other factors (smoking, stress, age, exercise, etc) a study cannot prove causation. Therefore from the start, his study was never going to prove the cause of heart disease as no variable was specifically isolated for testing.
Despite the flawed science and cherry-picked data, the study was published and saturated fat was pinned as the sole cause for heart disease. America's dietary guidelines that control what is served in schools, promoted through advertising, and considered by the population as a "healthy diet" all took the bait.
Where did we go wrong?
In response, the food industry and population as a whole made it an initiative to eliminate saturated fat from the food landscape. Red meat was traded in for lean chicken or fish, full-fat dairy was replaced with low-fat options, and butter, tallow, and lard were shoved aside by man-made gasoline byproducts such as Crisco and vegetable oil. This might have been the single most harmful nutritional information to ever be endorsed by a population. Ancel Keyes' findings were immediately implemented into the food guidelines for Americans. The elimination of saturated fat from the diet directly led to a food industry solely focused on driving down the saturated fat content of food and replacing it with sugar and carbohydrate to make the products more palatable and addicting. Furthermore, the victimization of saturated fat led the population to believe that vegetable oils were a healthier option solely because they do not contain saturated fat and because they drive down LDL (the bad cholesterol). However, if you were to apply Ancel Keyes method to analyze the consumption of vegetable oils to the prevalence of obesity and heart disease in America, it is extremely obvious that as these products were endorsed and consumption increased, the percentage of the population that suffer from obesity and heart disease has skyrocketed. Sure, one cannot prove causation, but the correlation is strong.
As discussed in a previous blog post, this bad nutritional information came at a time where the emphasis was being placed on the calorie. Therefore, there was a multiplying effect of harmful advice that said to reduce caloric intake, which of course targeted fat as the most calorically dense macronutrient and to eliminate saturated fat to reduce the risk of heart disease. A one-two punch that left the American population malnourished, hungry, obese, and sick.
As I stated in the opening, it is such an unfortunate vernacular flaw that both the macronutrient and adipose tissue have been given the same word, fat. However, if we were able to separate the two, we would see how vastly different they are.
Fat, the macronutrient
We know food is a compound made of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Different foods have different ratios of each which affect us differently at a metabolic level. Thus, not all calories are created equal. Fat, as a macronutrient, serves us in so many beneficial ways that I found it important to break it down. First of all, fat is an energy source. It is our primary fuel as infants given that the major component of breast milk is... saturated fat. One could say that infants are the original keto dieters! Another important function of fat is that it serves as the outer layer of our cells making them more insulin sensitive and energetic. After all, we are all made up of billions of these organisms and need to give them the proper building blocks to optimize their performance. Fat provides cholesterol (another future blog post) which is used to make hormones. Eating a greater proportion of fat allows for the hormonal balance of androgens such as testosterone and estrogen creating metabolic health. Fat is filling, tastes delicious, and provides the backbone for healthy bones and muscles. They serve as the boats in our bloodstream caring around energy and vitamins to aid in nutrient delivery and aid in repair mechanisms. Lastly, saturated fats such as those found in butter, coconut oil, and red palm oil contain fatty acids such as lauric and myristic acid. They are anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal and have been found to decrease infection rates by killing bacteria such as harmful candida yeast. Therefore, quality fat is a leading variable in the strength of our immune system! Needless to say dietary fat is essential and beneficial.
Fat, the adipose tissue
Adipose tissue is such a fancy way to say body fat. Despite current marketing schemes and advertising convincing us that we shouldn't have an ounce of it on our bodies, without it, we would not be able to survive. Our body fat is a very unique and complex system developed over millions of years of evolution to keep us warm, fueled, and ready in times of scarcity. Our body fat is an energy storage system whereby excess fuel is kept safely tucked away in anticipation of times of food scarcity. Fat tissue can be accessed by the body and broken down into glucose and ketones to be used by the body as energy to support our living functions such as pumping blood, breathing, and regulating body temperature. However, in our modern society, we have no issues of food scarcity and have been fed misinformation regarding our proper fuel source causing us to be metabolically ill. We have excess energy available at all hours of the day and we are consuming it. More on this topic here. This illness of excess energy intake and storage presents itself as excess body fat, most commonly called obesity. There are different types of body fat, visceral and subcutaneous, the former being more harmful as it is formed around the organs of our bodies rather than the visible excess we most commonly associate with body fat. Visceral fat causes an increase in chronic inflammation, a state of dysfunction in the operation of the immune system that disrupts organ function, and tissue maintenance. Because it is tucked beneath our bones and muscles and surrounds our organs, its an "invisible" threat. Many may perceive a physically thin or "light" person to be "healthy," however, taking a look under the hood may reveal a metabolic nightmare in the form of built-up visceral fat. The most common diagnosis surrounding this condition is fatty liver disease, which was once only seen in alcoholics and adults, but is now being diagnosed as another symptom of metabolic dysfunction in adults and even kids! The leading cause of this is the consumption of excess fructose thanks to our processed food industry. With that said, body fat plays a vital roll in allowing us to stay alive, however, any excess and having the wrong type (i.e. visceral) can be extremely harmful.
Now that we can distinguish between dietary fat and adipose tissue, we can acknowledge that there is no link between the fat found in our foods and the fat that is stored in our bodies. They are separate concepts and we should now be able to shoo away the dogma that eating fat makes us fat.
Can we free ourselves from the stigma?
I would argue that we are in the midst of a view change on dietary fat. Saturated fats have recently been acknowledged to not cause heart disease by leading medical journals and organizations and the success of the millions of keto and low carbohydrate lifestyle enthusiasts have given the movement some real legs. Of course many want to see randomized control trials on this way of eating, but I want to make the argument that it has already been done on the entire American population. One must only look at the inflection point of the prevalence of heart disease and obesity and correlate it with the vilification of saturated fat.
Pre Ancel Keyes and the dietary fat heart disease hypothesis, we were relatively free of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Enter these new guidelines, the processed food industry, and a food environment sold on the idea, and we have watched these rates explode. WE ARE THE LIVING RANDOMIZED CONTROL TRIAL. It is time to recognize that we have been headed in the wrong direction. Not to mention the role that Big Pharma has played in keeping the status quo, the status quo because there are plenty of prescriptions that conveniently serve to alleviate the symptoms of these issues we have created ourselves.
So what's the skinny?
In short, we relied on flawed science that was more concerned with providing an answer than ensuring the answer was right. The parties had too much invested to turn back on the advice so we have been left with a self-imposed health epidemic. To get the full story and deep dive into how it all happened, I suggest reading The Obesity Epidemic by Zoe Harcombe. The good news is that we can free ourselves from this crisis by merely returning to the way we were eating prior to the epidemic's start. To do so, we must trade in the man-made vegetable oils for the animal versions that are more stable and are beneficial to our bodies such as butter, tallow, lard, and ghee. We must opt for full-fat dairy versions of yogurt, cheeses, milk, and kefir free from added sugars and flavorings which make their "low calorie" and "low fat" counterparts palatable. We should free ourselves from the fear of naturally occurring fats in foods such as avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. We should feel comfortable embracing the benefits of these foods knowing that our bodies are equipped with the mechanisms necessary to utilize them naturally. Once fat is reintroduced into your lifestyle, you will come to appreciate the satiety and clean energy it provides. Embracing fat is delicious, nutritious, and will free you from the snack aisles littered with unnecessary refined carbohydrate "snacks."
Daily habits should also include looking at the packaging and food labels and rid your meals of vegetable oils such as canola, corn, soybean, safflower, or cottonseed oil. Cook vegetables in ghee, lard, and tallow which are much more stable at high temperatures. Don't be afraid to add butter to your meats and vegetables.
Dietary fat, from the right sources, is safe. We have been consuming it for millions of years. It is time to go back to the basics. Real foods, in their most natural forms. Full fat, full nutrition.