The Fat Debate
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The Fat Debate
Home  / The Fat Debate

Our half-century effort to cut back on the consumption of eggs, meat, and full-fat dairy foods has had a tragic effect on declining health. The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that saturated fats in red-meat, butter, and cheese should be avoided because they clogged our arteries. Diets shifted from meat to chicken, and canola oil over butter. Our chariness of fats can be traced back to the 50’s to an American, Dr Ancel Keys, who rather persuasively followed through with some flawed research to support his idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks. Heart disease was certainly on the rise where three decades earlier it was a rarity. Maybe there was a link between heart disease and poor nutrition!

Modern scientific research has certainly pointed out that his study violated many basic scientific procedures, selecting his countries and populations strategically to support his desired outcome and making conclusions during short periods of time based on his experience and subjective observation.

As the director of one of the largest nutrition studies of the time, his work did however land him a prodigious position on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, who to this day still set the gold standard in nutrition guidelines. While they were at first a little skeptical of instigating change, the U.S. Department of Agriculture jumped onto the scene and soon pasture was being replaced with grain and seed. There was no turning back as other research pitted to test vegetable oils versus animal fats were flawed due to methodologies and results were often unreliable. A bias in its favour had grown so strong that the idea seemed like common sense and Dr Keys’s diet became the diet of the American nation. This is also about the time Monsanto were trialing genetic modification and with the MA looking frantically at ways to feed an increasing world population and gain the top place in world power, a new food revolution was taking place.

Scientists were warning about the diet’s potential unintended consequences, but the cogs were turning and it is today, that we are dealing with the reality that these have come to pass.

By cutting back on fats, we replaced them by eating a lot more carbohydrates—at least 25% more since the early 1970s, while the consumption of saturated fat, dropped by 11%. Meals based on meat, eggs and cheese, were replaced with eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Low fat foods did not transpire to a more healthy option, such as yogurt, which are in fact boosted carb-delivery systems. Removing the fat took away the taste, texture and feeling of fullness and was replaced by the addition of fillers to make up for the loss of product quality.

Carbohydrates break down into glucose, causing the body to release insulin—a hormone that is the metabolic master of fat storage. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, rigorous modern scientific research links to cardio vascular disease.

The real surprise is that people put themselves at higher risk for these conditions no matter what kind of carbohydrates they eat, even unrefined carbs. Too much whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast and whole-grain pasta for dinner, with fruit snacks in between, add up to a less healthy diet than one of eggs and bacon, followed by fish. According to the best science to date, fat doesn’t make you fat or diabetic.

Not all fats though are the same as we well know. The shift away from animal fats provided the opportunity for vegetable oils to fill the void. Butter and lard had long been the staple of most American pantry’s until Crisco, introduced the first vegetable-based fat after the turn of the 19th century. Following that and with the seal of approval from the Ministry of Agriculture, seed oils became margarines and cooking fat became cooking oils in a bottle. And all of these got a boost from the American Heart Association, with Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crisco oil, launching them from an underfunded professional society to a national organization

While the shift seemed a good idea, new diseases started to emerge at higher rates such as cancers and gallstones. Alarmed by the findings, the National Institutes of Health could find no explanation for this, however now experts speculate that some psychological problems might be related to changes in brain chemistry caused by diet, such as fatty-acid imbalances or the depletion of cholesterol.

It was well known that vegetable oils when heated created oxidation products which we term reactive oxidative species and in experiments on animals, high levels lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death. Scientists around the 1950’s were warning against the consumption of seed oils, but it was thought that they could be rendered more stable through a process called hydrogenation, which turned oils into solids (margarine).

From the 1950s on, hydrogenated oils became the backbone of the entire food industry, cookies, cakes, crisps, breads, fillings, frosting’s, frozen and fried food. Hydrogenation changed the fat molecule from a Cis configuration to a Trans fat and by the 1970’s, scientists started to suspect that Trans fats were interfering with basic cellular functioning as they had the ability to raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.

New science over the past decade, free from alignment with global food companies, has shown a sizable body of evidence that these oxidation products from heating seed oils produces dramatic inflammatory and oxidative effects, implicating them in heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, infertility and liver disease. Newly discovered potential toxins in vegetable oils, are now causing concern among health authorities in Europe. The track record of vegetable oils is highly worrisome—and not remotely what we bargained for when they gave up butter and lard for a smartly packaged, easily spreadable healthy alternative in the 60’s.

Cutting back on saturated fat has had especially harmful consequences for women, who, due to hormonal differences, tend to be at greater risk of heart disease later in life and in a way that is distinct from men. Research in fact has found that high total cholesterol levels in women over 50 were found to be associated with longer life and this has been confirmed by other research. This could be because cholesterol is the backbone of all hormones, reproductive, metabolic and vitamin D. Cutting back on a particularly important part of your biochemistry can create a greater imbalance which becomes more evident as hormones dip with age routinely and muscle mass also diminishes due to eating less protein and avoiding resistance training exercise.

The irony is that woman have focused their diets as they age on eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and less saturated fat, eggs and red meat, but now suffer from higher obesity as they age, higher than men, and the death rate from heart disease has caught up to be comparable with rates for men. Sticking with the reduced animal fat diet, fat-free dairy and avoid egg yolk guidelines, has ignored the growing evidence that women on diets low in saturated fat actually increase their risk of having a heart attack. The “good” HDL cholesterol drops precipitously for women following this diet and slightly less so for men.

Nutrition authorities are in an awkward position of late as the media are finally responding to the compelling research that has been emerging for years and only now able to identify the major culprits for causing such epidemic changes to our health. Once referred to as heart disease risk, now it is termed metabolic disease as the major changes to the way we eat have not just increased cardio-vascular risk, but ramped it up with insulin resistance and hypertension as the bodies cell membranes lost their fluidity with a change in fats, and the increased intake of refined starches and highly concentrated fructose syrup caused increased glycation (damage caused by sticky blood) and insulin resistance.

Can we blame the food industry as there is no doubt the abundance of sugar laden, altered fat and high salt processed foods are bad for us. It is fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines laid down by government, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar. This simply supported their change from rearing animal foods to agriculture and genetically modified grains.

Our half-century trial and test effort to cut back on the consumption of meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy, has had a tragic influence on the current state of most developed countries health and quality of life. Ancel Key’s hypothesis has never been proven as to having any health benefit and most progressive health clinicians agree that it is time to put the saturated-fat hypothesis to bed and to move on to test other possible culprits for our health woes. This does not mean tearing off and eating a white baguette loaded with full fat cheese, butter and salami. It means that food combining is important as the white refined bread will certainly fall into the high risk laden sugary carb that will now make the saturated fat a burden to health.

Eat carbs with carbs, eat fat with low glycaemic carbs (tables available on line) such as vegetables and add protein as well. Avoid combining refined carbs with any other food if you really find you cannot give them up. Bread with vegetable curries and salad; pasta with tomato sauces and no fat or protein. And as far as exercise is concerned, work on strength training and not the long endurance wearing down your body options especially as you age. Muscle is the essence of youth!