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How Fat Became Public Enemy #1

fats and the united states

Lately, we have heard a lot about “healthy” fats. Fat is back! However, could there be such a thing as a “healthy” fat? Any child of the ’90s remembers the urgings of gym coaches and health teachers to eat within the food pyramid. Health professionals preached the benefits of a low-fat diet. Weight loss foods filled with empty carbs were all the rage. Everything we’ve heard for the past 60 years has told us fat is the antithesis of health. The average BMI in the United States has been steadily rising. Who’s to blame? It has to be fat. However, there is evidence to prove that this isn’t the case. So how did fat get such a bad rap? This false public health narrative can be traced back to the 1960s.

Heart disease and fat consumption- correlation or causation?

The smear campaign against fat can be traced back to WWII. In this period, the advent of processed, pre-packaged, fatty foods was bolstered by increased industrialization. The first McDonald’s opened its doors in San Bernardino, California in 1940. By the early 1950s restaurant franchises with affordable fatty foods high in processed carbs became an American staple. 

Doctors started to notice an increase in obesity and related adverse health effects. Looking to get some answers about this shift, the American physiologist by the name of Ancel Keys conducted a study which changed the way we would think about fat forever. In his work entitled the Seven Countries study, Keys developed the lipid hypothesis. He sought to explore the associations between diet and other risk factors and the disease rates between several populations all over the world.

The Seven Countries study found that fatty foods were to blame for rising health risks in the United States. It pointed to a high-fat diet as the culprit, stating that high levels of fat in the blood cause high cholesterol which in turn causes heart disease. In a majority of countries where there were high levels of fat intake, Ancel found higher rates of heart disease and heart attack. However, this study did not take into account the difference in fat types. Despite this misstep, the Seven Countries study identified variance in the data which alluded to the concept of healthy fats.

In East Finland where a low-fat diet and wholemeal products such as barley and rye were a staple, Ancel found High levels of coronary heart disease. While in Crete, where a majority of nourishment was found in natural sources such as seasonal veggies, and regional fats like olive oil and local protein these issues were rare. These findings contributed to the famed Mediterranean diet. Populations in this region had a high-fat diet with low levels of adverse health effects. These outliers lead to research into contributing factors to adverse health effects other than a high-fat diet.

Benefits of Fat

 Many of the weight loss trends such as a restrictive low fat, low-calorie diet relying on high carb weight loss foods and leave you feeling starved. This feeling of restriction often results in a large rebound effect. A diet rich in healthy fats helps you to feel satiated longer. This means that if your goal is to lose weight, a diet rich in healthy fats coupled with a reasonable calorie deficit could do the trick.

In all of the hype, we forgot that fat is an integral part of our diet. These natural fatty foods also help to avoid the dangerous inflammation characteristic of a diet heavy in processed carbs and sugars. Healthy fats are known to reduce insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular disease, and intake of carcinogens. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.

Which fats are healthy fats to eat?

 Not all fatty foods hold these benefits. So what’s the difference? Avoid the all too common mistake many make when they switch to a low-carb diet. While the double patty cheeseburger is low in carbs, having it make a regular appearance on the dinner table, even if it is low in carbs, is terrible for your heart. While saturated fats are not the healthy fats that we necessarily want to star on our low-carb meal plan, the American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. Saturated fat sources include:

  • fatty beef
  • lamb
  • pork
  • poultry with skin
  • beef fat (tallow)
  • lard and cream
  • butter
  • cheese
  • other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk

Healthy fats to eat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats are pivotal for our health. Our bodies cannot produce these fats on their own, meaning we need to get them from the foods we eat. They serve essential purposes like building cell membranes and the covering of nerves. They are required for blood clotting and muscle movement. These fats are found in the liquid oil we use to cook.

Some ways to fit polyunsaturated fats into your diet are:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil

Monounsaturated fats can be found in:

  • Olive oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Pork
  • Eggs