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Is Fat Healthy? Big Fat Myth Dispelled

by Sarah on June 21, 2012

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Want to hear a weird thing?

At a 2011 conference sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of American, several hundred nutritionists took a very strange-sounding pledge,

“I will no longer promote low-fat food.”

For decades we’ve been swept up in a low-fat obsession. However, as traditional food advocates and holistic nutritionists have been pointing out, this has only contributed to the increase in heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

I’ve had my own personal battles with this mythology. I’ve argued with my pediatrician about whole milk. And then, more recently, I’ve had to explain to my children’s school’s Wellness Committee that meeting the USDA requirement of lowfat milk only in the school cafeteria is a terrible idea.

As Walter Willett, MD, MPH, Ph D, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health acknowledged, “It’s time to end the low-fat myth.”

Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, Ph D, co-director of the cardiovascular epidemiology program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, points out “No randomized trial looking at weight change has shown that people did better on a low-fat diet.”

Other research clearly shows that we’ve unfairly vilified cholesterol and saturated fats:

  • In 2000, two Boston researchers published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that over 50% of fatal heart attack victims had healthy cholesterol levels.  Ridker and his colleagues demonstrated that an indicator of inflammation – C reactive protein (CRP) – was a far more reliable predictor of heart disease risk.
  • In 2009, nine years after this initial study on inflammation another study showed that 75% of heart attack victims admitted to hospitals have cholesterol levels that fall within the normal, healthy range.
  • A 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review of 21 studies that involved a total of 347,747 participants found that intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or cardiovascular disease.

What they didn’t get into in this metanalysis is the other side of the problem – that by not eating saturated fats, we may be harming ourselves.

Take these two simple animal studies:

Researchers led by Dr. TW Gullickson at the University of Minnesota were trying to find some good substitutes for butterfat in the milk they fed to calves.

They gave calves skim milk and added in vegetable oils like coconut oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil to gain the right 3.5 percent fat ratio found naturally in milk before the butterfat is removed.

They were sorely disappointed with the results.

Because not only did the calves on milk mixed with vegetable oils not do as well as their whole milk counterparts . . .

They actually sickened and died!

Three out of the eight calves fed corn oil mixed in milk died in anywhere between 33-170 days. Three out of four calves fed the cottonseed oil mixture died within 126 days. With every form of vegetable oil, the results were the same: A significant number sickened and died.

However, when they switched the surviving calves back to whole raw milk with butterfat – not vegetable oils – they quickly recovered.

In another study on rats, rats given butterfat had lower blood pressure than rats given corn oil as their only dietary fat.

Low Fat May Be Killing Us

These studies point out a glaring omission in the admission that fat may not be what’s killing us.

It may be the absence of good fats.

Our bodies need fat. We need saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monosaturated fat and cholesterol.

Many important parts of our body are made with fats – hormones, our brain, the myelin sheath surrounding our nerves, cell membranes and more.

We need fat to think, feel, move, defend ourselves, regulate ourselves and more.

Fats are important at any age. Specifically, too little cholesterol may be a factor in dementia, Alzheimer’s and hormonal problems associated with aging.

And as for our children – they need fats to grow and learn. They’re busy growing their brains and their development is cued to the hormones. They need fats for these two essential processes.

Even worse, when your body doesn’t get enough fat to build these important tissues and chemicals, you crave it.

And what do we do to satisfy those cravings when we think fat is the enemy? We substitute sugar and carbohydrates to try to get some peace.

In turn, these “lowfat” foods wreaked havoc with our body’s chemistry by fanning the fires of inflammation.

Eating too much sugar and carbohydrates floods your body with glucose (sugar). This glucose ends up binding to proteins and fats, creating what’s called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). They attach to special receptors on your cell’s surface and trigger an inflammation process.

AGEs are linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and more. And may be the real culprit when it comes to clogged arteries, heart attacks and more.

But hey, doesn’t fat make you fat?

No. In addition to producing AGEs, the carbs we’re eating to satisfy our cravings for fat simply turn into fat. Lots of it.

The extra poundage most of us are carrying around is due to sugars and carbs. Not fats.

In contrast, eating fat helps you lose weight!

Simply put, when you eat fat you satisfy your body in a deep way. A little fat can keep your digestive system working for a while.  And it quells those cravings we try to answer to with more carbohydrates.

But here’s something else to pay attention to – these fats actually help you lose weight.

The conjugated linoleic acids (CLA’s) found in the butter, meat and eggs of pasture-fed animals helps you lose weight. Athletes take CLA to increase lean muscle mass!

Every time I watch the goats and chickens we raise for meat nibbling on grass, it does my heart and soul good!

But CLA only comes in fats from animals raised on pasture.  It’s a great reason to purchase grass-fed meats as much as possible.

Plus, here’s an added bonus: You’ll find that grass-fed meat, milk and eggs have a whole different, rich flavor to them. I have never enjoyed a glass of milk as much as I have when I get it from pastured cows. It’s really a meal in itself.

But it’s not just animal products that have gotten a bad fat rap . . .

Some demonized fat-rich plant-sourced foods are also fantastic for losing weight:

Healthy Fat In Nuts:

Research has shown that the fats in nuts help reduce your stomach’s production of the hormone ghrelin that starts the I-am-hungry feeling.

If I’m feeling the munchies, I’ve found that a few almonds or peanuts tell my stomach to shut up nicely. Plus research has shown that eating nuts is more effective in preventing heart disease than statin drugs. Given what I just explained about cholesterol, you can see the logic!

Healthy Fat In Coconut:

The highly protective medium-chain lauric acids found in coconut are the same fats found in mother’s milk. They offer powerful protection against fungal infections, bacteria and even have shown some effectiveness in lab studies against viruses like HIV.

When it comes to diet, the case isn’t as clear. But there is some interesting research. Two studies involving both men and women have shown that coconut oil in combination with a reduced carbohydrate diet seems to reduce waist size consistently.

Healthy Fat In Avocado:

Avocado is really a wonder food. I like to have some on my egg sandwich in the morning and I use it to counter the bite of vinegar on my salads.

Due to the fact that its calories are 85% fats, it’s been avoided by many a dieter. No longer . . .The monounsaturated fats in avocados actually help you absorb carotenoids like lycopene and beta-carotene. These special fat-soluble nutrients work magic on your skin and eyes.

And its special polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols mainly found in sea plants provide powerful anti-inflammatory protection.

But while it does pack quite a caloric punch (which can be highly satiating when you need it), it also has a lot of the amino acid, L-carnitine. L-carnitine is associated with fat metabolism and helps promote fat loss. It increases energy production in your muscles giving you nice lean muscles. And it increases blood circulation to the brain. This may be why some researchers are looking into how it may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

A Final Word On Fat And Losing Fat

So if you’re trying to trim fat off your body, don’t trim it out of your diet.

Of course, don’t go overboard snacking on bacon 7 times a day and slurping down cream.

But eat fat. Enjoy fat. Savor it.

Have some bacon in the morning (just go for uncured bacon from pastured pigs). Have some whole milk yogurt with strawberries. Eat some avocado guilt-free. Relish the rich orange yolk of eggs from pastured chickens.

Let your kids have organic whole milk.

Let them eat fat!

Watch what happens as you enjoy real food and savor it. If you pay attention while you’re eating and learn to eat to fullness (not overstuffed) you may find that your cravings and waistline both go down.

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  • thehealthyapron

    Have you read the book “Real Food: What to Eat and Why” By nina planck? Totally changed my perspective even MORE On what it means to eat healthfully! Since reading her book about 2 years ago, my hubby and I switched to organic WHOLE milk, pastured/grassfed butter/cheese/eggs/meats/chicken, etc. I get more saturated fat than what is “recommended” but it’s from REAL, WHOLE foods that are quality! Not the crap that seems to be everyone in the grocery stores! I hope more people start spreading the word about the myth on sat. fats! As a dietitian, it’s hard to counsel away from the standard when I work in a govt program and need to use govt materials. I try my best though to offer my own personal opinions whenever possible! great post!

  • Laury@The Fitness Dish

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this post! I just wrote a rebuttal to the egg study that just came out, and I am constantly preaching pro-fat!!! Erin just posted this and everything you said is so on point! I eat a very high fat diet, and recently cut out grains to combat my sugar addiction. Between that and all of the healthy fats and real foods, I am feeling great! I admit to getting caught up in the low-fat craze for years. I am still not keen on cows milk, but have introduced the more digestible forms of dairy such as pastured, cultured full fat cheese and some Fage total yogurt. Aside from a few blemishes here and there, it hasn’t seemed to bother me too much.

    I also just finished reading Wheat Belly and he goes into a lot about AGE’s…which is another reason I cut back on the grains!

    Sharing this! Thanks for all of the hard work on the post!

  • Sarah Clachar

    Laury, so glad to have you stop by. Doesn’t eating more fat make a difference? So disturbing how much misinformation we’ve been fed – literally. Your rebuttal to the egg study was right on!

  • Sarah Clachar

    Ah Healthy Apron, I hear you! I’ve had a hard time keeping my cool in conversations about school lunch requirements with Dept. of Health folks. I know their job is to simply help schools follow the regs – but can’t help but feel complete frustration with requirements and advice that is so bad for children’s health. All kudos to you in doing what you can to change things within the program you work for. And yes – nothing like these kinds of nourishing foods! Lovely to see my chickens eating grass and bugs and know that’s what I’m getting from my eggs! Thank you for stopping by!

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