The Internet teaches many strange lessons. For instance, courtesy of Facebook I now know more of my girl friends’ maiden names than I did when we were in high school and they were still using them. Just today I learned that millions of baby cribs are being recalled (sending me creeping into Jelly Bean’s nursery with a flashlight like the stalker mom I am), that I can use oil-based exterior paint to spruce up my ugly front door (What do you all think of a cobalt blue front door? Fun? Or there goes the property value?), and that Heidi Montag was named Time magazine’s least influential person (they made up a “moron” category just for her). Would I have known any of this without the great wonder that is Google? Nay.
Which I why I blame Google for all the misinformation out there about dietary fat. If that little start-up had just algorithm-ed it’s way to glory a wee bit earlier then we could have crunched the data linking – or rather not linking – saturated fats with coronary disease twenty years ago and avoided the horror that is fat-free cheese. If you would have told me 15 years ago that eating fat would not make me fat, not even butter, I might have fainted.
That’s right, all of the stuff you’ve been told about fat the last few decades was wrong. It turns out butter, real whipped cream and lard won’t give you a heart attack after all. But you know what will? Simple, processed carbs.
We have a long, troubled history with fat. Back in the early part of the last century someone invented margarine, a cheap alternative to butter made out of hydrogenated vegetable oils. This oleo spread didn’t catch on at first but then someone else decreed that eating fat makes you fat – especially the saturated fats found in animal products and coconut oil. Margarine, replete with the demon-spawn transfats, came to rule the market and a whole movement was born. The hysteria culminated in the fat-phobic 90′s where fat grams were the only piece of information about a food that mattered. In fact, when I was a wee lass just beginning my eating disordered journey, fat grams were my number of choice to obsess over. It was my goal to make it through the day on less than 1 gram of fat. I was really good at it too! I went for years without touching meat, real cheese, nuts, avocados and even chocolate. I replaced them with – and I kid you not – fat-free popcorn and SweeTarts candy. And I felt downright smug about my “healthy” diet.
If a time machine is ever invented I want to go back and smack me.
Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve come to see the importance of dietary fat to our health and have welcomed “healthy fats” like olive oil, avocados and nuts back into our diet. But we were still told to limit saturated fats. Even today, this very second, the USDA is still recommending to “limit saturated fats to less than 10% of calories with the majority of fat coming from poly- or mono-unsaturated fats.” They’re also still recommending fat-free or reduced-fat milk despite the fact that studies have shown full-fat dairy to be healthier.
But now The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (via Scientific American) has published a meta analysis of major studies on dietary fat that refutes once and for all the assumption that saturated fats are to blame for heart disease.
The meta-analysis — which combines data from several studies — that compared the reported daily food intake of nearly 350,000 people against their risk of developing cardiovascular disease over a period of five to 23 years. The analysis, overseen by Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, found no association between the amount of saturated fat consumed and the risk of heart disease.
The finding joins other conclusions of the past few years that run counter to the conventional wisdom that saturated fat is bad for the heart because it increases total cholesterol levels. That idea is “based in large measure on extrapolations, which are not supported by the data,” Krauss says.
But wait, it gets better: “Stampfer’s findings do not merely suggest that saturated fats are not so bad; they indicate that carbohydrates could be worse.” The article goes on to discuss research that shows that eating a diet high in refined, processed carbohydrates is correlated with heart disease. All those Snackwell’s are sitting a little heavy now, aren’t they?
So will the FDA update their guidelines to reflect the new research? “Right now, Post explains, the agency’s main message to Americans is to limit overall calorie intake, irrespective of the source.” That would be a big no.
It looks like Michael Pollan and your great grandma were right again: the less processed your food is the better it is for you. Whole milk beats skim. Whole wheat bread beats white. Virgin, unprocessed coconut oil is amazingly good for your health. And butter is not the great evil we have been led to believe. That noise you are hearing? All my gears grinding as my whole food paradigm shifts. (The one exception to this would be conventionally farmed meat. Toxins ingested by animals are stored primarily in their fat so the more animal fat you eat from animals raised in feed-lots, the more toxins, hormones, pesticides and other nasties you are exposing yourself to. It isn’t the animal fat that is the problem though – it’s the way the animals were farmed that is.)
However, to quote the inimitable G.I. Joe, knowing is [only] half the battle. Sure I know that fat is good for us blah blah blah but do you know what is in my fridge right now? Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (for the fam. I don’t eat them), 2% milk (for the kiddos, again I can’t have it), low-fat cream cheese and turkey bacon. Worst of all: Smart Balance Lite. Not that I am saying Smart Balance in and of itself is a bad product but why can’t I just embrace butter already?! My heads says one thing but my heart still says no.
Anyone else having this internal conflict? Do you still buy skim milk? How do you feel about saturated fat? Do you generally try to avoid it? Do you think the USDA’s nutritional guidelines need an overhaul? And I really do need opinions about my potentially cobalt blue door – would it be too much??