What? Fat’s okay, now? Let me get into these baked wings, then…..
As someone who tries pretty hard to keep a close eye on nutrition research in media, I’ve been surprised by the number of articles that’ve come out in favor of high-fat eating, lately.
Time Magazine published an almost-20 page (at least, it was 20 pages on the digital format) tome, the cover story, with a curl of butter on the front and the words “Eat Butter.”
Since Time now has a paywall, I’m going to quote the few bits and pieces that I think are the most important:
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – the kind found in some vegetables and fish – were found to be beneficial to heart health. The Mediterranean diet, rich in fish, nuts, vegetables, and olive oil, surged in popularity. And it’s worth noting that the Mediterranean diet isn’t low in total fat – not at all. Up to 40% of its calories come from poly- and monounsaturated fat. Today, medical groups like the Mayo Clinic embrace this diet for patients worried about heart health, and even the fat-phobic [American Heart Association] has become receptive to it. “There is growing evidence that the Mediterranean diet is a pretty healthy way to eat,” says Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, the chief science officer of the AHA.
But, what about saturated fat? Here, the popular wisdom has been harder to change. The 2010 USDA dietary guidelines recommend that Americans get less than 10% of their daily calories from saturated fat- the equivalent of half a pan-broiled hamburger minus the cheese, bacon and mayo it’s often dressed with.
The idea that saturated fat is bad for us makes a kind of instinctive sense, and not just because we use the same phrase to describe both the greasy stuff that gives our steak flavor and the pounds we carry around our middles. Chemically, they’re not all that different. The fats that course through our blood and accumulate on our bellies are called triglycerides, and high levels of triglycerides have been linked to heart disease. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to assume that eating fats would make us fat, clog our arteries and give us heart disease.
[…] But when scientists crunch the numbers, the connection between saturated fat and cardiovascular health becomes more tenuous. A 2010 meta-analysis – basically a study of other studies – concluded that there was no significant evidence that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. These results were echoed by another meta-analysis published in March in the Annals of Internal Medicine that drew on nearly 80 studies involving more than half a million subjects.
The New York Times published an article that not only shared research that exonerated dietary fat, but also challenged the necessity of high-carb diets altogether.
The new study was financed by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It included a racially diverse group of 150 men and women — a rarity in clinical nutrition studies — who were assigned to follow diets for one year that limited either the amount of carbs or fat that they could eat, but not overall calories.
“To my knowledge, this is one of the first long-term trials that’s given these diets without calorie restrictions,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who was not involved in the new study. “It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories.”
Diets low in carbohydrates and higher in fat and protein have been commonly used for weight loss since Dr. Robert Atkins popularized the approach in the 1970s. Among the longstanding criticisms is that these diets cause people to lose weight in the form of water instead of body fat, and that cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors climb because dieters invariably raise their intake of saturated fat by eating more meat and dairy.
The Washington Post covered it all, as well as NPR:
The study showed that modest reductions in carbohydrate consumption, down to about 28 to 30 percent of diet, could help tip the scales to weight loss.
The makeup of the low-carb group’s diet was:
28 percent carbs
40 to 43 percent fat (twice as much poly and monounsaturated compared to saturated)
about 28 percent protein
The makeup of the low-fat group’s diet was:
28 percent fat
40 to 45 percent carbs
28 to 32 percent protein
Lydia Bazzano, one of the study authors and an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane, says she had anticipated some difference in weight loss between the two groups. But the size of the effect — the nearly 8-pound difference in weight loss — was surprising, she says.
So, what kinds of meals were the low-carb dieters eating?
“Typically in the morning they were eating eggs,” says Bazzano. Other breakfast items included small portions of high-protein, high-fiber bread, with either butter or other kinds of oily spread.
As for lunch and dinner, the low-carb dieters ate lots of vegetables, salads and protein, including fish, chicken and some red meat. They had generous portions of healthy fats such as olive oils, canola and other plant-based oils.
Fat accounted for a sizable part of their diet: from 40 percent to 43 percent of their total daily calories, including about 12 percent from saturated fat.
I want to identify a few points that I think are important, here.
1) The percentages for each macronutrient – protein, carbs, and fat are macronutrients – are essential. The average American diet is far higher in percentage of carbs than 30%. If anything, it’s well above 60%. You can take a look at the USDA MyPlate food pyramid substitute chart thingy and see – even they recommend what amounts to a percentage far higher than 30% of your plate as carbs.
Taking into account that fruits, vegetables, and grains – at least, whole grains – can have protein and fat in them, even if only in trace amounts, this plate has to be at least 60% carbohydrates.
It’s also important to note that high-protein diets – diets where over 45% of the day’s calories regularly come from protein – are linked with high instances of kidney failure. Too much of certain kinds of elements found in protein are rough on the kidneys, and we know that, which is why that’s really not much of an option.
2) I don’t want that to get mixed up with me saying “high-carb diets aren’t effective” – they apparently are, just not as effective as high-fat ones. In a situation where calories aren’t restricted, high-fat diets – diets high in the most caloric element out of the three choices – simply net the most weight loss.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that was because fat serves as a better means of self-control. You can continue to stuff yourself on breads and pastas, because you’re often looking for that “full” feeling. If you try to stuff yourself on high-fat items, they’re likely to make you sick to your stomach. Think of all the times where you’ve pushed a dessert away, declaring it “too rich.” That’s a quality of “high-fat” food. We declare it “too rich.” (The excess of sugar doesn’t hurt, either.) Where I think high-carb diets would fail, is that the high-carb component is usually a refined grain like flour, and since calorie counts are too inaccurate for those, people are often eating far more than they originally thought.
That being said, there’s a difference between discussing whether dietary fats can be consumed healthily for weight loss, and whether or not dietary fats can be healthy. This research seems to imply that the answer is “yes” to both.
3) I think it’s important to note that the same things that were once attributed to high-salt diets – high blood pressure, heart disease, overall impaired cardiovascular health – are not being attributed to carbs and – gasp – sugars now. I blogged about this a while back – the National Geographic article that discussed how sugar contributes to heart disease and high blood pressure? It’d make sense, then, that cutting down on the carbs also reduced the prevalence of cholesterol and other cardiovascular issues – when people call themselves “eating better,” it almost always likely includes reducing consumption of sweets, sugary-tasting things, and things with hidden sugars. So, salad dressings, cookies, cupcakes, soft drinks are usually among the first to change or go.
Again – I blogged about this over a year ago. You should read it.
Yes, I’m having a minor “I told you so!” moment. Sorry.
My own thinking is that high-salt got blamed for things that high-sugar should’ve been blamed for, primarily because salt content in processed food was high solely because of the amount of sugar. In just about every item – except ramen spice packets – where you find high salt, you find high-sugar. Why is that?
4) Each of these articles mentions the insurmountable challenge of trying to sway current public perception of fat being bad. Every. Single. One. It has been so ingrained in our understanding of how to feed ourselves that fat is bad – going against almost every culture’s actual natural eating habits, olive oil in Mediterranean food being the most obvious example and the most ironic, since its recent declaration as being the healthiest diet by US News – that we actually originally embraced margarine as a replacement for butter… only to be met with the risk of cancer that comes with trans fats, the main ingredient in margarine at the time.
5) It should also be noted that, the primary source of carbs and fat has been processed food, which comes very calorie-laden to begin with, anyway. Cutting processed food out in favor of produce and quality protein will not only automatically lower your calorie intake, but your protein, fat, and carb levels will naturally float towards these numbers.
6) While the Time article took great care to separate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as if to differentiate “unsaturated fats” as good and “saturated fats” as bad.
Please remember the discussion around coconut oil – the same oil we’re lathering our hair with, using as mouthwash, using to replace butter in our vegan cooking, slathering it on our sun-kissed skin and goodness knows what else – about how “we all thought it was so unhealthy, but we were wrong! Not all saturated fats are unhealthy.”
I just want us to keep that in mind.
What do you think?