When I started writing this, I didn’t know where to start because there is SO MUCH evidence these days showing that fats really aren’t as bad as we once thought.
Fats are essential to life
The thing is, we actually need fats. When we eat fats, they break down to fatty acids which support cell growth, manage inflammation in the body, regulate our body temperature, and provide energy. They are also critical to absorb important fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E and K). Fats also secrete important hormones, such as leptin which controls appetite, and adiponectin which helps control blood sugar levels. Consuming fat every day supports these important functions, making them essential to life.
Particularly important are essential fatty acids – which are linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids – as they cannot actually be synthesised in the body, so the only way we can obtain them is by eating them. ALAs (alpha-linolenic acids) are are omega 3s, and linoleic acid is a source of omega 6 and we require about a 1:1 ratio of these in our diet. Good sources of these are in flaxseeds, walnuts, nuts, pepitas, chia seed and other seeds, which our products are brimming with, as well as fish and some oils such as macadamia and olive oils.
Fats aren’t the enemy
We’ve all been told that saturated fats lead to heart disease, right? But recent scientific research in the PURE study published in 2017 in the Lancet journal showed that fats (including saturated fats) are not necessarily the cause of heart disease.
The study looked at the association of fats and carbohydrates with cardiovascular disease by analysing the diets of 135,000 people from 18 different countries, and concluded: “Individuals with high carbohydrate intake might benefit from a reduction in carbohydrate intake and an increase in the consumption of fats.”
The study showed that cutting back on fat doesn’t always contribute to a lower risk of heart disease or reduced chance of mortality, and actually shows the opposite. In fact, it found that people consuming high quantities of carbohydrates had a nearly 30% higher risk of dying during the study than people eating a low carb diet. People eating high fat diets had a 23% LOWER chance of dying during the study’s seven years of follow-up compared to people who ate less fat.
The study noted that the results point to the fact that rather than focusing on fat, health experts should be advising people to lower the amount of carbohydrates they eat.
Which fats are “good” and “bad”?
We’ve all heard about “good” and “bad” fats. A lot of people assume that saturated fats are the bad guys, but it seems that moderate quantities of saturated fat in meat, cheese and dairy may not be so bad for you as we once thought, as the PURE study showed.
The fats that ARE bad for you are trans fats.
Trans fats are caused by the hydrogenation process which involves very high heat to treat naturally liquid plant based oils into solids, which prevents them from going rancid. This is basically what margarine and vegetable shortening is. A lot of commercially made cookies, cake and pastries – and those cheap French fries and cheap deep-fried meals – are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils which contain trans fats.
Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol (considered “bad” cholesterol), reduces HDL cholesterol (considered “good” cholesterol), increases inflammation, can contribute to insulin resistance, and has been shown to contribute to heart disease.
The “good” fats to include in your diet are:
- Olive oil
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Nuts, nut oils and nut butters
- Seeds such as pepitas and chia
- Tahini (sesame seed paste)
- I’m going to also add coconut oil and butter (preferably grass fed as it has a better nutritional profile) which are saturated fats
No fat is ever 100% “good” or “bad”
What we consider “good” fats from olives, nuts, seeds and fish are made up mostly of “good” monounsaturated fats. But it’s important to remember that oils and fats are made up of varying degrees of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated with varying percentages of omega 3s and 6s but also contains some saturated fats, and walnuts are high in omega 3s but still contain other types of fats. So no fat is actually 100% monounsaturated or saturated; it is a mix of a different ratio of types of fats.
How low fat became a thing
Low fat diets are starting to become a thing of the past, as we recognise the importance of fats in the diet. The Mediterranean diet is catching on as the benefits of olive oil are recognised, and LCHF is gaining a lot of followers. But how did the low fat dogma start?
Here’s a bit of history. Back in the 70s, US physician Ancel Keys received funding from the US Public Health Service to conduct the Seven Countries Study, which attempted to prove the link between diet and coronary heart disease. With this study, he managed to convince a lot of people that saturated fats and cholesterol were the cause of our heart disease problem. Not long before this, the public was pretty focused on heart health after US President Eisenhower suffered from multiple heart attacks.
The problem with the study is that Keys cherry picked information that suited his hypothesis and only looked at the link in certain countries – Greece, Italy, Finland, Japan, the USA, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. But he left out all the countries that didn’t fit his diet-heart hypothesis, including France (which is known for its ‘French Paradox’ because French people can seem to get away with eating a lot of butter and cheese without getting fat).
Key’s diet-heart hypothesis that pushed the message that saturated fat leads to high cholesterol which leads to heart disease grew traction and everyone got on board, from doctors to industry and the American Heart Association, and the public followed. In 1977, the first dietary guidelines were published, which promoted the low fat diet. By the 80s, these guidelines spread from the US to the UK and other countries, which is essentially the food pyramid we abide by today. Unfortunately, the science is actually flawed, and the PURE study published last year proved just this.
Fat free dogma grew (and so did the diabetes and obesity epidemic)
We all know that the ‘fat free’ and ‘low fat’ craze then took off, with low fat yoghurts riddled with sugar and sugary cereals appearing on the shelves. People were urged to reduce fat in their diets by their medical professionals – including cutting back on red meat, full fat dairy, eggs and anything fried. Which is why we still consume skim milk and low fat yoghurt.
There were scientists who tried to dispute Key’s hypothesis, but they were silenced by big industry. John Yudkin, author of Pure, White and Deadly, was one of them who was shut down.
Correlation doesn’t mean cause though
Good science doesn’t assume that because two data sets correlate, we have found a cause. That’s exactly what the Seven Countries Study did. As well as cherry picking the countries to support the hypothesis, Keys also took data from Crete in Greece during Lent, when Green Orthodox people stop eating meat and fatty foods, which would have skewed the data. The people of Greece had low heart disease rates, but the data was taken during a time when they were mostly fasting.
Despite the flaws in the study, a bit of PR spin (and Keys landing on the front page of Time magazine) seemed to convince industry, the government, and the public that fat was out.
But if we want to talk about correlations, it’s scary (and obvious) that the obesity epidemic, which grew from the US, began at precisely the same time the low fat guidelines came about. 🤔 Diabetes continues to skyrocket, but was never the big issue it is today prior to the 70s/80s when we all diligently changed our diet to cut out the fat.
Some great resources to clue you in about why fat isn’t the enemy:
- Low Carb Down Under – Resources
- The Diet Doctor – Is saturated fat bad?
- Nina Teicholz – The Big Fat Surprise (book, online and TEDx Talk)
- Fat and politics – Nina Teicholz on how the Seven Countries Study influenced dietary policy
- Professor Grant Schofield – What the Fat?
- Professor Grant Schofield – 5 Reasons Why Sugar – Not Fat – Is the Problem
- Lancet PURE study
- TIME article: The Low-Fat vs. Low-Carb Diet Debate Has a New Answer
- Gary Taubes – Why We Get Fat (YouTube and book) and Good Calories, Bad Calories (book)
- Robert Lustig – Fat Chance (website and book)
- Dr Axe: Essential Fatty Acids: What Makes These Healthy Fats So Essential?
- 6 Graphs That Show Why The “War” on Fat Was a Huge Mistake