The F Bomb
Today we're going to bust right out of the gates talking about something so wicked in the religion of Nutritionism, you may even blush a little when I say it. It's okay, go ahead and look around to make sure you're alone... after all, this is the ultimate F bomb. You ready?
F... F... FAT.
Okay, now take a breath. I know that was hard. You did good.
So what's the big deal? There is so much to cover here that I'm going to deliver it all in three parts. A Fat Trilogy, if you will.
We begin with the basics of fatty acids and their crucial roles in the human body.
Fatty acids are essential to human life--you must consume them in your diet in order for all the cells in your body to work properly. Their various roles are to:
- help regulate hormones
- transport cholesterol needed for healing and maintenance all over the body
- maintain cellular structure
- facilitate communication between neurotransmitters in the brain
- maintain retinal health in the eyes
- provide the building blocks for healthy hair and nails
- facilitate cell signaling and repair throughout the body after injury
- reinforce the intestinal lining of your gut wall
- aid in the proper absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K
- protect your organs against toxicity
- slow blood sugar spikes
But the first thing we have to do is define our terms. Why? Because fat isn't just fat. Despite all the simplistic theories, references and viewpoints out there, there are multiple kinds of fat with many different functions in the body, and at this point in the game you need to know what they are.
FAT 101: Let's Talk Chemistry
Also called lipids, the three main types of dietary fat are saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These are categorized based on their molecular structure. Here is a brief overview of each. You can find more a more detailed chemical description here.
- Saturated fatty acids are chains of tightly bound carbon atoms that are completely saturated with hydrogen. They have no double bonds and are thus very stable, making them solid at room temperature with very little chance of being oxidized. (Lipid oxidation may be harmful to the human body because it can create a state of chronic inflammation.) Saturated fats are further categorized as long-chain, medium-chain, and small-chain fatty acids.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids have a single double bond between carbon atoms...one break in the chain. This enables them to remain liquified at room temperature and also subjects them to an increased risk of oxidation at the break.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids have multiple double bonds where hydrogen is missing. These fats are especially unstable and prone to oxidation and rancidity by light, heat and oxygen exposure, even in small amounts.
There are two specific types of polyunsaturated fats worth mentioning here for their very specific roles in the human body. Differentiated by the location of their breaks in the chain, Omega 3 (ALA, DHA, EPA) and Omega 6 (LE and ARA) fatty acids are both essential for human life in different forms.
And finally, there are also naturally-occurring trans fatty acids (such as CLA) and artificial trans fatty acids--each with slightly different chemical structures. The implications of each are profoundly different on the human body. (To understand more about the very real dangers of artificial trans fats and where they are most prevalent, check out A Stealthy Killer.)
So now that you understand the basics of these different types of fats, let's evaluate where we are and what has shaped our general viewpoints on the matter. For decades, we've all heard the same broken record... Fat is bad for us. Despite the vagueness of that statement, its methodology prevails. It is so ingrained in our brains that some of us cannot fathom any other way of thinking. Our staples at the grocery store consist of low-fat yogurt, the leanest meats we can possibly find, a carton of egg whites or pea protein powder to add to our green smoothies, skim-milk, and "heart-healthy" vegetable oils for baking.
Gone are the days of adding melted butter and salt to our freshly steamed green beans. Dark meat and fatty beef cuts are frowned upon and even difficult to find in some places. Your mother still insists that frying eggs in bacon fat is a surefire way to die early. And surely it's the ground beef burger patty in your Big Mac at McDonalds that's going to give you a heart attack (not the refined-grain bun or the fries fried in seed oils, no no.) Oh, and one more thing... If you'd just pick up your lazy ass and walk around the block a few times, you wouldn't even get fat to begin with.
Well, I think that about sums it up, don't you? All the nutrition advice you need to be healthy and live to a ripe old age with squeaky clean arteries.
If only we had it all figured out and could wrap it up with a nice big bow, we could all get back to binge-watching Netflix. But this very advice, handed to the entire American population in 1980 has led to anything but better health, hasn't it? In fact, obesity and heart disease in America has increased dramatically since then. The correlation between the two is rather shocking.
I guess Netflix will have to wait while we figure this shit out.
The goal of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines is to help American's eat a healthier diet. That's noble enough. Good. We know the jist, but what exactly do they prescribe?
*Warning: Whenever far away, faceless entities (like public health organizations and media outlets) isolate certain compounds in our food (like fiber or saturated fat) and tout them as lifesavers or killers, we should be wary. Remember, test everything.
The overarching messages given to the public have been relatively the same every five years since 1980. I'll sum them up for you.
Lower consumption of total fat--especially saturated fat and cholesterol (less than 10% of total calories). Replace with oils.
Increase consumption of carbohydrates for energy, mainly in the form of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fat-free dairy products.
Limit refined sugars and salt intake.
We're looking at nearly 40 years of almost zero change in the government's advice despite the declining health of the nation and all the advancements of molecular biology and its relation to nutrition.
But wait, you say. Maybe American's have just ignored their doctors’ advice to eat less meat and more whole grains and vegetables... They just want to lay in bed, smoke ciggies and eat bacon over salad. Shame on them.
But is that really it? Turns out, Americans have pretty well followed directions over the past few decades.
Fat Offender #1: Saturated Fat
Saturated fat has long been singled out and ousted for it's negative impact on people's health--particularly surrounding heart disease and obesity. But believe it or not, to this very day there has never been any solid evidence that saturated fat causes any adverse health effects in the human body. In fact, there have been many randomized control trials (RCT's), meta-analysis/reviews and additional epidemiology studies done on the existing "evidence" that have concluded the exact opposite.
*Note: Observational (or epidemiology) studies are useful for making correlations and creating initial hypotheses, but they should only be used as a starting point for more rigorous science experiments that are able to actually prove causal relationships.
When it comes to the demonization of saturated fat, here is the series of a very strange chain of events.
Late 1800's: Meat is loudly blamed as the primary cause of increased sexual hormones in Men during an Anti-Masturbation Crusade of the 7th Day Adventist Church.
Early 1900's: A giant push by food industry (and 7th Day Adventist proponents) to replace natural fats with industrialized seed oils for profit.
Mid-1900's: Ancel Keys observes various people's diets and guesses about the specific types of fat that make them healthy or unhealthy. He manipulates the data of his 7 Countries Study and proposes his Diet-Heart Hypothesis --> saturated fat and cholesterol found primarily in animal products cause heart disease.
Mid-1900's: Based on these observations, the AHA concludes that saturated fat clogs arteries, and spreads the message vigorously; continuing to encourage people to replace all saturated (stable) fats with polyunsaturated (unstable), manufactured seed oils.
Late 1900's: Multiple organizations and scientists begin to conduct several RCT's to finally prove the harmful effects of saturated fat; results are disturbing and unsupportive... these studies are quietly ignored or intentionally buried. Pressing information on the trans-fats discovered in artificial butters and seed oils is released to the public and slowly discouraged.
Year 2015: As more and more evidence comes out to the contrary, public health bodies quietly retract limits on total dietary fat intake.
Present: The population, so steeped in misinformation at this point, continues blaming saturated fat and the patient's involvement with it for their degenerative disease. Biases remain.
The following is a 2018 comprehensive review of the decades-long case made against saturated fat. It concludes:
"Numerous meta-analyses and systematic reviews of both the historical and current literature reveals that the diet-heart hypothesis was not, and still is not, supported by the evidence. There appears to be no consistent benefit to all-cause or CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality from the reduction of dietary saturated fat. Further, saturated fat has been shown in some cases to have an inverse relationship with obesity-related type 2 diabetes. Rather than focus on a single nutrient, the overall diet quality and elimination of processed foods, including simple carbohydrates, would likely do more to improve CVD and overall health. It is in the best interest of the American public to clarify dietary guidelines to recognize that dietary saturated fat is not the villain we once thought it was."
Obviously we have a serious disparity here. So what can we do? Where do we start to try and make sense of this mess? Back to the basics, of course. Follow me.
SURPRISING FAT FACTS
Here are a few interesting facts regarding saturated fat, provided by brilliant fat researcher and enthusiast, Dr. Zoe Harcombe:
All foods that contain fat contain all three fats – saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – there are no exceptions.
The only food group that contains more saturated than unsaturated fat is dairy.
Red meat, eggs, even lard, all have more unsaturated than saturated fat.
Mackerel has twice the total fat and 1.5 times the saturated fat of a sirloin steak, yet public health advisors tell us to eat oily fish and avoid red meat in the name of the dietary fat guidelines.
Olive oil has 7 times the saturated fat as a sirloin steak.
Is your BS sensor going off? It should be.
Here's the main problem. Let me break it down for you.
Saturated fat is so vital to good health that nearly all the foods we eat, both of animal and plant origin, contain it.
Every single way you look at it, saturated fat is 100% natural (and the most protective of all the fats against oxidation). Meat, fish, eggs, dairy all have it. Coconuts, avocados, olives, nuts and even blueberries all have it. These are all nutrient-dense foods, perfectly formulated to meet the basic needs of our bodies.
How arrogant to think that we can we dissect these natural, whole foods and claim that parts of them are trying to kill us while other parts are healthy. It doesn't make any sense at all. None.
Yet these are the very claims that yanked our grandparents out of their traditional ways of living, and away from the wisdom of all the generations that came before them. Encouraging people to leave behind all those traditional beliefs along with the covered wagon, public health bodies around the world aggressively pushed for the adoption of their newfound foolishness--er, wisdom.
How can one possibly eat real food complete with all the essential fatty acids WHILE avoiding saturated fat at the same time? It cannot be done. It is a fantasy. And it explains how the food industry so eagerly rose to the occasion... meeting the demands of the dietary guidelines by happily manipulating real, whole foods to create a host of fat-free, sugar-filled Frankenfoods.
In the name of health, we were told that these brand new foods created in a lab and full of artificial trans fats were void off all the danger that real food exposes people to. That these new foods were far superior to anything we'd ever eaten before. As a result, movie theaters stopped popping their popcorn in coconut oil (comprised of 92% saturated fat) and McDonalds started using vegetable oil to fry their potatoes instead of beef tallow. Thus began the ultimate experiment on the human body.
So where does all this information leave you? How were you raised and what preconceived ideas do you have about saturated fat?
It's time to shed the confusion. It's time to stop living in fear of real food.
When we begin to allow nature to supply our comprehensive dietary needs instead of men in white coats, we stimulate our own magnificent intuition. And that, my friend, is the ultimate goal.
Stay tuned for part two of this FAT SAGA where we take the time to dissect Fat Offender #2: Cholesterol. It's going to blow your socks off.
Be sure to subscribe so you're the first to know when it's published.