(Image by Frederick Richardson via Wikimedia Commons.)
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between the two of them,
They licked the platter clean.
If Jack Sprat could eat no fat . . . well, he’s going to be one sick, hungry guy. Fats, unlike carbohydrates, are essential, as necessary as water or oxygen.
If we are, at the core, hunting carnivorous creatures, a product of our unique evolutionary past, it’s easy to recognize that consuming the fat of animals is also part of our natural physiology. You and your hungry clan spear a wild boar, but no one declares “Just cut off a piece of lean meat for me and throw the fat, brain, and liver away.” Humans consumed everything from snout to tail, all but the squeal, and fat was savored.
Yet we’ve been told over the last 50 years that fats, especially animal fats, are the worst for health. Conventional wisdom tells us that fat, particularly the saturated fat of animal flesh and organs, makes us fat, causes diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. While grain consumption was a mistake we made 10,000 years ago, limiting fat consumption was a mistake we made starting 50 years ago, a manmade blunder based on misinterpretation, misrepresentation, the leanings of dietary zealots, and politics. The evidence used to advance the low-fat message was incomplete, epidemiological (which should almost never be used to generate firm conclusions, only hypotheses), and riddled with methodological flaws, none of which stopped overenthusiastic dietary fanatics sold on the low-fat message in the 1970s and 1980s. Such fanatical leanings reached the ear of Senator George McGovern, Chair of the Committee on Nutrition in America, who decided that all Americans should engage in a low-fat lifestyle. (The drama of this entire tragic episode has been recounted in meticulous detail by journalists Gary Taubes in Good Calories, Bad Calories and Nina Teicholz in The Big Fat Surprise, both “must” reading if you wish to understand the history of how this awful situation got so awful. The documentary film, Fat Head by independent filmmaker Tom Naughton, genius for educating while entertaining, provides a lighter version of the history, as well.) The McGovern committee pushed through legislation, written by a staff member with no background in health or nutrition, that charged the USDA, an agency whose mission had been to support the agriculture industry and monitor food safety, to lead the charge in providing dietary advice to the public. This created an odd collision of responsibilities: regulate an industry while also promoting consumption of the industry’s products.
Despite resistance from the scientific community over the potential hazards of government-driven dietary advice, the USDA proceeded to fulfill its charge. In addition to adhering to McGovern’s pet agenda of limiting fat consumption, the grain and processed food lobby were allowed to weigh in on the details of the USDA’s official stand, doubling grain intake over that recommended by USDA nutritionists.
The low-fat movement gained further momentum when the processed food industry recognized what a financial bonanza had been thrown into their laps, paving the way to create thousands of foods to suit the reduction in fat created by government advice. Revenue growth at Kraft, General Mills, and companies represented by the Corn Refiners’ Association leapt to double-digit annual rates as they introduced low-fat cookies, low-fat yogurt, margarines made with corn, soybean, and other processed oils—-you’d better believe it’s not butter. It made the 1980s and 1990s an era of unprecedented growth in Big Food. Low-fat products proliferated, even gaining health endorsements from the FDA, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It meant that products that contained liberal quantities of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup but low in fat could acquire the appearance of health with, for example, the American Heart Association (AHA) “heart healthy” Heart CheckMark endorsement affixed to Berry Kix, Count Chocula, and Cocoa Puffs breakfast cereals—for a fee, of course.
Any trip to a neighborhood mall or supermarket will quickly reveal the consequences of 50 years of misguided dietary advice, compounded by food manufacturers: the worst epidemic of overweight and obesity ever witnessed in the history of the world. The world of Big Food was built on the bellies—and lives—of Americans, now a contagion shared by increasing numbers in the rest of the developed world.
Government advice, industry profiteering, coupled with human frailty in its innate love of anything sugary, all combined to create epidemics of disease that go beyond weight gain with conditions such as diabetes (both type 1 and 2), autoimmune diseases, joint deterioration, and dementia. Incredibly, even while the USDA and other agencies continue to promote the low-fat, plenty-of-grains message and food companies continue to sell tens of thousands of low-fat products, the science has become clear: there are no clinical trials demonstrating that limiting fat or saturated fat provides any health benefits nor reduces cardiovascular risk (Hession 2009; Siri-Tarino 2010). Likewise, red meat consumption has no relationship to cardiovascular risk if the effects of cured processed meats (salami, sausage, lunch meats, hot dogs) are factored out (Micha 2010). Recent pronouncements that red meat is a “carcinogen”? Yet another unfounded conclusion suggested by epidemiological observations, but far from conclusive, much as horse estrogens were believed to promote female health.
And, as this experiment in cutting fat and increasing grains and carbohydrates has played out on a worldwide stage, the data revealing how destructive this advice has been are now overwhelming. But, as in many things in healthcare, this scientific revelation has not yet graced the ears of John Q. Primary Care, who still manages to obtain most of his ongoing medical education from the drug industry. Even in the face of societal and scientific evidence that contradicts the low-fat message, most of the medical community still sends their patients to the dietitian, i.e., the dietary professional whose “education” was largely subsidized with support from Big Food, for counseling on cutting fat and eating more “healthy whole grains”—you know, a “balanced” diet, all in “moderation.”
This dietary pyramid has begun to crumble. After decades of dietary misinformation, the latest 2015 Dietary Guidelines concede that restricting total fat and cholesterol is not beneficial, thereby removing that woefully outdated and destructive advice, though the saturated fat limitation remains in guidelines (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015). The number of servings of grains recommended every day were also reduced from the 6-11 servings per day to 6 servings per day. (Such a slow and step-wise backpedaling on previous bad advice, by the way, is how you manage damage control and avoid the liability that could result. Imagine all guilty agencies admitted that, not only did their dietary advice not work to provide health or reduce cardiovascular risk, but contributed to the nationwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes? Liability, loss of credibility, and loss of revenues would be huge.) How much faith can you put, however, in advice that has been flawed for so long, having made substantial contributions to the deteriorating health of the public? Should we suddenly accept that they were wrong on such a colossal scale, only now to have finally gotten it right? I think you’d have to be nuts, or at least incredibly naive, to believe anything they say.
Beyond exposing the political shenanigans and unscientific manipulations of a nutritional message, my litmus test for considering whether a nutritional strategy makes sense is to ask: How have humans approached this aspect of diet over eons of adaptation to life on this planet? If humans have been doing it ever since we abandoned life in the trees, then it is highly likely that we are well adapted to this aspect of lifestyle. If it was added only recently and, even worse, because a few authorities said so, then we need to question that advice, with intolerance to a new strategy potentially showing as various disease conditions.
With animal fats, the answer is obvious: hungry, desperate humans would enthusiastically eat the entire kill of a hunt and not waste a moment being concerned about fat intake. The fats we know that humans are adapted to consuming are therefore the components of animal fat: monounsaturates, saturates, and some polyunsaturates such as linolenic acid. Throw in the added fats and oils from nuts, seeds (non-grass), shellfish and fish, and modest quantities of linoleic acid from vegetables and fruits. Natural fats and oils do not include fats created by modern humans such as hydrogenated (“trans”) fats. They also do not include replacing monounsaturates and saturates with large quantities of polyunsaturates from corn, or oils that require extreme processing that alter fatty acid structure such as canola (O’Keefe 1994).
Fats are satiating. They provide a feeling of long-lasting freedom from hunger. Inadequate fat intake is a common reason for people just starting out on the Wheat Belly lifestyle to complain of hunger, since many people struggle to get beyond deeply-ingrained fat phobia. Well, get over it. And I mean that quite seriously. Don’t buy lean cuts of meat; buy fatty cuts. If you eat a steak, eat the fat. Pork? Eat the fat. With poultry, eat the dark meat and skin. Have liver, liver sausage (uncured), and other organ meats. (Consider choosing organs and meats from sources that employ humane practices, don’t rely on antibiotics or hormones, and allow their animals to graze freely rather than penned in large factory farms.) Choose healthy oils such as coconut, olive oil, avocado, and, should you choose to consume dairy products, organic butter or ghee.