Fat’s Where It’s At (Part 2)

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This is the second in a series on fat written by Tom Washington. If you missed the first part, check it out!

Ever since Ancel Keys inspired the shift to a low-fat diet in the 1950s, the public has reduced their intake of animal fats in tandem with USDA Dietary Guidelines’ indictment of saturated fat following suspicions it had become the leading cause of heart disease and related maladies. By the 1980s, the party line became: no to butter, lard, bacon, and red meat, and yes to low-fat foods and trans fats, vegetable oils, and sugar. In response, food manufacturers replaced delicious tasting butter and lard with trans fats, which meant something had to compensate for the loss of taste; added sugars fit the bill perfectly. Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat explains this dreadful industry practice in great detail.

Americans have paid a huge price in their collective health as a result of this disinformation campaign over the last quarter century or more. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and myriad neuro-degenerative conditions have skyrocketed. As Dr. Mercola, Nora Gedgaudas, Dr. Perlmutter, Dr. Gundry, and a host of others have already concluded in their findings, red meat is not to blame, much less the avocados and the coconut oil.

For decades now, most of us have dutifully followed the advice of the USDA, mainstream media and our personal physicians who, when not prescribing statins, are telling us to exercise more and eat less saturated fat. Think about this advice the next time you find yourself in a shopping mall or any other public venue. It won’t take long to see what going low-fat with high carbs and sporadic visits to the gym is doing for our figures.

When we eat carbohydrates, the pancreas secretes insulin. And the more insulin we have circulating in our blood, the more signals our body gives to store fat. Put another way, by following the dietary guidelines established by the government in the ’70s and ’80s, we have committed ourselves to gaining weight and keeping it on. And it’s not going to matter how often you’re hitting the gym and climbing aboard the proverbial treadmill. You will be craving bread, pasta, cereal, and low-fat milk either before or after working out, and then be told your fat dilemma is your fault because you didn’t pump more iron or run that extra mile.

To avoid this insulin-fat dilemma, you’ve got to take a “fat as fuel” approach and get started burning fats in your body instead of sugar. The process has far less to do with weight loss than it does with eliminating the primary causes of inflammation and disease. In fact, weight loss is the icing on the cake here. By eating more sugar and non-fiber carbs, which quickly convert to sugar, your body develops far more tissue-damaging free radicals than when you are burning fat as your primary fuel. Does this mean that HWFC shoppers should beeline to the meat department and stock up on the house-made sausage and that delicious bacon from The Piggery? Not necessarily.

Dr. Mercola – and especially Dr. Gundry – will be the first to tell you that this approach reflects a post-Atkins mindset to nutrition and eating. It is no longer about heaping slabs of animal fat on your plate in order to maximize daily fat intake. After all, animal proteins eventually break down into sugars as well, the same as carbohydrates. The amount of animal proteins recommended with this “fat as fuel” approach are very limited, to somewhere between 4 oz. and 6 oz. per day. Think coconut oil, avocados, fatty fish, macadamia nuts, cashews, coconut milk, egg yolks cooked in lard (from The Piggery!), and grass-fed butter or ghee, and you start to get the idea.

What the Science Says

There is no question that the short list of fats above runs counter to conventional nutrition advice to keep saturated fats out of your arteries because they raise LDL cholesterol, clog your arteries and cause an eventual heart attack. But, according to Dr. Perlmutter and a host of other doctors, these conventional recommendations remain hypotheses at best, basically unchanged since the narrative from the media and USDA via Ancel Keys in the 1950s. Numerous clinical studies on saturated fats have been used to further the assumption that saturated fats cause heart disease. In reality, though, none of them have actually proven that avoiding fats would prevent heart disease while extending one’s life.

Part of the confusion stems from perceptions about the dangers of saturated fat and its effects on LDL, AKA the “bad” cholesterol. Saturated fat has been thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases by raising the bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. But, even with a higher fat diet, no significant increase in LDL cholesterol is evidenced. Instead, the “good” cholesterol—HDL—increased only on the very-high-fat diet. Saturated fats have actually been shown to raise protective HDL cholesterol while also increasing LDL. The take-home message gets even muddier because it turns out LDL cholesterol has different make ups in different people. People with small or dense LDL have triple the heart disease risk compared to people with the fluffy type of LDL. These dense LDL particles are increased by eating sugars and carbohydrates—bread, sodas, and bagels—the usual suspects. Refined sugars and carbs will do more to damage your body than saturated fat ever will.

The real irony behind saturated fats and prior nutritional studies on them is that fat promotes wellness and prevents disease. For starters, your brain needs cholesterol for optimal functioning, especially when these fats are converted to ketones in the body. For thousands of years, the human race has subsisted primarily on dietary fats, well before others cooked up the term “dietary fats.” Prior to the modern food landscape, we just had real food, and the richest source of energy found in this traditional food is fat. In terms of optimizing brain health and overall physical stamina, you’re going to get more bang for your buck by eating foods high in fat than you are by eating a bagel.

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Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.