Fats: The Misunderstood Villain, Part 1

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Just the other day, I was in the dairy section at the grocery store trying to buy regular sour cream. Not surprisingly, I found it to be a mental challenge. Low-Fat Sour Cream. Skim Fat Sour Cream. 1% Sour Cream. Full Fat Sour Cream? I finally found one sandwiched in the back shelf. This experience only reconfirmed what I had already known: our society has an obsession with low-fat foods. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to express your aversion to fats. “I don’t eat butter – it’s too much fat.” Or, “I’m trying to keep my cholesterol down, so I avoid eggs.” But how did this begin? Were fatty foods always the villain from the beginning of mankind? If one wants the answer, they have to not only be willing to look back to history, but be daring enough to read between its lines…

The seed of misunderstanding was laid down in 1950 by American scientist and nutrition pioneer, Ancel Keys. His well-renowned international study “proved” the link between countries with higher dietary fats and heart disease. What most people didn’t realize at the time was that out of the 22 countries studied, he selectively analyzed only 6 of the countries to prove his correlation! Later, critics emerged such as Danish independent researcher Uffe Ravnskov, refuting Keys’ work. But by then, the propaganda against fats was in full force. His published book in the early 1990’s, The Cholesterol Myths, was ridiculed by mainstream media. A copy of his book was even set on fire after it was belittled at a Finland Television program. But followers of the low-fat diet were getting the red carpet treatment. Nathan Pritikin was one of the most well-known advocates of the low-fat diet. Despite his public acclaim, his adherents were having difficulty staying on his Spartan diet. Some of those who remained on his diet developed a number of health problems including depression, weight gain, mineral deficiencies, and fatigue.  Today, maybe as a lesson learned, our more liberal but orthodox nutritionists encourage us to limit our fats to 25-30% of our caloric intake. But it that really the “healthy” amount?

One’s ideal fat intake does vary with your metabolic type. However, today’s strong societal encouragement to reduce fats is one of the biggest scientific myths in the 20th century. In fact, before 1920, coronary heart disease was so rare in America that when Paul Dudley White introduced the German electrocardiograph, his colleagues at Harvard University encouraged him to pursue a more profitable branch of medicine. It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s that heart disease became one of the leading causes of death in America. What do saturated fats have to say about it? According to Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, world renowned experts on dietary fats, the proportion of animal fat in the American diet actually declined from 83% to 62% while the butter consumption plummeted from 18 pounds per person, to four! This all occurred during the 60-year period of 1910-1970-within the same time heart disease gained its notoriety! But during the last 80 years, dietary vegetable oils have increased to a whopping 400 %, while the consumption of sugar and processed foods increased about 60%. So shouldn’t we really be looking at new dietary villains in the making?

In Part 2, I will examine the true causes of heart disease, and the critical significance of understanding that not all fats are created equally.

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March 2011
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