Low-Fat Diets: A Good or Bad Idea?
Updated: Jun 17
It's easy to cruise through any grocery store and find an abundance of low-fat and non-fat options to toss in our carts. This has been the trend since the mid-20th century. But is this the way food was always available throughout human history? And is it a pathway to better health?
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Food Pyramid Wisdom
For decades the medical profession has warned us about the dangers of fat in our diets. I remember coloring in Food Pyramids in elementary school and feeling guilty for my deep affinity for breakfast meats, cheese, eggs and butter. Surely those were worse than what I should be enjoying at the base of USDA's edifice: plenty of cereals, breads, rice and pasta!
It wasn't until I met my late mother-in-law, Hilary, as a kid in the late 1980s/early 90s that I first saw the liberal use of fats in their natural forms. She always had a refrigerator loaded with full fat sour cream, sticks of European butter, ample varieties of rich cheeses, whole cream for coffee and a cupboard full of gourmet olive oils (this was one of her favorites!). I greatly admired this intelligent woman long before I married her son and thought for sure she was onto something. Her food tasted out-of-this-world and we all fought over seconds.
When I began studying ancestral diets I discovered just what my intuitive mother-in-law was up to.
What do Teeth Have to do With It?!
Even though most of our great-grandparents and their predecessors lived on higher fat diets than we do and enjoyed robust health, including healthy teeth, we have followed a different path that we believed would lead to longevity.
In fact, the late dentist and researcher, Weston A. Price, spent nearly a decade in the 1930s seeking out people groups removed from modern Western civilization who subsisted on long-held ancestral diets. His hope was to discover why so many of his younger patients were suffering from more and more cavities and dental deformities while older generations maintained excellent dental health. His discoveries were shocking and uncovered a strong relationship to modern diets rich in processed flour, refined sugar and sweets versus ancient, traditional diets rich in animal protein, natural fats and fresh, minimally processed produce.
Not only did Dr. Price find a consistent and significant increase in tooth decay among those who had abandoned their native diets, but he also noted dramatic changes in bone structure -- including the crowded jaws and narrow sinuses coupled with lowered immunity and greater susceptibility to the plague of the day: tuberculosis.
A Sharp Turn from the Past
This sharp turn away from ancestral nutrition was solidified by a series of studies beginning in the 1950s through the 1970s. These studies (many of them controversial) concluded that the new epidemic of heart disease was directly related to dietary fat intake. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis was developed by a persuasive researcher of the day, Ancel Keys. This hypothesis became the heroic answer to the horrifying increase in heart attacks in the past mid-century.
The answer, it was thought, was to cut fats, especially saturated fats and cholesterol rich foods, and lives would be saved.
The shift had begun even earlier during World War II when natural fats, such as butter and beef, were shipped off to troops while civilians were encouraged to partake in cheaper, shelf-stable, processed fats like hydrogenated seed oils and margarine. Crisco soon replaced lard and yellow food-dye packets were squeezed into margarine tubs to emulate the rich color of butter.
These trendy, cheap and chemically produced fats were then marketed as healthier options and remain on the table to this day.
We Took It To Heart
In good time, we were easily convinced to abandon the generational wisdom of eating locally grown, fresh and whole foods -- including animals from nose to tail -- in favor of "life-saving" and waist-trimming low-fat options. This influence was pressed upon us by a number of powers including the U.S. government, the American Heart Association (which rose from obscurity in the late 1940s thanks to funding from Procter & Gamble, maker of Crisco) and the food industry.
We obediently followed all recommendations to embrace "heart healthy" low-fat options -- chemically processed though they may be. And to make up for the lack of flavor and satiety, we were primed for the other arm of this dietary mandate: high carbohydrate diets.
Breads, cereals, rice and pasta were to be consumed with abandon if we wanted to improve health outcomes. Even sugar cereals such as Lucky Charms, Trix and Cocoa Puffs not so long ago still carried an American Heart Association (AHA) seal of approval while many other sugary and highly-processed foods still bear the heart-healthy stamp today.
And of course any treats or options labeled as "low-fat" or "non-fat" are still generally perceived as safe and healthy options.
Yet heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S. with cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes trailing closely behind. What gives?
In 1961, when the American Heart Association urged the public to embrace a new low-fat paradigm, about one in seven Americans were obese. By 2001 one in three Americans were obese and that number holds strong today.
Besides a fear of heart disease, the long-held belief that "fat makes you fat" still drives many to religiously follow a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet.
Yet many new studies have made it crystal clear that the low-fat diet dogma has driven generations of people to embrace a high-carbohydrate diet which has fueled a hot fire of inflammatory diseases. Study after study has linked the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer to dietary sources of inflammation -- namely processed carbohydrates, sugar and processed trans-fats.
Even though we are slowly coming out of the low-fat, high-carb fog, there is a long ways to go in unraveling the damage and confusion put upon us by largely unrepentant powers: namely our government, health organizations, the health media and food industry.
In the meantime, there is a health revolution underway for those who are ready to ditch the culture of fat-phobia and learn about the true value of this villainized macronutrient.
Let’s start at the cellular level for some answers.
Why Your Cells Need Fat
As we know our body is made up of cells, which on a simplified level are like the many parts of a car. They are all dependent on each other and dependent on good maintenance and care. When we don’t keep up with regular tune-ups, a part gets worn out then another has to compensate for it and then it too breaks down. Pretty soon the car won’t start and you have to get it towed to the mechanic.
Our cells are the same way, but far more complex. The care and maintenance of these cellular vehicles depends on the fuel we put into our bodies. Some of the most important fuels for cellular health are the proper amounts and types of dietary fat.
Our cell membranes, the protective outer layer of each and every cell, are made up of a three types of fatty materials: phospholipids, cholesterol and glycolipids.
It turns out that cholesterol is not the criminal it is made out to be, but rather an essential part of our cellular makeup. Cholesterol is a vital component of our cells and is needed for transport of nutrients, synthesis of hormones, transport of oxygen, brain function and much more.
These fat-rich cell membranes allow our bodies to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K. These fat-loving vitamins in turn allow us to absorb other vitamins and minerals to keep all parts in working order so we can move without pain, think clearly, feel energized, fight off disease and reproduce healthy children.
However, when we starve our body of fats we are also starving our cell membranes of the fuel they need to do their jobs of nutrient absorption and protection from invaders. This lack of proper nutrient absorption and lack of protection at the cellular levels sets us up for weakened immunity and proneness to disease.
And just as bad, when we put poor quality fats into our bodies that have been processed with solvents and chemicals (on top of usually being rancid since most vegetable oils are very unstable) we put our cells at risk of oxidation by free radicals -- unstable molecules that damage cells.
Think of it like the rust that eats away at an old car. This cellular rusting caused by chemically processed fat intake leaves us vulnerable to the dreaded diseases of the heart and brain as well as various cancers.
The Fat Hungry Brain
As a final plug for our fat hungry cells, our brain is made up of 60% fat and depends on these fatty cell membranes for protecting our brain cells along with sending nerve messages throughout our body. A 2009 neurology study states:
"We’ve learned in recent years that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain’s integrity and ability to perform. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for maintenance of optimal health but they can not synthesized by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. Clinical observation studies have related imbalanced dietary intake of fatty acids to impaired brain performance and diseases."
If that doesn't convince us to toss the low-fat labels, I'm not sure what will!
American Neurologist, David Perlmutter also reminds us that 25% of our brain's total fat is made up of cholesterol, which has been shown to keep our memories sharp and our hormones frisky as well as providing crucial antioxidant protection.
It's high time to let dietary fat-phobia melt away.
What Grandma Ate
If a low-fat diet poses a danger to our cellular health even up to the level of our brains and memories, and a diet high in processed fats and carbohydrates sets our cells up for mutation and disease, where are we to turn?
The answer is easy.
We simply need to take a turn back in time and reflect on the diets of our great-grandparents who balanced their protein and minimally processed carbohydrate intake with healthy, natural fats. These can be found abundantly in dairy products, nuts, seeds, wild-caught fish, pastured poultry, grass-fed/grass-finished beef, and healthy cold-pressed (not chemically processed) oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, and for some, coconut oil.
Of course, there are bio-individual considerations such as familial hypercholesterolemia and genetic issues such as the APOE4 genotype, which may require further fine-tuning with types and amounts of healthy fats (especially saturated). We will get to this important topic on another day in our Brain Health section.
For now, know that your cell membranes are hungry for healthy, natural, minimally processed fats and that you can’t go wrong by tossing out your processed oils (including the ones hidden on the back of packages with lengthy ingredient lists) and exchanging them for a fresh avocado, a handful of walnuts, or bowlful of whole fat yogurt (if you tolerate dairy).
What are you waiting for? Give your cells the healthy and delicious fats they crave and enjoy yourself in the process!
What about you? What are your thoughts on low-fat diets? Let me know in the comments below! I'd love to hear your voice!
You can also tag me @nourishandcherish.ntp if you want to share any photos!
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About the Author
Roxie Daggett is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) with a virtual practice in Sedona, Arizona. Her passions include studying nutritional research pertaining to memory, brain health, genes and longevity. When she is not geeking out on nutrition she enjoys messing around in the kitchen with old world recipes, reading and hearing stories from elders and farmers about traditional food sourcing, and wandering around the Red Rocks with her heroic husband and Staffordshire bull terrier.
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