After years of abstaining from fat—the most calorie dense macronutrient—new research suggests that fat should actually have a prominent place in your diet. This abrupt about-face has been difficult for many people to accept, especially after the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other health authorities have hammered home the message that fat is public enemy #1 if you’re concerned about heart disease or are just trying to live a healthy lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the recommendation to take in as many as six to 11 servings of bread, pasta, or potatoes while consuming saturated fat or cholesterol very sparingly was an experiment on the American population that has gone very wrong. Since 1980, when the food pyramid was first introduced, we have witnessed an explosion of obesity. In fact, at least 55 percent of the population is currently considered to be obese, and this number is expected to increase. In addition, chronic diseases associated with an unhealthy diet and lifestyle have also dramatically increased, surpassing infectious diseases as the #1 cause of death. The end result is that the medical costs of managing obesity and associated chronic diseases have skyrocketed into the trillions of dollars.
Let’s break this down. When the U.S. recommended that we remove saturated fat and cholesterol from our diet, we didn’t start eating more vegetables. Saturated fat and cholesterol were replaced primarily with sugar and vegetable oils, including both liquid and hydrogenated forms (which are also known as “trans fat”). This shift in the composition of our diet has been positively associated with the rise in obesity and chronic diseases that currently plague our modern-day culture.
Let’s take a closer look at sugar and its rise to fame. When fat is removed from food, the satisfaction we get from eating that food goes way down. No problem: sugar makes everything taste good. “Bonus”: sugar also makes food extremely addictive and has been proven to be as much as 10 times more addictive than heroin. Sugar doesn’t ever signal your body that it is full, so, according to your brain, the food train never arrived at the station. Sugar is the only substance that can be considered both a carbohydrate and a fat because of its unique ability to drive glucose, signaling insulin to store excess calories as fat. The body has a very limited ability to store glucose, so, unless you are engaging in a considerable amount of activity, your fat cells will be well fed and expand as needed. Lastly, sugar enjoys nearly 61 different names, so good luck reading an ingredient list to find it.
Now, let’s look at the PUFAs, also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have in their ranks vegetable oils such corn and soybean oil, both of which are high in omega-6 and trans fat. These fats have permeated our entire food supply as a “better” replacement for saturated fat. PUFAs are highly inflammatory and easily oxidized when heated. Unfortunately, we are consuming these fats in amounts that have never before been experienced by humans. Inflammation caused by this oil change has been demonstrated to be at the core of many of our chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, neurological disorders, and even depression. Omega-3, another polyunsaturated fatty acid, has been credited with improved inflammation and helps give wild salmon top ratings as a “super food.” At the turn of the century, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid was near 3 to 1; today it nears 15—30 to 1…in favor of omega-6. If you think you can just pop an omega-3 supplement and be safe, you would be misguided. Until you put down the fries, crackers, and salad dressings loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, a small capsule of omega-3 will not help you.
Now for the good news! Fat is back. Fat can be fantastic. Fat has the ability to make food taste great, and isn’t that what we want? Food should taste good and not resemble cardboard. I confess, I don’t love plain steamed vegetables. However, roast vegetables with generous amounts of olive oil, garlic, and seasoning and now I’m interested. Don’t love salad? Maybe it’s the fat-free dressing you’ve been using. Switch to olive oil and add fresh lemon or a good-quality balsamic vinegar and perhaps you too can be a lettuce lover.
Even saturated fat is back on the “good foods” list, and has been correlated with improvements in blood lipids. Butter is back, though sadly not with the bread. How about a side of butter with those vegetables? Dietary cholesterol has been exonerated as being connected in any way to cholesterol in the blood. Hallelujah! How about eating an entire egg with the yolk, and maybe with some cheese!
Fat also helps keep you satiated. In fact, fat is the only macronutrient that does not trigger an insulin response. This is crucial, because insulin is the hormone responsible for fat storage. Fat consumed does not become the fat in your body! So, what does produce those dangerous lipids in your body? Carbohydrates—particularly high glycemic, processed carbohydrates. In other words, take the 1980 Food Pyramid and turn it upside down! So, the next time you need a little snack to carry you over to your next meal, put down those pretzels and instead reach for nuts, seeds, olives, or an avocado.
The final take away is simple: Food should taste good and be good for us. Forget the “diet.” A diet is something that is done temporarily, usually leaving people in worse shape than they were before! We were never meant to experience hunger: your body will protest by slowing your metabolism and increasing lethargy. Think about a low tank of gas in your car. Instead, look to adopt a long-term, healthy lifestyle that doesn’t require disguising the taste of your food. Let us learn from the Mediterranean diet, the most well-researched diet on the planet, which has been proven to decrease inflammation and associated chronic diseases. It includes moderate amounts of cheese, chocolate, and red wine. The Mediterranean diet also happens to include a healthy amount of fat, including olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fish.
I say cheers and bon appetit!