Saturday, May 3, 2014

Fat Is Not Making Us Fat

I make no claim to expertise or even competence in the area of nutrition. And yet, like all of us, I have noticed with alarm that Americans are among the most obese people in the world. It is a dubious achievement, indeed.

How did we get to this point?

The reason, Nina Teicholz explains in the Wall Street Journal this morning, is counterintuitive. We are getting fatter because we refuse to eat fatty foods. Americans have become obese by following government dietary guidelines:

Seeing the U.S. population grow sicker and fatter while adhering to official dietary guidelines has put nutrition authorities in an awkward position. Recently, the response of many researchers has been to blame "Big Food" for bombarding Americans with sugar-laden products. No doubt these are bad for us, but it is also fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines issued by the AHA and USDA, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar.

It seems logical that eating fatty foods makes us fat. The truth, however, is that replacing fatty foods, like steak and butter, with carbohydrates and vegetable oils makes us fatter.  Moreover, following the government’s diet will not only make us fat; it’s bad for our health.

Teicholz describes some of the unintended consequences of the war on fatty foods:

One consequence is that in cutting back on fats, we are now eating a lot more carbohydrates—at least 25% more since the early 1970s. Consumption of saturated fat, meanwhile, has dropped by 11%, according to the best available government data. Translation: Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we're eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Even seemingly healthy low-fat foods, such as yogurt, are stealth carb-delivery systems, since removing the fat often requires the addition of fillers to make up for lost texture—and these are usually carbohydrate-based.

The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease.

The strange truth is:

Too much whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast and whole-grain pasta for dinner, with fruit snacks in between, add up to a less healthy diet than one of eggs and bacon, followed by fish. The reality is that fat doesn't make you fat or diabetic. Scientific investigations going back to the 1950s suggest that actually, carbs do.

Naturally, we all believe that butter is bad and that vegetable oils are good. Again, this is far from the truth:

In those early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides. Alarmed by these findings, the National Institutes of Health convened researchers several times in the early 1980s to try to explain these "side effects," but they couldn't. (Experts now speculate that certain psychological problems might be related to changes in brain chemistry caused by diet, such as fatty-acid imbalances or the depletion of cholesterol.)

I had not known it, but I am intrigued by the possibility that psychological problems might be caused by a cholesterol-deficient diet.

One recalls that New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg declared war on transfats. On this score the science is far from settled. Vegetable oils, the ones that are used in place of transfats, produce their own problems:

We've also known since the 1940s that when heated, vegetable oils create oxidation products that, in experiments on animals, lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death. For these reasons, some midcentury chemists warned against the consumption of these oils, but their concerns were allayed by a chemical fix: Oils could be rendered more stable through a process called hydrogenation, which used a catalyst to turn them from oils into solids.

Heicholz continues:

Yet paradoxically, the drive to get rid of trans fats has led some restaurants and food manufacturers to return to using regular liquid oils—with the same long-standing oxidation problems. These dangers are especially acute in restaurant fryers, where the oils are heated to high temperatures over long periods.

The past decade of research on these oxidation products has produced a sizable body of evidence showing their dramatic inflammatory and oxidative effects, which implicates them in heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer's. Other newly discovered potential toxins in vegetable oils, called monochloropropane diols and glycidol esters, are now causing concern among health authorities in Europe.

Regrettably, women have been the victims of the crusade against saturated fat. First, because the studies were all performed on men. Second, because women under fifty are not at risk for heart disease. Third, because higher cholesterol levels in women are better for their health:

Cutting back on saturated fat has had especially harmful consequences for women, who, due to hormonal differences, contract heart disease later in life and in a way that is distinct from men. If anything, high total cholesterol levels in women over 50 were found early on to be associated with longer life….

Since women under 50 rarely get heart disease, the implication is that women of all ages have been worrying about their cholesterol levels needlessly. Yet the Framingham study's findings on women were omitted from the study's conclusions. And less than a decade later, government health officials pushed their advice about fat and cholesterol on all Americans over age 2—based exclusively on data from middle-aged men.

Sticking to these guidelines has meant ignoring growing evidence that women on diets low in saturated fat actually increase their risk of having a heart attack. The "good" HDL cholesterol drops precipitously for women on this diet (it drops for men too, but less so). The sad irony is that women have been especially rigorous about ramping up on their fruits, vegetables and grains, but they now suffer from higher obesity rates than men, and their death rates from heart disease have reached parity.

Perhaps it’s time for the government to get out of the nutrition business. It’s one thing for someone like me to be uninformed on the matter. It’s quite another for a government agency to be misinformed and to promote misinformation as truth.


Charles A Pennison said...

I too am not a licensed, nutritional expert. But I've been following nutrition research for the past 30 years.

It's true that science overstated the negative aspects of animal fats, and the positive aspects of some carbs. However, it's also an overstatement and oversimplification to say that oatmeal and extra virgin olive oil are bad foods.

The culprit of bad health appears to be processed sugars, and low-fiber carbs (wheat and any grain stripped of it's fiber, table sugar and fructose sugars and white rice). Carbs with high fiber content like whole oatmeal are healthy. If for no other reason, the soluble fiber in high-fiber carbs feeds the "good" bacteria in our guts. And it's the good intestinal bacteria that not only helps us digest our food, but also is responsible for converting food chemicals into usable vitamins and antioxidants.

Many studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean type of diet combined with moderate physical activity significantly reduces our risks of heart disease, cancers and Alzheimer's disease. The Mediterranean Diet stresses consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish and extra virgin olive oil.

I believe most of the nutritional experts of today would agree that good nutrition is a balance of high-fiber carbs, proteins and fats.

In short, diets high in low-fiber carbs increases appetite, no matter how much we eat. Diets balanced with high-fiber carbs, proteins (including vegetable proteins) and fats decreases appetite, which helps us eat less.

Sam L. said...

Everything we've been told is either wrong, or will later be found wrong. The "Science" is not settled.

RileyD, nwJ said...

Earlier article (July 2002) with much of the same data convinced me and I went on the Atkins Diet and lost 70 lbs effortlessly.

The earlier article is
What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?

RileyD, nwJ said...

Earlier article (July 2002) with much of the same data convinced me and I went on the Atkins Diet and lost 70 lbs effortlessly.

The earlier article is
What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?

Anonymous said...

The real scandal in today's WSJ piece is that this entire ruse can be traced back to one man: Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys, a University of Minnesota scientist. He was a "gifted" lad with a high IQ and a PhD, so he's really smart. Dr. Keys’ 1950s crusade against saturated fat was based on statistical correlations and flawed studies, landing him on the cover of TIME in 1961. The perfect torchbearer. And here we are, over a half-century later.

In the meantime, we've taken grandma's old recipes and surrendered them to an alarmist nutritional priesthood telling us that we're killing ourselves. We have high-energy, persuasive figures like Dr. Keys convincing us that we're all going to going to die sooner and in more gruesome ways because we consume beef, eggs, bacon and butter.

We've got gurus telling us we're supposed to be vegetarian, pescetarian, vegan, fat-free, gluten-free, free-range, organic, GMO-free, cleansing, on and on. Publishers provide us a steady fare of The Mediterranean Diet. The Paleo Diet. The Atkins Diet. The South Beach diet. The Suzanne Somers diet. Et cetera. Eat wrong and you’ll die. People swear by this stuff.

Today's youth look at food as fuel rather than an opportunity to sit down for fellowship or family. After all, they have to get to their soccer game, cello practice, and chess club. No time to eat together. Food is calories, vitamins, minerals... the stuff from biology class.

At every point along the way, we hear "the science is settled." Concerned citizens say they want to share the truth with you because they care about you. We get literature by “deep conscience” celebrities offering the best chance for you to get control of your life. Impaneled activists quote subject-matter experts. All have something to say about “the crisis,” about what's wrong with how you're leading your life. And if they appeared on Oprah, then it's true. Especially if that expert helped Oprah out of one of her "fat phases."

Every Thanksgiving, there are the "I can't believe they're actually human" health experts on TV telling us to mind our eating over the holidays. Or, better yet, so you don't enjoy holidays, the experts have programmed your Aunt Ruth to scold you when you're up for seconds.

Upon further study, we've come to learn vitamin supplements don't make a lick of difference. We find out that margarine is far worse for you than butter. We're told plant-based oils become really bad for you at high heat.

And now we find out that saturated fat doesn't make you fat. In fact, it may help you, depending on a host of factors.

Such a finding is "counterintuitive" because it flies in the face of decades of misinformation based on bad science that became institutionalized. These are the same people who brought you the USDA Food Pyramid telling you to "eat lots of carbs."

Temperance is usually is the best way to a good life, but we've heard that for millennia, so it's old hat. We want excitement so we're more and more anxious about "facts.” Experts know the best way to get people to pay attention is to scare them.

And this sort of crap doesn't end at nutrition. Someone's always on TV with a wacky fad they're "passionate about," and compelled to provide you with "real, meaningful change." NOW!!!

Charlatans. Frauds. Snake oil salesman. Weird multi-level marketing vitamin people. "Quest for the Historical Jesus" people. Doomsday environmentalists. Intense amateurs. People who take facts and make them fit their philosophy. All of them. Who am I supposed to believe? Who has credibility?

How about "everything in moderation," with 30 minutes of daily exercise? And "exercise" can be a walk, instead of trying to get a 26.2 sticker on the back of the car.


Ares Olympus said...

I was skeptical of the Atkins diet crazy a decade ago, but knew some people who lost quite a lot of weight, and so I accepted the conclusion that a high carb diet, especially high in sugar was the problem. Robert Lustig has been studying children's obesity including babies.

So I know on conservative blogs, you're not allow to hate on sugar, because politicians will use it as an excuse to limit supergulp cup sizes, but if you stop away from your fear of the government controlling you, I have to say a good old fashioned sin tax on sugar, sports drinks and convenience foods might do some good.

Of course that would take away personal responsibility to fight gluttony all by yourself, and so we have to allow people the freedom to big pigs so the rest of us will feel superior for accidentally being able to eat whatever we want without gaining an ounce.

Oh, wait, I guess I did give up on soda when I was 24 and its still amazing to me, when I first drink it again, I think "That's crazy too sweet" and yet 30 seconds later, for some reason I want some more. A good lesson I barely pass with self-awareness, and so the only safe amount for me is ZERO.

Dennis said...

One would think that the larger take away would be to be highly skeptical of experts and any government that wants to us to be made to follow these experts' advice on how people should live their lives and just what freedoms they should be allowed. Suffice it to denote that we are unique individuals who react differently to all kinds of food at various times in our lives.
At almost anytime I want to lose weight I go back to the Adkin's, "drinking man's, diet thought a couple of years as a bartender, extra job, at an Officer's Club kind of cured me of drinking. Moderation is the key, as Tip states, in ever endeavor that a person will deal. For years I worked hard at being the best I could be and finally figured out it was working smart and creating the condition for success that made things so much easier. Life really is simple and not as hard as we want to make it,
BEWARE the person who believes they are an expert. Only a fool would believe they know all that is needed to be an expert.