No Love for Low Fat - Ah-ha! Week


By Brian Fencil

Photo courtesy of Laura.

For the last 50 years, we’ve been force fed the message that a low-fat diet would reduce heart disease and obesity. And we ate it up because there was a lot of evidence supporting it. Thankfully, since then there has been a growing pile of blubbery data tipping the scales toward a diet that includes more fats.

In investigative journalist Nina Teicholz’s new book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, Teicholz describes the major flaws in the first research done on the low-fat diet.

In the 1950s, heart disease became a national concern as many Americans and even President Eisenhower suffered heart attacks. In 1953, physiologist Ancel Keys found that in Italy and Spain, two countries that have low amounts of meat and dairy in the diet, also had low rates of heart disease. He assumed there was a connection.

He was exalted for his findings; put on the cover of Time Magazine, and soon his findings became the basis of nutritional guidelines in the US.

But Keys was highly selective with his research and ignored data that did not match his low-saturated fat and heart health correlation: Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Germany (all ate a lot of animal fat, but did not have higher rates of heart disease).

In 1956, Keys was given a massive grant to further study saturated fats, and he conducted what became known as the “Seven Countries Study.” Though again, he chose only countries with data that matched his theory, and even gathered his data from Greece during a 48-day lent which skewed the data toward his vision.

More recent studies have also found that not only is Keys’ data supporting the low-fat diet not valid, but evidence also shows that a low-fat diet might be harmful. In the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found that half of heart-attack patients had below-average cholesterol levels, and they concluded that for “each 1% mg/dL drop of cholesterol, there was an 11% increase in coronary and total mortality.”

Part of the problem with the low-fat diet is what people are replacing fats with. People often go for carbs instead of meats, thinking it is the healthier option. Yet, some scientists believe that sugars are the main reason for obesity, and eating a lot more carbs, even healthier complex carbs, might be more harmful for health than red meats.

Also, when companies cut fats from products, they try to make up for the loss of flavor by adding sugar, salt, and other things to enhance flavors, which can up the calorie count. These substitutions are probably having hugely adverse affects on health.

Much of this science against the low-fat diet is not without criticism. Even Teicholz’s book has been called “dangerous.”

Dr. Dean Ornish, who helped President Bill Clinton get in shape with a vegan diet, told CNN that “if you eat a diet that is high in animal protein, your risk of everything goes up considerably.”

The lack of consensus among doctors should not be taken as a sign of medical dogma, but rather it should be seen as sign that the topic is highly complex and that each study supporting or not supporting low-fat diets have some limitations.

Even the most expensive diet study ever conducted, which lasted eight years and followed 50,000 women, has cracks critics can see. Critics said the effects of a low-fat diet might only start after cutting more fat from one’s diet than the participants did, and some of the participants were too old for a shift in diet to make any real change.

As more evidence comes out, our opinions about what is healthy and what is not will change, and we might even get to a point where Paula Deen’s Fried Butter Balls are vindicated, but don’t expect it to be anytime soon.