Keys, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, had been making waves since he initiated the Seven Countries Study in 1958, a large observational experiment which sought to find a link between dietary fat and heart disease.
The results were earth-shattering. In all seven countries that Keys studied, a strong, undeniable correlation was found between cholesterol and mortality.
It was at this time that Keys started championing a low-fat “Mediterranean Diet” with daily exercise, as it was the participants from southern Europe that consistently displayed the lowest rates of heart disease.
With Keys taking the national spotlight, the surge towards a low-fat diet had officially begun.
Dietary Goals for the United States
In 1977, Senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released its controversial report “Dietary Goals for the United States.”
These guidelines took Keys’s lipid hypothesis and thrust them even more into the mainstream. It was now necessary for Americans to reduce fat, cholesterol, and sugar consumption, replacing them with more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Over the next several decades, low-fat diets became so ingrained in the public’s mind that to this day few people believe that a high-fat diet could ever be healthy. (Try telling your coworkers about the whole stick of butter you use in your mashed potatoes and witness the stunned silence for yourself!)
Livestock has been bred to be leaner, skim milk and margarine has replaced whole milk and butter, and cunning food marketers have found that a blatant “low fat” sticker on the front of their product ensures that it will sell better than the new Lady Gaga single.
By 1994, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion began championing their very own “Food Pyramid,” which emphasized making grains, bread, and pasta the basis of a healthy diet, with full fat dairy, red meat, and saturated fats severely limited.
And with the recent release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, there should be no doubt left: low-fat is here to stay…
…but don’t expect it to deliver the results you want anytime soon.
Dietary Fat–or Hellspawn Itself?
When Ancel Keys first lit the match that would result, some decades later, in the world’s most widespread and long-lived fad diet, it was to blame saturated fat as the cause of heart disease, a relatively new affliction that appeared to correlate with the rising fat consumption during the previous decades.
But over time, fat has become the scapegoat of nearly every disease known to man, from obesity to cancer.
From the Food Pyramid to the China Study, the message has been crystal clear: fat is bad. If you had a strong enough microscope, you could actually see the tiny horns and pitchfork that each and every molecule of those little buggers has.
Fat, Confusing Trends
According to the NHANES program, fat as a percentage of calories has dropped from 37.0% to 32.1% and saturated fat went from 13.6% to 10.8% from the early 70′s to the year 2000 among men aged 20 to 34.
And yet, during this same time, obesity rates more than doubled for the population as a whole, from 14.5% to 30.9%. (And it’s only been growing since.)
Wait… so you really wanna blame fat for all this?
How can fat, and most especially saturated fat, take the fall for the obesity epidemic that is currently spreading if we are eating less of it? How can it be blamed for the “diseases of civilization” that are relative newcomers to our species when we have been consuming loads of the stuff for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years?
The Problems With Fat-Phobia
Let’s start with Ancel Keys’s study. Although I think Keys kicked some serious ass with his Minnesota Starvation Experiment (hint: conscious caloric restriction does more harm than good), he really dropped the ball with the Seven Countries study.
Remember how he conclusively showed that dietary fat causes heart disease? Well, it turns out Keys had information from 22 countries in total, but only included the seven of them that conveniently fit his hypothesis. When you plot the data from all the countries, the trend disappears completely.
How do you explain the so-called “French Paradox,” where a large society remains resistant to weight gain and obesity, despite their high intake of saturated fat? And how about the Maasai tribe of Kenya, that subsists mainly on whole milk, meat, and blood, and yet remain lean and healthy? Or the Tokelauans of the South Pacific, who have the highest recorded saturated fat intake at around a whopping 40%-50% of total calories and are strong and disease-free?
Um… surely these guys must just be freaks of nature, right? Right?
“Senators don’t have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in.”
Senator McGovern uttered those telling words in 1977 in response to the vocal subset of scientists who rejected his dietary recommendations.
In the subsequent 30+ years, a damned lot of evidence has piled up. And in spite of the massive funding opportunities for low-fat/low-saturated fat/low cholesterol diets, the results are clear: fat still hasn’t been convincingly linked to the multitude of diseases it is blamed for, and the restriction of this vital nutrient clearly does more harm than good.
Humans evolved in an environment where their food (especially meat) would have been rich in both saturated and monounsaturated fat. Many vitamins (such as A, D, E, and K) are fat-soluble and won’t be absorbed by your body unless you top your veggies off with some butter, coconut oil, or other fat.
The only fats that I would suggest you avoid are the ones that (wait for it…) are man-made in factories and laboratories! Trans fats rightly got shot down by an angry public a while back, but don’t go overboard with polyunsaturated fats either, particularly pro-inflammatory omega-6s (found primarily in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and even poultry.)
So go ahead, fill up your fridge with red meat, lard, butter, and cream. It will help you to become (and remain) fit and healthy. And scrambled eggs with 3 tablespoons of butter will completely change your life. Fo realz.