“Is butter a carb?” asked Regina George haplessly trying to lose weight while her track pants were all that fit her in that famous scene from Mean Girls. For as long as we can remember, butter and other saturated fats have been viewed as the direct cause of heart disease. This medical mainstay was questioned recently when a number of studies revealed that saturated fat is perhaps not the outright killer we thought it was.
Has Paula Dean been right all this time? Can we guiltlessly luxuriate in butter, red meat, and full-fat dairy? Has the ongoing war on fat all been for naught? What caused this polarizing view on fat and how did we arrive at a point that despite warnings against fat consumption, one-third of the United States is obese and heart disease remains the number one cause of death?
It all began in the 1950s when cardiovascular disease (CVD) was on the rise. Even our then president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, fell prey and suffered a heart attack. This new health threat catalyzed a dietary witch-hunt that convicted saturated fats as the culprit. The logic was quite concrete and tangible: Saturated fats increase the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your body, LDL clogs your arteries, causing CVD, and therefore by the transitive property, saturated fats cause CVD.
This seemingly solid scientific evidence birthed the first set of USDA dietary guidelines in 1980, which advised against consuming sources of saturated fats and cholesterol such as red meat, bacon, full-fat dairy, egg yolks and butter. The intent was to displace such foods with lean meats, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
While the new dietary guidelines had America’s best interest at heart, what followed suit was anything but. Food manufacturers launched an onslaught of processed low-fat foods and the “Snackwell’s Generation” was born. Suddenly, there were low-fat versions of everything: low-fat cookies, cakes, cheeses, candies, ice cream, lunch meats, frozen meals, muffins, you name it. There were even low-fat fats! Margarine, olestra, and Pam cooking spray replaced the traditional butter and we guzzled them down with careless abandon. They were low-fat after all.
It seemed as though our worries were over, yet the new low-fat foods replaced fat with refined sugar and other simple carbohydrates. Increased consumption of simple carbohydrates was a huge problem as the prevalence of obesity and CVD grew. This correlation can be explained by the effect of simple carbohydrates on the human body. When simple carbohydrates are ingested, insulin is released into the bloodstream, causing the food calories to be stored as fat. Since the calories are turned into fat stores instead of being utilized for energy, there’s increased hunger and a slower metabolism.
The result? Unwanted weight gain. The new fat stores in the body increase the number of triglycerides, a major determinant of CVD. In addition, as insulin is repeatedly released from excess simple carbohydrate consumption, the body develops insulin resistance, causing type 2 diabetes. It’s no wonder how we arrived at our current predicament.
Observing the increased health problems despite decreased saturated fat intake, the verdict on fat was challenged. Dr. Ronald Krauss had a breakthrough in a study finding that while saturated fat increases LDL and high composition of LDL causes CVD, not all LDL particles are equal. Krauss explains that there are two types of LDL particles. There are small, dense LDL particles that cause CVD, and there are also large, fluffy LDL particles that do not cause CVD. According to the study, saturated fats contribute the harmless large LDL particles, so while they increase the body’s composition of LDL, they do not cause CVD.
Moreover, a meta-analysis that examined a myriad of studies over time determined that there was no significant association between saturated fat consumption and CVD. Examining their effect on the body can make another argument for dietary fats. While fats are calorically dense, these are not empty calories. Fat heavy foods such as cheese are packed with protein, calcium and other nourishing elements. After ingesting a fat, one becomes satiated much more quickly than one would on white bread, a nutritionally devoid simple carbohydrate. Thus, fat intake can prevent overeating.
Where do we go with this new information? While there is compelling research that diminishes the threat of saturated fats, there is not enough concrete scientific evidence to change the current guidelines, so don’t break out the bacon just yet. Large-scale clinical trials are still needed before we can safely go against what has been established. In the meantime, opt for whole, unprocessed fats. Choose lean cuts of red meat and cook them yourself, don’t pull up to the drive-thru for a Big Mac. Read the ingredients on food labels, if there’s more than a handful of ingredients or any weird, unknown chemicals on a package of cheese, put it back. Trans-fats, listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” on food labels, are a hard no as they are awful for heart health.
Also, with the discussion of simple carbohydrates, keep in mind that not all carbohydrates are equal. Do not divert the tirade on fat against carbohydrates. While simple carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and white pasta have the aforementioned negative effect on the body, there’s also another class of carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are incredibly healthy as they are packed with fiber and protein. This includes whole wheat/ whole grain bread, whole wheat/ whole grain pasta, beans, lentils, starchy vegetables (white potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, peas, yucca, corn, squash, pumpkin), fruit, oats, brown rice, quinoa, and whole grains such as barley and bulgur.
And though the war on fat is far from over, keep in mind that all foods should be enjoyed in moderation as an excess of anything can be considered unhealthy.