New awareness about fats

Ditch the low-fat diet?

January 24, 2011

Culinate editor’s note: This article was originally published in Sound Consumer, a publication of PCC Natural Markets.

We’ve survived the era of low-fat diets and learned about the health problems they create, but the media still attempts to guide our thinking that fats can make us fat and cholesterol causes heart disease.

The truth is that fats play an important role in our body’s health, and some of them can even help us lose weight. Unfortunately, we consume too few of the healthy fats, and too many of the unhealthy, man-made versions.

The roles fats play in our health are extensive. For example, fat provides energy; it’s difficult to eat enough food on a low-fat diet to get the energy we need. Essential fatty acids are brain food; a deficiency can lead to numerous health and psychiatric/social problems. Fats are needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Fats give us a feeling of satiety, preventing hunger soon after meals.

Big fat misconception

Saturated fats were the preferred choice until the mid-20th century. Then, all of a sudden, we were told to cut saturated fats from our diet if we wanted to maintain healthy weight, have good cholesterol, and prevent heart disease. Marketers of low-fat foods championed the cause, and few people questioned why foods eaten for centuries suddenly were causing heart disease.

Butter, as it turns out, has much to recommend it.

It’s interesting that at the turn of the last century, saturated fats such as coconut oil were advertised as healthy. Saturated fats even were recommended for treating serious medical conditions, such as tuberculosis and epilepsy.

While medical experts claimed “fats are good” prior to World War II, we heard just the opposite in the years that followed, once the vegetable-oil and seed-oil industry stepped up production because tropical oils couldn’t be shipped during the war.

But drastically reducing fats from the modern diet has not solved our heart health or weight problems. Statistics show that obesity rates are at an all-time high, as is heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.

A study published in 2006 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found virtually identical rates of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular disease in women who did or didn’t follow a low-fat diet. Women on the low-fat diet also didn’t lose — or gain — any more weight than women who followed their usual diets. The doctrine of low-fat eating has lost credibility.

What’s theory, what’s fact?

The anti-saturated fat theory began in the 1950s with the steep rise in heart disease. While heart disease caused no more than 10 percent of all deaths in the United States prior to the 1920s, by the 1950s it had risen to more than 30 percent. Researchers began looking for the cause of this new health threat and targeted cholesterol as the culprit.

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Many researchers, however, have rejected the saturated-fat-and-cholesterol theory as a cause of heart disease, because more than 60 percent of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels and the majority of people with high cholesterol levels never have heart attacks. A study published in August 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that if saturated fat in the diet is too low, it can lead to an increased risk of death from stroke.

Another fat, however, is being implicated in poor health. A study conducted at the Wynn Institute for Metabolic Research in London examined the composition of human aortic plaques. It found that the artery-clogging fats in those who died from heart disease were composed of 26 percent saturated fat and 74 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The researchers determined no association with saturated fats but rather implicated polyunsaturates, such as those found in vegetable oils, as the primary contributors to aortic plaque formation; they suggested that people avoid these oils completely.

The American Heart Association has discovered that people with heart disease all have one thing in common: inflammation. High cholesterol levels are not even on the list.

Researchers currently are focusing on damaged fats (particularly the trans fats found in margarine, snack foods, and fried foods), the use of oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturates), inflammation, blood clots, high blood pressure, high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid in the blood), and high levels of Lp(a), a protein produced in the liver. When Lp(a) encounters an LDL cholesterol particle (“bad” cholesterol), it binds to it and confers a much more aggressive behavior to the LDL particle.

It may be surprising that saturated fats now are considered the healthiest fats for cooking precisely because they are saturated. There are no double bonds between the carbon atoms; they’re fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. This structure means that bonds will not break easily when heated and saturated with oxygen.

By contrast, unsaturated fats — such as olive and canola oil (monounsaturated fats) and safflower, sunflower, soy, and corn oil (polyunsaturated fats) — have carbon bonds that are not saturated. Their double bonds can become saturated with oxygen from the environment. When this happens, the oils have oxidized and become rancid and unsuitable for consumption. This happens easily with these oils and can occur even in their processing.

The healthiest fats and oils

Butter is a saturated fat dominated by short-and medium-chain fatty acids. It’s a healthier choice than margarine or most vegetable spreads, with the exception of coconut oil and olive-oil spreads. Butter is a rich source of vitamins A, E, K, and D. It also has appreciable amounts of butyric acid, used by the colon as an energy source, and lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid, which is a potent antimicrobial and antifungal substance.

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1. by ruth_117 on Jan 25, 2011 at 2:35 PM PST

I would love to see lard added to this list. Obviously the shelf stable lard is hydrogenated and has additives etc. However last summer I rendered some lard at home from leaf lard and have been using it for frying and in pastry (great for meat pies but tastes a little “porky” in a fruit pie!) My dh loves to spread the cracklings mixed with the lard on bread with salt (he has a German background!)

I would like to know more about how it compares to other fats in the list. It has less saturated fats than butter with higher monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Anyway it would be good to know. Thanks!

2. by Chris Musser on Jan 25, 2011 at 6:21 PM PST

I’d add tallow (rendered beef fat) as well as lard to the list, plus duck fat and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). These were the fats our great-grandmothers used and are local fats, as opposed to olive oil and coconut oil, which are shipped from afar.

3. by Chris Musser on Jan 25, 2011 at 6:26 PM PST

Ruth--Real Food by Nina Planck compares the composition of various traditional cooking fats.

4. by JeninCanada on Jan 26, 2011 at 11:14 AM PST

This is a fantastic article and needs a much wider view! I’ve to it and wrote a bit more at my blog. My grandmother has always told me butter was the king of her kitchen; now I know why.

5. by vintagejenta on Jan 26, 2011 at 6:02 PM PST

I grew up on a “low fat” diet (skim milk, margarine, 85% lean ground beef, etc.) but now that I cook for myself, I use way more butter, cheese, and olive oil, but I don’t overdo it and I eat more vegetables than I used to. While I’m definitely not skinny, the only time in my life I significantly gained weight was in college, eating buffet-style industrial college food. I have lost weight since then, though I seem to gain more weight in the winter (don’t we all?) but I am trying to see that as a healthy layer of fat as protection against the cold (I live in upstate NY). :)

But as for “low fat” products? They are almost always laden with sugar. And “low calorie” products are almost always laden with artificial sugar. So instead of eating saturated fats that have some good points about them and nutritional value, we eat sugar which has absolutely no nutritional value except to turn into fat if we don’t burn it immediately. So we exchange essential fats for non-essential sugar, which turns into the fat we feared we’d accumulate by eating butter. sigh

I love sweets and baked goods as much as the next person, but sugar is NOT a healthy fat-replacer!

6. by chockylit on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:36 AM PST

I just finished reading the Perfect Health Diet book which does a great job of laying out the science behind all of this. I have lost 21 pounds eating a high fat diet... Just no sugar, wheat, etc. It’s amazing that almost everyone keeps telling us to eat low fat.

7. by ilovefrance on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:50 AM PST

Excellent article! Thank you!
Anne Elliott

8. by lisamarie on Jan 27, 2011 at 9:45 AM PST

Can someone please point me to a good resource for how to render fat from meat?

thanks...and thanks for the article. Nourishing Traditions is another book well lays out this argument well.

9. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2011 at 6:55 PM PST

A good book about all kinds of animal fat (and some good recipes) is Jennifer McLagan’s “fat”. It also talks about how to make your own butter and how to render fat.

10. by anonymous on Jan 29, 2011 at 2:24 PM PST

10. I was surprised that grape seed oil was not mentioned. It is recommended for cooking with high heat because it has a low flash point. We also use it for salads. Any opinions on this?

11. by julia on Feb 26, 2011 at 4:49 PM PST

I completely agree with the premise of the article but I disagree with one statement:

“it’s difficult to eat enough food on a low-fat diet to get the energy we need.”

actually, while lipids (fat) are the most calorie-dense of the macro nutrients, carbs and protein will also provide sufficient calories. basically, you could cover your caloric needs just by drinking coke, and never touch a potato chip...

does anybody else remember the snackwell craze? ;)

12. by Gourmet Metrics on Feb 11, 2012 at 10:23 PM PST

Thank you for addressing what I like to call THE GREAT FAT DEBATE. As a dietician, I know how to calculate how much fat I actually eat and my daily numbers run about 35% to 45% calories from fat. I cook every day, use lots of vegetables dressed in olive oil, and love butter, though I use it in moderation just in case ... My protein component comes from moderate amounts of meat, fish, and chicken along with legumes, beans, lentils. And every time I run my numbers through an official site, I get nasty messages saying I need to eat more carbohydrates. But I have never had a sweet tooth and see no reason to develop one now. What I tell my clients is that one diet does not fit all, that some people are fat sensitive while others are carbohydrate sensitive, and I try to explain both sides of the controversy. In my observation, however, it is the carbohydrate sensitive people that are the most prone to weight gain.

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