Fat frustration

How bad is dietary fat, really?

February 4, 2013

Sure, I understand that health writers like to beat their favorite tom toms over and over: Eat less, get more exercise, yada yada yada. But when a particular health concept becomes a cliché, you know it’s become conventional wisdom.

Here are three recent examples:

In a New York Times travel article about Alpine cheese, Ceil Miller Bouchet wrote, “The winner, by far, was the Beaufort cheese soup. Basically, Maryse explained, it’s a combination of melted Beaufort, cream, egg yolks and garlic. Fortunately, I was more concerned about my limited skiing abilities than about my cholesterol level.”

In a Bon Appétit feature about, again, eating in the Alps, Nick Paumgarten tossed off a couple of health comments:

  1. Kaseschnitte consists merely of a thick slice or two of toasted bread soaked in wine, topped with a heavy layer of Fontal or Emmenthal cheese and broiled in a crock pan. It may come with bacon, ham, or a fried egg. Zermatt is no place to lower your LDL.”
  2. “They offered me uova sometta — Italian, apparently, for “stroke on a plate”: two fried eggs, ham, and Fontina cheese. I had an espresso instead.”

And in a New Yorker profile of the health guru Mehmet Oz, Michael Specter casually reported that Oz’s father-in-law “was also among the first physicians to advocate a low-fat diet for his patients, which, although now routine, was ridiculed when he proposed it.”

baked eggs
How healthy is a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast?

The idea that eating high-fat foods will wreck your health — and, conversely, that eating a low-fat diet is good for you — has clearly attained the status of conventional wisdom in our culture. So conventional, in fact, that these authors’ offhand remarks evidently passed unquestioned by copy editors.

What’s confusing, though, is that plenty of other writers have claimed just the opposite. The well-known science journalist Gary Taubes, in particular, has declared that a low-fat diet, especially a carbohydrate-heavy diet high in refined grains and sugars, will actually make you gain weight, not lose it. A similar argument focused entirely on wheat has been made by William Davis, a doctor whose self-help health book Wheat Belly has been a New York Times bestseller for months.

It’s no wonder the average eater has no clue. Should we eat fat? Or not? If so, which fats?

We were once told that trans fats, such as those found in traditional Crisco and margarine, were good for us, because they came from plants, not animals. But then it came out (thanks in part to the work of Walter Willett) that the chemical structure of trans fats actually caused heart disease instead of preventing it.

Animal fats, we were next told, could be good for us, but only if the animal in question was raised, fed, and treated appropriately; cows fed only grass, not grain, have healthier fats in their meat than factory-farmed animals. But grilling your meat can cause cancer — or not, depending on which source you consult.

Eggs, too, were long reviled on the theory that they were high in cholesterol, and people logically (if erroneously) assumed that eating a lot of cholesterol would be bad for your blood-cholesterol levels. Over the past few years, however, a number of studies have refuted the eggs-are-bad-for-you idea; the latest study, in late January, declared that, for most people, an egg a day did not raise the risk of heart disease or stroke.

In fact, the question of how saturated fat is related to heart disease, if at all, has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it, with competing statements from scientists, authors, medical boards, and industry associations.

In his Mehmet Oz profile, Michael Specter does not challenge the conventional wisdom that low-fat diets are healthy. But he does challenge Oz, taking him to task for being wishy-washy about science:

“Either data works or it doesn’t,” I said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.”
All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it — that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true — was chilling.
“You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

May the best fact win — or not.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by Megan Scott on Feb 6, 2013 at 3:49 PM PST

A very interesting topic! And to make things even more complicated, there are the diets espoused by people like Sally Fallon, who advocate lots of animal fats--lard, butter, organ meats, etc. I will say, though, sometimes science, especially nutrition science, seems almost like religion. It’s more about what you believe than what the “facts” are!

2. by Kim on Mar 8, 2013 at 9:14 AM PST

Our apologies; the following comment was deleted inadvertently:

I think the main problem with gathering empirical evidence about how our bodies metabolize and treat foods is that each of our bodies is different! Therefore a 50 year old Swiss woman who grew up eating grass fed dairy and fats a plenty is going to metabolize fat differently than a 15 year old Asian boy raised primarily on fish and vegetables. Right?

Then there are factors like environment (hot or cold, for one), exercise level, and genetics. Oy vey. It’s enough to make even the most dedicated scientist shudder. And even the most dedicated scientists can come up with diverse results.

I think that fat is not bad for you, but you shouldn’t be eating nothing but bacon, cheese, and fried foods either. Everyone metabolizes things differently, but totally cutting something out of your diet because of the advice of some scientist or doctor (whose advice conflicts with other scientists and doctors) is silly.

Furthermore, I thought that the comments you quoted from said “travel” writers were exceedingly rude! How dare they judge the culture they are visiting? If you don’t like Swiss food, don’t go there and then write about it, purporting to be a travel writer!

— vintagejenta

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