Likely by now you’ve heard the debate. Is fat, and in particular saturated fat, bad for you or not? In the 80’s and 90’s we made fat the villain and steered our entire country towards a low-fat mentality, but in recent years perceptions have evolved. Studies have come out to contradict previous research that found fat harmful to cardiovascular health. Even more recently we found that some studies were in fact manipulated to spin sugar in a more positive light and lay the health blame squarely on fat. Just a few months ago NPR reported that the sugar industry paid scientists to bias their research so that fat appeared to be the main concern in regards to heart health.1 So, what are we to believe?
Studies still go both ways, but we certainly have a growing collection of research to show that fat does not deserve to be treated as an evil part of our diet. Despite years of shunning fat in favor of carbs and protein, we appear to have reaped zero health benefits. We did not see heart disease risk decrease. We did not see waistlines slim down. Increased consumption of Snackwells and low-fat lattes did not result in the statistics health experts were hoping for.
Now, in fact, a recent Norwegian study suggests that fat, and again in particular saturated fat, is good for us.2 What? How could the research be so polar opposite to our previous understanding?
In the study, the researchers did not simply take subjects, put them on high-fat diets, and observe the results, as many previous studies have done. No, they put people on carefully crafted high fat diets that were rich in unprocessed or lowly processed choices, such as butter, cream and cold pressed oils. These were combined with a decent intake of vegetables and whole grains while simultaneously avoiding white flour and sugar. When compared against cohorts on a high carbohydrate diet, the high fat diet participants showed decreases in fat storage and disease risk, even when the subject’s overall energy intake increased when compared to their previous diet.
This study provides a perfect example of how the entire makeup of the diet, as well as other lifestyle factors, is paramount. Singling out a particular macronutrient to vilify, while newsworthy and income-generating for some, unfortunately, has not benefited public health.
Clearly, cholesterol numbers and other markers for cardiovascular disease are not independently influenced by fat intake. There are many other factors involved: sugar consumption, overall energy intake, genetics, and lifestyle factors (smoking, exercise, stress, etc). By singling out fats alone we miss the bigger picture, and in terms of public health, we put people’s lives at risk by giving them misleading information.
As with most things, the answer is actually very simple. Unfortunately, simple answers do not make great billboards and campaigns. But the truth is this: an overall healthy diet is paramount, NOT exclusion of all fat.
So the next time you think about avoiding that butter on your bread, think twice and reconsider the bread before you demonize the butter. Healthy fats are our friends.