Fats and the “Big Fat Lie”

When I was in medical school we were told that everyone should have a low fat diet. It should be low in saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat according to the American Heart Association. They are still recommending that.

Sadly, this turned out to be a huge problem (literally) for Americans. While people were trying to eat a lower fat diet they ended up eating more foods containing sugar and other carbohydrates  (Carbohydrates include sugars and starches such as grains, breads, cereals, chips, crackers, pretzels,  pasta, potatoes and rice etc. ) We were told these foods were healthy because they were low in fat.

By default we were eating more starchy, sugary foods that promoted weight gain and led to a higher risk of developing diabetes. Diabetes markedly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease!  So, their recommendations for low fat were counterproductive. Studies have now confirmed that eating a low saturated fat diet containing more carbohydrates and sugar does not lower cardiovascular risk.

Low Fat, High Sugar

When the food industry lowered the fat in their foods they became tasteless. So they added sugar to improve flavor and Americans  loved it! The more sugar ( especially high fructose corn syrup ) they put in the food, the more they sold. Thats how we ended up with a consumption of more than 130 pounds of sweeteners per person yearly. It sells food!

The “Real Artery Clogging Fats”

When the food industry did use fats in their products they were pressured to avoid saturated fats such as beef tallow and lard. Saturated fat was demonized! The words “artery clogging” usually came before saturated fat so Americans would get the idea.

So food manufacturers  created artificial fats, “FrankenFats” as Mark Hyman MD called them, made from “vegetable oils”  to replace saturated fat. The assumption was that because these fats were made from a “vegetable” they would be better for us.  I put vegetable in quotations as most often soybeans are used which are technically not a vegetable but a legume.

Oils that were naturally liquid at room temperature were chemically altered by adding hydrogen atoms to them so they would be solid at room temperature like butter. That process is known as hydrogenation. Unfortunately, this process creates trans fats. We now know that trans fats are the worst fats on the planet when it comes to promoting heart disease. Trans fats cause inflammation within our blood vessels and are more likely to cause artery clogging than saturated fats!

Growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, we were taught margarine was a healthy choice instead of butter. Peanut butter also contained partially hydrogenated vegetable oil as well as Crisco and many other foods. We were on a high trans fat diet and didn’t know it!

The FDA said they would ban trans fats in the food supply in November 2013. Sadly, I’m reviewing this in November,2019 and  I still see partially hydrogenated  vegetable oil listed on some food labels at the grocery store. That means they contain trans fat!

Restaurants have been frying with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils for more than 25 years since the Center for Science in the Public Interest convinced restaurants to switch from animal fats in 1989. That was a well-intentioned but unfortunate mistake that harmed many Americans eating that food due to the trans fats they consumed!

Low Saturated Fat?

For years we heard the advice to follow a low fat, low cholesterol, low saturated fat diet. Americans were told to consume more polyunsaturated fats from “vegetable oils” such as corn oil and soybean oil. This was based on the assumption that because these oils lower cholesterol somewhat that it would lower heart disease risk.

Unfortunately, when data from several studies was reanalyzed looking at cardiovascular risk outcomes instead of effect on cholesterol the diets high in polyunsaturated fat actually increased risk of heart disease! This may be because polyunsaturated fats contain mostly omega-6 fatty acids which have been theorized to increase inflammation in the blood vessels. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils, in contrast, are thought to decrease inflammation in the blood vessel lining.

It is probably not that simple. We need both omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Like a Yin and Yang our bodies depend on both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes to keep us healthy. We need some omega-6 fats in our diet. They are essential meaning our bodies cannot make them so we have to consume them in our diet. We just don’t need a “preponderance of omega-6 fats” in the diet. Omega-6 can be obtained from nuts like walnuts. We don’t have to use vegetable oil to get omega-6.

The typical American diet contains as much as 20-30 times more omega-6 fats compared with omega-3 fatty acids. So we need to work on getting more omega-3 fats like fish and not so much omega-6 fats which can really add up quickly if you are eating mostly processed foods. Processed foods usually contain soybean oil. It is cheap and has a long shelf life. Most of the salad dressings on the store shelves contains soybean oil. Try to buy salad dressings from the refrigerated section where you might find  non-GMO canola oil (I would choose that over soybean oil) or yogurt as the first ingredient. Better yet make your own dressing at home with olive oil.

A New “FrankenFat?”

The next food experiment being perpetrated on the American population is “fully hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Instead of using a naturally occurring saturated fat such as coconut oil or palm oil the food manufacturers are taking soybean oil or corn oil and chemically adding hydrogen atoms to create an artificial saturated fat. That gets rid of the trans fat problem but we don’t really know if it will be better or worse than other saturated fats that occur naturally. I suspect that because our bodies haven’t been exposed to these FrankenFats in the past that genetically it may not be a good thing . We’ll find out in another 10-20 years!

Healthier Fats

Olive oil is a healthy fat and we should incorporate more into the diet. Avocado oil and coconut oil are healthier fats.  Nuts  and olives contain healthy fats. Healthy fats can make us feel less hungry. We will be less prone to overeat sugars and other carbohydrates that promote weight gain and diabetes. So don’t make the mistake of thinking a low fat diet is always better!

Olive Oil From Good Sources

There is some concern that olive oil imported from other countries such as Italy can be “cut” or diluted with cheaper oils. Some have claimed this is even more lucrative than the illegal drug trade in Italy!

Consumer’s Reports recommended buying domestically processed olive oil. They suggested brands such as California Olive Ranch, Costco Signature Select organic extra virgin olive oil, and Whole Foods 365 olive oils among others. These are definitely not the least expensive on the store shelves but  I believe well worth it. Labels that state extra virgin olive oil or first cold press are good but they won’t protect you from the above problem. Don’t be tricked into buying a supposedly healthy oil that really isn’t!

Healthy Fats Not Low Fat

Population studies from mediterranean countries show that they live longer and have less risk of heart disease. Yet, their diet is higher in fat compared with ours. It is up to 40% fat compared with less than 35% fat in the average American diet. But they are eating more fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds that contain healthy fats. In France, they eat more saturated fat than we do in the U.S. They have more cheese, butter and cream than we do and yet they have less heart disease.

Some experts try to claim this “paradox” is because they drink red wine. However, we drink wine in the U.S. too. There is no paradox. Their diet is lower in sugar and processed foods. We should try to eat a  Mediterranean diet. This includes using similar portions and using the same ingredients as closely as possible.

Dairy Fat : Not The Culprit!

A 2014 study in Sweden examined the relationship between dairy products and heart disease. This study included over 60,000 people; over 40,000 of which were women. What they found was that milk consumption correlated with increased risk of heart disease but not the dairy fat. Women who had 3 glasses of milk per day had almost double the risk of heart disease. Men also had an increased risk from drinking milk but not as dramatic. Their heart disease risk increased about 10% for each glass of milk.

It did not matter if they drank skim milk, reduced fat milk or whole milk, They still had the same increased risk. The authors determined that it was the milk sugar that was causing this increased risk. Not the fat! When they examined cardiovascular risk and fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese which removes most of the sugars there was not an increased risk of heart disease.

This doesn’t prove that everyone should avoid drinking milk. But, until further studies are done I would definitely advise against having three glasses a day, especially in women. Choose a plain Greek style yogurt or aged cheese.

The authors of this study cited other studies that have been done with mice given milk sugars and saw this same increase in cardiovascular risk. So, this wasn’t an isolated finding from only one study.

Once again we see a common theme. We should fear sugar more than saturated fat! Maybe we should call it artery clogging sugar so Americans get the truth!


Canola Oil?

Experts tell us to use canola oil because it is chemically similar to olive oil. That is true. It is mostly an omega-9 fat. But, canola oil has been hybridized from a plant called the rapeseed plant. In Europe, it was used as a solvent in industry. It was considered toxic for human consumption because it contained too much erucic acid.

In Canada, the rapeseed plant was bred to be lower in erucic acid. It was renamed Canola oil which is short for “Canada oil low acid.” This oil is frequently extracted using heat and a solvent. This heating process can make it become rancid so a deodorizer is added. If you still  want to use Canola oil look for the words organic, non-GMO and cold or expeller pressed on the label. That would be a healthier choice.

Canola oil is better than soybean oil and corn oil in my opinion. However, Canola oil has not stood the test of time like olive oil and I don’t believe it is as good.

Soybean Oil?

This is the most common fat I see on food labels. It is ubiquitous in processed foods due to a long shelf life. It is high in omega-6  and in excess can negatively affect the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (see above on low saturated fat). I  have numerous concerns about this oil and generally try to avoid it. Heat and the solvent hexane are also used to extract soybean oil. Again look for organic, non- GMO and cold expeller pressed if you choose to use it. Most of the soybean products in this country are GMO. That adds another concern about residual roundup contamination.