Are You Fat Savvy?

Many Americans today are avoiding dietary fat. Unfortunately, this common dietary mistake may be preventing you from attaining optimal health. The belief that dietary fat (specifically saturated fat) causes weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease has been considered conventional wisdom for the past 50 years. Despite its pervasiveness, research regarding our paleolithic ancestors has revealed that this long-held belief may be doing more harm than good. In fact, although there IS merit to avoiding certain types of fat, there are other types which were prized by ancient cultures and are absolutely critical to health. Before we delineate which fats need to be re-embraced, let's first discuss how animal fat became our nation’s greatest dietary villain. 

A little over 60 years ago, the incidence of heart disease rose from relative obscurity to becoming our nation's number one killer. In an effort to elucidate the dietary culprit causing heart disease, a researcher named Ancel Keys conducted a famous study called the Seven Countries Study. In this study, Keys reviewed epidemiological (observational) data from several countries worldwide. His goal was to discover the dietary factors that might be increasing our risk for heart disease. As a result of his research, Keys hypothesized that dietary fat consumption caused heart disease.

Henceforth, this study served as the basis for the nationwide dietary recommendation to avoid dietary fat. If you are a regular reader of paleo blogs, you may be well aware that Keys' study had several limitations. For instance you may have been told that Keys “cherry picked” data from only 7 countries rather than including all 22 countries from which data was available. Many believe that when the data from all 22 countries was included, the association between dietary fat (specifically from animals) and heart disease disappeared. While that is partially true, there is more to the story.

Although Keys did select data from the 7 countries that most clearly supported his theory, a subsequent analysis of all 22 countries (conducted by Jacob Yerushalmy and Herman Hilleboe) did not necessarily contradict his original findings. While Yerushalmy and Hilleboe did find that the association between heart disease and dietary fat became less indicative, there was still an association. However, this does not vindicate Keys as his research had several other limitations. 

Important Note: For the sake of brevity, I am going to keep this simple. If you want a more thorough analysis of the shortcomings of Keys' work please read the article, The Truth About Ancel Keys: We’ve All Got It Wrong by Denise Minger. The following reasons stated below are a result of her thorough analysis. In a nutshell, here is why Keys’ research does not prove that dietary fat intake increases the risk of heart disease. 

1. Epidemiological studies cannot confer causation. Epidemiological studies only make observations rather than manipulating variables. For this reason they can only suggest a hypothesis not prove one. For instance, imagine that you observed both ice cream sales and shark attacks during the summer. This is an accurate observation, yet you cannot be sure that eating ice cream causes shark attacks because no data indicates a causal relationship between the two. One may also observe that when more firefighters attend a fire, there is greater damage. Clearly, the firefighters didn't cause the increased damage. By merely observing this phenomenon (if we were children, perhaps) we may come up with a false conclusion. Thus, observation alone cannot infer causation.  

2. Although there was an association between dietary fat, dietary animal fat and animal protein and heart disease in this particular data set, dietary fat consumption was also associated with LESS death from almost all other causes. Avoiding heart disease suddenly becomes less important when you increase your risk of death from all other causes, doesn’t it?  

3. Countries with higher animal product consumption are also usually more developed. This is problematic because more developed countries are also likely to have a number of other factors that significantly affect health outcomes such as better health care as well as greater processed food and sugar consumption. In fact, when Keys,’ data was analyzed by other researchers, an association between sugar and heart disease emerged. Unfortunately, Keys did not note or acknowledge this alternative relationship.

4. The data collection methods and diagnostic reporting in this study were underwhelming to say the least. For example, dietary information used in this study was based on how much food was available for consumption rather than actual food consumed. This means that the data included food that may have been wasted or thrown away which would have also significantly affected the results. 

Despite the limitations of this study, the American Heart Association (AHA) released formal guidelines recommending Americans reduce animal fat consumption and replace it with polyunsaturated fat. This meant we should all eat less animal fat and more vegetable oil. Fifty years later, despite widespread and diligent adherence to these recommendations, heart disease STILL remains America’s number one killer!

If Keys, or the AHA, had taken a moment to examine the dietary practices of paradoxical and ancient cultures more closely, its likely that this dietary tragedy might have been avoided. The French, known for their love of dietary fat, have far lower levels of heart disease (and obesity) than fat-phobic Americans. So do the Greeks, Swiss, the Inuits of Alaska, and the Maasai of Africa. Unfortunately, no one took time to examine these contradictory cultures and we have suffered as a result.

It’s time to right the ship!

This is already happening to a large extent. Many experts are finally acknowledging that good quality fats are a very important part of a healthy diet! Yay!

Please bear in mind, that not all fats are created equal. In fact, some fats should be strictly avoided. Use the following three rules to be sure you're only consuming the highest quality fats you can find.

Rule #1: As Dr. Kate Shanahan wrote in Deep Nutrition, “Nature doesn’t make bad fats.” I consider this to be the most important thing to remember when choosing high quality fats. Opt for grass-fed butter and ghee, pasture-raised lard, unrefined coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil for best results.

Rule #2: Avoid man-made, man-manufactured fats. These types of fats CAN destroy your health. Margarine, canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil and other man-made oils should be strictly avoided. They are highly processed and promote inflammation throughout your body. When the bulk of your dietary fat comes from low quality versions, your body is forced to use them to build cell walls, create sex hormones, and insulate nerves to name a few things. Unfortunately, man-made fats are not a replacement for traditional, high quality fats and your health suffers as a result.

Rule #3. Be certain that your natural fats are the result of appropriately fed animals and prepared properly. Organic, grass-fed butter is a very different food than conventional butter. Quality is everything. If it’s not organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised or minimally processed, don’t eat it! If you need additional guidelines, please visit our store to purchase our 31 Day Paleo Kickstart Guide!

As you can see, our ancestors had this fat thing figured out eons ago. In fact, primitive cultures prized the fat of healthy animals. Keys’ most egregious error was the recommendation that we turn our backs on the dietary wisdom of our ancestors. This week I challenge you to re-embrace our ancestral wisdom. Try reincorporating high quality fat in your diet and watch your health improve dramatically.

Happy Paleo-ing, 

Autumn Smith