Nutrition Myth: Fat Makes You Fat

Since the 1950s, we have been fed (mis)information that has led to the premature death of millions of Americans: fat causes heart disease. This “fact” went virtually unquestioned for years and is one of the major contributors to the health care crisis our country faces today.

It’s time to come clean and move away from disease and illness, and towards better health. Fat is not the enemy. Despite the explosion of fat-free, low-fat and reduced-fat products, our country has become fatter and sicker.

Fat is an essential nutrient for our body. We use it to transport vitamins and minerals. We use it to form brain and nerve cells. We use it to produce hormones. Why would we want to eliminate this from our diet?

Doctors and scientists have done multiple studies over the last ten years reviewing and analyzing all of the previous research on this topic. And the conclusion is clear: there is simply no significant correlation between saturated fat and heart disease.

A 2010 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition broke down 21 different previously-performed studies looking at saturated fat and heart disease. Observing nearly 350,000 subjects, researchers concluded, “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.”

A 2014 study from the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed 49 studies and over 600,000 participants in 18 different countries. Researchers concluded that the current recommendations calling for reduced saturated fat intake are not supported in the research.

In 2010, another study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at connections between carbohydrates, saturated fat and heart disease. Researchers found little evidence to support the notion of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates, as most dietary recommendations from the past 50 years have suggested. In fact, it was recommended that we limit the amount of refined carbohydrates in order to decrease our risk of heart disease. Perhaps we’d be better off worrying less about and fat and focusing more on our consumption of low quality carbohydrates.

This does not give us permission to start downing sticks of butter with every meal, but it should give us a better perspective. Don’t fall into the trap of always selecting low-fat options. Often times food manufacturers remove fat and replace it with sugar, sodium and chemicals.

As with most issues in nutrition, quality is paramount. We must also keep in mind that not all fat is created equal. We should still avoid trans fat, most commonly found in baked goods and some cooking oils. We should also limit our consumption of vegetable oils like corn, canola and soybean oil. Fat that comes in pre-packaged food can almost certainly be put into the “bad” fat category.

The key to any healthy eating plan is to stick to real foods – foods that were once living. Was a twinkie ever alive? Was a bagel ever alive? Unprocessed plant and animal sources should make up the majority of our foods. Get your dietary fat from high quality sources like coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, grass-fed or wild caught animal products (like meat, dairy and fish) and pastured poultry and eggs. Many of these sources also contain protein to help maintain and build lean muscle mass.

If you’re looking to get your health back on track, cut down on refined carbohydrates like juice, candy, packaged foods, soft drinks, desserts, even bread and pasta. These wreak more havoc on your body than fat will.

A general rule of thumb when it comes to nutrition is to “eat how your grandparents ate.” Years ago, using lard and butter were an everyday practice. This coincided with a time when heart disease was a very minor issue in our healthcare system. Not that this means fat and lard prevent heart disease, but it’s interesting to see the rates of heart disease climb despite this “war on fat” that has taken place over the last 50-60 years.

While everyone is entitled to form their own opinions on food, please don’t let this big fat lie stop you from reaching your health goals.