Does Eating Fat Really Make Us Fat?

At some point in life, most Americans hear this common phrase related to weight loss: “You are what you eat.” We are told to watch our fat intake and increase our whole grain consumption in order to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. If you visit the web sites of prominent non-profit health agencies, the overall message about diet is that fatty foods are too high in calories and lead to weight gain. We are encouraged to eat light foods with less fat. While this sounds very practical, low-fat processed foods are often loaded with extra sugar to improve the taste.

I have to admit – I followed this diet for many years. I was scared of fat and limited it greatly while focusing on eating too many grains, low-fat yogurt, and fruit juice. In doing so, I was consuming an incredible amount of sugar. At least I was in good company given that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is drafting new guidelines for daily sugar consumption, which amounts to less than 6 teaspoons for females and 9 teaspoons for males.  This equates to only 5% of caloric intake from added sugar. Will most Americans be able to manage this change?

Maybe not — while we understand that sugar is damaging to the body, we allow ourselves to indulge on a daily basis. Even without eating dessert, sugar is added to soups, sauces, some meats, and even salads. Recent research indicates that Americans who ate more than 25% of their calories from added sugar were almost 3 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD). High fructose levels combined with low levels of fatty acids in the diet are associated with decreased cognitive functioning and insulin resistance (Barnes & Joyner, 2012). Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) are another source of the problem.  Americans who had 1-2 servings of SSBs were 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.  Sugar consumption was linked as a key player in the development of pancreatic cancer.

Why are we so tolerant of sugar, but have labeled fat as the enemy? The history of low-fat diets began in 1957 when the American Heart Association proposed the idea of reducing fat intake to lower coronary heart disease among people with a family history.  With little scientific evidence, the US government published a report in 1977 asserting that all Americans should choose low-fat foods in order to promote health. The food industry saw the financial incentives and began producing low-fat products. Long-term evidence revealed that mortality from heart disease decreased due to improved surgical/medical intervention. However, disease rates remain unchanged.

The tide is now changing. Several scientific studies are focusing on the efficacy of high fat (aka- ketogenic) diets. Instead of relying on glucose, the body creates ketones and this has been very effective for weight loss. While trans fats are artery-clogging, other fats are necessary for optimal functioning and absorption of specific vitamins. Ketogenic diets (KDs) often reduce hunger leading to an increased satiety where fewer calories are consumed. Other benefits include better glycemic control, lower hemoglobin A1C, and possibly a reduction or elimination of insulin use. Researchers have noted that KDs reduce the size and volume of LDL particles (the bad cholesterol) which lowers the risk for CVD.

Isn’t it time to carefully review empirical scientific data on weight loss in the US to better educate society and truly prevent CVD and cancer? Let’s ask Sweden – they became the first Western country to reject the ideology of low-fat dogma and proclaim the effectiveness of high-fat diets. This was a 2 year process where over 16,000 scientific studies were analyzed to assess the best dietary approach. Incidentally, 14% of Sweden is obese compared to 33% of the US. One scientist noted that “You don’t get fat from fatty foods, just as you don’t get atherosclerosis from calcium or turn green from green vegetables.” What if the US undertook a similar study? Would our dietary recommendations change for the better?

I am not afraid to eat fat anymore, and it turns out that I am not what I eat.

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