Official government advice in the US, UK and many other countries since the 1960’s has been that we all need to follow a low fat diet.
Yet this advice was biased towards middle-aged men who were particularly at risk of heart disease, and in any case, reviews have since shown there was never any real evidence behind it.
Woman were largely excluded from the research, and children too, but they were included in the official advice anyway. Since the advice was introduced, levels of non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) such as obesity, diabetes and autoimmune conditions have skyrocketed to epidemic levels. Maybe this is no coincidence.
How did we get here? Is the official advice genuinely wrong? If so, why are they still repeating it?
It’s time to cut through this horrific mess. Let’s take a quick look at the history.
Low-Fat Originally Aimed at Reducing Cholesterol
Back in the 1950’s scientists had the admirable goal of finding a measurement that could be tracked in each of us to see whether we had a heart-attack on the near horizon. This kind of measurement is called a ‘biomarker’.
The problem was particularly urgent as heart disease had gone from being virtually non-existent in the early 1900’s to reaching epidemic proportions in the 1950’s and 60’s. Middle aged men in particular were dropping like flies.
The biomarker the scientists chose was cholesterol. Unfortunately it turned out that this biomarker wasn’t any good at all in accurately predicting heart disease or other illnesses.
Next came the mistaken belief that eating saturated fat raised cholesterol levels and therefore raised risk of heart attack.
Leading figures in the nutrition world cited examples of happy, healthy folk on Mediterranean islands who lived to be a 90 years old on a diet naturally low in saturated fats, but there was no sound evidence behind these claims.
Sadly the lack of real evidence didn’t stop the scientists, government bodies and the media from running with the low-fat advice. It instinctively sounded right: saturated fat clogs our arteries, right? Wrong!!
Theory Became Dogma
Official anti-fat advice hardened in the US in the 1970’s and 80’s, and this was largely followed by other countries around the world.
By this point any scientist was treated as a crackpot if they spoke up against it and funding for studies that didn’t follow the official line became completely unavailable.
And so these original errors became compounded over the years…
‘by billions of dollars spent trying to prove the hypothesis, by vested interests lining up behind it, by research careers coming to depend on it. Biases developed and hardened. Researchers quoted inadequate studies back and forth to each other, confirmed their biases, as if in a hall of mirrors. Critics were sidelined and silenced. And eventually, a universe of nutrition experts came to believe that meat, dairy and eggs were dangerously unhealthy foods, forgetting that their ancestors had ever milked a cow’– Nina Teicholz, investigative journalist in The Big Fat Surprise (2014)
Good and Bad Cholesterol
In the 1980’s it was discovered that cholesterol had more going on that originally thought. In fact a big part of it, known as HDL cholesterol, was actually good for us!
This clearly showed that the entire objective of cholesterol-lowering was questionable as cholesterol was not the risk factor they thought it was.
But this didn’t stop the march of the low-fat fanatics. They shifted their focus onto another ‘bad’ element of cholesterol, known as LDL – which goes up when we eat saturated fat.
But again, same problem: later on, in the 1990’s, it was discovered that LDL-cholesterol levels were completely unconnected with our chances of having a heart attack. It was not the biomarker they thought it was.
In fact, LDL divides down further into ‘light’ and ‘dense’ kinds. Only the dense kind is linked with heart attacks. Eating saturated fat does NOT increase levels of the bad, dense kind of LDL. It actually makes them go down, suggesting we’re healthier when we eat saturated fat!
In 2001 a major scientific journal, Science, published a big review of the low-fat theory. It was the first time in many years that the other side of the story was given serious attention.
The review found eating fat doesn’t make us fat! Instead obesity is a hormonal defect – driven by carbohydrates and insulin – not the result of gluttony for saturated fat.
This point of view was largely ignored by mainstream nutrition experts, although little by little the discussion shifted to dangers of sugar and white flour.
It was not until the late 1990’s that studies began high-fat, low-carb diets. They found that our bodies can perform well on literally zero carbohydrates.
The human body is so adaptable that, in the absence of glucose from carbs, it can switch to burn fat instead, using something called ‘ketone bodies’.
When we’re using fat for fuel instead of glucose, it’s easy for us to burn up our fat stores. This explains why the studies shown that people lost weight on high-fat diets, and kept the weight off far more consistently than with the officially-recommended low-fat regime.
The studies also showed that high-fat diets are healthier in all respects. They lead to a decrease in heart disease, diabetes and general inflammation levels – wow! (For more details on inflammation, check out Inflammation: Putting Out the Fire
A couple of huge but unintended consequences have followed from the official low-fat advice. We have all consumed a lot more:
1. CARBS: in particular sugar and refined carbs like white bread and pasta
2. PROCESSED VEGETABLE OILS: such as corn, soy and canola (rapeseed in the UK) oils. There are many problems with these oils, including that they are high in omega-6 which drives up inflammation.
Together these two have brought destruction to the friendly bacteria in our microbiome! They’re a big topic on they’re own so we’ll look at them in another post, coming soon.
Why Does The Low-Fat Myth Persist?
Unfortunately official bodies of the US, UK and other countries continue their onslaught of out-of-date advice, lead in particular by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and American Heart Association (AHA).
Similarly in the UK, the official ‘Eatwell’ Guide’ tells us to choose low fat options and vegetable oils.
Our National Health Service provides ‘Tips For Healthy Eating’ and at the very top of their list is: ‘Base your meals on starchy carbohydrates’. This is ironic, because if you want to heal your gut, many people are better off doing the exact opposite: cutting out all starchy carbs for a period).
Encouragingly the UK’s National Obesity Forum came out in 2016 with a report debunking the official low-fat advice and encouraging us to ‘Eat fat to get slim! Don’t fear fat; fat is your friend’
Why no change in the official position? Let’s consider at what’s a stake here: gigantic industries have sprung up around the low-fat myth. Statins – a drug to reduce our cholesterol levels – are one of biggest selling drugs in the world.
Similarly the vegetable oil industry is worth billions. 8% of our total calories come from these oils, so yes – it’s big business.
A Mistake Becomes a Lie
We’re generally much fatter, sicker and more depressed than ever before. Proponents of the low-fat theory say it’s because we’re not following the official advice, but the data says otherwise. Statistics show that we have followed the advice by cutting back saturated fat, using vegetable oils and eating more carbs.
The official low-fat advice handed out from the 1960’s onwards was a well-intentioned mistake. However it’s now starting to feel more like a deliberate, manipulative lie.