This post is part of an ongoing series on Wellness, which looks at the importance of health and healing in living a Simple, Good, and Tasty lifestyle. Also check out the previous Wellness posts on sugar and seasonal eating.
As a young girl, I learned that classic rule of diet: eating fatty foods would make me gain weight. Now, as an adult, I struggle with my weight, but not because of fat. In my struggle to heal from a decade of digestive discomfort, I found myself on a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet – it’s just what felt best. On this diet, I am actually underweight and my cholesterol is too low. And to gain weight and cholesterol, I am eating more whole grains and bread. How’s that for contradicting popular thought? And, it’s working. I haven’t gotten my cholesterol re-checked, but I’ve gained three pounds in the six weeks since I’ve changed my eating. Thankfully, my digestion appears to have healed enough that I’m not experiencing any of the symptoms I had on a daily basis before. What I have learned through research and experimenting with myself is that the belief that fat is bad is absolute bonkers.
After World War II, a lot changed in our food system. We started integrating neurotoxins into our agricultural practices, we transitioned our meat and dairy herds to unnatural diets of grain and started raising them in confinement. Plus, our government, with the help of some shoddy research, started promoting a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet to all Americans. This nutrition policy was developed in response to concern about heart disease and sparked a transition from diets of whole foods to one of convenience foods containing highly processed and refined ingredients.
In response to the low-fat craze, food companies produced a cornucopia of low-fat and fat-free foods to replace those naturally high in fat. Margarine replaced butter, blue-hued skim stood in for whole milk, and skin no longer belonged on chicken. Agricultural subsidies for wheat, corn, and soy meant cereals and processed foods were more affordable than vegetables. Conveniently, the USDA recommended Americans eat 5-7 servings of grains each day, as much as 65% of daily caloric intake, while restricting fat consumption to as little as 10% of daily caloric intake and avoiding saturated fats as much as possible.
In taking the fat out, and therefore also removing the flavor, food manufacturers had to find some way to make food taste good. Enter sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup, and the plethora of unidentifiable synthetic ingredients that are now listed on packages of crackers, cookies, chips, and canned and boxed meals. On a molecular level, these ingredients are simple carbohydrates, easily broken down by our body for energy and easily stored as excess energy in our fat.
This nutritional policy was designed to combat weight gain and heart disease, a growing concern in the 1950s. But what actually happened? As the nation followed these directions, we became more overweight and sustained more heart attacks. Nowadays, about 70% of the American population (more than 72 million) is overweight and 26.5 million Americans suffer from heart disease. This compares to an estimated 5 million Americans who were obese in the 1950s.
In recent years, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins Diet, have become popular and effective weight loss plans. Lo and behold, recent research concludes that high-fat, low-carb diets do promote more weight loss than following the USDA Dietary Guidelines, which actually results in weight gain. Beyond the research lab, we find evidence of this truth in examination of traditional cultures. Look to the Inuit who subsist mostly on meat and animal fat, and have few sources of carbohydrates, including vegetables (they live in Alaska, for Pete’s sake!). Or the Masai of Kenya who, as shepherds, eat mostly meat, milk, and blood. Based on our health policies, we would expect these people to be fat and dropping like flies from heart attacks. And yet, these concerns are nowhere on their radar – they are lean and their blood flows freely through their arteries.
These are just two examples of traditional diets laden with fats and plush with health, but many others have been documented. A dated but interesting exploration of this phenomenon was published in 1939 by Dr. Weston A. Price and titled, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. It is an interesting read and convincingly examines the downfall of health with increased access to carbohydrate-rich, refined and processed foods.
As adults, with lifelong beliefs, traditions, and knowledge contributing to each meal plan, it can be incredibly challenging to design a diet that maintains health. If you’re inclined to Google for more information (and to read this article), then you have access to that many more factors to guide – or confuse – your choices. In moving forward, I often find building a strong foundation is a good place to start. Look to our ancestors, the traditional peoples, the cultures that are healthy and living well for guidance. When we look around, we learn fat does not make us fat after all.
To help you get started, here are three tips for including fat in your diet:
- Don’t skimp on cooking oil. Whether you are sautéing, marinating, or dressing, use plenty of extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, pasture-raised butter or lard, or other sources of cooking fat. Quality matters, because environmental contaminants are stored in fat cells of plants and animals, so choose organic or pasture-raised products whenever possible.
- Snack on nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters. Almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, etc. are high in protein, fats, and fiber… and are delicious!
- Have your steak and eat it too. As a component of a balanced diet, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are gold stars, especially if you have access to pasture-raised animal products that are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
Jesse Haas uses a combination of nutritional counseling, whole foods education, and bodywork to help her clients learn new ways of integrating self-care and good food into their lives to improve their health. To learn more about her wellness practice, visit her website, www.jessehaas.com. Her last article for SGT was Wellness: Breaking the Addiction Cycle of Sugar.