If you’ve been paying attention to food trends you may have noticed that saturated fat (especially in the forms of lard, duck fat, and butter) is SO IN right now. This trend flies in the face of what we have believed for decades about the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease. Perhaps, like me, you’ve happily abandoned your low-fat principles and have fully embraced these once-forbidden foods, gleefully frying sweet potatoes in duck fat on the regular. Or perhaps you’re more skeptical: wondering whether it’s really healthy to use these forms of fat for cooking, what medical research has to say about it, and what made us stop using them in the first place.
No matter where you stand on the issue, I think it’s important for all of us to understand our nation’s long-time aversion to dietary fat, and whether or not we should we should continue the fat-avoidance trend or abandon it all together.
The Lipid Hypothesis
It all started in the 1950’s when a scientist named Ancel Keys introduced “The Lipid Hypothesis.” Keys believed that high amounts of dietary fat caused heart disease. Thus, he conducted a research study analyzing the diets & cholesterol levels of men in seven different countries. After Keys published his findings in support of the lipid hypothesis (those who ate diets higher in saturated fat had higher cholesterol & more risk of heart disease) the ball toward the low-fat diet began rolling. We now know that there was a problem with Keys’ data: he chose to evaluate men who lived in countries that would support his hypothesis, neglecting nations like France where diets are rich in dietary fat, yet occurrence of heart disease is low.
A host of similar research studies followed, which kept pumping out the same results: saturated fat is bad for your heart health, despite the data often being inconclusive! The USDA was quite pleased to jump on the low-fat bandwagon, promoting it’s own agenda: to keep Americans eating government-subsidized soy, corn, oats, & wheat.
The Food Pyramid
In the 1990’s the USDA released the [notorious] food pyramid, used by millions of Americans as a resource for proper nutrition. This “nutrition guide” shows healthy amounts of breads, cereals, rice, & pasta (all processed!) as 6-11 servings per day, a mere 3-5 serving of vegetables, and of course, grouped fats with sugars in the “use sparingly” tip of the pyramid.
The results of millions of Americans avoiding fat and eating a diet heavy in processed grains? Obesity rates are soaring, and one out of every four deaths in the US are due to heart disease, despite medical advancement and numerous nationwide campaigns to lower rates of obesity & heart disease.
The High-Carb Low-Fat Diet
A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables — as many researchers have claimed — is certainly not unhealthy. However, without any sources of naturally-occurring fat available, food producers started engineering vegetable oils, marketing them to Americans as “healthy” forms of fat. Most “low-fat” foods contain vegetable oils, plus a whole plethora of engineered foods like corn syrup, soy lecithin (35% soybean oil!), and highly processed high-gluten “whole grain” flour.
Unfortunately, these highly refined vegetable oils are not healthy sources of fat: they contain a whole host of carcinogens and chemicals that are linked to illness and inflammation. Many vegetable oils contain imbalanced levels of mono-and-poly-unsaturated fats, which can affect our cholesterol and hormonal levels immensely. Of course, we all know that trans fat should be avoided, but some nutrition experts fear that in our attempt to avoid trans fat, food laboratories will create even more unstable and unhealthy forms of fat!
The Case for Saturated Fat
Our bodies need fat! We rely on it as the healthy building blocks of cells, membranes, and hormones. Fat is the most consistent source of energy for our bodies, and foods containing saturated fat are more satiating than foods that don’t, keeping you feeling satisfied for longer. In fact, new scientific data has found that SATURATED FAT DOES NOT CAUSE HIGH CHOLESTEROL.
I know. You’re totally freaking out right now. But I need you to hear this. Saturated fat does not cause the kind of high cholesterol that causes heart disease. When you eat a steak or a lovely pat of melty butter, the effect on your blood’s cholesterol levels is neutral. Your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels do elevate, but your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels also rise, while your triglyceride levels (extra calories your body can’t use right away that just float around waiting to be used later) decrease!
So yes, your cholesterol levels change when you eat saturated fat, but the change is healthy & normal. In fact, research conducted over the last 60 years has consistently shown that people who eat more saturated fat have lower cholesterol levels and body weights than people who eat little-to-no saturated fat.
“Dietary fat doesn’t make people fat.”
-Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist, Harvard Medical School researcher
There is No One-Size-Fits-All Diet
Of course, health professionals are not giving the green light to eat bacon cheeseburgers for every meal, but researchers say that saturated fat can be enjoyed in moderation. Keeping your saturated fat intake in check should be fairly easy. Because of it’s filling nature, it’s hard to over-indulge.
A Mediterranean-inspired diet rich in whole foods and healthy fats: vegetables, whole grains (try ancient grains like spelt, quinoa, & farrow), tree nuts, fish, & fatty vegetables (avocados & olives), while limiting sugar and fruit, is currently lauded as the most heart healthy diet by many medical professionals. This is a good starting point for anyone looking to add more healthy fats into their diet, and can be easily adapted to suit an individuals’ dietary needs. Some people do better with fat, meat, or grains than others. Know your body and eat foods that keep you feeling energized, satiated, and work with your digestive system.
Lard contains only 40% saturated fat, 50% mono-unsaturated fat (the good fat in olive oil), and when it’s derived from pasture raised pigs (this is very important), is low in omega-6 fatty acids (too many of these can be harmful) but rich in (really good for you) omega-3 fatty acids! Not ready to take the lard plunge? Try adding some of the following sources of healthy fat to your diet: pasture-raised beef, pork, or lamb; whole milk, cheese, butter & ghee from pasture-raised cows, sheep, & goats; free-range poultry & eggs; fat rendered from free-range poultry (try duck fat…I’m telling you!); tree nuts (& nut butters), olives & olive oil, avocados, & tropical nut oils (palm & coconut).
If you’ve gotten nothing else from this, I hope that one message is clear: stop avoiding saturated fat! Refined grains, sugars, and oils are surfacing as the real culprits to heart health. Try to eat whole, organic foods whenever possible. Remember the 80/20 rule: Shoot for healthy eating 80% of the time and give yourself permission to indulge 20% of the time. Enjoy the amazing bounty of food that nature has bestowed upon us. And for f@#&’s sake give lard a chance!