Fat is our worst enemy, right? Wrong. We’ve been led to believe this for so long that it’s almost impossible to question it. Almost everyone you know will tell you that a diet high in fat will lead you straight in the hands of the heart surgeon.
A vast number of health disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, elevated cholesterol levels and obesity, were long seen as a direct result of fatty foods. But now, a new branch of scientific research is trying to persuade us to think twice about this traditional concept. Even more, this new generation of doctors and scientists is actually suggesting that against all odds, fat could be our best friend in the struggle to improve our overall health and trim the waistline. Obesity has more to do with what we eat, than the number of calories we eat.
Ever since the sixties, we’ve faced a strong propaganda encouraging a larger consumption of carbs while banishing fat altogether. Carbs have been throned as the most valuable nutrient there is – after all, they are our main supplier of energy and have the power to improve our mood. Actually, modern consumers love their sugar so much that the food industry is still able to get away with incredibly high doses of added sugars in almost all processed foods we see on the supermarket shelves.
We’re slaves to the enhanced taste of the products we consume, even though the sweetness we crave often comes with a deadly price. It’s no secret that added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet, with harmful effects on metabolism, liver function, insulin sensitivity and fat storage. Yet, carb-loading also became a rule for athletes who want to increase their performance and endurance, recommended by nutritional experts and pro athletes alike.
While it’s true that complex carbs are better than simple carbs, since they contain longer chains of sugar molecules which take more time for the body to break down and use, resulting with a more even amount of energy and avoiding huge insulin peaks, that doesn’t mean that we’re free to eat as much of them as we want and expect to maintain optimal health.
The human body was simply not made to digest the amount of carbs the modern diet consists of, most of them coming from over-processed foods. After all the restrictions we’ve placed on fat, we’re still facing an obesity epidemic and sugar has as much to do with it as overeating. Numerous studies show that a low-carb diet is much more effective method for weight loss, improved metabolic health and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
But won’t cholesterol give me a heart attack?
Not really. This is how it goes. The body tightly regulates the amount of cholesterol in the blood by control the internal production, so when cholesterol intake from food goes down, the body makes more, and when cholesterol intake goes up, the body simply makes less of its own. Also, keep in mind that much of the cholesterol that’s found in food can’t be absorbed by our bodies. This is the reason why many studies on cholesterol show that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on blood cholesterol levels in the majority of the population (around 75%), while it can modestly increase both types of cholesterol in the remaining 25%.
The two types of cholesterol are low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or the bad cholesterol because it contributes to plaque, a hard deposit that can clog arteries, making them less flexible, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol which is able to reverse the effects of LDL cholesterol in the body. For example, egg yolks are no longer considered the number one enemy of heart health, since they’re incredibly rich with the good kind of cholesterol and holine, a B vitamin crucial for neurotransmitter production, detoxification and maintenance of healthy cells.
However, a reduced level of bad cholesterol does not automatically mean good health. In 2013, a group of scientists analyzed previously unpublished data from a seminal study from the seventies, called the Sydney Diet Heart study, and discovered that cardiac patients who replaced butter with margarine had an increased mortality, despite their total cholesterol levels had reduced. This means that low cholesterol is not in itself a measure of success when treating disease, but it can have a greater impact when paired with reduced sugar levels.
On the other hand, it’s time to stop promoting carbohydrates to diabetics. A critical review in the journal Nutrition concluded that dietary carbohydrate restriction is actually one of the most effective interventions for reducing symptoms of metabolic syndrome, contrary to the advice that has been most commonly given to diabetics – that low-fat, high-carb diet can help their medications work optimally. In people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, sugar will not only help their medications work, but it will significantly worsen their condition. Also, these medications can cause dangerously low blood sugar levels, complicating the issue even further.
In the meanwhile, a big number of studies have shown that consuming a moderate amount of full-fat diary products instead their low-fat versions can reduce the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, while in healthy people over 60 years of age, a higher cholesterol has been associated with a lower risk of mortality. Healthy fats and omega 3 fatty acids found in fish and certain oils and vegetables play an important role in reducing inflammation and protecting the hearts health. So instead of reaching for the products labeled as ‘low-fat’, feel free to feast on your favorite full-fat cheese once in a while and enjoy its health benefits – there is nothing scary about natural, healthy fats, we can promise you that.
Changes in the medical community
Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a renowned cardiologist and advisor to the National Obesity Forum who used to advocate the low-fat diet but now firmly believes that fat has a vital role in improving health, says: „ Until very recently, I too assumed that keeping fat to a minimum was the key to keeping healthy and trim.
In fact, to say my diet revolved around carbohydrates – sugared cereal, toast and orange juice for breakfast, a panini for lunch and pasta for dinner was not an uncommon daily menu. Good solid fuel, or so I thought, especially as I am a keen sportsman and runner. Still, I had a wedge of fat round my stomach which no amount of football and running seemed to shift. That, though, wasn’t the reason I started to explore changing what I ate.“
The real reason behind his change of mind was the enormous amount of evidence which suggested that carbs are the real reason behind obesity and poor cardiovascular health, which he had the chance to confirm by observing his very own patients. “These days I make a point of telling my patients – many of whom are coping with debilitating heart problems – to avoid anything bearing the label ‘low fat’. Better instead, I tell them, to embrace full fat dairy and other saturated fats within the context of a healthy eating plan.
It’s an instruction that is sometimes greeted with open-mouthed astonishment, along with my request to steer clear of anything that promises to reduce cholesterol – another of those edicts we are told can promote optimum heart and artery health.“, he adds.
Also, in 2012, the doctor read a paper called ‘The toxic truth about sugar’ by Robert Lustig, a Professor of Pediatrics working at the University of California’s Centre of Obesity Assessment, published in the science journal Nature. In this paper, the author claimed that added sugar represents such a great danger to human health that products who contain it should carry the same warning labels as alcohol.
The conclusions proposed in this paper were an important wake up call for dr. Malhotra. After conducting some extensive research on the subject, he was more convinced than ever that the cause of many dangerous health issues is sugar, not fat, so he launched the lobbying group Action on Sugar together with a group of fellow medical specialists. Their goal is to make the food industry cut down the added sugar in processed foods. Dr. Malhotra is currently crowdfunding for his documentary film ‘The Pioppi Protocol – 21 days to whole heart health.’
The world’s first low carb summit
Last February, the first low carb summit was held in South Africa, presenting 15 international speakers from various branches of the medical field. The event was hosted by Karen Thomson, the granddaughter of legendary heart transplant surgeon Christian Barnard, and Timothy Noakes, a Professor of exercise and sports medicine at the University of Cape Town.
Throughout most of his career, Professor Noakes, a marathon runner, advised athletes to follow high-carb diets in order to enhance their performance, while he actively practised his own advice as well. However, after he developed type 2 diabetes, his opinion on carbohydrates changed drastically. At the conference, he presented a whole different view, stating that in order to promote better health and greater fat loss, athletes and fitness-oriented people should get the bigger part of their energy from ketones instead of glucose.
Another respected speaker at the conference was Gary Taubes, a Harvard physicist who argued that refined carbs fuel the over-production of insulin and stimulate fat storage, while increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer in his book The Diet Delusion, published seven years ago.
The Swedish family physician Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, who runs the popular health blog ‘Diet Doctor’, also presented his views on the low carb diet. As it turns out, up to 23% of the population in Sweden eats a low-carb, high-fat diet, which is followed by a decline in obesity rates in the country. In the words of Dr. Eenfeldt, „you don’t get fat from eating fatty foods in the same way as you don’t turn green from eating green vegetables.“
In short, as Dr Eenfeldt told the conference: “You don’t get fat from eating fatty foods just as you don’t turn green from eating green vegetables.“
Although the concept of replacing a good part of your carb intake with healthy fats sounds simple and logic enough, it’s still hard to spread this message to the public. Our advanced scientific methods have long ago informed us about the benefits of fat and dangers of sugar, yet the decades of anti-fat propaganda has made the truth hard to swallow.
“In my opinion a perfect storm of biased research funding, biased reporting in the media and commercial conflicts of interest have contributed to an epidemic of misinformed doctors and misinformed patients“, says Dr. Malhotra.
The low-carb diet can work wonders for everyone, including health-conscious people, professional athletes and people who suffer from diabetes. In fact, studies have shown that this way of eating can reverse type 2 diabetes and dramatically increase blood sugar control in type 1 diabetes. Or as Dr. Malhotra concludes: “The father of modern medicine Hippocrates once said, ‘let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ It’s now time we let fat be that medicine.“