All the Other Fats and Confusion About Low-Fat Diets
There are a few conditions for which there is unequivocal evidence that a specifically low-fat, low animal protein diet is valuable: adult males with existing heart disease; perhaps those with certain kinds of kidney disease (specifically low animal protein diets) [A. Bernstein et al., 2007]; and less so for post-menopausal women with existing heart disease [B. Howard et al., 2006]. And the benefits of these dietary changes to those involved sub-populations pale in comparison to lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and regular exercise [G. Chahoud et al., 2004].
As with all nutritional clinical data, the conclusions will often miss the forest for the trees.
Almost all recommendations for lowering or raising the consumption of any macronutrient are based on some clinical data that doing so will improve morbidity and/or mortality outcomes (meaning you will experience less illness and/or live longer).
Fundamentally though, we live a very long time now. The highest life expectancy rates are all enjoyed in highly developed nations swimming in ultra-processed foods, animal proteins, refined carbohydrates and dietary fats.
In fact, it has taken us this long to get back to life expectancy rates that were likely enjoyed in pre-agricultural nomadic societies. While infant mortality rates were likely high in Paleolithic times, once beyond childhood, most could expect to live into their seventh decade [S.B. Eaton et al., 2002; H. Kaplan et al., 2000].
At some point even I get tired of reading all the studies on the mix and match macronutrient game to try to avoid sickness and somehow never die.
Eat food. Love life. Die anyways.
I bet if you have read through to this point you are feeling a bit let down. I am hardly offering any deep and heretofore unknown concept of living the good life. At some point, living and enjoying life has to take precedence over worrying about how much life and how much enjoyment might be squeezed out of microalgae-derived DHA compared to butter.
I love butter. I love salt. I love lots of foods. And yes, I am specifically using an emotionally laden word, “love”, because food is meant to be an emotional connection.
For those struggling with restrictive eating disorders and looking to recover, while dietary fat (unsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated) is critical for physical repair it is the food, and not the macronutrient, that is the soul of healing.
Being Emotional About Food is Optimal for Human Health
My personal opinions about war, and in particular the invasion of Iraq aside, this adjacent photo from the US Army of host Mr. Jadaan holding a pre-Ramadan feast for members of the Oregon Army National Guard is a perfect example of the fundamental value of the sharing of food.
Hospitality is expressed through the sharing of food. Connection to kin and family is reinforced through the sharing of food. We extend our care, consideration, kindness and fairness through the sharing of food.
“ohhh butter.... how yummy it is on popcorn... and potatoes.... REAL FREAKIN BUTTER!! (i just had like half a stick:p) but it makes baked potatoes from ehhh to foodgasm!!! i hope no one else is avoiding butter because i regret restricting it for so long... NOTHING IS LIKE THE REAL thing!! NOTHING!”
[Female in recovery from anorexia]
After the 2008 financial meltdown a new kind of economist gained favor: the behavioral economist. Dan Ariely, author of Predictable Irrationality, is a wonderful spokesperson for how ridiculous it was to once assume that any human system could somehow be devoid of emotion and be “perfectly rational”. Yet we were eager and willing to believe that human-made financial markets were rational.
The same is true for the dominant school of thought that posits eating healthfully is a matter of learning to recognize and suppress those occasions when we might eat emotionally. Emotional eating is a bad thing. We are to treat food as fuel and learn to recognize and tabulate correctly our sensations of hunger and fullness. Eating a tub of ice cream after your boyfriend dumps you is a failure to apply correct hunger and satiation rules. More than a failure in logic, it is a moral failure. You are weak.
“Satiation signals the completion of a feeding experience. It is a physical, emotional, and subjective sense of comfort, satisfaction, and well-being, of a need appropriately met. Satiation is self-care at its most refined; it requires the ability to discern and appropriately label bodily communications, and ultimately concerns trusting and accepting them.” [C. Bloom et al., 1994]
“A feeding experience”—exactly! You can be sure that eating a tub of ice cream after your boyfriend dumps you is an experience. Just because it is not an unequivocally positive experience, does not mean that it must be banned from your behaviors. In fact, in order to trust and accept your bodily communications, you must allow for the fact that your body has to respond to, and accommodate, both negative and positive emotions in your world.
“That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea—destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well.” [M. Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, 2008]
And the above quote is a perfect example of why I choose to quote Michael Pollan sparingly: there is really nothing more to be added to most of his observations.
We Should Not Be Fat…Or Should We?
However, Michael Pollan and I may differ on our observations and understandings of “obesity” in developed societies around the globe.
Whether we had truly aquatic, inter-tidal or shore-dwelling ancestors, we are the chubbiest of the primates for a reason: our brains. And our brains became big energy sucking hogs thanks to various fortuitous environmental happenings—most likely the constant availability of essential fatty acid-laden foods in the water and our ability to cook food.
In real terms teens are on average 1% taller and about 6% heavier than 30 years ago [S. Smith et al., 2003]. For the past 20 years, weight for adults in developed nations has on average crept up by less than 1 lb. per year [G. Gaesser et al., 2003].
We may be getting heavier, but we are misguided as to what this might mean:
- Does it require intervention?
- Do we even understand what intervention may be suitable or not?
We can be sure that one intervention is not only useless but also dangerous, and it may even contribute to excess weight over time as well. That intervention is weight loss.