Americans are trained to fear fat. For decades, official recommendations from authorities such as the USDA have blamed fat for all sorts of health issues, from obesity to cardiovascular disease. The result can be seen in the American population – it’s the most overweight of any of the OECD nations.
What’s been missing from the official recommendations is the differentiation between healthy and unhealthy fats. Of course, most people recognize that there’s something different about the fat in an avocado and the fat in French fries – that much is obvious. But knowing just what those differences are is a key component of planning a healthy diet, especially when there are kids to feed.
The Traditional Story
The USDA’s fat story didn’t appear out of thin air. Rather, the ‘experts’ looked at studies that showed a consistent correlation between diets high in fats and heart disease. According to theories proposed to explain the correlation, fat causes a spike in cholesterol, which then clogs the arteries and leads to high blood pressure and a host of related cardiovascular problems. If only it was that simple.
A Global Perspective
That all changed with the Seven Countries Study, which began in the mid-1950s under the direction of Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys. Today, the study is remembered as one of the first to look at the connection between diet and cardiovascular disease.
Researchers from 7 countries – the USA, Finland, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy – selected 16 cohorts with significantly different lifestyles (railroad men in the US and villagers from East Finland, for example) and compared results. What they found surprised many: countries such as Greece and Italy had some of the lowest incidences of heart disease in the sample, even though they consumed just as much fat as the sicker Americans.
The study concluded that there must be differences between the type of fat consumed in the Mediterranean and in the Midwest. A closer look revealed that most Italians eat monounsaturated fats in the form of olive oil, rather than the saturated fats found in cheese and mass-produced baked goods. And thus, the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ born – and with it, a new window into the optimal functioning of the human heart.
What we understand about trans fats
While the official doctrine hasn’t changed much, health experts now recognize the importance of a diet rich in healthy fats. But before we get into those, let’s talk a bit about the unhealthy ones: trans fats.
Trans fats were rare to nonexistent in our ancestral diet, but they’re all over grocery store shelves. That’s because trans fats are the result of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is a process that turns oils into solids and keeps them from going bad. So, if you’re a big food company looking to send your products all over the country (or the world) without them going bad, they may very well contain partially hydrogenated oils.
The health risks associated with these products are significant. These kinds of fats are associated with high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) levels, which result in cardiovascular problems. Research from The Harvard School of Public Health found that the risk of heart disease rises by 23% for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily.
Saturated fats remain a bit controversial, even today. For years, it was recommended to reduce saturated fats as much as possible. However, many recent studies (here, here, and here) have concluded that there is no scientifically demonstrable link between saturated fat and heart disease, as there is with trans fat. Advocates of the and keto diets have pointed out that many historical societies enjoyed foods like beef, pork, and eggs in great quantities without experiencing the levels of heart disease we see today.
The Good Stuff
While trans fats come from processing, saturated and monounsaturated fats come from oils, avocados, and nuts. Diets high in these food items tend to produce high levels of HDL, or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This is the ‘good’ cholesterol that your body needs to clean up LDLs and function properly.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential to human life, but they’re not produced by the human body. They come in two varieties: Omega-3s and Omega-6s. Our ancestors got them from fatty fish like salmon and sardines, in addition to flaxseeds and walnuts. Today, we find them in the same places, as well as in the canola and sunflower oils that many of us cook with. These healthy fats are known to reduce blood pressure and protect against heart disease.
Heart disease is an ailment that only gained epidemic proportions during the 20th century. Since humans have been eating saturated and unsaturated fats for over a hundred thousand years, it doesn’t make much sense to blame these naturally occurring foods. Instead, those looking for the causes of heart disease should look to aspects of life that have changed in the last century.
With so many contradictory viewpoints, eating healthy can sometimes seem confusing. But really what it all comes down to is quality. Naturally occurring, quality ingredients, prepared fresh everyday. And it’s easier than you think. Factor delivers organically sourced, chef-prepared meals that are balanced with the health fats you need. Because we believe eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. Choose your meals to get started!