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5 Facts Behind the Low Fat Fallacy

All of you reading today likely qualify as part of the “low-fat” generation. For decades, we’ve seen everything from restaurant offerings to cereal labels tout their “low fat” content as a selling point and personal reassurance that our “choice” would be a healthy one. Far from a mere marketing premise, however, the low fat message was, in fact, a larger shift in our culture’s mindset that would remake our food environment and even influence our health industry for nearly two full generations. The low fat experiment was originally set in motion with the USDA’s landmark Dietary Goals for the United States” issued by the McGovern commission in the late 1970s. In very recent years, however, the tide has been turning as more studies suggest that traditional dietary fats don’t pose the danger we’ve thought! Understandably, we might be skeptical about such a fundamental message being turned on its ear. Where did that original low-fat recommendation come from anyway – and why should we follow a far different call now? Just as we can observe the trajectory of new research findings, we can also return to the original study with a critical eye for where its assertions may have misdirected our culture’s low-fat fixation. Let me share my understanding of that initial research and offer 5 illuminating facts that can put the low-fat fallacy into proper nutritional perspective.

The original science was selective (at best).

Ancel Keys, a legendary nutrition researcher for the University of Minnesota and the U.S. military (who developed K-ration meals for soldiers and conducted a few landmark starvation studies earlier in his career), is generally credited with initiating the anti-fat and anti-cholesterol fervor with his Seven Countries Study.

Keys’ research data seemed to fit his hypothesis perfectly, but there was one problem. He actually had data from 22 countries (instead of 7) but tossed many of them out of his final report because their data didn’t consistently fit with the other findings and make for a clean graph. The fact is, Keys caught quite a bit of flack from his colleagues for this selective analysis at the time, but his findings nonetheless still made him an influential figure for years to come and even landed him on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Keys’ convincing conclusions regarding dietary fat and cholesterol were largely misinterpreted by the public (and many experts alike). Most people took the Seven Countries study results as indication that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease, which isn’t the case after all.

According to the actual study findings, there was a positive association between fat intake and heart disease (in 7 countries) but negative or neutral associations in 15 others. Better and less selective research has now demonstrated that Keys’ conclusions, in fact, overestimated the degree to which fat or cholesterol directly influence our long-term cardiovascular health (1,2,3,4). As a result of this growing consensus, butter was recently “vindicated” on the cover of TIME, the same publication that originally promoted the Seven Countries study decades ago.

The eventually published guidelines were a distant cousin of the science-supported first draft.

A team of talented people at the USDA led by Registered Dietitian Luise Light drafted a brilliant set of guidelines built on the principles it takes to achieve optimal health. They based their recommendations on documented nutrient shortcomings, disease prevention data, and unbiased understanding of human metabolism. That first insightful draft, Light later revealed, emphasized a base of 5-9 servings of fresh vegetables and fruits, 5 to 7 ounces of daily un-processed/non-preserved animal proteins like meat and eggs, a liberal 4 tablespoons of cold-pressed fats (like olive or flaxseed oil along with other naturally occurring fats in food), and 2-3 servings of full-fat dairy, topped off with a maximum of 2-3 servings of whole grain breads and cereals per day.

To boot, her team advised that sugar intake comprise no more than 10 percent of total daily calories and also recommended “strictly limit[ing] refined carbohydrates” like white flour, crackers, bagels, and bread rolls. Any more than that, Light warned, would result in a massive epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Does this sound familiar?

As history would have it, the food industry lobby groups then got their say in the soon-to-be government-issued dietary guidelines. By the end of the process, fruit and vegetable intake had been slashed to a measly 2-3 serving/day to make room for the dramatic increase in grain-based foods (inflated to a whopping 6-11 daily servings that now included the originally unadvised crackers and other processed grain foods). Gone, too, was the verbiage urging consumers to shy away from processed foods in general and load up on real food. In the end, the government position was more in line with business growth and cheaper food for food assistance programs (e.g. food stamps) than what available science indicated would be best for public health. 

The food industry responded in a big way, and we did too.

For the most part, we abided by the new goals with the help of the food industry’s agile strategizing to reformulate familiar foodstuffs and rapidly expand entirely new categories of foods (e.g. “healthy “cookies and snacks).

Fat consumption, indeed, fell – especially intake of traditional saturated fat and dietary cholesterol sources (hello, egg whites!). The American public had already been consuming more margarine than butter since WWII, but now the food industry had several other ways to remove animal fats from products and replace them with more widely available industrially-produced vegetable and seed oils.

Simultaneous to this new reduction of traditional fat intake, we saw significant rises in the incidence of gallstones, depression and infertility among other conditions. It’s likely no coincidence, given that adequate intake of naturally occurring, healthy fats (including saturated fat) is needed to trigger gall bladder emptying, healthy brain function, and fertility hormone balance.

Simultaneous to the shift in fat intake, carbohydrate consumption shot up dramatically. Likewise, sodium consumption and sugar consumption skyrocketed (choices actually contraindicated by these same government recommendations). When you take the fat out of food, however, it tastes mostly like cardboard or boot leather. The solution for food manufacturers (and, perhaps to a lesser degree, individual cooks) was often to add sugar or salt. Americans now far exceed the recommended daily sugar allowance spelled out by McGovern’s committee and that of the World Health Organization.

The low fat movement may be the biggest experiment mistake we’ve ever made.

Right around the time we turned away from traditional fat and toward the newly reformulated, carbohydrate-rich, processed and preserved foods, we began to see an up-tick in rates of obesity and nearly every other chronic disease (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, cancers, hypertension). View the evidence for yourself here (figure 7). Alternatively, check out the comments made here strongly associating sugar intake with the risk of many other debilitating metabolic conditions.

Unfortunately, a number of other factors have changed dramatically in this time period that also partially explain the shift in body size and health. In tracing the impact of the low fat movement, I’m not discounting the facts that we are less active, more stressed, and commute farther than any previous generation. We may exercise more for health purposes, but it’s not enough to offset the damage done by our low quality diets.

There IS a way "out" of the fallout.

A change in food policy is needed, claim many experts, because standard nutritional recommendations are painfully misaligned with current evidence. We have far better ways to address (dare I say, solve) the obesity and diabetes epidemics than to continue our dietary fat phobia.

These recommendations offer us the best best weight loss (fat loss) and health results. Period.

Knowing the science behind dietary recommendations isn’t required, but understanding how conventional messaging doesn’t always align with scientifically-confirmed best practices can go a long way in helping you separate fact from fallacy and make the best choices for your health journeys. To learn more about the role fat should play in your diet, check out our other online resources or, even better, talk with one of our registered dietitians about making your nutrition work more effectively for your overall health and weight loss goals!

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your questions and feedback on dietary fat or nutritional messaging.

Written by Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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