We’ve been told, “you are what you eat.” To a certain extent, this statement is true. One can’t expect to eat only junk food and continue to experience ideal health. Millions of Americans, whether they struggle with excess body fat or not, live by the motto: to avoid getting fat, don’t eat fatty foods–specifically, saturated fat.
Marketing campaigns urge us to replace saturated fat with low-fat foods, skim milk, skinless chicken breasts, and vegetable oils for a healthier life. It’s easy to push an agenda with air-brushed models, but what do we see when we look at our society? Instead of the promised glowing health, there is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dozens of other diseases at younger and younger ages.
If low-fat foods are the key to optimal health, why aren’t we experiencing it? And if low-fat foods aren’t good for us, as we have been told, then what is?
What is Fat?
On a basic level, fats are triglycerides and are the main components of fatty tissue in animals and vegetable oils. Lipids such as lecithin, cholesterol, and beeswax, are insoluble in water and are often grouped with fat.
Fats perform various vital functions in the body:
- Fats are a primary source of energy. We all know that energy burst from sugar or carbs, but energy lasts the longest when it is derived from fat.
- Fats form and strengthen cell membranes. Without fat, cell membranes are weak. They either leak, resulting in unhealthy cells, or the cell dies.
- Fats make up the sheaths surrounding nerves. When your body doesn’t have enough fat, the sheaths develop “holes” which cause nerves to misfire or slow nerve conduction.
- Fats help you absorb other minerals and nutrients. You may think you’re getting your daily value of vitamins and minerals, but without the right fats, these get flushed out of your body without being absorbed.
These are just a few of the many roles fat plays in the body. When you deprive your body of fats–as weight-loss diets emphasize–you have less energy due to sick or limited cells, poor nerve conduction, and malnutrition from lack of nutrient absorption. These factors produce countless symptoms in numerous diseases.
Additionally, consuming the wrong kinds of fat is damaging to the body. If your car runs on gasoline but you refill the tank with diesel, it’s no surprise when the car breaks down. It’s imperative that we give our bodies the right fats to build healthy cells, repair damage, provide energy, and keep us running. Otherwise, disease is sure to creep in.
So what are the right fats?
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated Fat
Fatty acids are further classified into saturated and unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat includes monosaturated and polyunsaturated fat.
The chemical structure of saturated fat is highly stable, so it doesn’t go rancid, even when heated for cooking. The most common saturated fats are animal fats (including dairy products like butter and cheese) and tropical oils. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.
Similarly, monosaturated fats are also stable compounds that can be used for cooking but these remain liquid at room temperature. Common monosaturated fats are the oils from olives, almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts, and avocados.
Finally, the structure of polyunsaturated fats is unstable, causing them to go rancid easily, especially when exposed to heat. While some polyunsaturated fats are beneficial (like essential fatty acids), the most lucrative form of polyunsaturated fat is what we commonly call vegetable oil. These are derived from sources such as canola, soybean, corn, cottonseed, and more. For the purpose of this article, polyunsaturated fat will be referred to as vegetable oil.
Marketing strategies and scientific studies promote new vegetable oils as healthy and demonize the saturated fat that our ancestors used for millennia. The medical community warns that saturated fat increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke, cancer, obesity, pre-and type II diabetes, and more, but let’s re-evaluate that assertion below.
What About Trans Fat?
Trans fat was invented in the early 1900s and quickly became popular in all aspects of the food industry. Trans fat is also called fully or partially hydrogenated oil because its created by adding hydrogen to liquid oil. This makes trans fat more stable and gives it a longer shelf life, making it ideal for packaged foods and restaurant use. Margarine, shortening, and frying oils contain trans fat.
While trans fat was great for the profit margins of food companies, the health of customers plummeted. Trans fat became linked with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes. In 2006, the FDA mandated trans fat labeling on Nutrition Facts food labels. In 2015, the FDA removed trans fat from its Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list.
Today, the FDA recommends eating as few trans fats as possible. However, fully and partially hydrogenated oils are in so many packaged foods that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Restaurants, as well, continue to use hydrogenated oils because of their cheaper price.
Although trans fat is still in our food supply, it’s no longer considered healthy. The deception surrounding trans fat is slowly dissipating, but our food industry continues to promote vegetable oils that are equally as unhealthy and pervasive.
Effects of Processed Oils On the Body
As opposed to trans fat, vegetable oils are regarded with high esteem in the medical community and food industry. Experts state they are healthier for you, lower your risk for heart disease, and help you lose weight. After all, how can vegetable oils be bad for you since they come from vegetables?
There are two primary reasons why vegetable oils are devastating to the body–and the effects are actually opposite the benefits scientists claim vegetable oils hold.
Before the industrial age, extracting oil from fruits, nuts, and seeds was a delicate process using slow-moving stone presses. Today, oil receives a rough treatment in its production.
Oil is first extracted through crushing, squeezing, and heating its source to temperatures 230 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. This exposes the oil to damaging light and oxygen, beginning a downward rancidity spiral. Hexane, a flammable and explosive solvent, is mixed with the pulp and boiled to extract any remaining oil.
When first extracted, the oil is clumpy, an unappetizing gray color, and carries a nasty odor. To make the oil more appealing, it undergoes another four rounds of heating and various chemical treatments to purify, deodorize, bleach, flavor, and color the oil. The excessive heating and harsh chemicals finally result in the smooth, buttery-looking oil on our grocery shelves. But behind the label is a substance that destroys our bodies.
The rough processing of vegetable oil causes it to oxidize and go rancid. The oil also contains free radicals–destructive single atoms or clusters–that attack cell membranes and red blood cells, cause damage to tissues and organs, lay the groundwork for tumors, and initiate the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels.1
If we look at traditional diets, our ancestors consumed much greater quantities of omega-3 fats (found in butter, lard, and animal fat) and much less omega-6 fats (found in vegetable oils). In our modern society, we have turned this ratio on its head. We now consume mostly omega-6 fats and much less omega-3 fats.
Omega-6 fats fuel the body’s inflammatory response and inhibit the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats. In other words, vegetable oil perpetuates inflammation in the body and stifles the healing qualities of omega-3 fats.
Untamed, chronic inflammation from over-consuming omega-6 fats increases the risk for:
- Heart disease
- Type II diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel syndrome
- Macular degeneration
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psychiatric disorders
- Autoimmune disease
- Mental illness
Does this list look familiar? That’s right; its the exact diseases attributed to saturated fat.
Benefits of Saturated Fat
Instead of causing our modern diseases, saturated fats play a vital role in the chemistry of our body which allows us to live longer, healthier lives.
- Saturated fat makes up 50% of cell membranes, which gives them the stiffness and resilience to function normally
- Saturated fat is necessary to absorb calcium for the creation of strong bones
- They lower Lp(a), a substance that indicates your risk for heart disease
- They protect the liver from toxins and alcohol
- Saturated fat enhances the immune system
- Saturated fat is the preferred nutrition for the heart. Most of the fat surrounding the heart is saturated, and the heart uses this fat during times of stress
- Their antimicrobial properties protect the digestive tract against harmful microorganisms.2
As one author put it, among many other dietary factors, “The cause of heart disease is not animal fats and cholesterol but rather a number of factors inherent in modern diets, including excess consumption of vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats…”3
Michael Gurr, a renowned lipid chemist, says “Whatever causes coronary heart disease, it is not primarily a high intake of saturated fat.”4
If it’s true that we’ve got it up-side-down, that saturated fats are not the enemy but the helpers to our bodies, how did we get this turned around?
The Great Money-Making Lie
Processed vegetable oils were unheard of at the beginning of the 1900s. Nearly everyone consumed high quantities of natural saturated fats such as butter, lard, buttermilk, full-fat dairy, fatty meat, bacon, and more. But in 1911 with the production of Crisco, things began to change. With effective advertising such as “It’s all vegetable! It’s digestible!” Crisco became the preferred alternative to lard.
In the 1950s, Ancel Keys proposed that saturated fat and cholesterol increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Although his lipid hypothesis was later disproven, the vegetable oil and food processing industries buried the flaws and continued to promote his research. Cholesterol and saturated fat incurred the blame for rising disease rates, and vegetable oils quickly took their place.
In 1980, the Food and Drug Administration recommended Americans avoid fat and cholesterol at all costs. Food industries found new ways to cut fat in packaged foods and dairy products and replaced them with processed oils, sugar, and addictive chemicals. Slowly, Americans forgot their traditional dietary instincts and embraced the lies of the low-fat diet.
Vegetable oils are far cheaper to produce than animal fat because animals need food, shelter, and medical attention until the fat can be harvested. Dairy is more easily contaminated and must be transported, processed, and packaged with greater care. Retrieving fat from animals is also more expensive because animals must be raised and then processed.
By convincing Americans that animal fats are unhealthy, the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture make an incredible profit by producing the only substitute–vegetable oils. These oils, often made from the poorest of sources, are more cost-efficient to produce and store than animal fats. This is the perfect opportunity for everyone except the consumer to profit.
Profit A Second Time
Not only is there great gain for the food industry from processed oils, but they are profitable for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, as well.
If low-fat diets were the answer, we would have seen a dramatic turnaround in American health. We would be living longer lives with fewer diseases. Instead, Americans are sicker than ever before. Despite success at reducing saturated fat and cholesterol in our modern diet, cardiovascular disease still remains the number one killer of Americans. Type II diabetes has increased 166% from 1980 to 2012. Cancer incidence is expected to increase 75% by 2030. Nearly one-third of the population is obese.
Who reaps the benefit rampant illness? The healthcare system!
The government makes money twice from processed oils: first by its use in food products and second by treating the illnesses caused by the very oils they create.
One would hope that our government would have our best interest–and health–in mind when making agricultural decisions and dietary recommendations, but history has shown time and again that these departments are primarily concerned about their bottom line.
Perhaps we could excuse the government departments responsible for promoting a low-fat diet if, after examining the mounting evidence revealing the dangers of vegetable oil, they retracted their recommendations and provided new ones. Instead, these departments forge ahead on their money-making agenda, recommending the same low-fat diet.
Traditional Saturated Fats
If we take a global look at our ancestral history, we can clearly see that the key to optimal health is animal fats. For example,
- People in northern India consume 17 times more animal fat than people in southern India but have 7 times less incidence of heart disease
- Masai and African tribes primarily consume milk, blood, and beef, but have no heart disease and low cholesterol levels
- Likewise, the Eskimos who eat a traditional Eskimo diet of fish and marine animal fats are free of modern disease
- In China, those who consume whole milk have half the rate of heart disease compared with those who limit animal fat
- In the Mediterranean, 70% of calories come from saturated fat, yet these societies have low rates of heart disease. (A vast difference from The American Heart Association which now recommends Americans consume only 5-6% of total daily calories from saturated fats!)
- A study in Soviet Georgia revealed that those who ate the fattiest meat lived the longest5
This is just a sampling of stories from around the world of societies who thrive when they stick to their dietary roots.
What About Us?
Is it too late for those of us who–whether we realize it or not–have lived our lives consuming the wrong kind of fat? Can our bodies heal and recover from the damage of rancid vegetable oil?
Thankfully, it’s not too late, because our bodies can recover when given the right building blocks!
Whether it’s new skin cells surfacing when others have sloughed off, new blood cells replacing dead ones, or our bones constantly demolishing and remodeling, our body is continually rebuilding itself. However, your body is dependent upon the “building materials” from your diet.
If you continue consuming foods filled with destructive vegetable oil, your body has no choice but to use those fats to rebuild itself. This is like using mud instead of cement to build a brick house. On a sunny day, your mud-brick house might stand, but it will collapse when the rain falls. For a short time, it may seem like a low-fat diet or consumption of vegetable oils doesn’t do any damage, but eventually, your health begins to crumble.
But—when you eliminate processed vegetable oils and consume a variety of saturated and monosaturated fats, you give your body the “cement” it needs to build a strong body. As your body receives animal fats, it eliminates and replaces the fats from vegetable oil. Unlike vegetable oil that lays a foundation for disease, fat once again nourishes the body.
Even Better News
God has given our taste buds the ability to determine and delight in the taste of fat. Quite simply, fat makes food taste better! Think of Alfredo made with whole cream and Parmesan cheese, cheesecake that is rich and creamy, crispy fried chicken, or vegetables sauteed in butter or bacon fat. There’s hardly a need for other flavorings because the fat is so satisfying!
Fat also aids with digestion. Protein in particular can’t be absorbed with fat.6 Skip draining the fat from beef or stripping the skin off chicken–it’s nature’s way of giving your body the most nourishment by breaking down complex compounds into a digestible and absorbable form.
Low-fat diets rely on fat substitutes (vegetable oils, sugar, and addictive chemicals like MSG) to make food taste better. But now we see there’s no need to cut out the fat–and every reason to include it!
Ditch the Diet
So how can you start enjoying animal fats and traditional cooking?
First, eat more butter! Butter is the easiest fat switch to make. Throw out any butter spreads or replacements and use real butter. Use butter generously on bread, in sauces, with eggs, and instead of vegetable oil in baking. If you’re hesitant to branch out into other animal fats for sautéing and cooking, butter can be used for just about everything!
Second, eliminate as many vegetable oil offenders as you can. This is challenging because vegetable oils are in nearly every packaged food; simply examine the label! Start with something manageable, like replacing packaged salad dressing with a homemade olive oil dressing. Then consistently replace offending foods with homemade versions.
Finally, stock up on the truly healthy saturated fats. Butter, whole milk, cream, aged cheese, and eggs are a great place to start. Enjoy meat with lots of fat and with the skin on! Olive and avocado oil are wonderful additions, but avoid heating them to preserve their enzymes and avoid rancidity.
If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re correct. Like any new skill, learning to think and cook this way is challenging. We’ve been so indoctrinated to fear fat that embracing it feels like writing with your opposite hand. It takes a while to reorient your habits and taste buds.
You may find yourself in the kitchen more than eating packaged or frozen food, but this isn’t a bad thing. Just as you would meal plan and prep for any diet, spend the same amount of time preparing truly nourishing food for your mind and body. It takes dedication, but the health benefits are so worth it!
Now get out there and get cooking!
A Little P.S.
My family has lived the switch from vegetable oil to saturated fat, and let me tell you, the results were dramatic! At 3.5 years old, my oldest son still couldn’t speak more than three or four words at a time. We removed vegetable oils from his diet, and within 24 hours, he was speaking in full sentences. If you’re still worried that “different” fat will make you fat, my husband lost 40 pounds after switching to saturated fat! I was already at a healthy weight and saw no change in my weight. Our meals are pretty simple, but they’re very filling and satisfying. We’re very happy to eat the fats that fuel our bodies!
For more on toxic foods that the food industry touts as safe, read Toxic Breakfast: What’s Actually in Your Cereal?
- Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, Nourishing traditions: the cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats (NewTrends Publishing, Inc., 2005), 10
- Ibid, 11
- Ibid, 13
- Ibid, 352
- Ibid, 7
- Ibid, 27
Photo credit: Pixaby