Dietary fats have gotten a bad rap.
In fact, we’ve been villainizing nutritional fats for decades, and consuming fat-free products instead, believing these to be the healthy alternative.
As it turns out, we may have been completely misled.
“It’s kind of like tracing how you get into a wreak,” says Dr. Jonny Bowden, renowned expert on weight loss, nutrition and health, and co-author along with Dr. Steven Masley, of the new book Smart Fat (HarperOne). “It’s a combination of things; bad information, very persuasive people who felt very strongly that they had the right answer, the ability to persuade committees, and an over-reaching cultural worry about heart disease.”
Spurred by growing concern over the cardiovascular disease in the 1970s, the U.S. Senate held hearings to hash out its connection to the American diet. With the dangers of cigarette smoke already on the national radar and heart attacks becoming increasingly common across the country, legislators were looking to place blame.
The result of the hearings was the first set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which included recommendations for limiting fats to no more than 30 percent of daily food intake.
Data to support this advice was scarce, if it existed at all. In fact, a 2015 study published in the online medical journal, Open Heart, analyzed the randomized, controlled trials available at the time and found no evidence whatsoever that would have supported the theory.
From these guidelines a new sub-sect of food manufacturing was born: low-fat, fat-free and “lite” products, which, with the blessing of the U.S. government, became the ubiquitous healthier alternative.
“Our fear of fat confined us to a high sugar, high starch diet,” says Bowden. “We thought ‘complex carbs’ were good for us.”
Successful marketing campaigns created a multi-billon dollar industry, making the concept almost impossible to dislodge from the public psyche—even to this day.
These diet foods (which includes everything from salad dressing to muffins to peanut butter) are supplemented with preservatives, chemicals, sugar or sugar alternatives and end up being worse for you than their the full-fat counterparts. In fact, obesity rates in the U.S. climbed rapidly starting in the late 70s—when the guidelines were introduced—until leveling off in the year 2000. Today, more than one-third of American adults are considered obese.
Understandably, this fact represents a national crisis that needs a resolution. Obesity can lead to other health issues—diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, premature death and more—and according to the American Heart Association, the problem is so vast in the U.S. that it costs about $190 billion a year in weight-related medical bills.
But fat’s bad rap—thought to make you fat and give you heart disease—couldn’t be farther from the truth; fat contains many properties that feed a healthy lifestyle.
“Fat in general produces more energy, balances hormones and creates a satiating effect that diminishes cravings,” says Bowden, who classifies fats three ways in his new book: smart, neutral and toxic.
Toxic fats are manmade; like those from animal products that have been contaminated, common in conventionally raised (factory-farmed) poultry and meat, or fats that have been damaged (like re-heated vegetable oil used in fast food restaurants around the country).
Smart fats are designated as so because conclusive research has been completed on their specific health benefits—and include extra virgin olive oil, avocados, wild-caught fish, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate and more.
Neutral fats on the other hand, are those that pose no real health risk, like saturated fat from grass-fed meat.
Dr. Bowden points out that the “neutral” list will fluctuate as new studies and evidence emerges. For example, recent research from Harvard University shows that full-fat dairy may reduce the risk of obesity—a food group that falls under the “neutral fat” category in Bowden’s book.
Smart fats, as Bowden explains, can also have beauty benefits. The absence of fats in the diet can cause dry skin, hair and nails.
“Fats are anti-inflammatory, lubricating and necessary to the health of these structures,” says Bowden.