Are Healthy Fats Making a Comeback?

A recent staple of Paula Deen’s kitchen — butter — graced the cover of TIME magazine earlier this summer. Fat became public enemy No. 1 in 1970 when Ancel Keys published a study demonizing fat by linking it to heart disease and cholesterol. Despite subsequent research indicating this is a poor correlation, this study stuck with the healthcare and food industries for the last 40 years. And, with fat consumption on the decline, the food industry started replacing it with sugar to keep its products palatable. 

TIME’s Bryan Walsh illustrated a very detailed history on our relationship with fat over the last four decades, and how it’s affected our hearts and waistlines. In 1977, a Senate committee published a report titled: “Dietary Goals for the United States,” also known as the "McGovern Report." The goal was for Americans to cut back on red meat, dairy and eggs, while replacing them with fruits, vegetables and, importantly, carbohydrates. 

Over time, the shift to replacing fat with carbohydrates resulted in multiple low-fat crazes — and a rising obesity epidemic.

Somewhere, lost in the science of the post-McGovern Report era, we neglected calories and weight management. When we left the oil and butter on the shelf, we just ate more bread, pasta and low-fat desserts. Despite fat containing nine calories per gram — over twice the amount of protein and carbohydrate, which contain four calories per gram — fat does a lot for us. Mainly, it is very satiating and carries flavor. So instead of eating a scant tablespoon of peanut butter or dipping our bread in oil, we just added twice as much sugar to feed our hedonic needs, and in the process increased our waistlines. In other words, we ate more, weighed more, and, with the resulting rising obesity rates, associated diseases — heart disease (stroke and high blood pressure), diabetes, cancer and metabolic syndrome — also became more prevalent. 

So fat is safe to eat right? That depends. Dietary fat is a major player in the body. It helps synthesize hormones, vitamins (particularly vitamins D, E, K and A), and makes food palatable. Trans fatty acids from hydrogenated vegetables oils increase the risk of heart disease (for example, margarine, processed foods, etc.). On the other hand, monounsaturated fatty acids, such as olive oil, reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition to the TIME article, the journal Atherosclerosis published a study showing animal product intake — unprocessed red meat, dairy and eggs — is not associated with increases in heart disease, and that nuts and olive oils decreased heart disease risk. The study also recommended eliminating trans-fat from the diet.

Current research is indicating that being overweight while eating processed foods and smoking leads to the greatest risk of developing heart disease, stroke and even diabetes. In addition, choosing monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, when combined with maintaining a healthy weight with physical activity, will prevent or reduce your chances of developing heart disease.

Gina Lesako on BloggerGina Lesako on Twitter
Gina Lesako
Gina Lesako, RD, LD, is a nutritionist and the blog coordinator for the dietetic practice group, SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition). She also writes her own blog, Dietitians Eat Chocolate Too. Follow her antics on Twitter.