From the dawn of mankind, humans have eaten a wide and varied diet. We have gathered plants, berries, and nuts until we learned to grow our own. And we have hunted. Animal products have always been a major part of our diet. We crave meat, be it white or red. We slather our pieces of bread with butter, and we drown our fruity desserts in cream. We bake cakes and pies loaded with fat and carbs. And we have enjoyed every minute of it.
But modern man has grown concerned about his dietary practices. Our expanding waistlines, Type II Diabetes and irregular hearts have given us cause for concern. And we have taken to understanding that, perhaps, our bodies simply are not designed to tolerate the diet of our ancestors. Perhaps that red meat is more harmful to us on the skillet than it ever was to our ancestors on the hoof.
Animal products are the main source of fats in our diet, and the debate has raged for years about the value, or lack of value, of these fats in our diet. Products such as cooking oil are marketed based on the use of certain supposedly healthier fats. Red meat has been vilified. And if you drink whole milk you might as well put a dash of hemlock in it. But is all this paranoia about fats and how they affect our bodies, particularly our circulatory system, truly warranted? New evidence may indicate that it is not the case.
First, what exactly are we talking about? Saturated fats are usually cast as the ultimate villain, with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats riding to the rescue. We really don’t need to know what makes a fat-saturated or unsaturated, but the simple answer seems to be that liquid fats are generally unsaturated, while solid one, like lard, is of the saturated variety. The idea that saturated fats are harmful may stem from a book by Ansel Keys, “The Seven Country Study”, written about fifty years ago. But many experts agree that this study and its results have been cherry-picked to support a foregone conclusion. And the campaign against fats in the diet has been energized by the advent of the keto diet craze. This type of diet, rich in animal fats and protein and low in carbohydrates, has seemingly offered surprising benefits to its adherents, benefits such as a reduction in weight, blood sugar, and blood pressure, and an increase in energy levels. But, despite these benefits, there has been an increasing backlash against such a diet, lead primarily by the “fat is bad” contingent of the medical community. That’s why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with the recent Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) Study. Dr. Salim Yusuf, president of the World Heart Federation and professor at McMaster University Medical School in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, headed up the study and made some surprising, at least to some, conclusions.
Before all you keto enthusiasts get too fired up, let me tell you that the PURE Study is an observational type study, useful for establishing hypotheses to be tested using accepted scientific methods. I must point out that such an observational study may not be able to prove conclusively that one thing is the direct cause of another, they can make a serious argument that one thing is NOT the cause of another. So, what does the study say about fats? Well, first of all, it indicates that carbs are bad, that they do nothing to protect us against heart disease. But, contrary to the teachings of the American Heart Association, increasing fats seems to act as protection.
Furthermore, it shows that saturated fats are not harmful, and may, in fact, be beneficial. Their bad reputation may come from the fact that they have been associated with an increase in LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol, which experts have always believed contributed to heart disease. But this study shows that a higher level of saturated fats actually decreases your chance of a heart attack, independent of its effect on LDL. It also makes the point that there seems to be no benefit to polyunsaturated fats whatsoever, despite all the hype and advertising we have been led to believe for at least fifty years. Monounsaturated fats, however, seem to have a beneficial and protective effect. And go ahead and down that big glass of cold, refreshing whole milk, drown your cereal in it, and lighten your coffee to a perfect shade of beige because the study indicates that there is no evidence that one or two percent milk is any more healthful.
So, how did we get things so wrong? Dr. Yusef believes that previous studies were looking at intermediate steps in the process of heart disease rather than examining the endgame. They worried about how it affected our cholesterol levels but neglected to examine the final correlation with actual heart disease.
The PURE Study also takes on the question of sodium in our diets, and Dr. Yusuf has reached the conclusion that all recommendations for sodium intake are far too low. Sodium is an essential nutrient and the first line of defense against infections on the skin. Many of the recommendations for lower sodium intake are based on a study of the Yanomami Tribe, which indicated that lower sodium intake equals lower blood pressure. But the Yanomami have a life expectancy of only 32 years, and usually, die of infection. (But with lower blood pressure!)
Also, the study finds that fruits and vegetables are, essentially, neutral when it comes to health concerns, neither beneficial nor harmful. So the good doctor’s suggestion is that if you like it, you should eat it.
In conclusion, although it may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, the study concludes that saturated fats, when consumed in usual ranges, are not harmful, that polyunsaturated fats offer no benefits whatsoever, nor do they do any harm, and monounsaturated fats are beneficial. Carbohydrates that make up over fifty percent of your daily caloric intake are not good. So, no need to feel guilty about that juicy cheeseburger dripping with melted cheese after all. But maybe wrap it in a lettuce leaf instead of a bun. And don’t forget to salt it to taste!