This post covers part of the Introduction of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Opinions are mine unless indicated otherwise.
This is the part of the book that I wish I could quote almost in its entirety and have everyone I know read it. But let me start with a personal experience.
When I was a teenager, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. In an effort to save his life, my mom began buying organic produce, and juiced like crazy. Suddenly the house was empty of the foods that had been blacklisted from his diet. Somehow, this seemed to include nearly every form of fat. I think I had previously gotten most of my fat from animal products, like fatty meat and dairy, because meat consumption in our house had dropped, as well as all the fat from the dairy. I remembered telling my mom that she needed to buy dairy with fat in it for me because I was starving.
Fat really is great for helping a person feel satisfied, as well as slowing the absorption of food, which helps keep blood sugar levels in check, and also helps prevent overeating. Eating fat is essential for good health, as it helps build cells, is an important carrier for fat-soluble vitamins, and has many other benefits.
However, the Diet Dictocrats have demonized fat, especially saturated fats. According to Fallon, this all started in the late 1950’s when a researcher, Ancel Keys, proposed the ‘lipid hypothesis’–that the amount of fat and cholesterol in the diet directly correlated with the incidence of heart disease. Even though later researchers pointed out numerous flaws in Keys’ study, Keys still got lots of publicity for his idea, and it has stuck like glue in the way American’s think about eating. But is eating saturated fat really bad for us?
Before 1920, coronary heart disease was so rare that when Paul Dudley White developed the electrocardiograph, he was told by his colleagues at Harvard to concentrate on a more profitable branch of medicine. However, in thirty years time, coronary heart disease became the leading cause of death in Americans, and today it causes 40% of deaths in Americans. What happened??
If, as we have been told, heart disease is caused by consumption of saturated fats, one would expect to find a corresponding increase in animal fat in the American diet. Actually, the reverse is true. During the sixty-year period from 1910 to 1970, the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet declined from 83 percent to 62 percent, and butter consumption plummeted from 18 pounds per person per year to four….During the same period the percentage of dietary vegetable oils in the form of margarine, shortening and refined oils increased about 400 percent while the consumption of sugar and processed foods increased 60 percent.
In a multi-year British study involving several thousand men, half were asked to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol in their diets, to stop smoking and to increase consumption of unsaturated oils such as margarine and vegetable oils. After one year, those on the “good” diet had 100 percent more deaths than those on the “bad” diet, in spite of the fact that those on the “bad” diet continued to smoke!
Cholesterol also plays an important part in human health. Mother nature is quite aware of this as there is is plenty of cholesterol in human milk:
Mother’s milk provides a higher proportion of cholesterol than almost any other food. It also contains over 50 percent of its calories as fat, much of it saturated fat. Both cholesterol and saturated fat are essential for growth in babies and children, especially the development of the brain. Yet, the American Heart Association is now recommending a low-cholesterol, lowfat diet for children! Most commercial formulas are low in saturated fats and soy formulas are completely devoid of cholesterol. A recent study linked lowfat diets with failure to thrive in children.
Nourishing Traditions was last published in 2001, so I don’t know if baby formula still lacks in saturated fat and cholesterol, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The book lists numerous ways in which cholesterol is beneficial to our body, such as preventing leaky-gut syndrome, proper functioning of serotonin receptor in the brain which helps us feel good, acts as an antioxidant, helps with digestion, important for helping the body use vitamin D, and more.
Cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease but rather a potent antioxidant weapon against free radicals in the blood, and a repair substance that helps heal arterial damage…However, like fats, cholesterol may be damaged by exposure to heat and oxygen. This damaged or oxidized cholesterol seems to promote both injury to the arterial cells and well as pathological buildup of plaque in the arteries. Damaged cholesterol is found in powdered eggs, in powdered milk…and in meats and fats that have been heated to high temperatures in frying and other high-temperature processes.
High serum cholesterol levels may indicate that there is damage in the body that the cholesterol is trying to repair. High cholesterol isn’t itself the problem –the cholesterol is just trying to fix the problem! (Thankfully, I’ve never tried to lower my cholesterol intake.)
Fallon also describes the different types of fatty acids. I won’t go into too much detail, but basically saturated fatty acids are the most stable fats. They are great for cooking because normal cooking temperatures don’t damage the fat, meaning the fat remains good for the body. Animal fats and tropical oils are saturated. Monounsaturated fatty acids are relatively stable so they can also be used for cooking. These include olive oil and some nut oils. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are highly reactive and go rancid easily, so they should never be heated. This would include oils such as flax. In general, all fats and oils contain a combination of the three types of fatty acids, so it really depends on what type of fatty acid the fat or oil contains most of. The problem with polyunsaturated oils, even if used cold, is that most of them (besides flax) contain high amounts of omega-6 linoleic acid. Too much omega-6, and not enough omega-3 can cause problems, so polyunsaturated oil use should be kept to a minimum. This includes canola oil, which is very popular right now.
Hydrogenation and homogenization are both processes that can turn fat into a toxin. If you use margarine or shortening, you may be interested in knowing how they are made:
…manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils–soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process–and mix them with tiny metal particles–usually nickel oxide. The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes its unpleasant odor. Margarine’s natural color, an unappetizing grey, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavors must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally, the mixture is compressed and packaged in blocks or tubs and sold as a health food.
Sick, right? Partially hydrogenated oils are known as trans fats. They body doesn’t understand what trans fats are and thinks they are real fats, and will actually incorporate them into the cells of the body, causing the cells to become partially hydrogenated. Is that not scary?
As for homogenization–that thing they do to milk so it doesn’t separate–it makes the fat and cholesterol in the milk more susceptible to rancidity and oxidation, and if you remember, rancid and oxidized fats and cholesterol can cause heart disease.
In summary, I would like to conclude that our ancestors were doing just fine by eating animal fats before the Diet Dictocrats came along and ruined everything. I read the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was a kid, and I could never understand the mismatch between what those homesteaders ate and what ‘health experts’ were now telling us what to eat. Now it makes sense, doesn’t it?