By Kristin Wartman
(Originally printed in Paleo magazine May/June 2011 issue)
Animal fats, long deemed the villain of the nutrition world, have been blamed for everything from clogged arteries, elevated cholesterol, heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, and obesity — but the evidence that saturated fats do indeed cause any of these health concerns is scant. Unfortunately for the American people, the years of advice to eat a low-fat diet has backfired — resulting in the unprecedented rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease we see today.
Animal products were the primary source of food that our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on — in fact, these were often the only foods available in the form of wild game or fish and seafood. Our ancestors’ diet was based on these animal foods as well as foraged vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other plant materials in their unadulterated form. This is the way we ate for some 200,000 years and it has only been the last 10,000 that we’ve switched to an agrarian diet based more on the starchy seeds of cultivated grasses.
While the advent of agriculture forever changed our diets, Americans still consumed a largely whole foods diet high in saturated animal fats. We continued to eat animal products in their full-fat and whole form until about the turn of the century but they were soon replaced with highly processed and refined foods. Between 1900 and 1950, the use of margarine quadrupled, the use of vegetable oils tripled, and egg consumption declined by half. After World War II, hydrogenated oils or trans-fats became commonplace. Around this time, scientists were trying to determine what could account for the steep rise in heart disease, which at the turn of the century, accounted for less than 10 percent of all deaths but by 1950 rose to 30 percent1. Scientists concluded that saturated fats caused heart disease and thus the lipid hypothesis was developed. This newfound theory prompted government and medical establishments to promote low-fat alternatives to traditional fats — like using margarine instead of butter, or soybean oil instead of lard. Meanwhile, after more than 50 years of following this advice, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming more than 600,000 lives every year.
But if saturated fats were the cause of heart disease, wouldn’t the rates be steadily declining as Americans obediently switched to low-fat and fat free products? What accounts for this disconnect?
There is a body of research now that suggests the lipid hypothesis is faulty and that the addition of processed oils, refined flour, sugar, and chemical additives to the food supply are really what accounts for obesity and its related risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. A study completed this year and reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition2found that, “There is no significant evidence for concludingthat dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased riskof coronary heart disease or coronary vascular disease.” And in the current issue of the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association3, there is a report attributing the rise in obesity and diabetes to the “ultra-processing” of foods rather than the food items themselves. The author, Professor Carlos Monteir, writes, “The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed. That is to say, the big issue is food processing—or, to be more precise, the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing.”
Prior to the 1900s, humans were not eating much of what is commonly eaten now simply because it didn’t exist. Human beings have never eaten the combination of refined carbohydrates, refined sugars, trans-fats, additives, chemicals, antibiotics, or artificial bovine growth hormones that most Americans are eating today.
Instead our ancestors were eating unadulterated, wild, organic (by default) animal fats. This is why it’s essential that we eat animals that were raised as close to their natural state as possible — which means, cattle raised on grass, pastured pigs, chicken, eggs, and wild seafood or game. There are great differences between these versions of animal foods and the industrial-produced variety, which are laced with antibiotics, growth hormones, as well as pesticide residue from the animal’s unnatural diet of grains.
The actual composition of animal products produced close to their natural state is much different than their industrial counterparts. For example, a 2007 study completed by Mother Earth News4 found that chickens raised on pasture produced far more nutritious eggs than those produced on a factory farm. According to the study, the pastured eggs had one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene. And according to studies compiled at EatWild.com, grass-fed meat contains two to four times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and four times the amount of vitamin E.Meat and dairy products from grass-fed ruminants are also the richest known source of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. CLA is a potent anticancer fatty acid and is found primarily in the milk, meat, and butterfat of animals raised on pasture. It also prevents heart disease, builds lean muscle, and aids in weight loss. When ruminants are raised on fresh pasture alone, their products contain three to five times more CLA than products from animals fed conventional diets.
Butterfat — perhaps the most demonized fat of all is actually a health-promoting food when produced properly. Grass-fed butter, rich in CLA also contains lauric acid, a conditionally essential acid since it is only found in milk products and is not produced in the liver like other saturated fats. It must be obtained from one of two sources, butterfat or coconut oil. Lauric acid is crucial to our bodies because it is antimicrobial, antitumor, and supports our immune system. In addition, butter is the only source of butyric acid, which has antifungal and antitumor effects. Grass-fed butter is also high in vitamins A and D and contains omega-3 fatty acids.
And what about pork products, another scourge of the conventional nutrition world? Pastured pork contains CLA, omega-3 fatty acids, and beta-carotene, and lard is rich in monounsaturated fat, the kind that lowers LDL (or “bad” cholesterol). This brings me to another important fact that is often left out of the conversation on fats: all fats are a blend of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The idea that foods are just one of these three is a prevalent misunderstanding. For example, only half the fat in beef is unsaturated — it contains a combination of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Lard, while dependent on what the pig ate, is mostly unsaturated fatty acids as is chicken fat. Vegetables and fish also contain a mix of fatty acids. The simplifying of fats is inaccurate and does a disservice to gaining a true understanding of how fats work in our bodies.
And why are fats so important? Besides being delicious and making our foods taste good, they are absolutely necessary for optimal health. Without fats, the body cannot absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Digestion is impossible without fats since fats stimulate the production of bile acids, and cell membranes, which are made of fats, control the muscles of the gastrointestinal tract. Fats are also crucial to brain function and mental health. Studies have found that people suffering from depression are often deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and some researchers implicate omega-3 deficiencies in learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. And most surprising of all to many convinced of the lipid hypothesis, the heart muscle prefers saturated fat for fuel and thus the fat around our hearts is comprised mostly of saturated fatty acids, which are required for proper heart function.5
And if you’re still a believer in the lipid hypothesis, there’s one remaining fact that cannot be disputed: pre-industrial societies all around the world valued the nutrient-density of animal foods, be it from the sea or land. They valued these foods so highly because they instinctively knew they kept them healthy and strong and were needed to produce healthy babies and children. These groups were also relatively free of the “diseases of civilization” like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Examples of these cultures abound: the Masai peoples and similar tribes in Africa subsist mostly on milk, blood, and meat and are free of heart disease and have low levels of cholesterol; several Mediterranean societies have low rates of heart disease while eating a diet very high in saturated fat, in the form of lamb, sausage, and goat cheese — making up 70 percent of their caloric intake; in Okinawa the inhabitants eat generous amounts of pork and seafood, do all their cooking in lard, and boast one of the longest average life spans; and a study of the long-lived residents of Soviet Georgia found that those who ate the fattiest meats lived the longest.6
The fats that damage our health are those of industrial origin and should be avoided at all costs. This is the simplest way to understand nutrition: eat real foods in their unadulterated form and nothing else. Animal fats from animals raised in their natural environments are one of the most traditional and real foods we can eat, so here’s to butter, bacon, beef, and eggs — we should eat them until our hearts are content —literally!
1 “Real Food”, Nina Planck. June 2007. ISBN-10: 1596913428
5 Lawson, L D and F Kummerow, Lipids, 1979, 14:501-503; Garg, M L, Lipids, Apr 1989, 24(4):334-9.
6 Pitskhelauri, G Z, The Long Living of Soviet Georgia, 1982, Human Sciences Press, New York, NY
Kristin Wartman is a food writer living in Brooklyn. She has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Nutrition Educator. She is interested in the intersections of food, health, politics and culture. You can read more of her writing at kristinwartman.wordpress.com.