What Are Fats? Misconceptions & Truths

What Are Fats? Misconceptions & Truths

  Last update November 11, 2021, article reviewed & updated multiple times since April 4, 2001.

  What You Need to Know

  • The attack on dietary fat has been going on for more than 70 years, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on research trying to prove that if you eat a low-fat diet, you will be healthier and live longer.
  • In the 1940s, during World War II, the American government pointed out that children need fats to grow, and told mothers not to cut their children’s butter allowance to less than one pound per week.
  • The results of all the testing and studies about dietary fats have become enormously convoluted.

What is fat? Today we are beginning our discussions of dietary fats. In this new series of articles, we will be discussing the answers to the following questions: What are fats? What are oils? How are fats and oils digested by and absorbed into the body? We’ll also be talking about how dietary fats relate to body fat. At the very start, though, let’s consider how it is that so-called ‘nutritional science’ seems to tell us that every condition known to mankind is in some way related to dietary fat. How and why has fat been relegated to the position of being the “evil food?”

It will take several articles to fully explore these questions, so let’s get started.

When Did Dietary Fat Become Unfashionable?

Healthy Fats Butter
Image by rodeopix from Pixabay
The attack on dietary fat has been going on for more than 70 years, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on research trying to prove that if you eat a low-fat diet, you will be healthier and live longer.

For most of the past 70 years, we have been told that eating healthily means avoiding dietary fat, and an entire industry has grown up around this idea. The creation and marketing of reduced-fat food products has become such big business that there are now some 20,000 products on food store shelves that identify themselves as low-fat or free-free. There are hundreds of food science laboratories dedicated to developing and manufacturing fat-free substitutes for dietary fats.

With such a large industry having much to gain if people believe that less fat in the diet is good, it is no wonder that billions of advertising dollars are spent every year trying to sell the message. And the message is constantly reinforced by many doctors, nutritionists, journalists, health organizations, and consumer advocacy groups, each group repeating what the others have said. And, I might add, each pointing to the other as the authority for the information.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the 1940s, during World War II, the American government circulated posters for public information. Among these posters were some concerning foods to keep children healthy during the war years. The posters pointed out that children need fats to grow, and told mothers not to cut their children’s butter allowance to less than one pound per week! This, from the same American Department of Agriculture that now circulates Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid, recommending that fats and oils be eaten only sparingly.

What changed? How did we go from ‘at least one pound of butter each week’ to ‘at most, one ounce a day’? It started in the 1950s with the idea that high cholesterol levels increase heart disease risk. Despite the fact that in all previous years, dietary fat was higher and heart disease was lower, and despite the fact that the human body produces cholesterol regardless of the amount of dietary fat eaten, the idea that cholesterol in the diet causes heart disease was easy and appealing. But the original study only measured the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, without taking into consideration that cholesterol is carried in many ways:

  • Cholesterol is carried as Low-Density Lipoproteins (referred to as* LDLs, the so-called “bad” cholesterol) that deliver fat and cholesterol from the liver to tissues that need it. LDLs also appear to carry cholesterol to the arteries, where it may form atherosclerotic plaques.
  • Cholesterol is carried as High-Density Lipoproteins (referred to as HDLs, the so-called “good” cholesterol) that return cholesterol to the liver. The higher the HDL, the lower the heart disease risk, or so they say.
  • Cholesterol is carried with Triglycerides and the Very Low Density Lipoproteins (referred to as VLDLs), which transport triglycerides.

All of these cholesterol-containing particles were said to have some effect on heart disease risk. But although fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the diet have varying effects on all these particles, those effects were not part of the factors that were considered!

All Fat Is Not The Same

Healthy Fats - Olive Oil
Image by Mareefe from Pixabay
The 1950s story was that saturated fats in the diet, by themselves, increase total cholesterol, while polyunsaturated fats decrease total cholesterol, and monounsaturated fats are neutral. But by the late 1970s, it was shown that monounsaturated fats are not neutral at all. Rather, they raise HDLs and lower LDLs. From the “Cholesterol is Evil” point of view, monounsaturated fats should be an ideal nutrient!

Then there is the matter of saturated fats, per se. While they appear to elevate LDL, which is said to be bad, they also elevate HDL, which is said to be good. Some saturated fats also appear to be neutral. Some fats raise HDL levels but do little or nothing to LDL levels. Then, there are the so-called trans fatty acids, which raise LDL, just like saturated fat, but also lower HDL.

Although none of these facts are highly controversial in the low-fat world, many of them appear to be contradictory. And the most important fact of all, the influence of high levels of carbohydrates on the actions of fats and cholesterol, has been largely ignored. The upshot is that “fat is bad and needs to be rigorously controlled,” continues to be the common wisdom.

Not All Scientific Studies Are Produce Valid Information

The results of all the testing and studies have become enormously convoluted. Among the major factors that complicate the issues are: Who does the research? Who pays for the research? What questions are being asked in the research? What questions are not being asked in the research? Which research is considered when making reports to the media? Which research is ignored when making those reports? How much ego or prestige, and how many university positions are invested in one opinion or the other?

We will talk more about these issues as we go along, but for now, let’s consider an example that illustrates the problem. Let’s consider a steak with a thin layer of fat along one side.

After cooking, the steak is almost equal parts fat and protein. Half the fat in the steak is monounsaturated, the same type of fat that is in olive oil. Saturated fat makes up most of the rest of the fat, but a third of that is one of the fats that it said to be neutral in its effect on the heart. And about 5% of the fat is polyunsaturated, which is said to improve cholesterol levels. In other words, 50% to 70% of the fat content of the steak, according to the anti-fat people’s own reasoning, will improve cholesterol levels compared to what they would be if bread, potatoes, or pasta were consumed instead. The remaining 30% to 50% will raise LDLs, but will also raise HDL. All of this suggests that eating a steak rather than carbohydrates might actually improve heart disease risk! But, have we heard any of the low-fat pundits saying this?

Why A Low Carbohydrate Diet Is A Healthy Diet

In the low carbohydrate world, we are certain that the problems of diet-related diseases are associated with a high intake of carbohydrates, not a high intake of fats. Although it is probably true that those who began pushing low-fat diets had hoped the populace would replace dietary fat with fruits and vegetables, it didn’t work out that way. The food industry has no incentive to advertise generic food items such as green vegetables. Instead, the food advertisers sell their own brands of low-fat fast food and snacks, all high or very high in carbohydrates.

A low-fat diet is nearly always a high carbohydrate diet. In point of fact, the low-fat authorities advocate the high carbohydrate alternative, pushing pasta in place of meats. But numerous studies now suggest that high carbohydrate diets can raise triglyceride levels, create small, dense LDL particles, reduce HDLs, and result in insulin resistance, along with the condition that has come to be known as “Syndrome X.” In other words, the more that carbohydrates replace saturated fats in the diet, the more likely the end result will be Syndrome X and an increased risk of heart!

I’ll talk more about the origins and results of the idea that dietary fat is a devil in my next article. Please join me.

Further Reading:

The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets
    The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets

  • Presented by CarbSmart.com
  • This article is number 13 of 24 articles describing The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets. Visit this link or click the above image for all of the articles in the series.
Article History

  • Last Update November 11, 2021
  • Updated March 18, 2018
  • Updated July 24, 2010
  • Updated September 20, 2003
  • Original Article October 14, 2001
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About Dr. Beth Gruber
Dr. Gruber is a graduate of the Southern California University of Health Sciences and has been in private chiropractic practice in Long Beach, California since 1964. She also received both a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from California State University at Long Beach. She has written on health-related subjects for over 30 years, for several different publications. She lives in Southern California with her husband of 33 years. Both she and her husband follow and live the low-carb lifestyle full time.

Next Article:[contentcards url=”https://www.carbsmart.com/attack-on-dietary-fat.html” target=”_blank”] More Vital Information articles by Dr. Beth Gruber.

Back to Vital Information by Dr. Beth Gruber – Scientific analysis of issues related to the low carb dieter in CarbSmart Magazine.

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  1. I have maintained a healthy weight for years eating low carb. Also avoided family related diabetics .

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