Everything About Fat

Probably More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Fat and Thought You Already Knew, But Didn’t

Ideas seem to have a way of ingraining themselves in mass consciousness such that it is difficult, if not impossible, to uproot them. Get enough people behind an idea and the idea becomes “truth”, even if it has no basis in objective reality. Like some kind of weed that grows in the gardens of people’s imaginations, ideas, even if they’re wrong, can be quite persistent. Gardeners of truth may work hard in the garden of the mind to remove these weeds, yet their deep roots may often evade the well-intentioned gardener. Tireless efforts often seem successful, only for the same tired idea to poke its head up through the undergrowth once more. This brings the stark realization that the weed was never gone at all, but its roots were merely hidden from view, growing ever more expansive beneath the surface.

After nearly a century of the ‘fat is evil’ weed, gardeners of truth may finally be making some headway in the garden of the collective mind. Since the inception of the ‘lipid hypothesis’, researchers, nutritionists and journalists alike have been pulling up this weed, exposing the logical inconsistencies of tying natural fats to disease.

Decades of low-fat diets have failed to slow a rising obesity epidemic or stem the tide of widespread chronic disease. In fact, new research presented at the American Dietetic Association’s Annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Boston shows that a low-fat diet is actually dangerous. Swapping out natural high-fat foods for their processed counterparts leads to a diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugar), additives and other dangerous ingredients that are probably the actual culprits in our growing epidemic of poor health. Thankfully, some of the more aware among us are beginning to realize that the dietary recommendations given to us by our governments, our doctors and our dietitians over the past 3 generations simply do not work.

Yet the roots of the weeds are still present. Never in the history of human nutritional science has one macronutrient been so maligned, so misunderstood and so falsely accused as fat has been post-World War II. The idea that fat not only makes you fat, but blocks up your arteries, raises your cholesterol to dangerous levels, gives you diabetes and heart disease, and causes strokes and all sorts of cancers is not easy to vanquish. Even when presented with the science, the logical arguments that show eating the right fat is neither dangerous nor unhealthy (and mightily delicious at that), people are still extremely tentative in their consumption and experts are still ultra-conservative in their recommendations.

In the days of our great-grandparents, before obesity epidemics and plagues of chronic disease, fat consumption was abundant. Animal fats were valued for their ability to withstand high temperatures and add delectable flavor and texture to meals. It wasn’t until the rise of seed oils – oils much less fit for human consumption in large quantities and removed from their original whole source – that our health began to fail. The advertising of these seed oils propagated then, and still to this day, tries to convince us that they are the healthy alternative to ‘dangerous’ animal fats. And yet, as their consumption increases, so too do chronic disease rates.

Recommendations from the ‘experts’, firmly entrenched in this seemingly unmovable meme, have continued to demonize animal fats in favor of vegetable oils. If you’re getting sick, you’re obviously not following these recommendations to the letter. And if you are, then it’s time to make the recommendations even more stringent, allowing for less animal fat; indeed, less fat altogether.

As time has worn on in this anti-fat regime, ‘health foods’ have become more and more bland in favor of lower target numbers of fat on nutrition labels. Every chef knows that fat equals flavor. To replace these natural flavorful nutrients, it’s necessary to fool our tongues with something. Thus these flavor-enhancing chemicals, particularly monosodium glutamate, have become a necessity for anyone to actually moderately enjoy what essentially amounts to low-calorie, low-fat cardboard. Sugar, or, more likely, high-fructose corn syrup, now saturates every processed food on the grocery store shelf. All in the name of your ‘health’, of course.

The question is, can we go back to a time when fats were valued for what they are – delicious, nutritious, nutrient-dense components of our diets? There is abundant research showing the benefit of fats, saturated fats from animal sources in particular. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, Know Your Fats by Dr. Mary G. Enig, ‘The Whole Health Source‘ blog done by Stephan Guyenet, a number of articles by Dr. Joseph Mercola on www.mercola.com, along with thousands of other books, blogs and articles, present the well-reasoned, scientifically-grounded arguments for abundant fat consumption. These arguments are reaching millions. And still, we hesitate.

In a way, this hesitation is understandable. We’re still surrounded on all sides by half-truths and misrepresentations when it comes to the topic of fats. Advertising copy, rumors and hearsay make up most of the sources of information on health and nutrition in the modern landscape. On the other hand, we have doctors untrained in nutrition and articles written by journalists with only a peripheral understanding of this complex topic. Most information heard in the media is simply a retreading of previously-heard information, while little critical thought or analysis is added to the debate. Indeed, no critical debate seems to exist.

But the word is getting out. Some have switched back from margarine to natural healthy butter. Some have even gone so far as to ditch the highly-refined vegetable oils supposedly good for cooking in favor of coconut oil (gasp, a saturated fat!). Some experts are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. to remove the total fat counts from nutritional labels.

Yet few have truly embraced the new fat renaissance. You still have to search far and wide in North America for preservative-free, non-hydrogenated lard, for instance. Ask your butcher for beef tallow and he’s likely to raise a brow before ‘seeing what he can do’. Animal fats, while available by the quart in France for example, are only found in high-end food stores here in North America, in small quantities and for high prices. Because seed oils are still the norm, it just can’t be imagined that someone would want to use animal fats for anything other than the most indulgent treat on the rarest of occasions, despite the fact that grandma used to use it for everything from frying taters to making pie crust.

Know Your Fats

Animal fat is among the healthiest fats you can eat.

Despite an increasing appreciation for dietary fat, using fats in the wrong way can, indeed, lead to ill health and damage the body. There are fats out there that can have all the negative effects which fat as a whole has been accused of having for the past several decades. Likewise, healthy fats treated in the wrong way can be as equally damaging. The fat revolution doesn’t imply that extra mayo should go on that BLT, and it certainly doesn’t suddenly transform fast food joint french fries into a health food.

Understand that the vast majority of what we hear about fat – in the media, from our friends, even from our doctors – is simply wrong. The ‘fat-is-evil’ weed is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that fat recommendations are still overcautious. Even alternative health professionals often hedge their recommendations with warnings about eating too much fat and it’s still rare to find an ‘expert’ recommending saturated fat consumption. Word is spreading, but it has yet to reach everyone and, unfortunately, the people with the loudest voice seem to be the last to get hip to the truth.

Thus, the first order in getting our society turned around on fat is education. To get a healthy relationship with fat, we need to have a healthy understanding of fat. Knowing the rules, and why the rules apply, means never being confused about which ‘health’ foods are actually healthy and which ‘junk’ foods are actually the ones to be eating. Seeing through the hype on fats is key.

Before we get into the technical details on why some fats are good and some are bad, here’s a quick rundown on how to identify certain fats and oils and how best to deal with them:

Polyunsaturated Fats – These are usually from nut and seed oils. You can tell whether an oil is mostly made up of polyunsaturated fats if it stays liquid even when it’s put in the fridge. They are often referred to as ‘essential fats’ or ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFAs) because they are needed for the proper functioning of our bodies, but they cannot be created from other fats. You also hear them referred to as omega-3s or omega-6s. However, polyunsaturated fats should never be used for cooking or otherwise heated. These fats are quite delicate and can easily go rancid, turning them into harmful oils which promote disease. As such, they need to be protected from heat, light and even air. Polyunsaturated oils should be sold in a dark bottle, only be ‘cold pressed’ (i.e. no heat is used in the extraction process) and should never be used as a cooking oil. Unfortunately, the oils from the grocery store sold in clear plastic bottles for the express purpose of cooking are all polyunsaturated oils!

Polyunsaturated Fats include – safflower oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, hemp seed oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil, fish oils

Best used for – cold applications only: salads, smoothies, supplements (as with flaxseed or fish oil)

Look for – dark bottles, sold in the refrigerated section, cold pressed, organic

Monounsaturated Fats – These fats are found in some vegetables, nuts and fruits and make up a good part of the fats found in meats. They are a little bit heartier than polyunsaturated oils and can be used for some light-heat applications like light sautéing or baking. The most common vegetable-sourced monounsaturated fat is olive oil. You can tell whether an oil is mostly monounsaturated fats because it becomes gelatinous and sludgy when put in the fridge but stays liquid at room temperature.

Monounsaturated Fats include – olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil

Best used for – cold applications like salads, dips or pestos; light sautéing or some baking

Look for – dark glass bottles, cold pressed, organic

Saturated Fat – Don’t believe the hype – saturated fat is good for you! Despite almost a century of dietary recommendations against intake of saturated fat, the public is finally starting to catch up with what some researchers and holistic health professionals have known all along: that saturated fat consumption actually promotes health. Saturated fats are found in meats, some dairy products, and eggs, as well as some tropical vegetables. They are ideal for cooking as they can withstand much higher temperatures than other oils. You know a fat is saturated if it is solid or semi-solid at room temperature.

Saturated Fats include – duck fat, goose fat, beef tallow, butter, ghee, lard (pork fat), coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and red palm oil. Note: duck fat and lard actually have a higher content of monounsaturated fats than saturated fats but are grouped in with saturated fats since they make up a third or more of their total fat, and because everyone thinks that animal fats are entirely saturated; an unfortunate misconception.

Best used for – all high-heat applications including searing, frying, deep or shallow-frying, baking, etc.

Look for – organic

Fats to avoid at all costs – all polyunsaturated oils sold for cooking, anything sold in clear plastic bottles, margarines or other tub spreads, any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, interesterified fats, vegetable shortening, ‘vegetable oil’, cottonseed oil, all genetically modified oils like canola oil, corn oil and soy oil.

There were, more than likely, a few surprises for the reader in the above outline. The truth about how to best use fats has been so subverted that we don’t recognize it when we see it. The vast majority of the fats and oils on my “No” list are the exact oils you find in 90% of processed foods on the market. We’re encouraged to cook with the fats that are most easily damaged by heat, thereby causing harm when consumed, while we’re told to avoid the fats that are actually good for cooking!

The remainder of this article is going to be looking at why the outline above is true. In order to do that, we first need to examine the chemistry of fats. The molecular structure of fats is what gives them their unique properties; what makes some right for cooking, others right for supplementing and others good for little more than oiling your bike chain.

Firstly, the nomenclature. Lipid is the scientific name for fat. The term fat generally refers to lipids that are relatively solid at room temperature, while those that are liquid at room temperature are called oils. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, however, as the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and the term fat is often used to denote any lipid.

On a microscopic level, fatty acids are bonded carbon chains connected to an acid group (carboxyl group). The carbon atoms in the chain are either bonded to other carbons or to hydrogen atoms. A carbon chain which has all available bonds taken up by hydrogen atoms is said to be saturated, because no more hydrogen could possibly be added to the chain. But, if some of the available bonds are used to form double bonds with carbon atoms in the chain, these fatty acids are said to be unsaturated, since more hydrogen atoms could potentially still fit in. A fatty acid with one double bond is called monounsaturated, while fatty acids with more than one double bond are polyunsaturated.

Examples of saturated and unsaturated fats, Palmitic Acid and Palmitoleic Acid respectively

The position where the first double bond shows up in the chain determines how we name it. If the first double bond comes after the third carbon, it’s called an omega-3 fat (w3). If it’s in the sixth position, it’s an omega-6 (w6) and in the ninth, an omega-9 (w9). This isn’t just for labeling purposes – these fats have very different properties and need to be distinguished. Unsaturated fats can have as many as six double bonds in the chain. The more double bonds, the more delicate and unstable.

A fat molecule, as distinguished from individual fatty acids, is composed of three fatty acid molecules bonded to a glycerol molecule. This is called a triglyceride and it is generally the form in which you find fats in nature. When we digest fats, enzymes in our digestive tract break the fatty acids away from the glycerol molecule and the individual fatty acids are absorbed. Which fatty acids are present in a triglyceride molecule determines the fat’s characteristics, including its shape, its behavior and its stability.

Omega-3 fatty acid Stearidonic Acid and Omega-6 fatty acid Gamma-Linolenic Acid

Why am I going into this much detail, you may ask?! Because the molecular structure of the fatty acid dictates its characteristics – how it behaves when heated, when refrigerated, when exposed to light and, of course, what the body does with it when consumed. In a word, structure is everything. The key to understanding your fats and what to do with them lies in understanding their structure.

Unsaturated Fats

When double bonds are present in a fatty acid it is said to be unsaturated, since some of the bonds are doubled up between the carbon atoms and are therefore not occupied by hydrogen. These double bonds in the fatty acid chains make the chain bend. The more double bonds, the more kinky or bent the fatty acid is.

The double bonds make the properties of unsaturated fats quite different from saturated fats. Because the molecules are bent, they can’t stack. They therefore remain in a loose formation and are liquid on a macroscopic level. The double bonds also carry a slight negative charge, meaning the fatty acids repel each other slightly. The more unsaturated fatty acids present in a lipid, the more liquid it is. Monounsaturated fats, like the predominant fat in olive oil, oleic acid, have only one double bond. It’s therefore liquid at room temperature and gets sludgy when chilled. On the other hand, flaxseed oil, which is predominantly an omega-3 fat called alpha linolenic acid, has three double bonds. It’s therefore liquid at room temperature and in the fridge.

Double bonds are quite delicate and susceptible to oxidation. This can happen when they’re exposed to heat, or even light, in the presence of oxygen. Since heat-free, light-free, oxygen-free conditions are difficult to find here on the surface of our planet, Mother Nature was smart enough to pair these oils with antioxidant molecules for protection. For example, plant foods rich in unsaturated fats are often good sources of vitamin E, the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin that can protect the fragile double bonds from free radical damage.

A damaged double bond means the fat is rancid. Rancid fats are actually quite dangerous to eat, causing free radical formation that can cause damage to cells. Damage to the DNA within the cell can cause mutations in the genetic structure and lead to cancer. Fortunately, we’ve been equipped with a means o detecting a rancid oil – our nose. Rancid oils smell spoiled. If you do end up eating one, they taste spoiled too.

Polyunsaturated oils sold for cooking are the worst for your health

Processing to extract polyunsaturated oils, usually from seeds, grains or nuts, inevitably damages the antioxidants, making the oils highly volatile and causing them to readily turn rancid. Some processors are mindful of this and use cold pressing and minimal refining processes to keep these oils from becoming damaged. These oils are usually only found in health food stores, and are sold in the refrigerator and in dark bottles to protect the oils.

However, such well-processed oils constitute the minority. Most polyunsaturated oils are processed extensively to maximize extraction. The seeds are heated, then distilled, refined, bleached and deodorized. This process damages the antioxidants and damages the oils themselves. A preservative chemical, such as the carcinogenic BHA or BHT, is generally added to replace the lost antioxidants and to prevent further spoilage. But make no mistake, these oils are rancid from the get-go. The only reason you can’t tell is because they have been deodorized and ultra-refined. They are not fit for human consumption!

Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats are referred to as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). This is because our body is unable to make them from existing fats. Our bodies, for example, can create the w9 fat oleic acid by inserting a double bond into the ninth position of the saturated fat stearic acid. But our bodies are unable to insert a double bond at the w3 or w6 position. Therefore, it is essential that these fats be present in the diet.

There is some disagreement among researchers as to how much of these essential fats are needed in the diet. Bodily needs vary according to time of year, level of physical activity and other nutrients in the diet, among other confounding factors. Some say the ratio between w6 and w3 is equally important, perhaps more important, than the actual quantity in the diet. But even the ideal ratio is up for debate. Some researchers put the ratio anywhere from 5:1 up to 2:1 or 1:1 of w6 to w3.

As a general guideline, the Western diet tends to be extremely high in w6 consumption and extremely low in w3. The ratio is said to be as much as 20:1 or greater. Part of this can be blamed on the extensive use of processed vegetable oils which are high in w6 and low in, or completely void of, w3. Because w3 fats are more delicate, having more double bonds they turn rancid more easily. For this reason, they are often removed in the processing of vegetable oils.

Another reason for this disequilibrium in the EFA ratio could be the widely propagated recommendation to favor poultry instead of red meats. Chicken fat has a 20:1 ratio of w6 to w3, whereas beef is closer to 4:1. And fish consumption, which is very high in w3 fats, tends to be low in developed nations.

Whatever the reason, it is generally recommended that individuals supplement w3 fats and avoid supplementing w6 (enough is found in the diet that they do not need to be supplemented). Omega-6 fats convert to inflammatory prostaglandins in the body and, while some inflammation is necessary, too many inflammatory fats can lead to chronic inflammation. Conversely, w3 fats are converted to
anti-inflammatory prostaglandins in the body and are thus highly essential. Is it any wonder that widespread chronic inflammation has become epidemic in the last hundred years?

In order to balance this ratio, supplementation with w3s should be undertaken. While w3s from vegetable sources, like flaxseed oil or chia oil, are certainly beneficial, the body needs to convert these fats to the usable forms of EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively). While some researchers feel this conversion is not an issue for concern, other research has shown that relying solely on vegetable sources for w3 fatty acids will not provide enough of the important EPA and DHA. Because it is an excellent source of both EPA and DHA, it is highly recommended that fish oil be used as a supplement.

EPA and DHA keep blood platelets from becoming sticky, which results in blood becoming more prone to clotting. They have also been found to lower the necessity for repair proteins in the blood, a build-up of which leads to atherosclerosis (that’s right, fat is good for the heart!). EPA and DHA also lower levels of blood triglycerides, LDL and VLDL cholesterol, decreasing hypertension and the risk of strokes and heart attacks. In animal studies, w3 fish oils have also been found to inhibit the growth of tumors.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats, being completely saturated with hydrogen atoms, are straight chains and are very stable. They don’t carry an electrical charge and are thus used mostly for energy and maintaining cell structure in the human body. Because they are straight lines, they stack quite easily, which is why they are solid even at room temperature.

Molecular structure of Stearic Acid, a saturated fat

The case against saturated fat has been showing kinks in its armor ever since it was dropped on the scene over half a century ago. Researcher Ancel Keys first proposed what would later be called ‘the lipid hypothesis’ with a study showing a strong correlation between heart disease and saturated fat consumption. As it happens, the study was a complete fraud; Keys chose not to include the abundant evidence that went against his tidy correlation. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the evidence; he just chose not to publish it.

Even at the time, a number of researchers spoke out against the lipid hypothesis, but they were drowned out by the din of food processors and seed oil manufacturers all advertising the benefits of their fats over “dangerous” saturated fats. Not only was margarine now cheaper, it was “healthier”.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition speaks volumes: “Our meta-analysis showed that there is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD,” writes Dr. Ronald Krauss, lead researcher from Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California. These researchers pooled data from 21 different studies, looking at almost 350,000 subjects and found no relationship between disease and saturated fat consumption.

Another study out of Japan, also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, presented a startling blow to the lipid hypothesis. Subjects eating the most saturated fat in the study had no increased risk of death due to cardiac event or subarachnoid hemorrhage and had a 31% reduced risk of all types of stroke. Furthermore, those with the higher intakes of saturated fat had a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

The lipid hypothesis is responsible for huge changes in the foods we eat. Overall, the consumption of animal fat between 1910 and 1970 decreased by 21%, and yet heart disease rates increased exponentially. Meanwhile consumption of margarine has increased 800%, vegetable shortening 275% and salad and cooking oils increased 1,450% between 1909 and 1999. There is clearly something wrong with the lipid hypothesis.

While polyunsaturated oils are technically “heart healthy,” they are not needed in the massive quantities currently consumed. This is where a critical error in fat recommendations comes into play. Just because something is good for us, like w3 and w6 fats, does that mean we should consume lots of it?

If we consider the fact that the majority of polyunsaturates are consumed in the form of refined seed oils, as cooking oil, margarine spreads and in processed foods, we can see why we might be encountering our current health problems as a society (even leaving aside hydrogenation, which we’ll address below). Seed oils, without the aid of industrial processing, would only ever be consumed in minuscule amounts as part of an entire seed. It is only with industrialization, with the ability to process huge quantities of seeds in order to extract their oil, that we’ve begun to see mass consumption of these seed oils. Prior to this, most polyunsaturated oils came from meat consumption, in relatively small quantities compared to saturates and monounsaturates. If we allow that the epidemic of chronic disease is a modern phenomenon, perhaps it’s time to consider that this is the kind of fat consumption that most suits us as a species?

The case against saturated fat has always been weak. How can a macronutrient that has been a major component of the human food chain for hundreds of thousands of years be harmful? How, in all that time, did we not evolve to take this food in without doing harm to ourselves? The answer is simple – saturated fat is not harmful in the human diet. It does not require moderation or careful measurement. It can be eaten with abandon.

Stearic acid, the main saturated fat found in beef, lamb and other meats, is easily converted by the body into oleic acid, the much-hyped monounsaturated oil found in “heart healthy” olive oil. Lauric acid, the main saturated fat found in coconut oil, has antibacterial and antiviral properties that make it highly valuable in the diets of those who eat coconut regularly. Butyric acid, the saturated fat found in butter, is used as fuel for the cells of the colon and was found to increase mitochondrial activity (energy production), energy levels, lower blood triglyceride levels and to increase insulin sensitivity in studies of mice. It also suppresses inflammation in the gut and increases resistance to metabolic and physical stress. I could go on; the benefits of saturated fats go much further than this!

But this “fat-is-evil” weed just refuses to be pulled up. Western government agencies are steadfast in their recommendations to lower total fat consumption and saturated fat consumption in particular. The problem seems to be that a number of studies have linked the “Western diet” to greater heart disease risk. There is little doubt that this is true; however, these agencies seem to be oblivious to what the actual cause of the problem is — instead, they assume the problem lies with saturated fat. What is desperately needed are studies which separate out natural saturated fat consumption from other possible causes of heart disease, including refined carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, over-processed foods high in chemical additives, and especially trans fats.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are unsaturated fats whose structure has been altered. Some are naturally-occurring, but the majority found in people’s diets are artificially created by a process called “hydrogenation,” whereby processors take an unsaturated oil, usually a cheap seed oil like soy or corn, subject it to intense pressure and heat, and then inject it with hydrogen gas. This process artificially saturates the fat, breaking the double bonds between carbons and allowing hydrogen atoms to attach. It also affects the double bonds that remain, “twisting” them into a shape quite different from that previously held.

Normally, the two remaining hydrogen atoms adjacent to a double bond occur on the same side of the molecule. Because the two hydrogen atoms have the same charge, they repel each other slightly, thus causing the characteristic bend in unsaturated fats. Having the two hydrogen atoms on the same side is called a “cis” configuration. But the pressure and heat from hydrogenation causes the remaining hydrogens at double bond points to move to opposite sides of the molecule. This is called the “trans” configuration.

Cis-configuration and trans-configuration of double bonds in fatty acid chain

Because the two hydrogens are now on opposite sides of the molecule, they no longer repel each other. This means that previously bent fatty acids become straight like saturated fats. Thus an oil like soy oil, which is normally liquid at room temperature, now becomes a more solid “saturate equivalent”, mimicking the properties of a saturated fat like butter. However, these fats are extremely dangerous to consume, being often referred to as “plastic” fats. Studies have shown that heart disease, diabetes, cancer, low birth-weight, obesity and immune dysfunction are highly correlated to trans fat consumption. Note that some of the hydrogenated fats used in processed foods, like margarines, vegetable shortenings and deep fryer shortenings, can be composed of as much as 50% trans fat.

On a physiological level, trans fats are an anomaly in the body. They have double bonds like an unsaturated fat, but they are structurally straight, like a saturated fat. Physically, the body doesn’t really know what to do with them. They have a different melting point, chemical activity, as well as enzyme and membrane fit. They take the place of cis- form fats, but cannot do the same work.

Trans fats disrupt cellular function by affecting many enzymes, thus preventing certain necessary conversions of essential fatty acids. In this way they can aggravate and intensify existing EFA deficiencies. As Mary G. Enig, PhD. points out in her book Know Your Fats, trans fats have also been found to: lower HDL cholesterol and raise LDL; raise Lp(a) levels, increasing incidence of atherosclerosis by two to three times (note that saturated fat consumption actually lowers Lp(a) levels); lower the quality of breast milk by decreasing cream volume, possibly contributing to malnourished infants; decrease visual acuity in infants fed on breast milk with trans fats present; correlate with low birth-weight; increase blood insulin response; lower the efficiency of immune cells; decrease testosterone levels and increase the amount of abnormal sperm; interfere with important enzymes needed for detoxification of carcinogens and medications; interfere with cell membrane fluidity, causing problems with nutrient transport into and out of the cells; cause increase in adipose (fat tissue) cell size; increase free radical formation; and precipitate asthma in children.

In short, avoid trans fats like the plague! But this begs the question: why would anyone want to do this to oils? Food industrialists, wishing to get away from using the shunned saturated fats, found that with hydrogenation they could use publicly accepted vegetable oils instead of animal fats and still come up with the consistency of a saturated fat. As Dr. Enig states,

“You can cream a cup of fat into a cup of sugar and two cups of flour, and the resulting dough can be baked into a well-shaped cookie. If you try to substitute a cup of oil for the fat, you will be disappointed with the greasy flat “cookie.” Foods that are fried in unrefined oil are also frequently greasy. The food industry knows that cookies and crackers, as well as cakes, pastries, and donuts have to be made with a fat at least as firm as a soft fat like lard or palm oil, so the industry changes the very liquid oils, such as soybean, corn, canola, cottonseed, and sometimes peanut oils and safflower oils, into fats by [partial hydrogenation].”

But cookie consistency isn’t the only reason. Hydrogenation also makes products more shelf-stable, lasting much longer than products made with unprocessed fats. This is partly because the solvents used in the extraction process for seed oils often destroy the protective antioxidants naturally present in the seeds. Without their protective antioxidant compounds, seed oils quickly turn rancid. By hydrogenating seed oils, this process is stayed and shelf-life is increased considerably.

Hydrogenated fats are also more resistant to oxidation, polymerization and heat damage. With higher heat points, the fast food industry loves them because they are more durable than vegetable oils in high-heat applications like deep fryers.

Hydrogenated fats like those in margarine are extremely toxic

When you get right down to it, none of this processing would be happening if it wasn’t cost-effective. The fact is, seed oils are cheap, and even when put through the hydrogenation process they still end up significantly cheaper than animal fats, or the pricey saturated vegetable fats which they’re attempting to mimic.

Ironically, it is believed by some researchers that much of the bad name given to saturated fats over the years is actually thanks to trans fats. When the early studies were being done on saturated fats, the effects of trans fats on human health were still unknown. It was believed that, since hydrogenation was artificially saturating the fatty acids, hydrogenated fats were the same thing as saturated fats. Thus, when studies found declining health in subjects eating these hydrogenated fats, it was assumed these properties applied to saturated fats. Much of this bad rap exists to this day.

Just because society at large has been programmed with the wrong information on fats doesn’t mean that you have to be. Armed with a little knowledge, your health can be put on the right track even while the rest of the populace is on the wrong track. It isn’t difficult to avoid becoming yet another chronic disease statistic, or to turn yourself around if you already are. But it does require the right knowledge about what to consume.

While you’re digesting my brief biochemistry lesson, here is a quick and easy list of “Fat Rules” to help guide your choices. Follow these rules and you’re on your way to a healthier diet and to rediscovering the joy of fat!

The Fat Rules

Eat a lot of fat. It is not going to make you fat, clog your arteries or give you cancer. The reason fat tastes so good is because your body needs it. Give your body what it needs.

Animal fats for high heat. Cook with animal fats. They are the most heat-stable and will thus be relatively undamaged even with high-heat applications. This may mean the majority of the fat you get will be saturated (although, note that animal fats like lard and duck fat are actually mostly monounsaturated). This is a good thing. Ghee, duck fat, lard and beef tallow are all good choices. Saturated vegetable oils like red palm oil or coconut oil will do in a pinch, but are second best.

Monounsaturates for moderate heat. Use these oils from vegetable sources for cold applications like salads, moderate heat applications like pouring over hot vegetables or, if you like, for light sautéing. They are relatively heat-stable, but you don’t want to heat them too much. Extra virgin olive oil is great, full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, but don’t waste it by using it where an animal fat would do a better job, like cooking at higher temperatures.

Polyunsaturates for cold. These oils are really best as supplements. You can add some to your salad dressing or smoothie if you want to, but it’s not really necessary. Take your fish oil or flax oil as a supplement and get the rest of these important fats from your diet.

Never heat polyunsaturated oils. Yes, they are sold as cooking oils in the supermarket and yes, every deep fryer in every restaurant you’ve ever been to is filled with polyunsaturated oil (usually hydrogenated), but these oils are very delicate and will be damaged by heat (or by light or air exposure). There is no good reason to buy vegetable oils that are sold for cooking.

Don’t supplement omega-6. Although w6s are essential, they do not need to be supplemented. We get tons of w6 fats in our diets from nuts, seeds, vegetables and meats. Keeping the ratio of w3 to w6 in its proper proportion is vital, and supplementing with w6 will throw this balance out completely.

Do supplement omega-3. The w3 fats are the ones that we’re generally short on. Supplementing these will help to push out any plastic fats that have accumulated in the tissues and will maintain the w3:w6 ratio. Fish oil is the best source with flaxseed or chia seed a good secondary source.

Avoid hydrogenated fats outright. Check food labels diligently. Even if the product says “0g trans fats,” it still, by law, can contain up to 0.5 grams per serving (and considering the fact that food processors can designate serving size any way they like, these numbers are truly meaningless). Look for the word “hydrogenated” on ingredients lists. If it’s there, this food is plastic. Don’t eat plastic.

Skip spreads. Since saturated fats are not harmful, there’s no reason to buy processed vegetable spreads that employ different tricks to imitate the properties of the real stuff. Hydrogenation, interesterification, and the use of thickeners and blending fats and oils are all employed to make something inherently unspreadable into something apparently spreadable. Just go for the real thing – butter. Better yet, boil the butter to make it into ‘ghee’ – it’s more stable, is free of dairy proteins and lasts outside of the fridge for months.

Names are more for convenience. Remember that no fat is entirely saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Every fat source is a mixed bag of all these types. We refer to animal fats as “saturated” and vegetable oils as “polyunsaturated” as a kind of shorthand. But lard and duck fat actually have more monounsaturated than saturated fats. Even olive oil contains some saturated fat and you can get omega-3s from butter. Remember not to take these labels as gospel.

Good fat is good, bad fat is bad. This article should not be taken as free license to load up on processed junk foods and fatty meats and dairy products from factory-farmed animals. There is still the need to be vigilant in what we eat, including avoidance of over-processed, nutrient-depleted faux foods and meat and dairy from sick animals. Choose fresh, choose organic and choose local. Avoid processed anything.

Doug DiPaquale
Tue, 28 Jun 2011 16:11 CDT

Why We Get Fat – and What to do About it

Of all the dangerous ideas that health officials could have embraced while trying to understand why we get fat, they would have been hard-pressed to find one ultimately more damaging than calories-in/calories-out. That it reinforces what appears to be so obvious – obesity as the penalty for gluttony and sloth – is what makes it so alluring. But it’s misleading and misconceived on so many levels that it’s hard to imagine how it survived unscathed and virtually unchallenged for the last fifty years.

It has done incalculable harm. Not only is this thinking at least partly responsible for the ever-growing numbers of obese and overweight in the world – while directing attention away from the real reasons we get fat – but it has served to reinforce the perception that those who are fat have no one to blame but themselves. That eating less invariably fails as a cure for obesity is rarely perceived as the single most important reason to make us question our assumptions, as Hilde Bruch suggested half a century ago. Rather, it is taken as still more evidence that the overweight and obese are incapable of following a diet and eating in moderation. And it puts the blame for their physical condition squarely on their behavior, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Gary Taubes from Why We Get Fat While trying to catch up on my reading before piles of Financial Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journals consume our living space, I came across a review of Donald Rumsfeld’s book, Known and Unknown. The title of which was taken from one of his orotund responses to a reporter about the various kinds of knowledge we have. Said he:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Mr. Rumsfeld believes the last of the above, the things we don’t know we don’t know, is the most problematic. I disagree. I think the first gets most people in trouble most of the time. And this includes Rummy himself.

It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.

So opined Henry Wheeler Shaw (AKA Josh Billings), who said it a lot more memorably well over a century ago in a quote often misattributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers and others.

One of the things countless people ‘know’ that just ain’t so – or at least that ‘just ain’t so’ as they think they know it – is that people get fat because they eat too much or exercise too little. In the minds of many, it’s all a matter of calories in versus calories out. Which is a really meaningless statement of the problem, but which leads inexorably to the conclusion that people get fat because they are either gluttonous or lazy or both. The so-called Gluttony and Sloth model for obesity.

Why is the calories in vs calories out notion so meaningless? If more calories come in than go out, you gain weight, and if more calories are expended than come in, you lose weight. Seems reasonable. It’s a bewitching notion, because it is absolutely true but at the same time absolutely meaningless. It tells us nothing. Let me digress to explain using a painful example from my own past.

Almost 20 years ago I singlehandedly dragged my family into the restaurant business. I bought a franchise for a Mexican food place. (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.) I recruited (read: dragooned) all our children to operate it, and despite all our best efforts, the venture ended in disaster. But during the run, I spent a lot of time in the restaurant. And one of the constant conversational threads was why it was or wasn’t busy at any given time. We would have a Saturday afternoon during which few people came in. As a consequence, the next Saturday we would schedule a skeleton crew, and we would be slammed. Then someone would realize that there was a Razorback football game in Little Rock that weekend, which would explain it. Or so we thought. Sometimes for no apparent reason we would have people swarm in. There would be a line out the door with more showing up by the minute. We would all be working like dogs to get everyone served, all the while saying to ourselves and to one another: What the #$&**!!# is going on? Why are we so packed?

Now imagine if during one of these rushes, one of us had said, It’s really quite simple: we’re so crowded because there are way more people coming into the restaurant than there are people leaving. We all would have looked at the person uttering such nonsense as if he/she were the village idiot. But the statement is absolutely 100 percent correct. That’s why we were so busy. More people coming in than going out. But it doesn’t really answer the question at hand. What we want to know is why so many people are coming in? A Razorback game? A big sale at the department store next door? A good review in the paper that we weren’t aware of? A bus full of people broken down outside the front door? Why are there so many more people coming in than going out? If we could figure out the why, then we would have an easier time scheduling staff.*

It’s the same with the calories in/calories out notion. If you’re fat, you’ve been taking in more calories than you’ve been expending. No one would argue that. At least no one with good sense. But the question is, why? Why have you been taking in more than you’ve been expending? That’s the question you want to have answered, because only when you discover the answer can you figure out why you’re fat and what to do about it.

Gary Taubes has done the figuring and writes about it in his new book, Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It (WWGF). As most readers of this blog know, a few years ago Gary wrote a long, detailed book on what we can call the Carbohydrate Theory of disease, titled Good Calories, Bad Calories (GCBC). Now he has come out with what many think is a slimmed-down version of GCBC, called by some GBGC-Lite. But it’s not really a lite version of GCBC – it’s something much different. I call it GBGC-Fat. I would append the term ‘fat’ because it’s about fat – adipose tissue – and why so many of us struggle so mightily to rid ourselves of superfluous wads of it.

WWGF is a great primer on fat gain, fat loss and just about everything having to do with obesity. I read GCBC three times, starting with the first manuscript version and ending with the actual book. I’ve done the same with WWGF, so I can assure you that it is not a rewrite of GCBC, but is mainly new material presented in a much easier to assimilate way. As many people have discovered, trying to get their doctors or other non-believers to read GBGC is a tough sell. Few, who aren’t already converts, can summon the will to dig in to a book that large. The new book is much less intimidating than GCBC, but just as compelling. Even the title is better and more seductive. Who wouldn’t want to know why we get fat?

In his efforts to ferret out why we do get fat, Gary, an obvious follower of the Samuel Johnson admonition that we more often need reminding of old truths than instruction in new ones, looks to the pre WWII scientific literature for the ‘old truths’ that are still valid. One of which is that carbohydrates fatten both livestock and people. If you think about it, it’s difficult for the current crop of academics to intuitively grasp this notion, because they have been inculcated from the time they entered kindergarten with the ‘dietary fat is bad’ mantra. That kind of deep-seated learning is hard to shake. Especially so, since when today’s academics were students, their mentors, who had built their own careers (all way post WWII) on the very same mistaken notion about fat, wouldn’t likely have provided much inspiration for their young charges to change.

So, why do people get fat? Let’s look at it as Gary does and start from the beginning.

When we talk about obesity, we’re talking about the excess accumulation of fat. The excess fat is stored in the fat cells (adipose cells), which, collectively make up the adipose tissue. With that as our starting point, where do we go?

If we ask how the fat gets into the fat cells, we will discover that all the pathways of fat storage were worked out years ago and are so uncontroversial that they’re described in detail in every biochemistry and physiology textbook currently in use. It’s well known that the metabolic hormone insulin stimulates an enzyme on the surface of the fat cell that moves the fat into the cell.

So if insulin moves fat into the fat cells, it would seem that a lot of insulin would move a lot of fat into the fat cells. And indeed it does. Given this, the rational person trying to figure out the previous step in our progression would ask What causes a lot of insulin? Or the rational person, should he/she have been steeped for a lifetime in the marinade of ‘fat is bad’ might ask, What about fat? If there is a lot of fat in the blood as a result of fat in the diet, wouldn’t that fat get into the fat cell? If so, then doesn’t dietary fat lead to fat?

A good question, but the answer is no. Type I diabetics can have a lot of fat in their diets and in their blood, but if they have no insulin, they can’t store that fat. In fact, most pre-diagnosis type I diabetics lose enormous amounts of weight despite eating ravenously because without insulin they can’t store the fat. So dietary fat itself – even large amounts of it – won’t find its way into the fat cell without the help of insulin.

When you hack through the thicket of all the biochemical pathways involved in the metabolic process, you find that insulin is the primary force involved in the storage of nutrients. Insulin is the body’s storage hormone: it puts fat in the fat cells, protein into muscle cells and glucose into it’s storage form, glycogen. Insulin, along with its counter-regulatory hormone glucagon (the Yin and Yang of metabolism), are involved in nutrient partitioning – the process of stashing nutrients away in different parts of the body and/or harvesting them for the body to use as energy.

If we have a lot of insulin, the insulin dominant-pathways (the storage pathways) hold sway, and fat is partitioned away in the fat cells; if insulin is low, then the glucagon-dominant pathways (the energy-release pathways) take over and start moving fat out of the fat cells, so it can be consumed by the body as fuel. This is how it is supposed to work. We eat. Insulin comes out and stores away the energy. We go for a while without eating, insulin goes down and glucagon comes out to retrieve our stored fat so we’ll have a continuous energy supply.

Problems arise when this system goes off the rails, which most commonly happens when people develop insulin resistance, a problem of disordered insulin signaling. Insulin talks, but the cells don’t listen. So insulin keeps talking louder until the cells finally get the message. In other words, the pancreas keeps producing insulin and the blood levels continue to rise until the cells finally get the message. But it’s a message that has taken a lot of insulin force to deliver.

If all the different types of cells developed resistance to insulin at the same rate, we wouldn’t have as much of a problem. But they don’t. Different cells develop insulin resistance at different rates. Typically the first cells to become insulin resistant are the liver cells. The liver cells are continuously producing sugar and dumping it into the blood. Insulin shuts this process down. If the insulin level drops to zero, as it does in type I diabetes, the liver dumps a huge load of sugar in the blood causing all the blood sugar problems associated with this disease. Under normal circumstances, just a little insulin stops the liver cells in their tracks. But if these cells are resistant to insulin, much more is required to get them the message to turn off the sugar spigot.

In most people, the fat cells develop insulin resistance later, which creates the problem. If insulin levels are high to control the liver’s sugar factory output, then these elevated insulin levels are sending a strong message to the non-insulin-resistant fat cells. The message is take this fat and store it. High insulin not only drives fat into the fat cells, it prevents it from getting out. Fat is packed into the fat cells and kept there.

Between meals when insulin levels would normally fall, allowing the liberation of fat to feed all the body’s tissues, insulin remains high in an effort to keep the liver in check. Fat can’t get out of the fat cells, and the tissues begin to starve. Even though there is plenty of stored fat, the body can’t get to it because elevated insulin is preventing its release.

Starving tissues send a message to the brain, saying ‘we’re hungry.’ The brain responds by increasing the drive to feed. We eat, and the carbs we eat are consumed by the cells for immediate energy, and insulin stimulated by the dietary carbohydrate drives the fat into the fat cells where it is trapped with the rest of the fat already there. The fat cell mass gets larger and larger, and we become obese.

The above scenario explains a lot. Why can some people eat like crazy and not get fat? Perhaps because they develop insulin resistance in their fat cells just as they do in their liver cells. They don’t get fat, but they typically have all the other insulin-driven problems of the obese: high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, increased risk for heart disease, etc. And all while staying skinny.

How about morbid obesity? Easy. Those people don’t develop insulin resistance in their fat cells until late in the game, if ever. They continue to push fat into the fat cells and become more and more obese until they weight 400-500 pounds or even more. The average person will finally develop fat cell insulin resistance before the morbid obesity stage. When this happens, weight and level of obesity stabilize and stay the same, almost irrespective of how much is eaten.

We now know why we get fat. Excess insulin drives fat into the fat cells increasing the fat cell mass, ultimately leading to the state we call obesity. If we keep walking this progression back, the next question has to be, Why do we make too much insulin?

We make too much insulin because we eat too many carbohydrates, especially sugar and other refined carbohydrates. With that statement, we’re starting to edge into controversial territory, but it’s only territory populated by the ignorant. The hard science is emphatic that carbs are a pure insulin play. Eat them and your insulin goes up.

Some people with a little learning may be quick to point out that protein drives insulin up as well. This is true, but with a catch. Protein drives both insulin and glucagon up, so you don’t have the pure insulin effect. Only carbs will give you that. With carbs, insulin goes up while glucagon goes down. With meat and other proteins, the effects of the elevated insulin are muted by the concomitant rise in glucagon. (Glucagon isn’t called insulin’s counter-regulatory hormone for nothing.)

As Gary lays out the progression, carbs increase insulin, excess insulin drives excess fat into the fat cells, the fat cell mass grows, and we become fat. This chain of cause and effect leads to the ineluctable conclusion that excess carbohydrate intake leads to obesity. And each and every link forged in this chain is scientifically unimpeachable.
So if you are fat and want this progression to reverse itself, wouldn’t it make sense to reduce your carbohydrate intake? All the science is valid. But don’t just take my word for it. Gary writes of a former Harvard professor responsible for much of the early work in the field of the regulation of fat accumulation who summed it up like this:

Carbohydrate is driving insulin is driving fat.

If you put that in reverse, you should cut the carbs, reduce the insulin and lose the fat. Seems simple, but here is where all kinds of controversy rears its head. Even the very smart Harvard professor who did the original work and uttered the above quote, when asked by Gary why there is so much obesity, responded that people didn’t exercise enough. Which also proves true what Saul Bellow wrote years ago:

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

As I’ve written numerous times in the pages of this blog, food is made of three things: fat, protein and carbohydrate. When you decrease one, you typically increase the other. If you cut the carbs, you’re going to increase the fat and protein in your diet. And it’s the increased fat in particular that leads to all the controversy.

The current zeitgeist is that dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is bad. And not just bad, but extremely bad. So, even though they may understand that carbs drive fat storage, the ingrained fear of fat keeps many otherwise smart people from accepting the merits of the low-carbohydrate diet. To escape the cognitive dissonance, they default to the calories in/calories out argument, which, as we’ve seen, is meaningless. But they feel safe taking refuge in what they believe is a known known. More’s the pity since it will end up doing them about as much good as it did Rummy in the Iraq war.

Most rational people will find the above argument understandable and be able to connect the dots showing that carb intake leads to excess insulin leads to obesity. The difficult concept for many to grasp, however, is the other problem with too much insulin: it prevents the stored fat from being accessed for energy. Normally adipose tissue acts as a reservoir of energy. We eat, we convert the food we don’t immediately use into fat, and the body – acting via insulin – stashes it away for later. When later comes, insulin falls, glucagon rises, and the body starts harvesting it’s stored fat to provide energy for all the cellular functions. Then we eat, and the process starts anew.

In obese people it’s different. They eat, they use the food for immediate energy needs and store the rest away. In other words, they store excess energy away in their fat cells just like non-obese people do. It’s the second part of the formula that is different. In obese people, insulin is almost always elevated – even when they haven’t just finished a meal. These chronically elevated insulin levels trap the fat in the fat cells, and, in fact, turn the fat pathway into the fat cell into a one-way street. Fat can get in, but it can’t get out. If the fat does get out, the excess insulin tells the mitochondria not to burn it anyway, so it just gets sent back to the fat cells.

What does this mean for an obese person?

Let’s look back at the non-obese person to explain. A non-obese person eats, uses the energy from the food and stores the rest. During the time between meals and during sleep, the non-obese person draws on the stored fat to provide energy. When the fat cell mass decreases to a certain critical point, the body signals the brain that the fat cells need a refill, so the brain initiates the hunger response. The non-obese person eats, uses some energy for immediate needs, fills the fat cells with the rest, uses the stored energy as needed, and then the cycle repeats.

It doesn’t work that way in the obese. Obese people eat, use the energy required for immediate needs and store the rest. But – and this is the extremely important ‘but’ – during the time between meals and during sleep, obese people can’t access their fat stores because their baseline insulin is too high. When they can’t get to their stored fat, the lack of access to energy sets in motion all the same biochemical signals in the obese person that get sent in the non-obese, who have depleted the energy storage in their fat cells. And these signals are converted by their brains into the drive to feed, i.e., intense hunger. They have to eat to provide for their immediate energy needs because, thanks to chronically elevated insulin levels, they can’t get into to their own stored fat, even though it’s there waiting in massive quantities.

To use an analogy, it would be like being out of cash when you desperately needed it yet having a huge amount of money in the bank. You hustle to an ATM machine and find your card won’t work. It’s the same with the obese – they have plenty of energy to go without eating for months, but their fat ATM cards don’t work. And since their fat ATM cards don’t work, the only option they have for immediate energy is to eat.

So fat people are fat not because they overeat – they overeat because they’re fat.

A real debt of gratitude is owed Gary for combing the old literature and ferreting out this notion. As early to mid-twentieth century, researchers both in Europe and America had determined obesity is a disorder of fat accumulation, not a problem of ‘perverted appetite,’ self control, or gluttony and sloth. Louis Newburgh, Ancel Keys, Jean Mayer and a few others were responsible for turning the herd thinking of academia in a different direction, and the ‘eat less, exercise more’ paradigm has been with us since. It’s doubtless not a coincidence that the obesity and diabetes epidemics have flourished as a consequence. As I say, Gary deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting this old work and starting to turn opinion in the other direction.

In addition to the chapters describing and discussing the mechanisms by which we get fat, Gary has included other important material in his book. One of my favorite chapters is the one titled “The Nature of a Healthy Diet.” Although you wouldn’t know it from this title, the chapter fairly presents most of the arguments against low-carbohydrate diets and refutes them. I’m sure many will find these refutations helpful in their dealings with naysayers, who seem compelled to point out non-existent problems with carb-restricted dieting. There is one in particular that I plan to deploy at the next opportunity. Since I have my own arguments against the rest of the anti-low-carb idiocy, it annoys me greatly that I didn’t think of this one myself.

Here is a scenario I often endure at a party or other get together after my identity as a diet book writer and low-carb expert has been revealed:

Other person, OP (typically an overweight female): I tried a low-carb diet once.

Me: (Dreading what’s sure to follow.) Oh, really.

OP: Yes, and it worked for a while, but I couldn’t stick to it.

Me: Oh, really? Why not?

OP: Well, I felt tired and spacey headed.

Me: People sometimes experience those symptoms early on, but they usually resolve after a couple of weeks. And there are steps you could’ve taken to prevent or minimize them.

OP: No, I don’t think so in my case. I know my body, and I know what it’s telling me. I’m just one of those people whose body needs carbs. As soon as I started eating carbs again, I felt much better.

Me: (Fighting down the impulse to point out that she’s still fat…) Hmmm. Maybe so.
Now, thanks to WWGF, I’ll know just what to say. I’ll leave you with the relevant paragraph from the book along with my highest recommendation to grab a copy and read it. I can promise you won’t be disappointed.

The more technical term for carbohydrate withdrawal is “keto-adaptation,” because the body is adapting to the state of ketosis that results from eating fewer than sixty or so grams of carbohydrates a day. This reaction is why some who try carbohydrate restriction give it up quickly. (“Carbohydrate withdrawal is often interpreted as a ‘need for carbohydrate,’ ” says Westman. “It’s like telling smokers who are trying to quit that their withdrawal symptoms are caused by a ‘need for cigarettes’ and then suggesting they go back to smoking to solve the problem.”)

Why salt doesn’t deserve its bad rap

For something that’s so often mixed with anti-caking agents, salt takes a lot of lumps in the American imagination. Like fat, people tend to think of it as an unnecessary additive — something to be avoided by seeking out processed foods that are “free” of it. But also like fat, salt is an essential component of the human diet — one that has been transformed into unhealthy forms by the food industry.

Historically, though, salt was prized. Its reputation can be found in phrases like, “Worth one’s salt,” meaning, “Worth one’s pay,” since people were often paid in salt and the word itself is derived from the Latin salarium, or salary.

Those days are long over. Doctors and dietitians, along with the USDA dietary guidelines, recommend eating a diet low in sodium to prevent high blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease, and stroke; and doctors have been putting their patients on low-salt diets since the 1970s. But a new study, published in the May 4 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that low-salt diets actually increase the risk of death from heart attack and stroke — and in fact don’t prevent high blood pressure.

The study’s findings inspired much criticism and controversy — as research that challenges conventional dietary wisdom often does. When The New York Times briefly reported on it, even the title conveyed the controversy: “Low-Sat Diet Ineffective, Study Finds. Disagreement Abounds.” The Times reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “felt so strongly that the study was flawed that they criticized it in an interview, something they normally do not do.” According to the Times, Peter Briss, a medical director at the Centers, said that the study was small, that its subjects were young, and that they had few cardiovascular events — making it hard to draw conclusions.

But most of all, Briss and others criticized the study because it challenges dietary dogma on sodium intake. These experts claim that a body of evidence establishes sodium consumption as a serious driver of cardiovascular disease. But if you take a careful look at the evidence, you’ll see that the case against sodium crumbles under the weight of its contradictions. Gary Taubes wrote about the controversy on the benefits of salt reduction more than 10 years ago in a piece for Science called “The (Political) Science of Salt.” He portrayed a clash between the desire for immediate and simple answers and the requirements of good science. “This is the conflict that fuels many of today’s public health controversies,” Taubes asserted.

The JAMA study published early this month is not the first to find that a low-salt diet may be detrimental. In 2006, data from the NHANES II study showed that death from heart disease and all causes rose with lower salt consumption. Published in the American Journal of Medicine, the report found:

Lower sodium has been associated with stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, that, in turn, has been associated with adverse [cardiovascular disease] and mortality outcomes. Sodium restriction may also influence insulin resistance.

The insulin resistance association is compelling since so many Americans are exhibiting signs of insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes. Michael Alderman, a blood-pressure researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and editor of the American Journal of Hypertension, said in an email, “The problem with reducing sodium enough to change blood pressure [is that it] has other effects — including increasing insulin resistance, increasing sympathetic nerve activity, and activating the renin-angiotensin system and increasing aldosterone secretion. All bad things for the cardiovascular system.”

There are those who will argue that any study claiming that sodium is not as harmful as previously believed are connected to the salt lobby, but this is untrue. The most recent JAMA study has no such connection and many real-food advocates, myself included, believe that salt is an essential part of a healthy diet. Alderman was once an unpaid consultant for the Salt Institute but no longer is, according to the Times article.

There is also a strange psychological component to this debate as is often seen in the nutrition world: When a message has been hammered in and repeated millions of times over the course of decades, whether or not that message is actually true becomes irrelevant — and the people invested in presenting that message, whether for monetary gain or not, are especially resistant to any evidence that might be contrary. When asked about this phenomenon and the standard recommendations on salt, Alderman said, “They are based upon the hope that the blood pressure effect of lowering sodium would translate into a benefit in health. Opposition to these findings — which only adds to a substantial body of similar information — is that these folks have long held the faith that lowering sodium was a good idea. They have opposed randomized trials with the bogus argument that a randomized controlled trial would be too tough and expensive. Not so. They choose faith over science, but it’s not a theological issue.”

Witness the low-fat campaign that has raged on for decades despite research that now shows the low-fat campaign was actually based on little scientific evidence. When it comes to the fat debate, the crucial issue is determining which fats are healthy and which fats are not: Real, whole-food sources of fats, like butter and eggs, are healthy while industrially produced sources of fats, like partially hydrogenated oils or trans-fats, are not. Real fats and industrial fats cannot be lumped into the same category, and when they are, as is often the case in scientific research, the results are muddled. This was the case with studies on coconut oil, which used partially hydrogenated versions to determine that coconut oil was unhealthy, tarnishing it with a reputation as one of the worst fats. Meanwhile, recent research using unprocessed coconut oil shows that it is actually a healthy fat with a host of health benefits.

As for salt, the same logic can be applied. There are no studies based on a diet that draws its sodium from unrefined salt and from foods containing naturally occurring salt (like zucchini, celery, seaweed, oysters, shrimp, beets, spinach, fish, olives, eggs, red meat, and garbanzo beans). Clearer answers would surely emerge with a study like this.

The differences between refined and unrefined salt are significant. (Make sure you use unrefined sea salt, as other sea salts can be just as processed as ordinary table salt.) Unrefined sea salt contains about 82 percent sodium chloride and the rest is comprised of essential minerals including magnesium and calcium; and trace elements, like iodine, potassium, and selenium. Not coincidentally, they help with maintaining fluid balance and replenishing electrolytes.

Refined, processed salt is actually an industrial leftover, according to Nina Planck’s book Real Food. Planck describes how the chemical industry removes the valuable trace elements found in salt and heats it 1,200 degrees F. What’s left is 100 percent sodium chloride, plus industrial additives including aluminum, anticaking agents, and dextrose, which stains the salt purple. To gain its pure-white sheen, the salt is then bleached. Thus refined salt is hardly a whole food; and consuming a jolt of sodium chloride upsets fluid balance and dehydrates cells, to say nothing of the harm the various additives and bleach residues may cause.

But what’s fascinating about this most recent study is that even in monitoring those on a largely industrial foods diet, consuming what’s considered high levels of salt, the results indicate that even this is better than a low-sodium diet.

Why might this be? Sodium is one of the two major electrolytes our bodies need to function properly, and like any other element, nutrient, vitamin, or mineral we put into our bodies, it does not exist or function in isolation. Sodium is important for maintaining blood volume, it works in concert with potassium, which is needed for vasodilatation or constriction, and it also interacts with calcium, which is needed for vascular smooth muscle tone. Sodium exists in all of the fluids in our body and is essential to water balance regulation, nerve stimulation, and proper function of the adrenal glands. It is also crucial to maintaining mental acuity — sodium is required to activate glial cells in the brain — these cells make up 90 percent of the brain and are what makes us think faster and make connections. This is part of the reason sodium deficiency (sunstroke, heat exhaustion) leads to confusion and lethargy as the human brain is extremely sensitive to changing sodium levels in the body.

Like fat, salt was prized by traditional cultures. Those groups that were landlocked often burned sodium-rich marsh grasses and added the ash to their foods to acquire healthy amounts of salt and they traded with peoples living near the ocean for fish and salt. The tendency of scientific studies to isolate parts of our foods and determine whether or not they are good or bad obfuscates a clear picture of the larger processes involved in eating and metabolizing in the human body. It also complicates something that shouldn’t be complicated: eating real, whole foods as they exist in nature. Isolating and demonizing certain aspects of real, whole foods — like fat and salt — only confuses the public.

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.

Toxic Mercury in Found in Skin-Lightening Creams

Minnesota health officials warned consumers to stop using the products, which are extremely dangerous.

They have names like Fasco Herbal Cream and FC Lemon Herbal Whitening Cream. And they’re widely sold in local immigrant communities, with labels saying they contain nothing more ominous than vitamins and natural plants.

Fasco skin lightening cream contains 4,600 parts per million of mercury, the Minnesota Health Department said after it conducted tests on this and other skin-lightening products.

But on Wednesday, Minnesota health officials said they detected dangerous and illegal levels of mercury in almost a dozen types of skin-lightening products. They warned consumers to avoid all skin-lightening products unless they can be sure they’re mercury-free.

Some of the samples tested by the state Health Department contained more than 33,000 times the permissible level of mercury, so much that they urged consumers to treat the products as hazardous waste.

“It’s a very significant level,” said Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner of health.

So far, no known illnesses have been linked to the products in Minnesota, Leitheiser said. But she said mercury can be extremely dangerous, especially to pregnant women and young children, because it can damage the kidneys and nervous system.

Leitheiser said the products seem to be marketed largely to minority groups, but that they’re also sold to treat freckles and age spots, which means anyone might use them.

On Wednesday, the products were on display at a small shop in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, home to a large Somali community. A clerk said he had never heard of any danger associated with the creams, nor did a man who identified himself as the store’s owner.

Jeff Connell, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said his agency is trying to find out where the products are sold and get them off the shelf as soon as possible.

He said that Minnesota bans the sale of cosmetics containing mercury, but that these products appear to be widely distributed through an informal network.

In some cases, he said, the products — often sold in tiny, glittery boxes with Asian or Arabic script — appear to be made overseas and brought here in suitcases or by UPS.

This is the first time these products have been found in Minnesota, officials say, but they have turned up in other states.

In 2005, the New York Daily News reported that a woman suffered mercury poisoning from a skin-lightening cream she picked up in the Dominican Republic.

Last year, a Chicago Tribune investigation found that six out of 50 skin-lightening products chosen for testing contained mercury.

Leitheiser said the Health Department learned of the problem only a few weeks ago, when it was asked to test a sample of skin-lightening products collected by staffers at the St. Paul-Ramsey County Health Department.

State technicians tested 27 products, including 23 creams and four soaps, and found that 11 had mercury levels ranging from 135 to 33,000 parts per million. Federal law permits only “trace amounts,” less than 1 part per million.

Ramsey County officials said they became suspicious about the lightening creams when a staffer came across a blog about the mercury dangers.

The staffer, who worked with immigrant groups, knew the creams were popular among Somalis and others and thought it was worth checking out, said Zachary Hansen, the county’s director of environmental health.

He said a team of investigators had no trouble finding the products in local stores; the state investigation is continuing.

Most of the labels do not mention mercury, Connell said.

On some, though, it may appear under different names, including calomel, mercuric, mercurous or mercurio. When applied to the skin, the mercury can “readily be absorbed by the body,” the Health Department said.

Because mercury is a toxic pollutant, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said the products should be taken to hazardous waste disposal sites; they can be found here.