Fats are Good for You
In praise of lipids: Fat is our friend!
By Mark Kutolowski
This winter, I hardly noticed the cold. I felt warm, relaxed and strong snowshoeing in below zero temperatures. I swam in the Ompompanoosuc River every month, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I ate two meals a day with no snacks, yet was rarely hungry. After cutting out sugars in the fall, I lost a few pounds and I’m now precisely at my ideal weight (a muscular 6’2”, 190 lbs). Oh, and since January 1st I’ve been on a diet where approximately 80% of my calories come from fat.
Fat is an essential part of the human diet. I learned this the hard way in my teens when, following an extreme low-fat diet recommended for athletes in the 1990s, I suffered repeated joint injuries that refused to heal. After returning to a more normal fat intake, I began to recover much more quickly from any trauma. This got me interested in studying the role of fat in the human body. Dietary fat serves many important nutritional roles:
- Fat is the optimal, preferred fuel for the human body. I think of eating fat as giving my body’s internal ‘stove’ good hardwood fuel, compared to the ‘kindling’ of carbohydrates (i.e. grains, potatoes, and sugar). Fat has more than double the energy per unit than carbohydrates, and that energy is absorbed more slowly than carbohydrates (preventing the insulin spike associated with high carb meals). Fat energy is burned more slowly and over a longer period of time than carbohydrates. This makes a huge difference during winter camping.
- Saturated fats (like lard, butter and coconut) are actually the best fuel source of all – they provide greater energy and warmth during strenuous activity. Saturated fat is also the heart’s preferred fuel! Interestingly, when our bodies want to store excess calories (whether from protein, carbohydrates or fats), they first process and convert the calories into saturated fats before storing them as adipose tissue (fat cells). This demonstrates how our bodies recognize saturated fat as the most efficient fuel source.
- Healthy neurological functioning is dependent on sufficient fat. Our brains are largely made up of fat and cholesterol, and fats also constitute the protective covering (myelin) and membranes of nerve cells. Adequate dietary fat helps to repair damaged nerve tissues.
- Many micronutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K, require dietary fat for proper absorption and assimilation.
- Healthy skin requires sufficient fat intake. Our body cannot produce its natural thin protective oil barrier without sufficient dietary fat.
- The Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6) cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained in the diet. These are used extensively in cellular metabolism, producing prostaglandins (which regulate major body functions like heart rate, blood pressure and immune function.)
- Our bodies naturally feel satiated when eating enough fat, making it difficult to overeat to the point of weight gain on fat. Our body does not have the same regulatory mechanism for carbohydrates.
In every traditional diet, fat is prized as the most dense, nourishing and life-sustaining nutrient available. Traditional subsistence hunters eat the fatty organ meats first (similar to the practice of wild carnivores), and prize kidney suet (which happens to be the most highly saturated body fat) above all. In contrast, the lean muscle meats are most likely to be fed to their dogs. In the 1930s, Dr. Weston price noted that in his worldwide travels, every traditional diet he observed valued concentrated animal fats as essential aspects of their diet – including butter, cream, fish oils, coconut oils and lard. Among herders like the Maasai, and hunters like the Inuit, fats constitute up 60% – 80% of total calorie intake. In both of these groups, those eating their traditional diet have excellent cardiovascular health and a complete absence of obesity.
How did we, as Americans, come to fear dietary fat as a supposed source of our epidemic heart disease and obestity? This notion, called the ‘lipid hypothesis’ was first articulated by Ancel Keys in his ‘Seven Countries Study’ in the late 1950s. This study demonstrated that in the seven countries analyzed, people who consumed more dietary fat had a higher risk of heart disease. This study was highly publicized, and the lipid hypothesis became the basis for mainstream dietary theory. However, at the time of Keys study, diet and disease statistics were available from 22 countries. Taken as a whole, the data from the 22 countries showed NO correlation between dietary fat intake and heart disease! It was only when 15 of the 22 countries were left out of the study that the positive correlation between fat intake and heart disease could be demonstrated. As the statistician Russell Smith reported on his review of the study, “the diet-CHD relationship reported for the Seven Countries study cannot be taken seriously by the objective and critical scientist.” Sadly, amazingly, this study paved the way for the modern American fear of dietary fat.
More recently, nutritionists are beginning to question the notion that fat – and in particular, saturated fat – is the culprit in heart disease. For example, an enormous 2009 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition of over 347,000 subjects concluded “A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of chronic heart disease or cardiovascular disease (Siri-Tarino, Sun, Hu and Krauss).”
Our sedentary lifestyles and massive consumption of refined sugar, corn syrup and industrially manufactured trans fats (margarine, vegetable shortening, most processed pastries and snack foods, hydrogenated oils) have far more to do with our obesity and heart disease than do our consumption of traditional dietary fats. Broadly speaking, if a food is unknown in nature or non-industrial agriculture (think high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil) it is not good for us. The natural, healthy fats that our ancestors enjoyed and that our bodies crave are perfectly healthy, nutrient dense foods. That includes saturated fats like butter, cheese, bacon, egg yolks and coconut oil as well as unsaturated fats like olive oil and nuts.
Many people who have rediscovered the importance of healthy fats retain a deep fear of cholesterol as the primary cause of heart disease. But what if cholesterol, too, is a deeply misunderstood, and essential, nutrient in a healthy diet?
I invite my esteemed colleague Didi Pershouse to continue the story here.
For further study:
 For more information on the problems with Keys’ study, including more Russell Smith quotes, visit: http://www.stop-trans-fat.com/ancel-keys.html
Mark Kutolowski maintains a small holistic healing practice that includes training in using the elements and other aspects of the natural world for self-healing and increased vitality. Founder of New Creation Wilderness Programs, Mark teaches traditional wilderness living skills at Dartmouth College and has over a decade of experience leading trips, teaching classes and workshops, and living simply with the land in New England.