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Dietary fat: Is it your friend or foe?

Over the last seven years, I’ve created meal plans for clients in my clinics to combat a plethora of maladies such as chronic diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, joint pain, autoimmune conditions, weight gain and more.

One aspect that each meal plan has in common is a foundation based on eating plenty of healthy dietary fat.

While the amount and type of fat prescribed varies according to each individual, consuming adequate healthy fat is the key to successful weight loss, optimal wellness and long-term weight loss maintenance.

In general, we commonly see a deficit in dietary fat intake because as a society, we fear fat. We have been inundated with the diet-heart hypothesis: We have been inaccurately taught that if we eat fat, we get fat. Because of these messages, we believe that eating fat causes our arteries to harden; you know how bacon grease hardens as we pour it down the drain? We think this is what happens inside the body – when in reality this isn’t the case at all. Correlating dietary fat consumption and heart disease is equivalent to saying that eating too many vegetables will turn us green. It just doesn’t happen.

Our fear of dietary fat has stemmed from the 1960s when the Seven Countries Study was published by researcher Ancel Keys. He tracked dietary fat consumption and heart disease in various nations (22 to be exact). It was called the “Seven Countries Study” because it was only in seven, out of the 22 countries he studied, that he saw an increase in heart disease from increased fat consumption. He conveniently omitted the data from the other 15 countries that didn’t support his hypothesis. If he had included that data, his findings would have been altogether insignificant. However, because his adulterated findings supported the expectations of many in the scientific community at the time, it was adopted as a part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. His inaccurate and faulty conclusions made it onto the front cover of Time magazine and, as a result, our fear of dietary fat became part of history.

From that point forward, our truly unfounded fear of consuming fat calories grew – as did our rates of obesity and inflammation. One published study after another attempted to support this diet-heart hypothesis, however, the vast majority weakly stood (and continue to stand) on poor research designs or the findings were completely unsupportive of the argument that fat is “bad” for you.

Many of these studies weren’t publicized, and if they were, inaccurate headlines were pushed in the media to support the agenda that dietary fat is unhealthy. For example, a study published in 2012 went so far as to conclude that eggs are nearly as bad for you as cigarettes. “Egg yolks almost as bad as smoking” was the headline that went viral. If you were to take a deeper peek under the “hood” of this eye-catching story, you would see that this was a poorly controlled observational study conducted by researchers who had ties to the statin industry. The researchers in this study quizzed a group of middle-aged and elderly stroke patients about their lifelong history of egg consumption and smoking history. Do you remember what you ate last Wednesday? If you do, your memory is much better than mine.

The study participants who ate the most eggs (and had the highest rates of carotid plaque buildup) were the oldest (on average about 70 years old compared to the 55-year-olds who didn’t eat as many eggs), smoked the most and had the highest rate of diabetes. These are all factors that significantly influence arterial hardening and cardiovascular disease – egg eating aside. The researchers also couldn’t control for waist circumference or exercise – two of the main risk factors that predict atherosclerosis of the carotid arterial wall. And the researchers didn’t take into consideration any other aspect of the participants’ dietary intake. For example, most folks who eat eggs usually sop them up with pancakes made with highly processed vegetable oils covered in sugar and enjoy them with a side of Omega-6-filled processed meat products. Perhaps it could have been these other foods and maybe advanced age, smoking, diabetes, larger waist circumference, minimal exercise and heightened stress levels that caused the arterial hardening? Maybe, just maybe, the poor old egg was actually the good guy.

Despite this, accepting the fact that dietary fat is healthy is difficult for many of us. It’s a huge shift in mindset and our belief system – two things we don’t love to change. However, I invite you to join me in being radically open-minded, giving credence to the reality that we don’t know much about nutrition, and considering that the messages we’ve been told might be very far from the truth. This “awakening” can be a frustrating process but the sooner we can accept, the faster we can become advocates for our own health and have the freedom to experience better health and longevity.

Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.