Myth: Fat Makes You Fat
“Fat Free” and Fatter Than Ever!
We’ve all heard the staggering statistics: more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight, with more than one-third considered to be clinically obese. But how did we get here? Ironically, the sharp increase in obesity rates can be tied to efforts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ostensibly make Americans healthier. Their 1980 report Dietary Guidelines for Americans urged Americans to:
- Eat less fat.
- Eat more grains.
And this is precisely what most Americans have done over the past 35 years, helped by food companies offering a slew of new low-fat and fat-free products. But since food tastes terrible without fat, they had to replace it with something palatable. The answer? Sugar. Gobs and gobs and of sugar. Formerly high-fat foods like yogurt now have the words “non-fat” proudly plastered on the front of the package. But flip the cup of yogurt around and you will see that your supposedly healthy cup of yogurt has as much sugar as a candy bar!
Look in nearly any processed food product today, even items you would not consider sweet, and you will find sugar in one of its many forms:
Agave Nectar, Barley Malt Syrup, Beet Sugar, Brown Rice Syrup, Brown Sugar, Cane Crystals, Cane Sugar, Coconut (Palm) Sugar, Corn Sweetener, Corn Syrup (Solids), Dehydrated Cane Juice, Dextrin, Dextrose, Evaporated Cane Juice, Fructose, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Glucose, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Honey, Invert Sugar, Lactose, Maltodextrin, Malt Syrup, Maltose, Maple Syrup, Molasses, Palm Sugar, Raw Sugar, Rice Syrup, Saccharose, Sorghum (Syrup), Sucrose, Syrup, Treacle, Turbinado Sugar, Xylose, and more.
Note that to avoid listing sugar as the first ingredient in their products, some sneaky food makers use multiple types of sugar (e.g. honey, cane sugar, and brown rice syrup), each of which alone may be smaller in volume than the ingredient listed first (e.g. oats) even though taken together, sugar forms a far larger portion.
All this sugar adds up quickly: the average American now consumes 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugars each year, up from just 120 pounds in 1970, and just 10 pounds in 1821.
But the obesity epidemic is not just the result of this avalanche of added sugar. The base of the USDA food pyramid (or a quarter of the new and not-so-improved “MyPlate”) is really made up of sugar, too. It just happens to be sugar packaged up within starch molecules waiting to be quickly digested back into glucose…
Starch is Just Sugar in Waiting
Foods high in starch, including cereal, pasta, bread, and even supposedly healthy choices like whole grains, are quickly converted into glucose by the body. A single slice of whole wheat bread has a higher glycemic index (GI) than a Snickers® bar! So the base of the USDA’s food pyramid—made of up to 11 servings of grains a day!!!—is really just made of sugar in waiting.
How could this be? The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the iconic pyramid shaped food guide that goes with it, are based on incontrovertible science, right? Wrong. As Denise Minger demonstrates in Death by Food Pyramid, the recommendations to eat less fat and more grains was the product of “shoddy science, sketchy politics, and shady special interests”:
“Contrary to popular belief, America’s dietary guidelines aren’t the magnum opuses of high-ranking scientists, cerebral cortexes pulsating in the moonlight as they solve the mysteries of human nutrition. What reaches our ears has been squeezed, tortured, reshaped, paid off, and defiled by a phenomenal number of sources…the USDA’s wisdom, pyramid and beyond, isn’t the only source of misguided health information out there. But it is some of the most pervasive, the most coddled by the food industry, the most sheltered from criticism, and— as a consequence— the most hazardous to public health.”
Sugar is a Poison. Fat is the Antidote.
Dr. Robert Lustig makes a damning case against sugar, especially fructose, in his viral video presentation Sugar: The Bitter Truth (viewed nearly 6 million times as of writing) and his book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. He considers the insidious substance to be a poison, one that deserves to be regarded in the same light as alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine.
“Politicians have to come in and reset the playing field, as they have with any substance that is toxic and abused, ubiquitous and with negative consequence for society. Alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine. We don’t have to ban any of them. We don’t have to ban sugar. But the food industry cannot be given carte blanche. They’re allowed to make money, but they’re not allowed to make money by making people sick.”
But dose makes the poison. A little bit of sugar consumed in the form of local, in-season fruit is not a problem. Since the sugar is bound up with a large amount of fiber, it is digested more slowly and helps us avoid over-consumption. Even a full-grown man would probably not eat a dozen oranges in one sitting, but any small child could easily throw back the sugar found in 12 oranges in one glass of orange juice. Moreover, whole fruit contains important vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols that are lost or damaged during processing.
The good news in all this is that we don’t need all this sugar to make food taste good when we add back in the most wrongly maligned macronutrient of all time: fat. Healthy dietary fats are extremely important for proper function of the body and a satisfying life:
- Fats provide a stable, dense source of energy.
- Fats are required to make healthy cell membranes.
- Fats are essential for proper liver function, including the creation of cholesterol (essential for numerous bodily functions) and bile (essential for the digestion of fats and elimination of toxins).
- Fats must be present in food for us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Fats form a protective lining around bodily organs.
- Fats slow the absorption of food, helping to regulate appetite and energy needs.
- Fats are required for the body to inflame and anti-inflame (the body needs to be able to do both to heal).
- Fats make foods taste better, providing both physiological and psychological satiation.
And it is important to note that “healthy fats” do not just include olive oil, avocados, and fish as most people have been led to believe, but also saturated fats like coconut, palm oil, lard, tallow, and fatty cuts of meat from properly sources animals. Read Myth: Saturated Fat is Bad For You for more about why saturated fat is not the bad guy you’ve been led to believe, and is in fact an essential form of fat required for optimal health and function.
A Calorie is Not a Calorie
The obesity epidemic is not simply a matter of people eating too much and not exercising enough. The problem is that we have been eating too much of the wrong things (sugar and starch) and not enough of the right things (fat and protein). Carbohydrates, especially refined sugars and starches, are uniquely fattening. Drinking a 200-calorie soda will have a very different affect on your body’s hormones than eating a 200-calorie slice of steak. As Gary Taubes eloquently illustrates in Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It:
“…the science itself makes clear that hormones, enzymes, and growth factors regulate our fat tissue, just as they do everything else in the human body, and that we do not get fat because we overeat; we get fat because the carbohydrates in our diet make us fat. The science tells us that obesity is ultimately the result of a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one—specifically, the stimulation of insulin secretion caused by eating easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods: refined carbohydrates, including flour and cereal grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and sugars, like sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup. These carbohydrates literally make us fat, and by driving us to accumulate fat, they make us hungrier and they make us sedentary.”
Want to Lose Weight? Eat More Fat & Less Sugar.
When trying to shed body fat and regain health, fat is your friend, not foe.
Fat is satiating. It helps you feel more full and provides constant, steady energy throughout the day, meaning you will eat less, less often, and more of the right things. If you eat a fat and protein rich breakfast, you won’t be hungry an hour later as you will when eating the standard carb-heavy American breakfast of cereal, toast, and juice. With a proper breakfast, you may just find that you can coast through all the way to dinner. You won’t get “hangry” in between meals, and find yourself reaching for doughnuts and coffee in the break room to keep yourself awake. Your mood and productivity will improve since you won’t suffer from the brain fog and energy dips throughout the day that most people have come to think of as normal. Common? Yes. Normal? No.
The right kind of fats will also provide your body the building blocks it needs for optimal form and function. You will be able to create sufficient quantities of sex hormones, increasing your drive and libido. Your cells membranes will be healthier, allowing nutrients and hormones to pass in and out more easily. In basic terms, this translates into feeling and looking a hell of a lot better.