Fats 101 - The History

Recently we had a question on our Facebook page asking which oils are the healthiest.  It occurred to me that maybe I should answer some questions about fats in general first.  I think having the correct background will then make the more specific questions about fats make a lot more sense. I have to tell you that fats is a very complex subject, so I will try to give you the high points without bogging you down with too many details.  So here it goes!

First, a little history:  Since 1980 the USDA and the U. S. Dept. of Health and Human Services have been publishing Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They use the most up to date science to present to the public general recommendations for overall good health. The Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet—one that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease. They are updated every 5 years.  Be on the lookout for the new guidelines as they will be updated this year.

In the 1980’s the recommendation for the public was to eat a low fat diet.  At this time, it was thought that if the American public decreased their fat intake, the heart disease risk would also decrease.  Of course that isn’t what happened. The science behind the recommendation was good but sometimes you can’t anticipate all the problems ahead of time.

 There are a couple reasons the low fat diet didn’t work for overall health in the 70-90’s.

  1. Food companies developed a lot of fat free foods that weren’t necessarily low in calories.
  2. Consumers thought that if a food didn’t have fat in it they could eat all they wanted.  Thus, Americans sugar and refined grains (think white bread, processed foods, cakes, cookies, soda) intake increased. 

This has led to the confusion you are currently reading about in the news. Upon reviewing the old studies they questioned whether a low fat diet really would improve cholesterol. The data wasn’t backing up current recommendations, which are to decrease saturated and trans fat, but why?

If you take a closer look at these studies, they looked at populations/groups of people and told them to follow a low fat diet. What they didn’t tell them was what to replace those fats with. The majority of people replaced them with sugars, refined grains and unhealthy carbohydrates which then did NOT improve their overall health-weight, cholesterol panels, or prediabetes/diabetes risk.  After reviewing past studies they recommend performing new studies where certain types of fat are reduced and replaced with “healthier” fats and whole grains. They are hoping this will then answer the question, “Is a low fat diet the best diet to lower cholesterol?”. Remember, studies take time to develop and analyze so it will take few years before we have the answer to this question.

So, there you have it, a little history on the evolution of the low fat diet.  It is good to know this as it is contributing to some of the questions that are in the media right now.                                                 

In our next lesson we will start to focus on the different types of fat.  To get you ready here is a multiple choice question to get you thinking.

How many types of fat are required by law to be listed on the food label?

  1. 1                                  b. 2
  2. 3                                  d. 4

Part 2 of this blog is coming soon!