Is fat the new protein?

fatty_foodsFat is Big.  And I’m not talking about the obesity epidemic. I’m talking about fats that we eat.  Butter, bacon, olive oil, coconut oil, pork, eggs, cheese, whole milk, you name it.  Not so long ago, fat was the universal health boogey man, linked to all major illnesses.  Fatty foods were shunned, or engineered to remove the fat (and flavor and texture).  Low fat diets became the holy grail of nutrition, even though very few people could actually stick to them for more than 12 hours.  Now high fat foods are being promoted as healthy, although not everyone can agree on which fats are healthy and which should still be limited.

The recent sugar industry controversy only pumped more oxygen into the pro-fat argument.  According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association a sugar producers’ association influenced recommendations on diet and heart disease back in the 1960’s.  At the time, heart disease was attributed to cholesterol and saturated fat in the diet.  It was in the sugar industry’s interest to keep the focus on fats, even though there was a growing body of evidence that sugar was also a contributing factor.  Prominent nutrition scientists received money to support research and publications that implicated fats.  There is evidence that the sugar association expected published findings to downplay any link between sugar and heart disease.

Current nutrition wisdom does recognize a link between sugar and elevated blood triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease risk.  So the discovery of the sugar shenanigans was big news, even though it happened over 50 years ago.  Here we’d been told to avoid fat for decades and the culprit was really sugar!  This kind of news is catnip to fat aficionados, who easily leap to the conclusion that sugar is the real (and only) dietary boogey man and fat is healthy.  Fat is the new protein.

Protein has long had a major health halo.  The more the better according to some people.  Dieters and body builders all believe protein has magic properties.  One recent study of consumer attitudes towards protein discovered the hilarious belief among couch potatoes that eating protein is the same as exercising.

Some consumers of protein supplements with low levels of physical activity believed protein supplements had a ‘fitness promoting’ effect..

Protein mythology goes like this: the more the better — gorge on protein and you’ll be thinner and have more muscles and more energy.  Even if you’re a couch potato.

Now plenty of true-believers are espousing the same kind of nonsense advice about fatty foods. Despite the high saturated fat content, butter and bacon are touted as healthy.  Actually maybe because of the saturated fat content, since some people now believe saturated fat is healthy, ignoring evidence clearly linking it to heart disease risk.  Coconut oil is touted as a healthy superfood that will help with weight loss and prevent disease.  Never mind that coconut-eating populations in the South Pacific are some of the most obese in the world, plagued by diabetes and other diseases.  If only you’d put butter in your coffee, gorge on bacon and fry everything else in coconut oil you’d be thin, fit and disease-free.  Don’t count on it.

But wait!  Some fats are associated with better health, such as olive oil and other vegetable oils, nuts and avocado.  There’s actual scientific research to back up those claims for plant-sourced fats, which are primarily unsaturated and monounsaturated.  Some fats are healthier than others.  Not to mention fats give your foods more flavor and texture.  In modest amounts, they make meals more satisfying so you don’t feel the need to eat so much.  But are they so healthy that you should gorge on them?  No.  Nothing is that healthy, not protein foods, not fats.

So how much fat?

Butter and bacon fans take note: saturated fat shouldn’t be more than 10% of your calories.  If you eat 2000 calories a day on average, that’s 200 calories of saturated, or about 22 grams.  Keep in mind that fats in foods are rarely all saturated or all unsaturated; they’re a mix.  1 tablespoon of butter has 7 grams of saturated fat as well as 3 grams of monounsaturated.  1 TB of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated and 1 gram monounsaturated.  1 TB of olive oil has 2 grams of saturated and 8 grams unsaturated. A 10-oz rib eye steak has 13 grams saturated fat and 15 of monounsaturated.

As for total fat recommendation, US government publications suggest 20-35% of calories, while the American Heart Association doesn’t really say anything about the level.  Fat intake in Mediterranean countries (famous for their healthy diet) can approach 40% or more of calories, primarily as olive oil.

Is Fat the New Protein?

No, fats are not super foods or miracle foods.  And chemically they aren’t anything like protein, so fat can never substitute for protein in human metabolism.  Healthy fats can and should be part of a balanced diet.  But gorging on fatty foods is a really bad idea.  Fat is high calorie,  plus you’d be eating a really unbalanced diet that would quickly get just as boring and unpalatable as those low fat diets that nobody can stick to.

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