Saturated fat reprieve?

cream on top

Recently I switched to whole milk yogurt, one brand in particular (which shall remain nameless as I’m not paid to endorse it).  It’s regular — not Greek style — yogurt, and not homogenized.  Fat and water don’t mix, so the cream separates and when you open the container, there’s a delightful and delicious layer of cream on top.  If I were really decadent, I’d just eat the cream off the top, but I don’t.

Wait, shouldn’t I be worried about all that saturated fat?  Dairy fat is notorious for being high saturated fat, not to mention high cholesterol.  We’ve been warned for decades about saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease.  Truthfully, I wasn’t all that concerned.  Saturated fat isn’t a big part of my diet.  Then by coincidence, I ran across a webinar on dairy fats that made me even less concerned.  The webinar was sponsored by another yogurt company (that also doesn’t pay me), so of course there’s a pro-dairy marketing angle there, but the webinar was more about dairy fats, not about yogurt.  The speaker looked back at the history of our fear of dairy fats, and discussed recent research that refutes those fears.

These are some key points

  1. Current consensus by just about every major health organization, including the scientific committee that advised on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is that dietary cholesterol does not contribute to heart disease risk.  Nevertheless, official recommendations continue to promote a limit on cholesterol intake.  Why?  I’ll propose a reason: default bias.  Which means that people just stick to the status quo because change is hard.  Even when the status quo is demonstrably false or pointless, it seems.  Default bias is not a behavior that’s limited to nutrition policy; we’ve all seen examples of this in our lives. Medical treatment protocols are rife with default bias.  I’ll propose another more conspiratorial reason: plenty of food companies use “no cholesterol!!!!” for marketing purposes, selling margarine, fake eggs and other highly processed foods.  Removing the stigma on cholesterol removes the rationale for the marketing.  People might start eating real eggs again.  What to do with all those egg white omelets?  And what to do with all the reduced fat cheese-like substances?
  2. Plenty of current research on dairy intake shows no link between dairy fat and heart disease incidence. In fact, some studies show the opposite.  Many of these studies look at actual disease and mortality rather than just whether blood cholesterol went up or down.
  3. It’s also interesting to note that the mix of saturated fats in dairy is very unique and quite different from the saturated fat mix in other foods like meat.  Dairy contains some natural trans fats that have a unique shape and are substantially different from the industrially-produced trans fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are considered universally bad, but naturally occurring dairy trans fats seem to behave quite differently.

So should you start cooking with butter? Putting real cream in your coffee?  The research on fat intake and disease incidence still shows that intake of vegetable-source fats is important.  Olive oil, nuts, avocado and other vegetable oils should predominate, but that still leaves room for whole milk, real cheese and delicious yogurt with the cream on top.  The webinar emphasizes that high fat sugary foods (ice cream, whipped cream, buttery pastries and cakes) are not what you should be thinking about.  If you’re going to indulge in dairy fats, low sugar whole foods are preferred, especially the ones that include other key nutrients — think milk, yogurt and cheese.

The one drawback is calories.  For people trying to control calorie intake, adding high fat versions of dairy foods might not be the best choice.  Whole milk and yogurt made with it have about twice the calories of non-fat versions.  Reduced fat cheese is somewhat lower calorie.  So if you prefer lower calorie versions of these foods, you might stick to low fat.  On the other hand, the higher fat versions are more satisfying and usually taste better.  I put half and half in my coffee, because why ruin coffee by putting low fat milk in it?  But cream?  Sometimes it’s a bit much.

Side Note: The webinar includes a rather hilarious section explaining where the fear of food cholesterol started.  Apparently over 100 years ago, some researchers fed rabbits doses of cholesterol that were thousands of times as much as any human could every consume.  Shocker! The (herbivore rodent) rabbits developed high cholesterol. The point being, humans are not herbivore rodents; we have different metabolisms.  We don’t eat thousands of grams of cholesterol everyday, so how is that kind of study even meaningful?  Nevertheless, someone somewhere in the 20th Century decided that this rabbit study meant humans should limit dietary cholesterol.  Default bias ensued, and still ensues.

As if that wasn’t enough fat focus for one week, I found an article about a supposed Fat IQ test.  Oh really?  According to whom?  I just had to take the test, which predictably turned out to be a case of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).  First of all, who created this silly test?  Not anyone with a nutrition background.  Here are some of the questions:

  • True or False: You can change your body’s basal metabolic rate.  Well, you can’t. It’s pretty much ‘what you see is what you get’, aside from changes caused by losing or gaining weight.  But Nooooooo, according to the Fat IQ test you can change this.  How exactly does that work, oh Fat Geniuses?  Please enlighten us.
  • Which has more calories? A tablespoon of olive oil or butter?  How exactly is that trivial difference meaningful, oh Fat Geniuses? Answer — it isn’t.
  • Which has more calories per serving: 2 scoops of chocolate ice cream or a medium order of french fries.    Gee, Fat Geniuses, how big are the scoops?  What brand is the ice cream? What exactly is a “medium order of french fries”?  This question can’t be answered without those critical pieces of information.
  • Or how about this calorie choice: 4 squares of dark chocolate or 1/2 cup granola.  And the “squares of chocolate” are how big exactly? And the brand of granola and ingredients are what exactly?
  • (critiquing this stuff is like shooting fish in a barrel)
  • Another one: 12 almonds or 20 pretzels. And the pretzels are how big exactly?
  • 1 cup of skim milk vs 1 cup of orange juice?  First problem: trivial difference if any. Is the trivial calorie difference supposed to persuade someone to drink one over the other?  The nutritional qualities of these two beverages are drastically different, but are we supposed to avoid one of them for some reason?  Second problem: how is this related to Fat IQ? Both of these foods are non-fat.

This is described as a “basic quiz on dietary fats”. Not.  The take away on fats:

Olive oil, avocado, nuts and vegetable oils are good sources of healthy fats and should be part of your daily diet.

Dairy fats — from milk, yogurt and cheese — can be enjoyed in moderation, as long as the additional calories aren’t a problem for you.

High fat/high sugar treats should be limited, whatever the fat source.

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