Once thought to be a bad-for-you guilty pleasure, saturated fats such as butter have been enjoying a revival as low carb high fat dieters praise it for its fat-burning power. But many consumers continue to fear fat, opting for fat-free products and anything labeled "reduced calorie" while fighting constant cravings. Now a new book seeks to redeem the reputation of saturated fats and explain why they were demonized in the first place, as well as make the case for low carb diets: "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet."
I interviewed author Nina Teicholz to learn more about her carefully researched book, which explains in detail why high fat low carb diets are the best for weight loss and health. (For additional details on how high fat low carb diets win for taking off pounds and conditions such as diabetes, click here.)
In addition, she's drawn attention for her detailed chronology of how low-fat diets became the standard prescription for non-profit health organizations such as the American Heart Association. Particularly noteworthy is her investigation into how much of what we see today in traditional doctor-prescribed diets stems from one man: Ancel Keys. Why?
"The Seven Countries study that Keys conducted in the late 1950s was like the “big bang” of modern nutrition research," Nina told me. "It concluded that saturated fat (because it raised total cholesterol) was the most likely cause of heart disease." Consequently, the American Heart Association issued the nation's initial diet directives. The message: Slash saturated fat to avoid heart disease.
"The rest of the history of our dietary guidelines unfolds from there. Keys's hypothesis became our public health advice," says Nina. But when you evaluate the study on which he based his advice, "you find that it contains many methodological flaws, including the fact that Keys selected only the countries that would support his hypothesis, such as Italy, Greece and Japan, which had low rates of heart disease and consumed little saturated fat, while ignoring those that would not (such as France, Switzerland and Germany, where people ate a lot of saturated fat but did not suffer high rates of heart disease). "
Moreover, the Seven Countries study consisted of an epidemiological investigation. Similar to a recent study which investigated whether gluten sensitivity is real, that investigation did not show causation. It showed only association. Thus, concludes Nina: "It was a flawed evidence base for our nutritional guidelines."
Several writers and experts have attacked the existing government food pyramid, which encourages consumers to cut saturated fat and increase carbs in the form of foods such as whole grains. Among them: "Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health." That book challenges the food pyramid based on faulty research. And like Nina's book, it questions why obesity and related conditions such as diabetes continue to soar.
I asked Nina to visualize the ideal food pyramid for health and weight loss. She suggests minimizing heated vegetable oils (corn, peanut) and sugar and high-fructose corn-syrup, which belong in the tip (translation: Consume minimal amounts and avoid as much as possible). Next in line to minimize: White flour, white rice and other refined carbohydrates, "because these have largely been stripped of their nutritional content." And in contrast to the traditional advice to eat all types of fruit, Nina recommends limiting your intake of fruit juice and high-sugar fruits such as pineapple and watermelon.
And while whole grains earn high praise in the traditional food pyramid, Nina recommends also limiting your intake of whole grains, including brown rice. Also on the list to limit: Starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Although she acknowledges their health value, she cautions that "a diet excessively high in carbohydrates of any kind has been shown to be less healthy than one lower in carbs."
In the perfect food pyramid, Nina feels that the area allotted to foods to enjoy freely belongs to meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, lard, butter, unheated olive oil and other oils such as coconut. Nuts earn space as well. And as for the traditional "five a day" fruits and vegetables? Nina recommends limiting them to the non-starchy veggies such as mushrooms and the low-sugar fruits such as berries.
As shown above, Nina believes that saturated fats are actually good for us: How can they help our health and what impact do they have on weight loss? Their benefits range from bone health due to calcium absorption to protection of the liver. In addition to boosting your immune system, saturated fats help you absorb omega-3 fatty acids.
Moreover, says Nina, "the type of saturated fatty acids in butter and tropical oils have been shown to have important antimicrobial properties. Saturated fats are also important for the functioning of the heart muscle." And although she says that they raise your cholesterol, it is not the type linked to heart attacks.
All low-carb diets are not alike. One of the most controversial: High fat low carb ketogenic diets, such as the Atkins plan. I asked Nina to comment.
"I have not investigated all the different low-carb diets. Numerous clinical trials over the past decade have looked at ketogenic/very low-carb diets and found them to be highly successful for weight loss and improvement in heart-disaese biomarkers—for all types of populations. In one trial, on people with Type 2 diabetes, the diet was actually so successful that people were able to get off their diabetes medication. the diet has also helped reverse signs of metabolic syndrome. In these trials, no adverse affects have been found," she noted.
However: "Whether this diet is right for any individual depends upon a person’s tolerance of carbohydrates; people suffering from diabetes, obesity or heart disease may benefit more from a diet like this. The rest of us would benefit simply from cutting back on carbohydrates a bit and eating more fat and protein," Nina recommended.
Nina's own story of how she came to embrace a low-carb lifestyle is intriguing. Once a vegetarian, she lost 10 pounds after reviewing restaurants that involved eating "red meat, offal, cream sauces, pate and other such foods." In addition to her weight loss,, "my cholesterol markers were fine."
As noted, Nina's book expands on previous guides to low-carb diet benefits. She notes that she has "drawn upon their work and am grateful to them for their brave scholarship," she says graciously. Among those she recommends: Gary Taubes, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health" and "Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It".
Now that she's made the switch from a higher carbohydrate diet to a high fat low carb diet, Nina notes the differences. Before, she ate "lots and lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and small amounts of fish or chicken as the main source of protein. So a typical day would start with a piece of fruit, followed by a bean/grain salad for lunch (or maybe a green salad with some chicken). My ideal dinner was stir-fry vegetables, and my favorite snack food was hummus with pita bread or carrots," she recalls.
Sounds healthy, right? But there's a problem, says Nina now."The problem with this diet was that, although it seems super-healthy, it’s very high in carbohydrates—probably over 60%, which is what the USDA recommends we eat, but has been shown in numerous clinical trials to be less healthy than a diet higher in fat. And I was pudgy on this diet. I exercised a lot—practically an hour a day, running or biking, but I couldn’t lose weight. Also, I tended to binge on snack foods."
Those binge-eating episodes, Nina feels, were "related to my body needing more protein and fat, which are more highly satiating and are essential to good health. After I started researching the science, I shifted my eating habits gradually over the years. Now I start my day with eggs, bacon or sausage, eat cheese and nuts or leftovers for lunch and meat, chicken or fish with vegetables for dinner. I cook with butter, lard and coconut oil, and I don’t skimp on the fat."
And low carb diet experts are cheering the book. Among them: Michael R. Eades, M.D., author of "The 30-Day Low-Carb Diet Solution." He contends that for low-carb dieters who worry about eating saturated fats as well as those sticking to their fat-free, high carb diets, the "Big Fat Surprise" will ease their worries. Moreover, he predicts, it "will convert even the fiercest of skeptics."
Our recommendation: Invest in "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet" to learn why and how to go low-carb. And if you're already on a low carb diet, you'll acquire new knowledge of how to maximize the benefits. Get all the details on the book by clicking here.