Chiu: Don’t get caught up on the fat-fearing bandwagon

Posted on February 12, 2012 in Chiu On This, Sports
By Anna Chiu

Anna Chiu
Photo by Adrian Wong-Ken
Anna Chiu

For as long as I can remember, my mother always warned me about saturated fats. Saturated fats, according to her conventional wisdom source, clog arteries and contributes to heart disease and obesity. She use to trim excess fat from the occasional steak I was able to enjoy once in a while. As for me, I would sneak the fatty pieces and blame it on my dad, because I refused to let the best parts of the steak get thrown out.

It all started with a famous study that apparently proves saturated fat as evil. In 1953, Ancel Keys presented a study that ultimately gave saturated fat its bad reputation; he compared fat intake and tracked heart disease rates in six different countries and noticed that the higher fat intake, the higher cases of heart disease. The United States ate the highest amount of fat and had the highest rate of heart disease while the Japanese ate the lowest amount of fat and had the lowest rate of heart disease. Keys graphed his data and publicly concluded that a high fat diet causes heart disease. It was because of this study that this three letter word became a fear inducing phenomenon that changed our perception of food.

As a fat lover, I have many problems with this study. First, Keys left out loads of data that he felt would skew his hypothesis. Keys graph seemed to show a link between fat consumption and heart disease, but he used only seven countries instead of 22 that were available. Plot all the original data, and the correlation becomes weak and inconclusive. There is no scientific evidence that proves high fat consumption causing heart disease. Keys did however, snagged the cover of Time magazine and was crowned the father of dietary science.

Let me enlighten you and introduce you to a Kenyan tribe known as the Masai. With a diet that consist of at least 60 percent fat, the Masai survives on mostly meat, blood and milk. I should add that compared to Western countries, the Masai triumphs in cardiovascular health. What does Keys think about the Masai? According to him, the Masai and other similar populations are just “outliers” with special genetics.

There is no reason to fear natural saturated fat. It’s true that it raises cholesterol levels, but cholesterol is essential to our physical, psychological and cognitive health. Research has shown that some people taking cholesterol lowering medication, like statins, are at risk for cognitive problems. We’ve got the wrong guy here despite reliable research. The problem is that most Americans consume the processed kind of saturated fat such as hydrogenated oils or margarine. We should start thinking about including saturated fat sources like coconut or macadamia nuts.

Fat is essential to our health, and it’s unfortunate how it’s constantly blamed for the cause of heart disease and obesity. Many of us go out of the way to stick to a low-fat diet in hopes to optimize our health. Brain cells need a constant supply of fatty acids to shield new nerve connections we make from learning and forming new memories. After all, the brain is made of 60 percent fat.

In The Scientific American, a new animal research found that mice fed with a low fat diet showed signs of depressive and anxious behavior compared to mice fed with a diet rich in healthy fats. There is a strong correlation between fat deficiency and cognitive problems such as mood and memory. The accumulation of studies supporting this idea is substantial to our understanding of a healthy diet.

Give fat a chance, but avoid trans fats and any oils that are hydrogenated. Instead of  fat free yogurt, reach for the full fat kind and you may find yourself staying full for a longer period of time. With consistent consumption of healthy fats, you may also find improvement in your memory and mood. Personally, I’m just glad I can keep eating steak.

Anna Chiu is a freshman nursing major who writes a weekly column about health and wellness. She can be reached at yin.chiu1@maine.edu.