Whenever I am inclined to write about nutrition, I’m cautioned to be mindful of just how personal (and often controversial) the subject can be. Eating is an emotional experience, and we are passionate about our food. So passionate, in fact, that attitudes about nutrition are often comparable to strongly held beliefs about religion or politics. It makes sense; we live with bodies and brains that do not function identically, in a society where the abundance of fad diets, financial interests, costs, environment, commercialism and misinformation make selecting the *right* foods a complicated and anxious choice.
Fueling that anxiety is the knowledge that different foods can heal or harm us, and many of us have to make those choices for others–our children, siblings, patients, and even pets. Differing metabolic rates, allergies, medical conditions, cultural traditions, economy, and personal preferences shape a reality devoid of ‘one food fits all.‘ In the chaos we learn to ‘listen to our bodies,’ attempt to stay informed, and adapt by holding to the beliefs that the choices we make are worthwhile, safe, and not always impulsive–beliefs that may stay with us for decades.
Which brings us to Time magazine’s recent turnaround on fat and cholesterol. Thirty years after their famous article shocked the world into negative attitudes about fat, they’re ready to refine the message, re-examine the science, and apologize for decades of ‘low-fat/high-carb’ alternatives. It’s time people challenge their beliefs: fat may not be the devil after all. In fact, it may be good for you.
A Change of Heart
The March, 1984 issue of Time magazine titled, “Cholesterol: And Now the Bad News…” features beloved breakfast staples cleverly arranged in the shape of a sad-face. Known as one of Time’s most memorable covers, the message is made abundantly clear: “Cholesterol is proved deadly, and our diet may never be the same.” Reporting on a trial done on the relation between dietary cholesterol, serum cholesterol and heart disease, Time asserted that the diet-heart hypothesis–eating cholesterol and saturated fat raises cholesterol in the blood contributing to heart disease–had finally been proven. The article took the world by storm, allowing widespread fat-phobia to take root for decades to come.
The well-known study referenced in the original article is not without controversy. Having written about cholesterol in the past, I note that for most people, an increase in the consumption of dietary cholesterol does not seem to increase serum cholesterol (cholesterol it the blood). While many studies demonstrate that changes in the serum cholesterol level may be induced by modifying the amount of dietary fat, this increase may be due to other factors such as inflammation. In fact, markers of inflammation such as CRP seem to be much more closely correlated to heart disease than total cholesterol or even levels of LDL 9, 8, 13.
So where are we thirty years later? Decades of low-fat diets have coincided with rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Time’s new message? Simply, “Eat Butter.” Ending the War on Fat, goes further: “For decades, it has been the most vilified nutrient in the American diet. But new science reveals fat isn’t what’s hurting our health.”
Lets take a brief moment, put down our low-fat snack bars, and appreciate the effort required for Time to pivot its overweight body into a thirty-year about-face. What happened? Have we all been duped by our low-fat false-prophets? How could eating less fat be a contributor to rising rates of illness? Should we be cramming more butter?
Senior editor of Time magazine, Bryan Walsh, states on CBS This Morning, “It’s a bit more complicated than that…”
“We talked to a lot of doctors, a lot of nutritionists and what we found was that, when that low-fat message really became mainstream…the hope was people would switch to much healthier foods: fruits and vegetables, things like that. As one doctor told me, “well that turned out to be a little naive.”
People actually switched to very high-carb diets, we saw calories go up, and it turns out that those carbs seem to be a lot worse when it comes to obesity, diabetes, than saturated fat ever was.
…It was sort of a diet of unintended consequences. We probably would have been much better off if we just not worried so much about fat and worried more about what kinds of foods we were eating and not trying to get down to a certain level of a nutrient.”
A New Message – A Fat Chance
Having written about my own experience with traumatic brain injury, successful recovery, and the corresponding high-fat/low-carb/whole-food diet that greatly aided in my recovery, it’s relieving to see that Time’s attitude about nutrition reporting has matured since 1984.
“It’s not really about new research telling you to do a certain kind of diet,” says Walsh, “it’s actually telling you to worry less!” He points out that many of the successful diets out there include good, healthy, whole-foods, rich in different fats. “I think it depends on what feels best for you and just making sure the food you get is real and not fast food, not processed food.”
The new, more mature message is not simply, “Eat Butter,” rather:
- Eat what’s good for you
- Eat *real* foods
- Sticking to the first two points, don’t worry about fat content
Not only does that message make much more sense, it’s simple, anti-fad, brain-friendly and is a welcome response to decades of data correlating harm done by the low-fat craze. Moreover, it’s important that attitudes about nutrition be handled responsibly in the media, not shaped by fear, financial interests, or fads. On that point, Walsh deserves credit as one of the few voices in the mainstream media looking to make amends for decades of fat-phobia.
*Eating right* will always be a complicated and controversial issue. Change can be difficult and some of us may never challenge or let go of long-held beliefs, even after decades of strong evidence to the contrary. But perhaps more of us who look beyond the fad–who preach simply eating for yourself, and eating real food as a means to healing and well-being, will continue to see a growing number of converts.
Help yourself! Eat butter.