I remember the TV ad well. A pudgy father reached across his 1970’s vinyl-topped kitchen table with a stainless steel knife gripped awkwardly in his hand to carve thick slice of butter. Fat tongue to the side in hungry concentration, he was a red-faced caricature of impending heart failure. The message was clear: don’t be this guy; butter is bad for you. The fat in it caused heart disease and early death. If you wanted to live, margarine was the new healthy choice.
The reason for this was the newly demonised cholesterol. The lecherous little lipoprotein, we were told, had the power to clog up your arteries like flour in a drinking straw. A study from the 1950’s had uncovered the mortal danger and although research in the 1980's failed to confirm the findings, the medical community maintained a zealous anti-fat rage.
As a kid, I didn’t buy it. I’d tried margarine, and the slimy yellow paste had done nothing for me. It felt wrong in my mouth, it felt wrong in my stomach, and it tasted bad. I was sticking with the glorious creamy warmth of natural butter, regardless of what the “experts” said. Now, a generation later, it’s becoming clear my rebellious juvenile stomach was right all along.
The Misguided War Against Fat
There is a growing body of clinical and anecdotal evidence showing we have been wrong about fat. Yet official voices have been slow to admit the mistake. The irony of such hubris would be whimsical if not for the results which have played out in health systems all over the world. Heart disease is still the number one killer of women and men. It now causes more deaths than cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and accidents combined. To this has been added the modern pandemic of obesity – a pandemic which, if not caused by the removal of fat from our diets, was certainly aggravated by it.
The war against fat began with a report in 1958 by American physiologist Ancel Keys. His now infamous Seven Countries Study used cherry-picked data to plot a neat little graph showing that the more fat there was in a country’s diet, the more its citizens died of heart disease.
Ancel Keys' infamously erroneous chart
As has since been shown in detail, there were many problems with the report. Not only did Keys’ ignore data that didn’t fit his conclusion (the original data set included 22 countries of which he only used 7), his study completely missed the influence of other important factors such as the effects of economy upon a population’s ability to buy fat rich foods like meat.
Despite this, a 1950’s American health system staggering at a rate of heart disease responsible for every second male death after World War 2 latched onto fat as the enemy and promptly went nuclear.
A contemporary deconstruction of the report brought Keys' conclusion about diet into question, but it was too late. Keys’ report became the basis for a wholesale change in national eating guidelines that landed its author on the cover of Time magazine, and made him the most famous nutritionist of his generation.
Carbohydrate, the Real Villain
The result was that fat was effectively removed from dinner plates all over the Western world. Everything became low-fat, or fat-free. Removing one nutrient meant exchanging it for another, so the USDA made possibly the worst choice available: it replaced fat with carbohydrate. The West rebuilt its diet upon a broad cloying base of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. The era of the familiar “food pyramid” began.
The infamous USDA food pyramid
More than 50 years later, the folly of that exchange is becoming clear. Far from achieving any sort of overall weight loss, people are fatter than ever. The increase in deaths due to obesity related diseases has skyrocketed. Since 1980, for example, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in “low-fat” USA has almost tripled – an increase of 166 percent - and it’s still rising.
Carbohydrate, it is now understood, is literally killing us. In the words of president of the Institute Responsible for Nutrition in the USA Dr. Robert Lustic, “We’ve traded one disease for another.”
The reason for carbohydrate’s lethality is that when its hits our digestive systems it basically turns straight into sugar. Carbs, especially simple carbs, are just long chains of sugars linked together. Ninety percent of the calories in rice, for example, come directly from carbohydrate. The resulting high concentration of sugars creates blood sugar spikes that can lead to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, conditions linked not only to an increase in diabetes, but also heart disease, cancer and a host of other serious health issues.
To add to the irony of carbohydrate being worse for us than the fat it replaced, normal whole fat may not have been the main culprit in heart disease anyway. The low-fat and no-fat foods we added to our diets not only contained more carbohydrate and sugar, they were devoid of the good fat which our bodies needed for healthy function.
Spreading the Mistake
All of which brings us back to butter. Not much typifies the unfortunate effect of the dietary exchange more than butter and margarine. Butter is loaded with saturated fats and high density lipoprotein, known as “good" cholesterol. HDL-cholesterol keeps the “bad” low density lipoprotein LDL-cholesterol from clogging up artery walls with plaque by binding to and removing it.
Margarine in contrast is by design all unsaturated fat with some trans fat. Trans fat is a deadly product of processed food which increases the balance of LDL-cholesterol in our systems. It is so bad that a 2% increase in trans fat corresponds to a massive 23% increase in the risk of heart disease. And that doesn’t take into account the various artificial preservatives and coloring margarine contains.
Replacing butter with such processed goop was one of the ironies of the long fat-hating crusade. We effectively swapped a natural food for a processed one that potentially increased the risk of the disease we were trying to avoid!
Not More Fat, But Less Sugar and Carbs
The message isn’t that we should be eating large amounts of fatty food, but that we probably shouldn’t be so worried about it. Restricting fat in our diet, it turns out, is less important than reducing the amount of sugar and carbohydrate we eat, and staying well away from trans fat.
So grab a knife and just like that hungry patriarch from last millennium enjoy a wholesome slice of buttery goodness. Not only will it taste better, it will probably help you - especially if it fills you up enough to avoid another sugary dessert.