Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on 9/10/2015 and updated 1/18/2016
All it takes is opening a cupboard or searching through the fridge to discover the truth: we are obsessed with low-fat foods. From fat-free salad dressings and light potato chips to low-fat frozen waffles and 100-calorie snack packs—somewhere along the line, we were taught to shun fat from our diets.
Ironically, a closer look at the nutrition labels on these fat-free foods often uncovers something worse: large amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars, which can be detrimental to good health.
What’s more startling is the fact that even though Americans have been advised consistently over the last 30 years to decrease their fat consumption, obesity continues to rise steadily. In fact, USDA data suggests the average daily calorie intake for adults in the United States has increased by 24.5 percent between 1970 and 2000. That’s a whopping 530 extra calories a day on average.
And where are most of these extra calories coming from? Surprisingly, most of them come from the refined carbohydrates found in unhealthy snack foods—not fats.
So how did the idea that all fats are bad get started?
In 1970, American scientist Ancel Keys published his revolutionary “Seven Countries Study,” which looked closely at the association between diet and cardiovascular disease in seven different countries. Keys focused particularly on fat consumption, supporting the idea that dietary fat caused heart disease.
His study soon spread like wildfire. As a result, his findings ended up playing a major hand in the strong propaganda/witch hunt against all tropical oils and other foods high in saturated fat that would begin to sweep throughout the US and Canada.
The 1980s were a decade of leg warmers, Rubiks cubes, Rainbow Bright and extreme fad diets. One such diet, the Beverly Hills Diet, consisted of eating fruit only, while the Caveman Diet only allowed for lean meats, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables. And another popular fad diet to hold sway during the 80s? The low-fat diet.
The low-fat diet lent itself to the idea that as long as it wasn’t fat, it was actually good for you. During this time, new “fat-free” foods began hitting the grocery store shelves that were lean on fat, yet heavy on sugars and carbohydrates. In fact, most “fat-free” products had just as much, if not more, calories after the fat had been removed.
But since it’s fat free, you can’t get fat, right?
In 1991, the USDA developed the Food Guide Pyramid, which gave recommendations on how many servings of carbs, proteins, dairy, fruits, veggies and fats a person should consume daily. The pyramid was based on the idea that all fats were harmful to health and should be replaced by other food groups. Carbohydrates, for instance, made up the base of the pyramid, with the recommendation being to eat anywhere from 6 to 11 servings of carbs a day. And if that wasn’t enough starch, potatoes were thrown in with vegetables as well.
On the flip side, fats and oils were placed at the tip-top of the pyramid along with sweets. The recommendation for fats and oils was to “use sparingly.” But many people, took “sparingly” to mean “don’t eat at all.”
Y2K wasn’t the only scare Americans faced at the turn of the century. With the obesity epidemic steadily on the rise, nutritionists and scientists began to question the health claims of the low-fat, high-starch diet. As a result of this, it was revealed that on closer look there was a deep flaw in Keys’ “Seven Countries Study” findings.
During his study, Keys intentionally left out countries where people eat a lot of fat, such as Norway and Holland, but have little evidence of heart disease. He also failed to include countries such as Chile, where fat consumption is low, yet heart disease is particularly high.
New studies in the early 2000’s also begin to point out the health benefits of unsaturated fats, and many health professionals began to preach a low-carb diet (higher in fat and protein) as an option to treat obesity and other chronic diseases. Recent research also brings to light the potential health benefits from consuming moderate amounts of saturated fats in the form of tropical oils.
Check out fat’s large history in the infographic below to learn more.
It’s almost like a Nancy Drew and the Case of the Bad Fats story.
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