I recall, sometime in the late ‘seventies, an article appearing in the pages of Reader’s Digest. On the cover was this provocative title: “How To Kill Your Husband.” Of course, the article’s true subject was exactly opposite: how to keep your husband alive, and it extolled the virtues of eating a low-fat diet. Fat, it argued, was the bane of our existence, and was singularly responsible for a number of maladies, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. If you really want to kill your husband, the article warned, “just feed him eggs and bacon for breakfast–every day.”
Most of us, I think, took that article–and everything else appearing on the media scene decrying the presence of the now-evil fat in our diets–seriously. And we’ve been ultra-serious about reducing our fat consumption ever since. In fact, the low-fat ethos is so ingrained into our nutritional thinking that we automatically dismiss anything challenging it.
That said, it is my contention in this hub that it is high time we re-evaluated the low-fat requirement to reveal it for what it is: a myth. The truth is, there is no scientific basis for our continuing to eliminate fats from our diets. Furthermore, we are actually doing ourselves grievous harm by doing so. I will explain just how, momentarily.
So I’m going to resurrect the old Reader’s Digest article, but with this slight modification: If you really want to kill your husband, close out this hub right now and serve your husband up some extra-lean chicken and non-fat yogurt and any of the other thousands of low and non-fat products lining our grocer’s shelves.
But if you want to learn something that might save his and your own life, read on. Then, when you’ve done reading, go rustle up a big plate of bacon and eggs for the man you love. Chances are, he’s been needing it.
Why Are Nutritionists Still Pushing Low-Fat?!?
It’s hard to pick up any of the top women’s magazines and not find a plethora of fitness and nutrition-related articles scattered throughout their pages. Okay, I’m a guy, but I still flip through the small collection of More and Vogue and Vanity Fair my wife Jeanie has gathered in our “reading room.” I swear to you, I just read them for the articles and stories. Anyway, most of the time, I find them amusing. Some are truly enlightening. And then, there are some that get my blood to boiling.
The story I’m thinking of right now is from the September issue of More, the one with a very attractive Felicity Huffman on the cover. Go to page 190, and you’ll find a story about how three different women managed to beat heart disease. At first, I was impressed: there was a lot of information on the different signals of heart disease (many of which are subtle or confusing, and hence often ignored), and some useful techniques to help dodge that deadly bullet.
But then I noticed something curious about one of the stories. It involves a woman named Gina Jones who, throughout her life, exercised regularly, but ate pretty much whatever she wanted–until, in her mid-thirties, she experienced a heart attack. Doctors performed an angioplasty (an operation which makes use of a balloon in the heart to widen an artery). Jones recovered, but over the next several years, neglected to stay on her regimen of cholesterol drugs, which led to the need for two more angioplasties. The last of these was performed when she was forty-two. Finally scared literally half to death, she made and kept the commitment to stay on her drugs, and to eat a healthy, low-salt, low-fat diet.
But here’s the curious part. Three years later, during a routine medical exam, Jones was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the diagnosis (I’ll explain shortly). But what had me concerned, almost angry, was the off-handed disclosure of this important fact, almost as an afterthought, coupled with the obvious implication that a family history of the disease (Jones’s mother had been previously diagnosed with type 2 diabetes) was to blame. Nothing else is said about it. Her story ends with the observation that Jones manages to keep her blood sugar down by a strict regimen of six small (presumably low-fat) meals a day. Apparently, the writers didn’t think the matter was important enough to pursue, reasoning (I assume) that the focus of the story was the woman’s heart disease, not her diabetes.
Why Would Someone Eating Low-Fat Develop Diabetes?
The question I had hoped would be addressed was this: if Gina Jones was exercising regularly and eating a low-salt, low-fat diet, why would she still develop type 2 diabetes? The obvious answer, at least according to the way the story was written, was the fact that her mother had also been diagnosed with the disease. In fact, so their reasoning appears to have gone, that had to be the only possible answer, because there is no way eating a low-fat diet can lead to type 2 diabetes.
But there are two big problems with this quick and dirty answer: 1) it presumes a predisposition to develop diabetes based solely on genetics, when in fact that causal link hasn’t been proven, and 2) it presumes a low-fat diet itself will not lead to diabetes. And there’s the stumbling block. Because, in fact, a low-fat diet can easily lead to type 2 diabetes, regardless of your genetics.
An Increased Risk For Diabetes Is No Guarantee You Will Develop It
There is no genetic test for diabetes. Researchers agree that you can inherit a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, but there is no scientific evidence pointing to a purely genetic inheritance of the disease. According to this article, published on GeneticHealth.com, there have historically been a number of problems in finding a specific gene which will without exception lead to inheriting type 2 diabetes. Most notably is this (from GeneticHealth.com):
“We inherit more than just genes from our parents; we also inherit lifestyle. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are learned behaviors that children can pick up from their parents. This type of inheritance has nothing to do with genes, and makes it hard for researchers to identify a genetic risk for diabetes.”
As I see it, Gina Jones might very well have “inherited” her type 2 diabetes from her mother. But it just might have been in the form of learned behaviors–which could easily (given the prevailing beliefs about nutrition) have included limiting fats from her diet.
Eating A Low-Fat Diet Does Not Prevent Diabetes
Gina’s untold story–the one about her diabetes, which wasn’t truly addressed–and similar stories of thousands like her, point to what many far-sighted doctors see as a global health problem: nutritionists are still prescribing a low fat diet (often combined with a low-calorie regimen) to treat and prevent diabetes. Historically, it is not clear where the belief behind this practice originated. In fact, before the low-fat era, diabetes was treated with a low-carbohydrate diet in order to control blood sugar. What caused the switch in thinking? Most likely it is the train of thought that currently links diabetes with obesity. Obesity is the fast track to developing diabetes. Treat the obesity, the reasoning goes, and the incidence of diabetes will be reduced. And, indeed, there seems to be some validity to that argument.
The problem lies in presuming a low-fat diet is at all effective in treating obesity. It is not. In fact, research studies have proven the exact opposite is true: low fat diets actually promote obesity along with the associated incidence of diabetes.
If you’re having a hard time swallowing this, just take a look around you. Our nation has been on a low-fat kick since the “discovery” in the 1970s that fat was bad for us. Strangely, the rate of obesity and adult-onset diabetes began a steady climb upward at about the same time. We have been consuming less and less fat, but at the same time have been packing ever-increasing amounts of it onto our bodies. How is this possible?
It Is Carbohydrates—Not Fat—Which Cause Obesity And Diabetes
In fact, it is entirely possible to eat virtually no fat at all, and yet become morbidly obese at the same time, for this very important reason: it is carbohydrates, and not fat, which make us fat.
The basics of biochemistry prove this to be true. Here’s how:
Our food is comprised of a combination of only three macronutrients (foods providing energy in the form of calories): fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. During digestion, fats are burned as an immediate source of energy, and proteins are broken down to be used as building blocks for various parts of the body. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose, or blood sugar. Like fat, glucose is also used as an immediate form of energy. But unlike fat, glucose also stimulates the secretion of the powerful hormone insulin. Insulin is an extremely important chemical whose primary duty (it actually has many functions throughout the body) is to take excess glucose from the blood, convert it to fat, and store it in the cells for later use as energy. It is important to note that calories from fats and proteins are not stored in this fashion. This is because insulin–in the role of fat-storer–is not secreted in response to fat or protein calories by themselves, as they are not converted to glucose in the same way carbohydrates are. The bottom line is this: if there is no glucose in the blood (as there would be if you consumed carbohydrates), there can be no insulin-driven storage of fat in the cells, and you will not gain weight.
But we can even go a step further and say this: limiting carbohydrates is the healthiest, most effective way to not only maintain, but to lose weight.
The simple reason for this is: for any particular caloric need (and we need at least a certain number of calories to sustain our lives), decreasing one of the three macronutrients forces an increase in the others to make up the caloric deficit. If, for example, you limit your fats, the resultant loss in calories must be made up by a commensurate increase in carbohydrates and/or proteins. And since most fats are bound together with proteins, eliminating fats often means a reduction in protein as well. The body’s only adequate source of calories, then, becomes the carbohydrates.
Too Many Carbs–Too Much Insulin
And that, as they say, is when things start going to heck in a handbasket. Here are some results you can expect from adopting a low-fat, high-carb lifestyle (and please don’t make the potentially-fatal mistake of believing, because you are exercising regularly and are symptom-free, or because there is no history of diabetes in your family, that these results cannot apply to you. Medical history begs to differ. Review Gina Jones’s story above.):
- A lack of fat results in decreased energy levels, a loss of essential fatty acids, a reduced absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and a pronounced deficiency in magnesium.
- If your low-fat regimen is used in conjunction with a low-calorie diet for weight loss, you can certainly lose fat…but you’ll also lose much needed lean body mass (muscle) as a result of the associated loss of protein.
- Carbohydrates are addictive (see my article here); the more you eat, the more you want to eat, in ever-increasing amounts, stimulating an even greater secretion of insulin into the blood.
- While insulin, in the right amounts, is a critically-needed hormone in our systems, too much insulin can wreak havoc on the metabolic system. Adverse effects include higher blood pressure, increased cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and, penultimately, insulin resistance–a condition which occurs where an over-abundance of insulin causes the cells to develop a desensitization to it. Hence, an increasingly greater output of insulin is required to process the same amount of calories–leading to more health problems. Finally, when insulin resistance progresses to the point that the cells no longer respond to insulin, the ultimate result is a condition known as type 2 diabetes.
This is precisely how someone–like Gina Jones, above–religiously following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate program can develop type 2 diabetes, and why I said earlier that I wasn’t particularly surprised by her diagnosis. Sadly, this scenario is all-too typical.