The Big Fat Debate



The term "Paleo" generally means "Paleolithic", as in "The Paleolithic age of man" (which preceded the modern or "Neolithic" age.)  Associating the word "Paleo" with the word "diet" actually started back in the mid 1970's with the work of Dr. Walter L Voegtlin and his book "The Stone Age Diet".  In the broadest sense, eating according to "Paleo" principles implies eliminating "Neolithic" foods (grain, legumes, dairy) and consuming "Paleo" foods (fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, nuts.)

By the early nineties, Dr. Boyd Eaton, was the point-man for all things Paleo.  His 1988 book, 'The Paleolithic Prescription', advocated a low saturated fat diet that mirrored the "ancestral diet" of human beings.  Eaton's book, the went on to inform and inspire Loren Cordain (The Paleo Diet), Dr. Barry Sears (The Zone), Robb Wolf (The Paleo Solution) and others who are now in the forefront of the modern Paleo movement.  While differing slightly, they all more or less propose a version of the "Paleo" diet marked by the elimination of grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar.  The overall fat profile of this version of Paleo encourages the consumption of unsaturated fats and the restriction of excess saturated fat by limiting consumption of eggs and other animal products.  This recommendation presupposes that the diet of paleolithic humans would have been focused on fruits, vegetables, lean wild game, seafood, and nuts/seeds.

The notion of a "lean wild game" diet, which in practical terms translates to skinless chicken breasts, lean beef, pork, and fish coincides with the consensus viewpoint of the AMA/ADA/USDA nutritional recommendations for "healthy" eating.  Additionally the this version of Paleo seeks to address the standard American diet's (SAD) imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids by encouraging the use of fish oil supplements,  high omega-3 poly-unsaturated plant oils such as flax seed, as well as extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.

However, there are contrary viewpoints within the Paleo community.  Mark Sisson (The Primal Blueprint), and Dr. Harris (Archevore) are two vocal proponents of the benefits of saturated fat consumption.  Their assertion is that saturated fat is not only "not bad" but actually good for us.  They point to evidence that a diet high in fat (including saturated), ideally sourced from wild, pastured, or grass-fed animals, is supported by both anthropology and studies of human physiology. 

So who is right?  Although many people today think that saturated fat has always been regarded as "bad", the idea originated in 1950's with the research of Ancel Keys and his famous Seven Countries Study.

Keys' findings, based on men aged 40-59 years old from seven different countries (United States, Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, and Japan) seemed to support the idea that high cholesterol was correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease.  Keys went on to promote his findings and popularized the notion of a "Mediterranean" diet that substituted saturated fat with unsaturated fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds as the ideal. 

While a Mediterranean-style diet is certainly several levels of magnitude better than the SAD, Keys' methods with regards to his original findings were eventually criticized for showing "selection bias" (according to Wikipedia, "the distortion of a statistical analysis, resulting from the method of collecting samples. If the selection bias is not taken into account then any conclusions drawn may be wrong.").  The proverbial seed had already taken root, however, and the "bad" saturated fat meme was generally accepted by medical and health establishment.

Food manufacturers responded to pressure from politicians and public health advocates by developing butter substitutes (aka margarine) that used partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils to make them stable at room temperature.  Cheap and readily available, the use of unsaturated vegetable oils like corn, soy, safflower, canola, and peanut surged as they supposedly offered a healthier alternative to butter, tallow (beef fat), lard (pork fat), and coconut or palm oil (although plants, their oils are primarily saturated)

Studies that seemed to correlate the use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease have in recent years led to widespread use of statins as a first-level intervention when high cholesterol levels are indicated in a patient.  The results of these studies has received criticism for questionable methods, but the overwhelming influence and profits of the pharmaceutical industry has kept the dissenting voices quiet.

One particularly large study investigating the effects of the drug simvistatin revealed flagrant tampering for the purposes of making the drug look safer and more effective than it really was.  Sold under the brand name "Zocor", simvistatin reportedly generated 4.3 billion in sales for the Merck pharmaceutical company in one year alone and was it's most profitable product.  If you read the book "Freakonomics," you know how powerful incentives are, but you don't need to have an Economics degree to understand the motivating power of billions of dollars.

Not all doctors are convinced, however, and an organization called The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, was formed to openly question the lipid hypothesis.  These "Cholesterol Skeptics" argue that elevated cholesterol has not been conclusively linked to heart disease and that the use of statin drugs may not be beneficial or safe.  Similarly, Gary Taubes, author of "Good Calories, Bad Calories," has managed to gain the attention of the mainstream media and was featured in the New York Times Health section in a multi-page article debunking the "bad fat" myth.

Evidence that high saturated fat diets are healthy and sustainable over ones lifespan exists in the form of anthropological studies of modern hunter gatherer societies such as the Inuit of Alaska.  Consuming almost no plant-based foods, the Inuit live vibrant an healthy lives while subsisting off of whale blubber, animal organs, and fish.  Archeological studies of Native American hunting strategies (Imagining Head-Smashed-In) also suggest that large, dangerous, fat-laden, ungulates like buffalo were specifically targeted by hunters for their fat-content.

Modern-day agriculture's closest example of "wild game" would be grass-pastured animals like buffalo and cattle.  While it is common to think that "grass-fed is leaner", this only seems to be the case.  The idea that grass-fed animals are leaner is perpetuated for economic reasons as marketing "low fat" meat is more profitable.

While grass-fed animals aren't categorically sick, like their obese, drugged up, and stressed brethren who are raised in CAFOs, grass-fed animals do display plenty of fat around their their muscles and organs (for graphic pictures of this, check out this post on the Tribe of Five blog), but it is stereotypically trimmed off before it ends up in your local Whole Foods grocer.  The idea that any hunter-gatherer worth his salt would discard animal fat for health reasons is patently absurd and there are stories about Aboriginal hunters feeding overly lean animals to their dogs while saving the fatter specimens for their families.

While Eaton, Cordain, Wolf, and others must be applauded for bringing to light the devastating health effects of grain, excess sugar, and other neolithic agents of disease, they have likely missed the mark with regards to saturated fat.  The human body literally stores excess energy as saturated fat.  Pinch yourself anywhere on your body (especially around the midsection) and you'll be touching saturated fat.  This fat serves as a constant energy supply and it seems highly unlikely that millions of years of evolution would have led to us storing a deadly substance right under our skin.

While this story is anything but over,  I believe that one day, our ancestors will look back at the "big fat debate", wipe the bacon-grease from their lips, and laugh.

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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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