Despite what we’ve been hearing for half a century from doctors, research institutions, government bodies, and media, the answer is yes– it seems that healthy fat can in fact help us stay thin.
In his newest book, Dr. Mark Hyman examines the research behind how healthy fats can make us feel our best, and he delves into the reason why we’ve been eating too much of the wrong types of fats and too little of the good fats for too long.
What is the Story of Fat?
Hyman covers this history of fat in a detailed way, looking at why fats have been demonized for the past half century, and why it’s so important that the USDA dietary guidelines were changed in 2015 to remove recommendations about dietary cholesterol or total dietary saturated fat.
Here are some fun facts about fat that I learned from this book:
- The idea that saturated fats leads to heart disease was the work of one (!) scientist named Ancel Keys. His data from six countries did not fit with the data from a 22-country study by the World Health Organization (WHO), and yet he, “was a dominant, persuasive, and charismatic man who convinced the world of his hypothesis,’ which was a deeply held convention of the medical community for the subsequent half century (page 36).
- Despite evidence that a diet that contains healthy fats is actually protective, the American Heart Association (AHA) still promotes the consumption of foods like low-fat dairy products, and recommends reducing saturated fat; they continue to recommend a low-fat diet because they receive funding from ‘industrial food companies‘ promoting low-fat, high-fiber cereals, bars, and snacks that are often loaded with sugar (page 43).
- In a bold statement, Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard and Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, wrote the following in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Low-fat diets have had unintended consequences, turning people away from healthy high-fat foods and toward foods rich in added sugars, starches, and refined grains. This has helped fuel the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes in America [and] there are no health benefits to it.” (page 47)
Why do we need Fat?
One of the reasons that adding healthy fats to your diet is so effective is because they replace processed products like salad dressings, low-fat ice cream and fake foods. Removing processed, crappy foods from your diet– and making room for whole foods (including fatty ones)– is the key to a healthier body. Healthy fats are also good for your hormones (which can help you sleep, eat, and live better), good for your joints, and can help create glowing skin and hair.
But most importantly, healthy fats taste good, and make us feel satisfied with our meals. One of my most interesting takeaways from this book is how strongly fat governs our cravings and even makes us crave less healthy foods. A meal based on low-fat foods often leaves people craving more food as the body is looking for more nutrients and more fat; eating a meal that is rich in protein, carbohydrates, AND fats is what makes a meal feel good.
But Do we Really Need Animal Fat?
Generally I like Dr. Hyman’s book, but his emphasis on animal foods is something I just can’t agree with. He makes his point that a ‘Pegan’ diet (paleo-vegan) is the optimal diet for modern humans. Based on high amounts of vegetables and animal products, he purports that this balance can lead to great digestion, weight loss, and helps us feel our best.
He writes a lot about adding more veggies into our diet, the benefits of reducing (or even eliminating) grains, and including ‘high-quality’ animal foods (ie: those grass-fed, not given hormones or antibiotics, etc.). But even though he emphasises the veggies as a huge part of his eating plan, most of the recipes (excepting the smoothies) contain at least one animal food, either eggs, meat or fish. To me, this seems to rely too much on animal foods and too little on veggies. There was one recipe that included tempeh, but everything else (again, excepting the smoothies) is definitively paleo, not so Pegan.
For years, credible doctors and institutions like T. Colin Campbell, Neal Barnard, Dr. Michael Greger, Ginny Messina have advocated for a vegan diet as the way to help heal and prevent conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. While so many sources cite changing to a vegan diet as the change needed to reverse illness and improve their bodies, it seems so odd that Dr. Hyman would recommend bringing butter, meat and eggs back into our diets when we know they are linked to all sorts of health concerns, including increased risk of cancer.
However, he discusses this concern (albeit too briefly), and points out other studies that show that animal foods can actually have a protective effect on the body (I can’t believe I’m even typing that). His critique of the vegan diet is not that it doesn’t work, but that it might not be the ONLY thing that works. He writes that most studies showing health improvements on a vegan diet compare it to a ‘standard American diet,’ not to a high quality paleo or Pegan diet.
Often when people decide they want to become a vegan, they cut out really unhealthy forms of animal foods: fast food, factory-farmed beef, industrial eggs– all of which are devoid of nutrition, full of chemicals and antibiotics, and generally bad for us and the planet. And when patients give these up, they see a dramatic increase in health and well-being. Because, of course– cutting out the crap makes us all feel better.
But he questions whether or not swapping out healthier animal foods could lead to the same effect, which of course he says it does. He writes that most studies that focus on meat being unhealthy focus on conventional animal foods, which he agrees are unhealthy. But when people decide to eat better meats, they often choose to eat better food OVERALL, leading to similar outcomes to a vegan diet.
He only briefly discusses the ethical implications of animal foods, and doesn’t really address the environmental concerns, which are two huge reasons (besides health) that would inspire someone to become or maintain veganism. Personally, I’d prefer to have no one eat meat: better for us, better for the planet, better for the animals. But I also rationally believe that not everyone can (or should) be a vegan, so I can almost admit that his approach toward a Pegan diet that is vegetable-focused and animal-food inclusive is a barely acceptable option.
Generally, I like Dr. Hyman’s work, and he’s a great personality that can help bring functional medicine and healthy eating into the mainstream. His no-BS approach to eating is totally likeable: he knows we’re all busy, and he knows we don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen each day preparing ‘diet’ food. And in this sense, his recipes are great: simple, easy to find ingredients, and healthful components suited to a busy life. But, I would have liked to see a lot more discussion of the ‘egan’ side of the Pegan diet, and more recipes the were veg-forward, rather than relying on meat.
The book presents an astounding amount of evidence, and it comes off as disorganized; I often found myself checking previous chapters thinking, didn’t I just read this? It’s also a huge book, at 262 pages not including the recipes, a little bit of editorial chopping would be advisable.
Otherwise, this book is a pretty great read full of awesome food and health facts; he dives deep into what fats do what good for our body, and how different fats help different conditions, so if you’ve ever wondered how a polyunsaturated fat is different from a monounsaturated fat, Dr. Hyman is your guy. It also makes you think about our current ‘knowledge’ of health. If we had these deeply held conventions about fat for so long based on just one guy’s hypothesis, what else are we getting wrong..?
avocado image from Big Stock