portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary united states

health

Everything you know about nutrition is false

The medical profession is gradually waking up to a profound embarrassment: it is having to gradually and systematically eat its words (no pun intended) on practically every major article of faith it has issued regarding healthy diet and disease avoidance for the past 40 years. The big news: fat is good for you. Especially the saturated kinds. And most of us eat way too little of it, and way too much carbohydrates (among other things).
"Trans fats are worse than saturated fats!" So goes the shameless refrain from the American Heart Association, now all over the news. How times change.

Only a little over a decade ago, fast food franchises like McDonalds were under heavy pressure from consumers, fuelled by propaganda from medical groups like the American Heart Association, to reduce saturated fats in their products. They and other chains started replacing ingredients like beef tallow in their deep friers with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka, "vegetable shortening" in the baked goods industry).

Now the wheel has turned again, and the news is full of horror stories about the same industrially produced artificial vegetable oils. Turns out that they are full of so-called "trans fats," contaminants invariably produced in large quantities during the industrial processing of these vegetable oils. The AHA trumpets how they are "worse than saturated fat" only because it would still be way too embarrassing to admit that they were wrong altogether about saturated fat in the first place, but in so doing, they continue to propagate even more dangerous and misleading nonsense.

As a consequence of the medical industry's doublespeak, many people are confused and unaware that the two substances, trans fatty acids, and saturated fats, are completely different. By mentioning them together in the same breath, the medical industry saves itself a little longer from a looming big embarrassment, but propagates the dangerous misconception among consumers that "trans fats" are some kind of especially harmful, extra evil saturated fat. Whereas in reality, "trans fats" are actually chemically altered frankenstein molecules derived from the very substances formerly (and still) so beloved of the medical industry itself, the supposedly healthy "unsaturated fats." They get created accidentally (but inevitably) as byproducts in the industrial processing of vegetable oils intended for use in cooking applications where saturated fats were formerly most favored: high heat uses like deep friers, where unsaturated fats would tend to burn and gum up the works, and such purposes as glazes on baked goods, that call for fats that are solid at room temperatures.

Only gradually is the medical establishment being forced to admit that the evidence it cited against saturated fats was extremely flawed and misleading all along, that saturated fats in and of themselves have been greatly maligned, that the statistical studies correlating them with incidence of heart disease and other conditions are riddled with confounding variables, and that high concentrations of unsaturated fats, even when they are not exposed to hydrogenation, carry their own serious risks.

Unsaturated fats are much riskier to human health than saturated ones in part precisely because they are much more chemically unstable. Oxidation products resulting from heat and rancidity -- the very factors that make these fats unsuitable for purposes like deep frying -- are also partly responsible for the hazards they present to human health.

Furthermore, however, highly concentrated levels of polyunsaturated fats do not occur traditionally in human diets, but are a byproduct of historically recent aberrations in our dietary patterns brought on by industrialization. And now the most up-to-date academic research in biochemistry reveals direct hazards to cellular metabolism and human physiology arising from this historically aberrant pattern of excess levels of these fats in our modern diets.

Have you heard about the great health benefits of "omega-3 fatty acids" being hyped lately? Well, you've only been hearing part of the story.

The full story is that omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, the two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids now found to be "essential," meaning that the human body requires them for normal health but that they cannot be produced internally but must be supplied in the diet, interact with each other and exist in a delicate equilibrium. It just so happens, though, that the quantities of omega 3 polyunsaturates found in most industrial food products are miniscule. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in traditional human diets was much, much smaller than commonly found at present. It is not so much the case that "omega 3s are good for you" as that our modern diet is way too rich in omega 6s and almost devoid of omega 3s.

The trouble is that all the forms of processing to which modern food products are generally subjected tend to destroy the omega 3 content and boost the omega 6 content. For example, practically all concentrated vegetable oils, promiscuously used in processed foods, are loaded with omega 6 acids and devoid of omega 3s. (Canola oil, one of the few exceptions, is being touted constantly, but canola oil requires very high temperature processing to extract it in a useful form from rapeseed, and this processing also produces small amounts of trans fats, which are now universally acknowledged as "bad" and which the FDA has set no safe threshold for at all.) For another example: it has also been found that animals raised in feed lots and fattened up with diets artificially high in carbohydrate content such as starchy grains, which are not a natural part of these animals diets, produce meat, eggs, and dairy products much higher in omega 6 acids compared to traditional, pasture-raised animals.

One might be forgiven for marvelling at the remarkable coincidence that all the accumulating evidence for health hazards associated with the modern diet centers on hazardous substances generated as byproducts of highly profitable heavy industries in the food manufacturing sector. It's most remarkable because the medical profession has been so tardy in drawing public attention to these hazards, while it has lavished no end of attention on dubious claims against traditional foodstuffs like butter, eggs, and other dreaded sources of supposedly evil saturated fats.

No one argues that studies finding correlations between consumption of these items and diseases such as stroke, high blood pressure, and cancer are fraudulent. Rather, the trouble is that they don't control for "confounding variables." For example, people in the highest quintile of consumption of eggs also tend to be in the highest quintile of consumption of fried foods containing dangerous byproducts of lipid oxidation and burning. They tend to be in the highest quintile of consumption of a variety of artificial processed foods. And, in the case of the animal products they are consuming, they all tend to be coming from industrial feedlots. Etc.

Quite surprisingly, one real concern that is seldom if ever addressed by medical professionals is the bioconcentration of environmental toxins. While bioconcentration of mercury in large fish species is widely known, little has been said about bioconcentration of PCBs and other industrial toxins in land mammals, especially feedlot raised domesticated livestock. Why? What is the extent of this hazard and why hasn't more concerted attention been focused on it?

Only very recently have the spotlights started to get trained on "endocrine disruptors," suspected toxins leaching into packaged foodstuffs from plastic packaging.

The grudging attention finally being gained for the dangers posed by environmental contaminants and inadvertent, toxic processing byproducts in foods comes on the heels of increasing pressure on the medical profession created by a succession of embarrassing failures and revelations. Lately, the much touted statin drugs, said to work so effectively in reducing mortality from heart disease by reducing "bad cholesterol" levels, are, while still effective, being seen in an entirely new light in the wake of completely failed prescription medications like Vytorin. This drug should be even more effective than statins, since it is supposed to work via the same mechanism, reducing "bad cholesterol" even more effectively.

Yet, very embarrassingly, it turns out that a simple Vitamin B supplement is much more effective than the expensive, patented Vytorin, and Vytorin not only does not reduce mortality due to heart disease, but may in fact even increase mortality due to other causes.

Thus, the colossal failure of Vytorin now calls into question the entire understanding of statin drugs which, while still effective at reducing mortality due to heart disease, cannot be effective for the reasons the medical profession thought!

The growing ranks of self-described "cholesterol sceptics" in the academic medical research community point to a variety of anti-inflammatory effects to explain the effectiveness of the statins, but none of them think it has anything to do with LDL, aka "bad cholesterol."

OK, but what about the teaser at the beginning of this article, "fat is good for you?" Surely the experts all agree fat is bad!

WRONG.

Even the mainstream medical profession is now having to quietly and gradually but drastically revise, even discard, this disastrously misguided dogma.

It turns out that "bad fats" are "bad," and "good ones" are "good." Even the dreaded butter and eggs are "good," at least at some level (how much is still under debate). The only thing everyone now universally agrees is that "trans fats are bad."

Surprise surprise. The only really universal agreement in the medical research community is that synthetically derived, artificial fats produced in the industrial processing of natural fats are bad!

Meanwhile, the public has been treated to an astonishing tug-of-war between much demonized "diet faddists" such as Atkins and his "low-carb" diet, Sears and his "Zone diet," etc, and still doctrinaire proponents of the "fat is evil" school, such as Dean Ornish. So far, the low carb (ie, high fat) "faddists" remain very much the ones in the doghouse of the medical establishment. Probably not, however, for too much longer.

What should the public make of this confusing spectacle?

Some intriguing touchstones for understanding where the truth might really lie can be found by looking at diabetes, a quintessential disease of modern times, now judged to be at "epidemic" levels in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

One of the hallmarks of this disease is that diabetics seem to suffer from a greatly accelerated aging process. They get all the same age-associated degenerative diseases that non-diabetics do (heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc), only much younger.

The chief diagnostic trait and source of all the trouble with diabetics is insulin metabolism and blood sugar: diabetics -- especially those with the most common "epidemic" form of the disease, Type II -- suffer from chronically elevated blood sugar levels. Curiously, though, it is carbohydrates that raise blood sugar most significantly, NOT fats.

Precisely what is it about elevated blood sugar levels that causes all the trouble? It turns out that there is an intriguing connection between toxins in foods, most commonly introduced due to oxidation (through burning, deep frying, etc), and toxins that get produced spontaneously in the human body, associated with high blood sugar.

In both cases, some of the most commonly resulting toxins are called "glycotoxins," aka "Maillard products" (after an early 20th century French biochemist who discovered them), "Amadori products" (after another biochemist who discovered a related class of precursors), or "Advanced Glycation Endproducts" (or AGEs, get it? because that's what they do, accelerate the aging process). The feedstock for the reactions that produce these glycotoxins, in both cases, is free sugars, ie, carbohydrates.

In the case of cooked foods, the telltale signs of glycotoxins are browning and charring, particularly in carbohydrate rich foods. That golden brown layer on your toast or oven-fresh lasagna? Glycotoxins. (Meat that is charred also produces toxins, though of a different type.)

Now, while diabetics are especially prone to diseases caused or accelerated by glycotoxins, and at earlier ages than most of us, the same chemical reactions also occur at elevated rates in anyone with chronically high blood sugar. A great reason for keeping your blood sugar level under control, by getting lots of exercise, avoiding highly sugary foods, and -- tada! -- moderating your total carbohydrate intake and increasing your fat intake.

It is now understood that fats consumed in the same meal with carbohydrates have the effect of moderating the rate of increase in blood sugar levels (known as "glycemic load") created by those carbohydrates. This in turn moderates the rate of spontaneous Maillard reactions, which moderates the level of glycotoxins in the body, helping to protect us from all of the age associated degenerative diseases (heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, Alzheimers, etc, etc) in which these glycotoxins have now been implicated.

Another fascinating piece of evidence in favor of increased fat consumption has been revealed in connection with cancer. Cancer cells of all kinds, it turns out, seem to have an impairment in their mitochondria (the energy producing powerhouses that fuel all our body's cells) preventing them from efficiently metabolizing fat (aka, the "Krebs cycle"). Meaning that cancer cells also die out faster in a diet where most of the calories are derived from fat, also known as "ketogenic diet." Thus, the high fat "ketogenic diet" is now a very promising treatment for cancer, of all kinds. Surprise, surprise!

Still, no one questions the evidence that oxidized fats and toxic byproducts resulting from burning and rancidity of fats are implicated in various cancers. Don't burn that olive oil! Healthful cooking with fats depends on choosing those with high smoke points, and preferably using gentler cooking methods, with plenty of moisture to prevent burning.

So you see, almost everything you've been hearing from the medical profession for the past 30-40 years is BACKWARDS, over-simplified to the point of being dangerous nonsense.

The takehome message I get from all this? Follow the precautionary principle: Eat as close to possible the way Mother Nature intended us, the way humanity has eaten for most of its evolutionary history. What would that be? While we don't know precisely what our Stone Age ancestors ate, we know for sure what they DIDN'T eat. They didn't eat anything in plastic packaging. They didn't eat anything processed with expensive heavy machinery. They didn't eat animals raised on feedlots. You catch the drift.