Fatty Food Is Healthy

From a recent New York Times

In 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes. … He introduced his report with these words: "The depth of the science base underlying its findings is even more impressive than that for tobacco and health in 1964."

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros. …

With skeptical scientists ostracized, the public debate and research agenda became dominated by the fat-is-bad school. Later the National Institutes of Health would hold a "consensus conference" that concluded there was "no doubt" that low-fat diets "will afford significant protection against coronary heart disease" for every American over the age of 2. The American Cancer Society and the surgeon general recommended a low-fat diet to prevent cancer. 

But when the theories were tested in clinical trials, the evidence kept turning up negative. As Mr. Taubes notes, the most rigorous meta-analysis of the clinical trials of low-fat diets, published in 2001 by the Cochrane Collaboration, concluded that they had no significant effect on mortality.

Hat tip to Jef Allbright.

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  • US

    I’m not sure I like that title of the post. “No significant effect on mortality” does not mean fatty foods are healthy, it rather means that they’re not unhealthy enough to have a measureable effect on mortality.

  • US, my guess is that people eat more fat eat less other food; fat is substituting for other kinds of food. So if people who eat more fat are no less healthy, fat must be just as healthy as those other kinds of food. So unless you want to claim none of that other food is healthy, its seems you should admit that fat is healthy too.

  • US

    Robin, I think the problem is that we use the word healthy differently. The way I use the word, healthy means something along the lines of “better than average”. Unhealthy is similarly worse than average. What I objected to was that you wrote in the title that fat food is healthy, but what the study tells us is merely that fat food is not unhealthy. To me there’s a big difference between those two claims.

    So I’m quite willing to accept the fact that fat food is not any better or any worse than other kinds of food, but this realization does not make fat food “healthy”; at most it makes it _more_ healthy (or rather: less unhealthy) than we thought.

  • Richard Hollerith

    The helping professions in this day and age tend to be heavy user of the addiction metaphor. Eating ice-cream tends to produce much higher spikes of pleasure than most foods do, and people tend to find it difficult to stop eating it impulsively.

  • David Brown

    Health is not determined so much by the absolute amount of fat or carbohydrate ingested but rather by the context in which these nutrients are consumed. For example, in order to utilize the energy in the chemical bonds of any caloric source, supportive nutrients must be available to enable chemical reactions to proceed smoothly to completion. If the necessary biochemicals are not consistently present with the caloric fraction of food intake, to get the job done, the body will dip into it’s reserves or utilize alternative metabolic pathways.

    It makes sense, then, to view both carbs and fats in the context of a supportive nutrient configuration. Sugars, refined grains, separated animal fats, and vegetable oils are the main ingredients in foods that contribute to nutrient depletion.

    Another consideration is the molecular configuration of fats. Saturated fats found in animal products are principally the same as the fats the body makes out of carbohydrates. Little mention is made of the fact that muscle tissue burns both fat and carbohydrate (glucose) simultaneously at all times. Moreover, there are brown fat tissues that burn fat calories needed for temperature regulation. There is evidence that obese people have less brown fat tissue than slender individuals, possibly because of the insulation value of subcutaneous fat stores.

    Generally, all fats are “healthy” if supplied in the proper proportion. Unfortunately, the modern westernized diet contains excessive amounts of processed omega-6 fatty acids which promote inflammation and block proper utilization of any omega-3 fatty acids that might be available. For more on this, Google Mary Enig, Joseph Hibbeln, or Raymond Peat.

    David Brown
    Nutrition Education Project

  • US, I think it makes sense to say that on average food is “healthy.”

    David, the modern diet may not make fat as healthy as it could be, but this data suggests that fat still seems to be as healthy as whatever we would eat instead of fat.

  • jeff gray

    ‘Healthy’ is an adjectival form of ‘health.’ Health doesn’t mean better than average [better than avg. health?], it is qualitative not quantitative. This compromises your claim that ‘fat food [sic]’ is now more healthy or rather less-unhealthy (i.e. further above avg. or less below avg.) than thought. You don’t even know which side of the mean it is on!
    The point is fatty foods were thought to “shorten your life” however they don’t. Therefore they are as ‘healthy’ as non-fatty foods.

    2. Have they tested fatty vs. non-fatty food’s effects on longevity with calorie restricted diets? Since restricted calorie diets increase longevity, perhaps a statistical difference would manifest

  • Also, remember that “fat” is a large category. Trans fat and saturated fat specifically do seem to be associated with an increased risk of CHD in some epidemiological studies such as the Nurse’s Health Study (NHS), while mono- and poly-unsaturates seem to be associated with lessened risk.

    Would I bet on the outcome of future epidemiological studies? No way. Still, that doesn’t imply heavy consumption of trans/saturated fat is particularly wise or warranted at this time.

    Jeff brings up an interesting point, but there is still scant evidence that restricted-calorie diets increase longevity in humans (there is clear data for some other species). Considering the non-human evidence and the health issues associated with being overweight, though, it seems to make the most sense to maintain a low to medium body weight.

  • Matthew

    It really depends on the amount of calories in the diet since obesity is a risk factor for many diseases. If you agree the obesity is a risk factor, and that eating more calorie dense foods leads to obesity, its obvious fatty foods are not good a healthy food when eaten out of proportion to one’s metabolism.

    The same could be said for carbohydrates, but fat has a higher caloric density and so is a higher risk food for obesity.

  • Jackie E

    Saturated fat and cholesterol are healthy. They don’t cause heart disease. It’s only a theory the NHA keeps reiterating. You’ll always hear “… maybe increase the chance of (or cause) heart disease” instead of “causes heart disease.” There’s way too much evidence pointing against this myth. Do your own research. From MY OWN interpretation of the studies and literature, a high-saturated-fat / low carb diet is more healthy than a high-carb / low fat diet. Remember that all carbs are essentially sugar, and that the healthiest nations in the world eat high amounts of saturated fat.

    Saturated fat is stable, but sources should still be considered. Don’t get this fat from evaporated or pasteurized dairy products. Avoid transfat and hydrogenated fat. Avoid soy oil (and all soy products) if you can’t determine if they are genetically modified – They usually are. Avoid heating vegetable/olive/corn oil for too long because these oils aren’t stable and degrade rapidly over heat.

  • Tom

    Jackie E:

    “Avoid soy oil (and all soy products) if you can’t determine if they are genetically modified”


  • Konrad

    For the sake of quality control, I should point out that the comment posted above by David Brown of the “Nutrition Education Project” is basically new-age mysticism, made to sound plausible by mixing in some science.

  • mary

    you are so right people shold take
    time to see what their eating and eat
    more healthy foods…..

  • mary

    you are so right people shold take
    time to see what their eating and eat
    more healthy foods…..

  • Jessica

    Ice cream is harmful not because it has fat- but because it is dairy, and it is acid-forming. Avocados have fat, but they’re not acid-forming. Olives have fat, but they’re not acid forming.