Eat Fat to Lose Fat

November 29, 2014

Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift for those of us transitioning to a whole foods lifestyle is learning that saturated fat is good while processed and grain-based carbs are bad. For most of our lives we’ve been told that eating fat makes you fat. The notion that we should be eating lots of whole grains and avoiding fat, especially saturated fat, is the result of decades of misinformation from most physicians, the USDA and the media.

How Did This Happen?

In 1958, to determine what was causing an increase in heart attacks, Ancel Keys, ancel keysan American scientist, started his famous Seven Countries Study that looked for correlations between lifestyle, diet and heart disease. He concluded that cholesterol was the culprit. Unknown to the public was his intentional omission of data from countries where a lot of fat is consumed but heart disease is low, like the Netherlands and Norway. He also left out countries where fat consumption was low but heart disease was high like Chile. The medical community accepted his conclusion because it seemed to make sense. If you eat fat you will get fat and high cholesterol. That’s how arteries thicken and heart disease occurs, right? Wrong. Ancel later admitted that the data correlation for his conclusions were weak but it was too late. The pharmaceutical industry, the media, the USDA and physicians created too much momentum for dissenters to be heard. There has been a collective unwillingness to reconsider the data and come out publicly about this, perhaps because the medical community might lose face.

Let’s bring common sense into this. How is it that the majority of humans, for the last hundred thousand years, have consumed 50-60% of calories from animal fat with very few carbs and yet remained lean and fit?  In the absence of grains more than 10,000 years ago, how could we have consumed anything more than a very low-carb diet, especially in European or north Asian winters?  Our bodies have not changed since that era. Numerous studies make it clear that the alarming increase in heart disease, obesity and diabetes began as Americans consumed less saturated fat and more carbs.

Will Eating More Fat Increase My Cholesterol or Heart Attack Risk?

Cholesterol is an essential precursor to hormone production in the body. Without cholesterol the brain and most other bodily processes would no longer function. As detailed in David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain book, when you restrict cholesterol the liver produces an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase which signals the body to get its cholesterol from carbs in the diet. But this process results in too much cholesterol. The body optimizes the amount of cholesterol it needs when there is ample cholesterol in the diet. It’s a diet high in carbohydrates that increases the likelihood of bad cholesterol and heart disease.

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Benefits of Higher-Fat Diets

The body has a default switch for its energy source. Depending on the carb and fat ratios in your diet it either powers up from glucose or fats. If you’re not on a low- or moderate- carb diet your body is calibrated to get energy from glucose. Getting energy from carbs instead of fat is like a an unleaded engine getting diesel fuel instead of unleaded gas.  In this mode you will get hungrier more often and crave higher-sugar foods in order to get enough energy from this inferior grade of fuel.

When you eat enough saturated fats and avoid excess carbs you’re body stops over producing insulin and no longer stores excess fat. Not only do you lose weight if you are overweight but there other significant benefits as well. Saturated fats in particular protect the liver from alcohol, medications and toxins. They improve lipid profiles by increasing HDL, making larger LDL particles (a good thing) and decreasing triglycerides. They also improve immune function and enable bones to absorb calcium. It takes only a few days of decreasing carbs and increasing fat to change the body’s mechanisms to the more appropriate calibration of using fats to source energy. Your body will store fat from either excess carbs or excess protein. While there can be some fat storage from excess dietary fats this is less likely to happen because it’s easy to feel satisfied when you’ve consumed enough fat.

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That being said, I’m not suggesting you eat whole sticks of butter for breakfast. If you are trying to lose weight, it’s the carbohydrates you need to restrict, not the fat. Every meal and snack should include fat, protein and carbs.

Which Oils Should I Use ?

For cooking it’s best to use ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil, palm oil or beef tallow. Olive oil is good for adding to raw salads and butter to cooked foods. (Olive oil and butter are not stable enough to cook at temperatures over 300 degrees). Your body is designed to consume fats and proteins from wild or 100% pasture-raised animals. The fat from these animals is high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Eat beef, lamb and goats as well as wild, cold water fish like salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel.

What Does This Look Like On My Plate?

In terms of calories, the percentage of fat in your diet should be between 50% and  60%. This sounds like a lot but it’s not. On your plate it translates to adding enough fat to your veggies or salad to make it tasty (not swimming in oil), a fatty cut of meat and adding a tablespoon of butter to a starch or white rice. A typical plate should be 1/3 to 1/2 veggies, 1/4 meat, fish or eggs, and 1/4 safe starch such as potato or white rice.

How Much Carbs Should I Eat?

How much carbs you should eat depends on your activity level and your goals. I like the carb framework Chris Kresser presents in his Your Personal Paleo Code book as a good starting point. Most people should get between 15-30% of their calories from carbs. But if you’re overweight or have high blood sugar and/or not very active you should try a low-carb diet which is about 10-15% of total calories from carbs. If you’re very overweight or you have stubborn blood sugar issues, you might  do better on a very-low carb diet which is less than 10% of total calories from carbs. Ultimately the way to determine the level that works best for you is to experiment.

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