Page 1 of 2
In my Grandma’s day, there was no such thing as a bad fat. All fat was “good” simply because it tasted good. My Grandma fried her eggs in bacon grease, added bacon grease to her cakes and pancakes, made her pie crusts from lard, and served butter with her homemade bread. My grandmother was able to thrive on all that saturated fat—but not my grandfather. He suffered from angina and died from heart failure at a relatively young age.
My grandfather wasn’t alone. Population studies from the first half of the 20th century showed that Americans in general had a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease than people from other countries, especially Japan, Italy and Greece. Was all that saturated fat to blame? The Japanese were eating very little fat of any kind, while the people of the Mediterranean were swimming in olive oil, an oil that is very low in saturated fat but high in monounsaturated oils.
So, in the 1960s, word came from on high that we should cut back on the butter, cream, eggs and red meat.
But, interestingly, the experts did not advise us to switch to an ultra-low fat diet like the Japanese, nor to use monounsaturated oils like the Greeks or Italians. Instead, we were advised to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated oils—primarily corn oil and safflower. Never mind the fact that no people in the history of this planet had ever eaten large amounts of this type of oil. It was deemed “the right thing to do.” Why? First of all, the United States had far more corn fields than olive groves, so it seemed reasonable to use the type of oil that we had in abundance. But just as important, according to the best medical data at the time, corn oil and safflower oil seemed to lower cholesterol levels better than monounsaturated oils.
Today, we know that’s not true. In the 1960s, researchers did not differentiate between “good” HDL cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol. Instead, they lumped both types together and focused on lowering the sum of the two. Polyunsaturated oils seemed to do this better than monounsaturated oils. We now know they achieve this feat by lowering both our bad and our good cholesterol, in effect throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Monounsaturated oils leave our HDL intact.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that our death rate from cardiovascular disease remained high in the 1970s and 80s even though we were eating far less butter, eggs, bacon grease, and red meat: We had been told to replace saturated fat with the wrong kind of oil.
During this same era, our national health statistics were highlighting another problem, this one even more ominous: an increasing number of people were dying from cancer. Why were cancer deaths going up? Was it the fact that our environment was more polluted? That our food had more additives, herbicides and pesticides? That our lives were more stressful? That we were not eating enough fruits and vegetables? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.
But there was another reason we were losing the war against cancer: the supposedly “heart-healthy” corn oil and safflower oil that the doctors had advised us to pour on our salads and spread on our bread contained high amounts of a type of fat called “omega- 6 fatty acids.” There is now strong evidence that omega-6s can make cancer cells grow faster and more invasive. For example, if you were to inject a colony of rats with human cancer cells and then put some of the rats on a corn oil diet, some on a butterfat diet, and some on a beef fat diet, the ones given the omega-6-rich corn oil would be afflicted with larger and more aggressive tumors.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, we were getting a second helping of omega-6s from animal products. Starting in the 1950s, the meat industry began taking animals off pasture and fattening them on grains high in omega-6s, adding to our intake of these potentially cancerpromoting fats.
In the early 1990s, we learned that our modern diet was harboring yet another unhealthy fat: trans-fatty acids. Transfatty acids are formed during the hydrogenation process that converts vegetable oil into margarine and shortening. Carefully designed studies showed that these manmade fats are worse for our cardiovascular system than the animal fats they replaced. Like some saturated fats, they raise our bad cholesterol. But, unlike the fats found in nature, they also lower our good cholesterol—delivering a double whammy to our coronary arteries. “Maybe butter is better after all,” conceded the health experts.
Given all this conflicting advice about fat, consumers were ready to lob their tubs of margarine at their doctors. For decades they had been skimping on butter, even though margarine tasted little better than salty Vaseline. Now they were being told that margarine might increase their risk of a heart attack!