If you'll bear with me, dear readers, an aside from normal recipe fare for a note on nutritional research published in the last few months.
F.A.T. Those three little letters have been the bane of nutritionists and cardiologists throughout the US for the last three decades; And perhaps any chubby child on the playground and the menstruating woman (or her partner). Increasingly, however, research has been disproving fat as the ultimate enemy in America's war on obesity.
Why the turn-about in conventional nutritional knowledge? There is an informative summary here, published by Slate, of the studies published, but basically, researchers have determined that not LDL ("bad" cholesterol) is so bad after all. The researchers identified that consuming saturated fat, while increasing total LDL levels, only increased the levels of the benign LDL particles, not the ones that do indeed raise the risks of heart disease. Another study identified that women who ate the highest amounts of vegetable fat (from foods like olive oil and nuts) had lower risks of heart disease than women on low-fat diets.
Now, fat as an integral part of a healthy diet and is hardly new knowledge, but it has been so demonized in the last three decades that my head is still spinning a bit from this latest about-face in conventional nutritional knowledge. Real food advocates like Nina Planck, have long asserted that traditional saturated fats like lard, butter and coconut oil are not the health enemies they have been depicted to be. Publications like Nourishing Traditions have also advocated a return to real food - a book precipitated by the start of the 'war on fat' decades ago. While the positions these writers advocate may be a bit extreme for the average American, they clearly reflected a polarization of approaches to healthy eating with a rather inflexible national nutritional standard that went against generations of eating habits. Now, it seems, the position of conventional nutrition is moving somewhere more moderate in terms of dealing with fat. But I imagine it will still be quite some time before Americans can imagine welcoming fat to their tables.
So what DOES raise the levels of the really naughty LDL cholesterol? The kind that leads to an increased risk of heart disease? Highly processed carbohydrates - foods that spike blood sugar levels. Research suggests that highly processed carbs, particularly those with high fructose levels (like high fructose corn syrup) not only increase the risk for heart disease, but diabetes, gallbladder disease and breast cancer (for references to all of these findings, please see the Slate article). Keep in mind, this does not mean ALL carbs are bad - whole grains, fruits, vegetables are all still fiber and carbs and vital to a healthy diet. Trans-fats also are still perpetrators on this front as well. No change in policy there.
And what has America been reaching for when it cuts fat out if it's diet? Perhaps diet foods like Snackwells, Baked Lays and other low-fat products ring a bell? You know, the highly processed carbohydrates? Uh, what I spent a good part of my teens and early 20's indulging in thinking it was making a 'healthy' choice? Uggh.
Bottom line? We KNOW how to eat for optimum health. We've known for centuries and it's all about eating real food. Food you grow, food you make from whole ingredients. Simple and delicious foods you don't need a PhD in Biochemical engineering to understand. Now, we (meaning I and many other Americans) just have to get over our fat phobias and relearn that yes, healthy fats - even saturated fats!- have a place in a healthy, well-balanced diet.