I think just asking this question will cause some sort of outrage. Well, if not outrage, then cognitive dissonance at least. After all we are conditioned to think that a low fat diet is synonymous with good health. But stay with me and I will show you that a low fat diet is actually bad for you.
I am not a doctor, so please do not take this article as a medical advice. As usual, if you have any medical questions, please direct them to the appropriate practitioner. What I am trying to do, is just to look at things from a different perspective.
I am using publicly available information and some logic to propose a theory that a low fat diet is not as healthy as people think. In fact, it can increase the risk of death from a number of health issues.
I am deliberately keeping this article short and avoid technical jargon to reach as wide an audience as possible. However, links are supplied for those who want to verify my sources or obtain a more technical explanation.
For the purpose of this exercise, I am only considering three pieces of information. Or, three beliefs that are seemingly unrelated but if you dig deeper they fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These are, in no particular order:
– fat is bad for you and consumption should be minimised,
– need more calcium in the diet to prevent osteoporosis,
– sun causes skin cancer and exposure should be avoided
These beliefs may or may not be true. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the validity of them. However, the consequences of these beliefs lead to increased risk of clogged up arteries, CVD, stroke etc.
Lets tackle these beliefs one by one and examine the implications of each and the relationships between them. I’m going to start off with the scourge of post-menopausal women, namely, osteoporosis, and the belief that you need to put extra calcium in your diet.
Disregarding the fact that some forms of calcium are easier to assimilate than other, you need vitamin D, amongst other nutrients, in order for the calcium to get delivered into your bones. Otherwise, it just stays in the bloodstream contribuiting to the plaque build up and atherosclerosis. As you can imagine, the more of it in the blood the higher the risk of stroke or CVD. It also has a tendency to combine with cholesterol and bind it together to form a pretty yucky, gooey substance caleld plaque. This tends to deposit itself on the internal walls of the arteries restricting blood flow and making them less flexible.
As you can see, this is not a desired outcome and the role of vitamin D is vital here. The authorities tell us we need about 800 IU daily of vitamin D daily. But, do we get enough of it?
This brings me to the second belief that sunlight, or UV light, causes skin cancer. There seems to be some cotroversy about getting vitamin D and skin cancer. It is certain, though, that UV light burns the skin. The belief goes to say that repeated burns will cause skin cancer. However, one way – the most effective way – for a human body to obtain vitamin D is to synthetise it from chlorophil in the presence of sunlight. It is estimated that we need 30 min of sunlight at full body exposure daily to make 10,000 to 20,000 IU of vitamin D. But the fear of skin cancer is making us shun the sun. There goes one way of getting vitamin D…
Fortunately, you say, there is plan B – get it from the diet. Some progress has been made in that respect. I have seen a low fat milk being advertised as having added calcium as well as vitamin D. Other products are also fortified with vitamin D, margarine for example. Great news? Not so. Let me explain.
This milk, just like the majority of food stuff, falls into the third belief – that we need to eat less fat. That fat, especially saturated one, causes cholesterol build up in the arteries. People also believe that it is fat that contibutes to obesity. However, fat is a great source of energy (it contains more than twice the calories per gram as carbohydrates) as well as the only source of building blocks for cells, and especially, brain cells. When ingested, fat gets broken down into fatty acids that are used as building blocks and as energy. Just to get the story straight, it is usually the excess of unused energy that will get stored by the body as fat. It does not matter if the energy comes from fat, carbs or protein. Fat, apart from being more calorific, has another huge advantages over carbs – it does not have a glycemic effect, hence it will not cause cravings or lead to diabetes. Personally, I would much rather have lipids floating in my blood than hard calcium. At least I have the ability to “burn” them off by doing some exercise. Unfortunately, you can’t burn off the calcium.
Ok, let’s get back to what’s wrong with the low fat milk and vitamin D. Unlike vitamins B and C that are water soluble, vitamin D is soluble in fat. This means that you need to eat fat in order to supply your body with it. Adding vitamin D and calcium to a low or no fat milk defeats the purpose. Furthermore, if the diet is virtually fat free, then vitamin D will end up just passing through the body and calcium just hardening the arteries.
In conclusion, these 3 seemingly unrelated beliefs have consequences that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. However, it is the third one that has the most impact – without it the other 2 are actually bad for you. Adding calcium to the diet is not that important – there is enough of it in the average diet. You can stay away form the sun and still get the required vitamin D intake from the diet. But without the fat it wil just come out of your body as easily as it came in. Therefore, the importance of fat in the diet cannot be underestimated.
I would be happy to see some comments about this from someone more qualified in the field(s) of nutrition/medicine/chemistry/biochemistry etc. Maybe I’m just totally spaced out from eating too much butter 🙂