Saturated Fat in Your Diet: Digesting Time Magazine's "Butter" Cover Story
You may have seen the food-porn shot of a curl of butter featured on the cover of this week’s Time Magazine (paid access). “Eat butter,” blared the heading. “Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”
I can already imagine - the world over - millions of husbands, slamming the door on the way out of their marriages: “You mean you had me eating low-fat bran muffins all these years - muffins with yellowish chemical gloop, at that - for nothing?”
I can also see legions of newly minted ex-wives making bonfires of half the stuff in their pantries, then eating Ben and Jerry’s out of ten-gallon tubs.
The Time cover story was years in the making. The first round was fired in 2002 by journalist Gary Taubes writing in the New York Times. “What if it’s all a big fat lie?” read the heading. Note, back then, the issue was framed in terms of a question. Now, we have the answer: “They were wrong.”
To briefly encapsulate: Back in the seventies, scientists identified fat and cholesterol as the enemy. Next thing, we were bombarded with government images of food pyramids and doctors telling us to avoid all dishes that didn’t taste like cardboard and paper mache.
Hey, these were the experts talking, the people who got straight A’s in high school, the people we were only too happy to sit next to in class so we could copy their test answers. Why wouldn’t we believe them?
The trouble is we only got fatter and more unhealthy. Obesity became an epidemic. Meanwhile, the French - those butter-gorging gastrophiles - unreasonably remained fit and trim. It had to be the red wine.
Then - totally crazy - we started hearing stories of people who lost weight on the Atkins diet. Not only that, we were seeing the results. They were showing up at work and family functions, fit as a fiddle, with bizarre accounts of eating triple cheeseburgers, but without the bun.
Surely, we thought, these people were cardiac events waiting to happen. After all, fat and cholesterol were linked. But nothing happened. They kept getting healthier. These were our neighbors, our colleagues - we could see the results with our own two eyes.
It turns out the so-called “bad cholesterol” linked to fat really wasn’t all that bad.
By now, no one trusted the food-industrial complex. Michael Pollan’s 2006 “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was just one of many damning indictments.
Meanwhile, researchers identified a new enemy - sugar and refined carbs. The whole bread-and-butter scenario got turned on its head. It was okay to eat the butter, but - for the love of humanity - throw away the bread.
We always knew that sugar and refined carbs had a way of messing with our moods and metabolism, but now we were learning that - via complex processes in the body - what did not get converted to energy got stored as fat, lots of it. Not only that, you could pin the rap for heart attacks on sugar and carbs.
Meanwhile, we actually need fat. It’s probably best to think of our bodies as food-burning-and-storing machines. It cannot do the job efficiently without fat. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. There is “good fat” and “bad fat.” Avocados are a prime example of “good fat.” Transfats, such as those found in margarine - ironically engineered to replace sat fats - turn out to be "bad fat."
Couple “good fat” with protein and you get the essentials of the Atkins (and similar) diets. The novel fuel intake kickstarts the body into a new way of combusting food - ketosis. Detractors claimed this was extreme and dangerous. Defenders said this was completely natural, the way our bodies are supposed to burn.
Take Atkins a step or two further and we get the cave man (paleo) diet. According to its proponents, we were doing just fine hunting and gathering. Then, some ten or twelve thousand years ago, we started planting grain. Next thing, we were five inches shorter than our paleo ancestors. It has taken all that time to catch up.
Finally, we come to Time’s cover story. The magazine relied heavily on a Cambridge University meta-analysis of 49 observational studies and 27 randomized control trials totaling more than 600,000 subjects that found that the evidence did not support “low consumption of total saturated fats.”
Please do not interpret this as an unrestricted license to eat saturated fats. Journalists have a dangerous tendency to oversimplify science, and readers, in turn, have a dangerous tendency to oversimplify journalistic accounts. By all means, reintroduce butter and other saturated fats into your diet, but please use your head.
Healthy eating should be part of a healthy lifestyle that is essential to managing our bipolar and to living well. We may have to be mindful about what we eat, but at least we can still enjoy our food. That should make us happy.