Big Fat Surprise: Eat Fat To Lose Weight

Back in 2006, my mother called me. She had news for me – big news. “Fat is a good thing,” she said. “If you want to lose weight, you need to eat more fat.” Acting on advice she had originally gleaned from a number of niche health blogs, including the Weston A. Price Foundation and Dr. Mercola, and ultimately confirmed through her own experience, she advised me to begin eating more healthy natural sources of fat. At first, I ignored her.

Like any good mother, she continued to pester me. She sent me e-mails: “All of your friends who eat low-fat diets should be worried about their hearts and their brains and their muscles and their reproductive organs,” she wrote. “This information won’t be mainstream for a few more years.” She sent me studies. She sent me articles.

Eventually, I found myself curious and I began to follow her advice. Over the course of several years, I lost weight so slowly that I barely noticed. What I did notice was that my energy levels and overall health improved. When I landed at a weight that was right for my body, I found that I was able to easily maintain the weight loss. I didn’t have to play games with myself. I didn’t have to pretend I was full when I wasn’t. I rarely thought about portion control. At restaurants, I usually finished my entire meal, while my girlfriends packaged up barely-nibbled dishes to take home. In fact, my metabolism increased so much that I noticed I could eat more than the vast majority of my friends.

Food was no longer a struggle. It was a daily pleasure. What had happened? I could eat whenever I was hungry and I almost always felt full after meals. I no longer had ravenous, obsessive cravings. If I wanted dessert, I ate dessert. I weighed less and I had more energy. I tried to exercise when I had time, but I didn’t adhere to a strict schedule. Girlfriends asked me, “What’s your secret? How do you eat so much?”

My diet looked something like this: Most mornings, I scrambled a couple of eggs and topped them with a few slices of melted cheese, an avocado, a chopped tomato, and salsa. (Colleagues were shocked by my breakfast: “You eat an omelet with cheese and an entire avocado every morning before work? But you’re so tiny!”) Instead of grabbing a “health” bar when I was on the go, I ate more nuts and cheese. At lunch and dinner, I ate more red meat and fish. I stopped buying non-fat and low-fat dairy products altogether, and replaced them with whole milk products. Soon I began to crave more fruits and vegetables, and so I ate more fruits and vegetables. I ate large green salads with chicken, cheese, nuts, avocados, and apples or organic strawberries. To cook, I used olive oil or butter – never vegetable oil. When I wanted to indulge, I made myself a heaping bowl of full-fat vanilla ice cream, typically topped with a banana, chopped dark chocolate, and peanut butter spooned out of the jar. Whenever possible, I avoided soy. I bought as much non-GMO, organic food as I could afford. I never consciously ate less bread, but soon I found that I went days at a time without eating bread; my body simply didn’t crave it.

“Eat more fat. Lose more weight.” It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not.

It’s taken years for the mainstream media to catch on, but my mother was right. Almost a decade later, a number of publications are writing about it:

The Wall Street Journal | The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat And Heart Disease

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303678404579533760760481486

The New York Times | A Call For A Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat

The New York Times | Study Questions Fat And Heart Disease Link

The New York Times | Butter Is Back

NPR | Rethinking Fat: The Case For Adding Some Into Your Diet

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/31/295719579/rethinking-fat-the-case-for-adding-some-into-your-diet

NPR | Don’t Fear The Fat: Experts Question Saturated Fat Recommendations

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/17/290846811/dont-fear-the-fat-experts-question-saturated-fat-guidelines

NPR | The Full-Fat Paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/02/12/275376259/the-full-fat-paradox-whole-milk-may-keep-us-lean

TIME Magazine| Ending The War On Fat

Ending the War on Fat

Men’s Health | What If Bad Fat Is Actually Good For You?

http://www.menshealth.com/health/saturated-fat

The Greatist | Everyone Was Wrong: Saturated Fat Is Good For You

http://greatist.com/health/saturated-fat-healthy

Despite the overwhelming evidence that diets high in fat are healthy, not everyone is on board yet. Last year, The Atlantic summed up succinctly how public health reform works: “slowly, based on mounting scientific evidence, against constant and mounting headwinds of public ridicule and, much more important, industry lobbying and advertising.” As is usually the case when the medical establishment is wrong, positive change can take two to three decades–or even more–to take full root. Doctors and nutritionists often have trouble letting go of the facts they studied so hard during medical and graduate school. Today, some health advocates are still dangerously confused; these misinformed doctors and nutritionists erroneously promote low-fat dairy products. Many of these doctors believe their patients won’t be able to exercise “restraint” if they eat high-fat foods; what they don’t understand is that fat is satiating and when people eat healthy sources of fat, they tend to desire–and consume–less of everything.

Of course, the source of fat matters. A diet high in processed deli meats and sausages is not good for anyone. A diet high in McDonald’s burgers is not the same as a diet high grass-fed steak. Trans fats, which are found in donuts and processed foods, are not healthy; they are poisonous. But the evidence is in and the facts are simple: unsaturated fats–and yes, saturated fats, too–are good for you.

Make today the day you change. Stop playing games. Toss out the non-fat, the low-fat, the GMO soy. Learn about the sources of your food. Count ingredients, not calories.

Start enjoying your food–and your life.

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Is all food created equally?

Mark Bittman’s recent column in the New York Times, “Which Diet Works?” asks an unpopular question:  Could the prevailing diet wisdom of the last several decades — ie. to eat low-fat food in order to lose weight — be wrong?  Bittman concludes:

The message is pretty simple: unprocessed foods give you a better chance of idealizing your weight — and your health. Because all calories are not created equal.

Some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are naturally low in fat.  Other foods, such as nuts, avocados, and most meat and dairy products, are naturally higher in fat.  For decades, food manufacturers have capitalized on the low-fat craze by convincing Americans that they needed them to manufacture healthy, low-fat food.

It seems obvious that altering the natural chemistry of high-fat food — such as milk, cheese, ice cream, etc. — would be harmful to the body.  But that’s been the popular advice for years now.

In reality, science tells a very different story.  Bodies prefer natural foods — whether they are naturally low in fat, or naturally high in fat.  A finding by the long-running Nurses Health Study at the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that women who consumed low-fat dairy products were more likely to experience infertility as a result of lack of ovulation.  The study was published in the peer-reviewed European journal Human Reproduction in 2007.

Fertility has always been one of nature’s markers for whether the environment (one component of which is the availability and quality of food) is hospitable and nutritious enough to support new life. According to the study, women who consumed high-fat dairy products were 27% less likely to experience trouble conceiving — even when all other factors were considered.

A correlation between eating low-fat dairy products and infertility is a pretty convincing one to me!

Who Loses Weight and Keeps It Off?

I have long been a fan of Tara Parker-Pope’s writing, but her recent article, “The Fat Trap,” published in last week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, was particularly intriguing. In the days since it’s publication, almost every newspaper and magazine has weighed in (pun intended) to promote or critique the article.  In “The Fat Trap,” Parker-Pope seamlessly weaves personal anecdotes with statistics and studies as she delves into one of the most serious health questions facing America: Why are we failing to lose weight?

Although I’m not overweight, I write “we” because we are all affected by the obesity epidemic.  On a philosophical level, I believe the world’s problems are interconnected and that we solve our own problems when we have compassion for others and work together to solve one others’ problems.  On a literal level, if you are an American taxpayer, obesity is your problem, too, regardless of your weight.

I have always had compassion for overweight people.  First, I feel fortunate for the health education I’ve had in my life, and I feel it’s quite possible I could have been overweight without it.  Second, as a woman, I have certainly felt the shame of feeling fat.  In my opinion, it’s a given that the vast majority of overweight people don’t want to be overweight.  If you desperately don’t want to be fat, and are working as hard as you possibly can not to be fat, is it really your fault that you’re still fat?  Although conventional wisdom takes issue with my premise that most overweight people are working hard not to be overweight,  I believe many are.  And in so many, many ways, I feel that we could be doing more as a nation to help overweight people reach their health goals.

According to the studies referenced in Parker-Pope’s article, once people gain weight, they are statistically unlikely to lose the weight and keep it off.  If they do manage to lose the weight, they will have to work harder — for their entire lives — in order to maintain that new weight than a person who never gained and lost the weight to begin with.  Parker-Pope’s article shadows this select and successful few, and lists their characteristics.  People who maintain a significant weight loss for the long-term share these 5 traits:

  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Exercise daily
  • Weigh themselves daily
  • Eat consistent foods and don’t “cheat” on holidays or weekends
  • Watch less television than the average American (about half as much)

I found this to be one of the most fascinating parts of the article!  Who is winning the weight game?  It’s not people who are dieting in the traditional use of the word — that is, temporary depravation; instead, it’s people who have made positive changes in their lives and are committed to maintaining these changes forever.

(Slate Magazine‘s response to Parker-Pope’s piece pointed out that in normal or underweight people, these behaviors may seem disordered.  You can find Parker-Pope’s response to the Slate piece here.  Eating disorders are a complicated subject, but I mostly agree with Parker-Pope’s response.)

It’s unfortunate news for those hoping for a get-thin-quick scheme — but it’s important for overweight people to know that the only diet that will work is a diet that can be maintained over the course of one’s entire life.  For overweight people, the 3000-calories-to-a-pound rule is a myth.  For you, there may be more calories, or fewer.  The only way to find out is to know yourself, and to work at maintaining a healthy weight — learning along the way — until you succeed.

My only issue with the article is its quiet acceptance of Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel’s dismissal that slowing the pace of weight loss could make a difference in the body’s ability to sustain lost weight.  According to Parker-Pope, Leibel claims that “the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it.”  I’m interested to know what research Leibel has to back up that sweeping claim.  My understanding is that long-term studies on the subject haven’t yet been completed.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence and expert opinion has historically suggested that slow weight loss is more sustainable than quick weight loss.  Why is Leibel so quick to dismiss a natural, sustainable path to weight loss?

Clearly, permanent weight loss is a complicated task.  Perhaps the real message in this article is the importance of prevention.  Childhood obesity is a preventable condition, and grossly unfair to our nation’s children, who have so little say in the matter.

Regardless of your weight, this article is a worthwhile read.  If you have lost weight and kept it off, what has helped your success?  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic seems to have similiar concerns regarding Rudolph Leibel’s quick dismissal of slow weight loss.  In his brief opinion piece, Coates provides more anecdotal evidence (his own) in support of weight loss at “a glacial pace.”

Welcome!

The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis in public health. Americans are more ill than they have ever been in history. Recent studies predict that by 2020, more than 80 percent of American men and more than 70 percent of American women will be overweight or obese. Not only are Americans as a population more ill than they have ever been, but the neediest among us are suffering most of all.

The disparity in health among social classes is growing rapidly. The gap in premature death rates between the poorest and richest Americans has almost doubled since 1980.  This disparity begins in the womb — low socioeconomic status is strongly linked to low birthweight — and the disadvantages continue throughout life. In 2009, 600,000 of Chicago’s 3 million residents lived in urban neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, new studies are pulling back the curtain on food deserts, and challenging the old assumption that poor people choose unhealthy food voluntarily.  In reality, they often do not have access to healthier options. In America today, the best predictor of health is social class.

Food is one part of the health equation, but it is only one part. Wellness is about more than diet and exercise. It’s about our daily patterns and activities. It’s about exposure to toxins and chemicals. It’s about education, and awareness.

WELLNESS & EQUALITY is a progressive health blog.  Health, at it’s core, is simple. Our modern world, however, is complex; simple, natural living has become nearly impossible without thoughtful effort. The goals of this blog are to bring awareness to contemporary health concerns, including health-related inequalities, and to encourage a conversation about how we can alter the fate of millions of Americans — including ourselves.