Why is it that countries where low-fat diets and foods are the most popular are the ones with the highest rates of obesity? Maybe everything you’ve been taught about fat has been nothing but a big fat lie.

Fat is not a four letter word. But it has been so vilified in the West that it may as well be.

Ironically, while fat consumption has decreased, obesity rates have shot up. Today total fat intake hovers near thirty percent of daily calories, while carbohydrate intake is close to half of total calories.

Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and over one-third of adults are obese (severely overweight).

When it comes to eating fat, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: despite what you may have been taught, like does not always produce like.

The importance of fat throughout history

In many other cultures, fat is almost sacred. For instance, in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian practice of medicine (read: holistic lifestyle), a multi-day cleanse with ghee (clarified, woody-tasting butter) is thought to detoxify and heal the body.

In East Asia, the coconut tree towers over all other plants in preeminence. East Asians use parts of the plant for skincare, soaps, sunscreen, lice treatment, and as material for mattress filler, ropes, and homes.

But it is most useful in the kitchen, yielding coconut oil, coconut milk, palm nectar, palm wine, coconut meat (“copra”), and coconut juice. These form the base of many traditional dishes. In some cases, a majority of an East Asians daily caloric intake may come from coconut fat.

In many traditional cultures, animal fat is a delicacy. Instead of cutting the fat off and disposing of it, indigenous people gladly eat it. Fat stores toxins and other harmful substances, but because indigenous cultures tend to let their livestock graze, treating them with love and respect, they do not have to worry about “bad” fat.

In indigenous cultures, up to eighty percent of daily caloric intake comes from naturally-occurring (non-manufactured) sources of fat.

But then came the powerful industries and lobbies of Western capitalist societies. In the 1960s, the American sugar industry “bought” researchers, “encouraging” them to downplay the hazards of sugar and stress the ills of fat. This “research” led to the disastrous anti-fat crusade of the 1980s and 1990s, which, in many circles, still rages today.

In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published this food pyramid, encouraging people to consume fats sparingly.

USDA food pyramid

The rise of fat-free processed foods

In order to avoid fat, many Westerners began to avoid natural, whole foods because chicken didn’t come with a nutritional label. As their waistlines grew, Westerners began to count calories, especially those from fat.

Packaged, processed food came with a convenient delineation of fat content, so it became the go-to for many weight-watchers. In fact, aware of their market, food manufacturers added “low-fat” and “fat-free” phrases to packages, furthering their appeal.

But stripping food of its naturally-occurring fat content had taste consequences: it tasted bland, almost like paper. Some diehard weight-watchers willing to make sacrifices accepted their fate of a flavor-free life.

However, most people weren’t, which is why food manufacturers responded by added high amounts of sugar to the fat-free manufactured food. Surely sweet sugar would mask the lack of flavor. And it did. Westerners began consuming more sugar and carbohydrates and less fat than at any other point in history.

Flavor was not the only casualty from eliminating naturally-occurring fat from food. Turns out there is a biological purpose for fat in food. The body needs to ingest fat in order to blunt the body’s insulin response to carbohydrates and sugar.

The pancreas produces insulin to synthesize the sugar into ready-to-use energy or stored glucose. Consuming high amounts of sugar at once spikes insulin levels in the blood, and doing this often enough can cause cells to stop responding to insulin.

This causes blood insulin levels to remain high long after eating. Eventually insulin production will cease, causing Type II Diabetes.

It is not a coincidence that even countries with strict food and health regulations such as Canada have plenty of diabetics within their population. In fact, around one in four Canadians is living with pre-diabetes, undiagnosed, or diagnosed Diabetes.

Not all fat is created equal

Now before you go out and buy some Crisco, it is important to understand that not all fat is the same. You may have heard people talking about “bad” fat and “good” fat, but in reality, a healthy balance is best.

But there is one type of fat that is indisputably unsafe in any amount: artificial trans fat. Trans fat does not occur in nature. It is created during the process of hydrogenation, when plant oils are heated at high temperatures to solidify them at room temperature.

Unlike other sources of fat, trans fat has no known health benefits—only risks. In fact, for every two percent increase in daily trans fat consumption, the risk of heart disease increases by a whopping 23 percent.

Historically, trans fat can be found in margarines, potato chips, Oreos, and other “junk” foods. In fact, the FDA estimates that approximately 95 percent of prepared cookies and 100 percent of crackers contained trans fat.

potato chips trans fat

Many types of potato chips contain trans fat, so make sure to read the label first.

Even when the health risks were more widely known, some manufacturers continued to produce food with it because they didn’t have to report it on the food label. Now that trans fat must be listed on food labels, manufacturers have taken measures to avoid it.

But what about the other kinds of fat? There are three naturally-occurring types of fat:

  1. Saturated Fat: Solid at room temperature, this fat is found in animal meat, dairy, and coconut oil. It increases LDL cholesterol and decreases HDL cholesterol (see below).
  2. Monounsaturated Fat: Usually liquid at room temperature, this fat is found in olive oil, canola oils, and avocados. Opposite of saturated fat, it reduces LDL cholesterol and increases HDL cholesterol.
  3. Polyunsaturated Fat: Usually liquid at room temperature, this fat is found in sunflower, corn, and other vegetable oils (called Omega 6 fatty acid). It is also found in fatty fish (called Omega 3 fatty acid). It is important to have the right balance of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats lower both types of cholesterol.

It is rumored that saturated fat is “bad” because of its effect on cholesterol levels, but cholesterol is misunderstood.

Saturated fats, in conjunction with monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat) are an important part of a healthy diet. And one kind of saturated fat—Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)—have wide-ranging health benefits.

MCTs: A power-packed energy source and weight loss tool

MCTs are a specific type of saturated fat found in coconut and palm kernel oils. They have a short-chain chemical structure, which allows them to be directly absorbed into the blood. That is, the body does not have to digest it. It is an immediate source of energy.

Not only that, but because MCTs bypass the digestive system, it is not readily stored by the body as fat. They also increase HDL cholesterol, boost metabolism, and even facilitate weight loss. Due to their unique chemical structure, they can cross the blood-brain barrier, improving brain function.

MCTs are so powerful that in his bestselling book Grain Brain, neurologist David Perlmutter recommends coconut oil as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

The cholesterol myth

The body makes all of the cholesterol it needs in order to synthesize hormones and vitamin D. Cholesterol is carried throughout the body by low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

Although many people believe that LDL cholesterol is “bad” and HDL cholesterol is “good,” the truth is that the body needs both types in order to be healthy. LDL only causes arterial plaque buildup when levels are too high. But consumption of both LDL and HDL cholesterol in moderation is compatible with optimal wellbeing.

In fact, books such as The Great Cholesterol Con by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick argue that high cholesterol levels do not play a key link to heart disease, and that high-fat diets don’t actually directly contribute to high cholesterol levels.

A healthy balance is key

The truth is that the body needs carbs and fat in order to be healthy. While an all-or-nothing mindset may emphasize the need for carbs over fat, or vice versa, the key to wellbeing actually lies in consuming naturally-occurring, whole foods that contain a proper balance of both.

To illustrate the importance of both carbs and fat, a set of identical twins from the UK decided to try “all-or-nothing” diets—one consumed a high-carb, low-fat diet and the other consumed the opposite.

While both lost weight, both experienced health problems associated with an imbalanced diet. In the end, they concluded that consuming unprocessed, whole foods with a naturally-occurring balance of fat and carbs is necessary to achieve optimal well-being.

A big fat caveat

So consuming fat does not necessarily increase body fat. But if you consume significant amounts of fat while very stressed, then that’s a different story.

A recent study demonstrated that people who consume healthy fats (like avocados and coconut oil) while stressed negate the benefits of healthy fat.

So healthy fats are important, but as mentioned earlier, balance is key. Your stress levels play a large role in weight loss and gain, along with other factors such as exercise and rest.

Fat isn’t as bad as you think

Throughout history, fat has served people well. Though people in indigenous cultures die from acute disease, they have largely avoided the modern chronic diseases that plague Western societies. This is largely due to their balanced consumption of healthy fats from naturally-occurring, whole foods.

It’s ironic that the West, which has unparalleled access to whole foods from around the world, has such high levels of obesity and heart disease. This is largely due to the fact that many people in Western countries are not used to (or simply unwilling) to take the time and effort to eat the right foods and cook them the right way.

Want to know more about how fats can play a big role in keeping your body healthy, and can even help you lose weight? Make sure to read The Big Fat Surprise, the eye-opening bestseller by investigative journalist Nina Teicholz.

The Big Fat Surprise, which has received accolades by The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and more, reveals how everything we have been taught about dietary fat is wrong. Based on a nine-year-long investigation, Teicholz claims that saturated fats have been wrongly vilified in the public eye, and that most of us need more dietary fat in our diets.

The book even argues that the very foods we have been trying to avoid – such as butter, cheese, eggs, whole milk, and fatty meat – may actually be the key to helping fight obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

It’s not too late to change. It’s never too late. When each of us made the decision to eat nothing but low-fat and/or processed foods daily, it all started with that first step to do so.

In the same way, if you decide that maybe adding a little more fat and cutting out processed foods is what you would like to do from now, all you need to get started is take that first step and go from there.