Fat is good for us, really

I am amazed by the low-fat marketing movement. People all around me in America seem obsessed with the idea that removing fat from your diet somehow makes you healthy. From a risk management perspective this makes no sense to me.

It should be common sense just from observing nature. Take the bear, for example. A bear that catches a fish will tear just the fat of the salmon off (with the skin) and then discard the rest. Birds of prey then take the meat from the bones left behind.

Would a bear target fat and skin if it was so unhealthy? We do not live like bears, of course, and there is no accounting for taste but observing them can give us a clue about how to live.

CBS news does a nice job making this point in a much more scientific manner in their article called Friendly Fats — and Fiendish Ones:

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 35 percent of the calories you eat per day should come from fat, as long as most are from healthy, plant-based foods. That’s about 60 grams a day for most of us, or roughly 15-20 per meal.

Note the reference to “healthy” foods. The irony is that fat has become bad because of the movement by the food industry to create artificial non-fat versions of fat. Follow me? Marketing fat as bad is what created demand for non-fat substances that turn out to be far worse than the fat itself. The industry telling you to buy non-fat, in other words, is the same industry that is making fat bad for you. Trans-fats are the perfect example:

There’s no good news here! Man-made trans-fats, found in foods like crackers, cookies, baked goods and fast food, is crafted from partially hydrogenated oil, which means liquid oil that had hydrogen added to it to make it solid. It’s been shown to boost weight gain and belly fat even when the exact same number of calories are consumed and the percentage of total fat is identical. Trans-fats have also been linked to an increased risk of infertility. One study found that infertility risk jumped by a whopping 73 percent with each 2 percent increase in trans-fat.

I will never forget a security product company where I worked that kept an unlimited and free supply of trans-fat filled products available for employees.

A whole cabinet full of boxed and bagged food products would disappear in just one day. I asked them if they were aware of the risks to their employees from the trans-fats to which they replied “we can not afford to buy the fancy food”. Save money? They paid for the insurance to treat all the employees who were affected by the bad fat in the cabinets. Moreover, productivity is surely impacted by the bad-fat. A risk management view would ban the artificial fats and bring in the good fats.

Let me make a finer point here about this company. It was a security product company. They had a marketing campaign to sell security products for unknown and unquantified risks. Their campaign was sometimes even based on just fear — buy this product or you could suffer the consequences. They were very successful and very proud of making hundreds of millions of dollars on this fear-based strategy. Yet, without any awareness of irony, when it came to evaluating risks for their own employee health they found it better to save money than reduce a clear and known danger.

Clear and known to whom? The risk of trans-fat, to be fair, has been mixed into deceptive marketing practices.

Unfortunately, food products can claim to provide zero grams of trans fat if the food contains less than 0.5 grams per serving (to identify this “hidden” trans fat, check the ingredient list for the words partially hydrogenated). And, a product can also be labeled trans-free if it’s made with FULLY hydrogenated instead of partially hydrogenated oil. Technically, fully-hydrogenated oils are trans-free, but they’re not risk-free. A Brandeis University study found that eating products made with fully hydrogenated oil, a trans-free alternative to partially hydrogenated oil) may lower HDL, the good cholesterol and cause a significant rise in blood sugar (about 20 percent).

The bottom line is that unprocessed food is increasingly found to be the source of nutrition with the least risk to health. A simple risk calculation should make fat the hero and non-fat the zero and the CBS report is a great sign of things turning in the right direction.

This trend could take a while. I believe the current chemical non-fat fascination is from as far back as the 1950s when the industry focused on making food sanitized to be healthy. The marketing has been so effective I hear some people say they would rather eat pesticides than see a worm or a blemish. Obviously those people have no idea about risk.

Those within the industry who are working against the grain have found things can get ugly.

“The tomatoes you find in the supermarket taste like cardboard,” [Joe Procacci] said. “We’ve come up with something consumers want. It tastes great. But they won’t let me market it.”

He speaks of the Florida Tomato Committee, an obscure but powerful group of tomato growers who regulate the quality of tomatoes shipped out of state. To some, many UglyRipes are the Frankenstein of the breed: misshapen, wrinkled and scarred tomatoes that look as though they’ve been to war.

Not the face many Florida tomato farmers want the world to see.

Quality? Who in their right mind would want to measure the quality of food by appearance alone? Yet that is exactly what has happened.

“Let’s take the Miss America pageant,” said Dan McClure, a member of the committee from Palmetto. “How often have you seen an ugly woman in the pageant? The same thing applies here.”

The committee to sell you tomatoes apparently just wants to win your business at the most superficial and least important level possible. After that, they do not care what happens to you. If that does not scream bad risk management, I am not sure what does.

Shelf-life is important. Cost is also important. However, they are not the most important and the non-fat movement should be put back into the box. A better measure of quality is taste as a short-term goal. An even better measure is health, as a long-term benefit, and from those two measures we should see that fat is good for us, really. So the next time you hear an American holding a non-fat drink and eating a non-fat muffin rant about how much they love/hate bacon just say “I agree *fat* is great but it is even better from healthy, plant-based foods”.

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