It’s no secret that there’s an epidemic of obesity in our country.  But obesity is, in many cases, an outward manifestation of a much more concerning inner process.

Unfortunately, the American public has been led to believe that cholesterol is bad (universally), and that high fat content in our food leads directly to high fat content in our bodies.  Therefore, we’ve been told, we should cut both to almost nothing and instead consume large amounts of “low fat” (and high carbohydrate) foods, vegetable oils in lieu of animal products, and trans fats (when applicable) instead of saturated fats.

This is far from the truth.  Higher triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream) require higher cholesterol to disperse it, but the cholesterol itself is merely a symptom of the problem and not its cause.  High triglycerides are not primarily due to a high fat diet, but rather due to high refined sugar and carbohydrates, which are broken down into simple sugars and impact the body in virtually the same way.  Both sugar and simple carbohydrates cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which overwhelms the system: blood can only accommodate a few tablespoons of sugar at a time, and any excess needs to be rapidly disposed of in order to prevent symptoms of hyperglycemia.  There’s only one place that the excess can go: into the tissues for storage as fat, with the help of signals from insulin.  Problems come in when this cycle is repeated too often, too long: eventually the tissues don’t respond as well to insulin as they once did, requiring more and more insulin production in order to accomplish the same storage goals.  This can lead to fatigue of the pancreatic beta cells, which simply can’t keep up with the insulin demand (leading to Insulin Resistance and eventually Diabetes).  Additionally, the excess sugar in the bloodstream can damage to the lining of the blood vessels, triggering LDL cholesterol (colloquially known as “bad” cholesterol) to create a plug, like a band-aid, in order to repair the damage.  This plug is a positive adaptation of the body in an attempt to restore health, but if the damage is excessive or repetitive, it can lead to the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, or cardiovascular disease (CVD).  Blaming LDL for Heart Disease is like blaming the police for crime, because they always seem to show up at the scene.  Correlation is not the same as causation.

Bottom line: the reason for the obesity epidemic, heart disease and diabetes is not high fat.  The problems are high sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Furthermore, diets that are too low in fat have their own repercussions.  Fat and cholesterol are necessary for the formation and maintenance of healthy cellular membranes (including those of neurons, enabling easy transmission and uptake of neurotransmitters), the formation of all cholesterol-based hormones and neurotransmitters, and the maintenance of healthy mucous membranes.  Not surprisingly, those who place themselves on strict low-fat diets experience bouts of depression at the minimum, and patients on statin drugs to lower their cholesterol must monitor their other cholesterol-based hormones carefully, and are likely to experience a wide variety of side effects such as muscle problems, fatigue, and memory loss.

So, what’s the answer?  How should we eat?  First I have to start with a disclaimer that no one diet is right for everybody.  There’s plenty of evidence of healthy populations who live practically vegan, and others that live almost exclusively on animal products; those who consume up to 70% grains and those who live primarily on protein.  But all of these populations seem to have one thing in common: they eat real food.  It hasn’t been processed, so the nutrient density remains intact and the naturally occurring fiber slows the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream.

That said, here are a couple of rules of thumb that have served me well:

  1. Choose foods that will spoil, and eat them before they do.  Foods without a lot of preservatives most likely haven’t been processed very much.
  2. If you must choose something that has been pre-packaged, read labels.  If there are any added sugars, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), or ingredients you don’t recognize on the list, don’t eat it.
  3. Eat a rainbow.  Get as many naturally occurring colors in there as you can.  This will most likely cause you to consume the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables without even trying.
  4. Try and have some form of protein with every meal, including every snack.  This will help to keep blood sugar stable.
  5. In general, if organic food is available and affordable, buy it.  Organic animal products are produced from animals fed a natural diet, and therefore the products they produce contain the proper, anti-inflammatory balance of fats (higher omega 3 and lower omega 6).  Additionally, organic foods in general are prepared without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or preservatives.  For a list of those fruits and veggies that should be purchased organically (the “Dirty Dozen”) and those for which organic is less important (the “Clean 15”), see this list by the Environmental Working Group:
  6. Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water every day.

Again, this is not intended to be a substitute for personalized medical recommendations; be sure to check with your Naturopathic Doctor for the diet, lifestyle, and supplement regime most appropriate for you.  But if you adhere to just these principles, your blood glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and weight will almost certainly head back in the right direction.  Let 2012 be your year to turn your health around!