Whole and natural fats get a bad rap, but they have a multitude of benefits.
What if we went back to eating the way our great-grandmothers ate? Back to a time when butter was a food group, and skim milk was used to fatten pigs? Americans have spent the last four decades trying to find health and longevity through a diet emphasizing more carbohydrates and less fat, as well as replacing animal fats with vegetable oil.
This spring, the USDA released a report on the food available to Americans, and how it has changed since 1970. The numbers reveal that, as instructed, we are eating more fruits and vegetables, more grains, more lean meat, more fish and seafood, more low-fat dairy, and way more vegetable oil. And we are indeed eating less red meat, fewer eggs, and less animal fat (butter and lard). We have achieved the plant heavy, grain heavy, low saturated fat, vegetable-oil-infused MyPlate diet served up by our federal food advisors, albeit with too much added sugar. But this has NOT created better health outcomes.
In fact, the opposite is true; progress toward our dietary goals has gone hand-in-hand with a public health disaster. This winter, the American Heart Association reported that 41.5% of American adults have heart disease, trending up, expected to reach 45% by 2035. Then there is the inconvenient fact that one third of American adults have Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease—once very rare, but now so commonplace, it has a convenient shorthand—NAFLD.
Meanwhile, the T2 diabetes epidemic rages on. Four decades ago, when we began our low-fat dietary adventure, T2 diabetes was quite rare. Now, roughly 9% of American adults have diabetes, and another 36% of American adults have prediabetes; trends suggest that by 2050, one third of American adults could have full-blown diabetes. Results matter. And these results are dismal.
Fresh evidence countering the science behind our low-fat dietary guidelines rolls in, yet we remain frozen in our failed, fat-phobic paradigm. Recent studies, like PURE, published in The Lancet this summer, suggest high carbohydrate diets are associated with higher mortality rates. And a very recent Cochrane systematic review finds there is not enough evidence to support our government’s recommendation to eat whole grains to reduce cardiovascular disease.
In addition, an old but well-controlled study, long buried—in fact, the data was recovered from old tapes found in the lead investigator’s basement—is revisited with modern analytical tools and techniques, and reveals that those who ate butter lived longer than those who ate corn oil. (Journalist Malcolm Gladwell tells this tale on his podcast, Revisionist History, in an episode called “The Basement Tapes”). These are just three examples of modern science telling us that our health may be failing because of our dietary guidelines rather than because we are not following them perfectly.
The time has come to abandon failing federal guidance and go back to a more time-tested approach to healthy eating. Take back your plate and go back to vintage eating. It’s a simple idea. Let’s eat like we did in the 1950s, when chronic disease rates were much lower. (But minus the Crisco and margarine, both trans-fat laden, highly processed foods that had already worked their way into our mid-century meals—we know better now).
Another way to say this is how one says it on Twitter—#JERF—Just Eat Real Food. Eat food that has been eaten by humans for centuries, before chronic diseases ravaged our health. Let’s replace all the ultra-processed stuff—including many of the things you have been told are healthy, like low-fat yogurt and whole grain cereal—with whole, full-fat food. Food you could buy at a farmers’ market, or in the perimeter of your grocery store, like meat, eggs (including the nutrient-rich yolks), full-fat dairy, and produce.
For more detail, check out this vintage grocery list. Erasing our unfounded fear of natural fat allows us to go back to minimally processed food without added sugar and other highly processed ingredients. And that is the path to better health. Vintage eating may sound old-fashioned, but it can be modern, simple and convenient. How long does it take to fry a pork chop? Scramble a couple of eggs? Open a can of salmon? Throw sweet potatoes in the oven? Melt some butter on some frozen peas?
Simple vintage meals are the original fast food. And fortunately, we can keep it real in the grocery store and still enjoy modern conveniences like pre-washed greens, frozen broccoli, or a jar of salsa. It turns out that by adding natural fats back into our meals, we make cooking easier AND tastier.
But the big payoff is better health. Less ultra-processed food means less chronic disease. Beating back chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is a lofty goal, but food is powerful medicine. When we get the food right, magic happens.
by Jenni Calihan, Eat the Butter Blog