Did you grow up hearing that you should stay away from foods high in fat, in particular those that contain a lot of saturated fat and/or cholesterol, and instead consume plenty of carbohydrates? If so, then you’re not alone. For decades, a mist of low-fat dogma has covered the nutritional landscape. Fat-reduced varieties of all kinds of foods have made their way into grocery stores worldwide, and dietitians and official dietary guidelines have recommended people to eat plenty of grains and carbohydrates and avoid butter, red meat, and other fatty foods.
However, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that over the most recent decade, and in particular the last couple of years, the pendulum has started to swing in the opposite direction. Low-carbohydrate diets have experienced an upswing in popularity, and more and more books, blogs, and newspaper articles make the case that it’s long overdue to “end the war on fat” (1, 2). Some bloggers, authors, and “diet experts” even go as far as to say that we can basically eat as much butter, bacon, and other high-fat foods as we want as long as we restrict our intake of carbohydrate.
Is this true? Should we throw all our concerns regarding saturated fat and high-fat foods out the window and start including a lot of high-fat cream, GHEE, and fatty meats into our diet?
A diet high in GHEE, cream, butter, cheese, bacon, oils, etc. is not a “Paleo Diet”
Butter, bacon, coconut oil, cheese, and other similar high-fat foods are on top of the list of favorite things to eat for a lot of people, which can help explain why the message to “eat more fat” is so enthusiastically received by the public, and why low-carb books and blogs are so popular. Write a book saying that people should eat plenty of butter, bacon, and cheese and you’ve quickly got a best-seller.
If you’ve spent some time reading articles or books by bloggers/authors who advocate a very low-carbohydrate diet (VLCD), you may have gotten the impression that you can basically eat as much cream, cheese, bacon, and other similar fatty foods as you want as long as you stay away from carbs.
3-5 years ago, when the low-carb trend swept over Paleo-land, a lot of Paleo bloggers also recommended that the aforementioned foods could be eaten in large quantities, often neglecting to mention that butter, cream, and cheese have a nutrient composition that is very different from that of unprocessed meats, seafood, nuts, and eggs, which were the high-fat foods our Paleolithic ancestors actually consumed.
While some have moderated their stance somewhat since then, there are still many Paleo authors who recommend a very high fat intake and praise the health benefits of butter, GHEE, and similar high-fat foods. Also, over the last couple of years, more and more bloggers involved in the ancestral health community have started recommending that non-Paleo foods such as cheese and GHEE can be consumed on a regular basis. Hence, it’s not surprising that a lot of Paleo dieters end up eating a very high-fat diet.
As I mentioned in my recent article on low-carb diets and athletic performance, when I first got interested in evolutionary nutrition almost a decade ago, I too was led to believe that I could almost eat as much fatty foods as I wanted as long as I restricted my carbohydrate intake.
For a long time, I was getting upwards of 60% of my calories from fat; and since I was taking in fairly high levels of protein, my carb intake typically hovered around 15-20% (of total daily calories). At the time, this macronutrient ratio seemed to be fairly common among Paleo dieters; and within the low-carb community, many went even higher in fat…
My perspective on things has changed quite a bit since those very early days.
As the readers of this blog know well, I do advocate a diet that most people would describe as a high-fat diet, as it contains more fat then the typical Western diet and the diet recommended by public health authorities. However, perhaps needless to say, I think it’s very important where you get your fat from. Unlike what some people seem to believe, the Paleo Diet is not the same as an Atkins diet or VLCD.
Just like there’s a big difference between the healthfulness of a high-carbohydrate diet rich in fruits and vegetables and a high-carbohydrate diet rich in refined grains and sugar, there’s also a big difference between the healthfulness of a high-fat diet rich in avocados, seafood, and coconuts and a high-fat diet rich in GHEE, oils, and bacon.
The end of the war on fat
As mentioned in the beginning of the article, for a long time, we’ve been told by public health authorities that we should limit our consumption of butter, eggs, cheese, coconut products, and other foods high in saturated fat. Not only that, but the “low-fat craze” that has long dominated the world of nutrition has led a lot of people to believe that we should shun fats altogether, and instead eat more carbohydrates.
This notion – which has largely been ingrained in the public’s mind through grain-based food pyramids based on flawed science (3) – has most likely done more harm than good, as it has led many people to replace whole foods such as eggs, grass-fed meats, and coconuts with grains and products high in refined sugar.
Although many researchers and nutritionists have long suggested that the advice to limit the consumption of fat – and saturated fat in particular – is too simplistic, it wasn’t until the last decade or so that this opposing view started to really gain foothold, largely because more and more systematic reviews and studies which challenge the idea that saturated fat is the big bad wolf have been published (4, 5, 6).
The conventional nutritional community is – as expected – lagging behind, and official dietary guidelines still recommend a restricted intake of grass-fed red meat, eggs, coconut products, and other healthy whole foods “high” in saturated fat and/or cholesterol. However, on the other end of the spectrum there are also those who have taken the “end of the war on fat” too far…
Just talking about fat vs. carbohydrate is way too simplistic
One of the things we can learn by looking back at the last century of conventional wisdom on nutrition is that we humans have a tendency to look at things in black and white.
When we were advised to reduce the consumption of fat – and saturated fat in particular – fatty foods were by many labeled as artery clogging foes that should be shunned “at all cost”, while grains and other carbohydrate rich foods were classified as “safe” and ended up being eaten in very high quantities by a lot of people.
Lately, it could be argued that we’ve seen a trend towards the opposite direction, as some people have taken low-carb dieting to the extreme, perhaps thinking that the less carbohydrate they eat, the better off they are – or that they can eat as much fatty foods they want as long as the intake of grains and sugar is low.
Recent studies on saturated fat and low-carb diets have definitely been valuable in the sense that they have helped us get over the low-fat craze that dominated the world of nutrition for decades. However, we should be cautious not to make the same mistakes as before, and we should always remember that things tend to be a lot more nuanced than what they might seem like at first sight.
Seeing past today’s dietary trends
The great thing about having an evolutionary outlook on nutrition and health is that it allows us to look past current nutritional dogma. When we have millions of years of evolutionary history to guide our dietary decisions, the latest nutritional trends don’t really matter much.
We humans have a natural tendency to seek out and eat foods that are rich in calories. Hunter-gatherers and traditional people often go to great lengths to get a hold of animal source food, and they cherish the fattest parts of the animals they kill.
Subsistence data from hunter-gatherer societies show that hunter-gatherer diets typically are higher in fat (28-58% of total energy) and animal source food than modern grain-based diets (7). However, it’s important to note that the stereotypical image of an extremely meat-heavy, high-fat “caveman” diet doesn’t really reflect reality. High-fat foods weren’t available in abundance year-round for most forager tribes, and fallback foods (e.g., tubers), honey, and other plant foods often ended up being relied on as important sources of calories.
Today, we have constant, easy access to high-fat foods, many of which are novel from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancient ancestors clearly ate animal source food high in fat, but it’s important to note that wild animals tend to be leaner than domesticated ones, with a fatty acid profile characterized by less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fatty acids (8). And it isn’t just a small difference, grain-fed animals contain 2-3 times more saturated fats than game meat and much less of the essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Also, perhaps needless to say, our preagricultural ancestors never ate processed meats such as bacon. This is what Dr. Loren Cordain, the world’s foremost expert on Paleolithic nutrition, had to say about bacon in a recent article:
Virtually all of the bacon you buy at the supermarket comes from pigs that are raised indoors for most of their lives, predominantly fed grains, synthetic amino acids, vitamins and given hormones and antibiotics.8-10 Bacon is by no means a natural meat, but rather is selectively manufactured from the fat tissue butchered directly above a pig’s abdominal cavity. These slabs of tissue contain huge amounts of fat, little muscle (see table above) and are known in the industry as “pork bellies.”
After a pig’s slaughter, pork bellies (slabs) are typically injected with 1) salt, 2) nitrite or nitrate, 3) sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate and 4) phosphates.11 So, where once outside of a pig’s abdominal tissue you previously had natural fat and a miniscule amount of muscle, you now have a totally adulterated product containing salt, nitrites or nitrates, sodium erythrobate or ascorbate and phosphates – to say nothing about the selective butchering process which leaves the predominant muscle carcass behind. After pork bellies/slabs are injected, they are usually mechanically massaged, cooked/smoked and chilled and then sliced into the bacon strips we all recognize.11You don’t have to be a food scientist to know that all of these manufacturing procedures yield a product far different from the animal’s natural meat and fat content. (9)
That’s not to say that you can’t find bacon of higher quality if you look for it. However, in general, it’s safe to say that pasture-fed, leaner meats are a much better choice than bacon.
Also, our ancient ancestors clearly didn’t have access to many of the high-fat foods we consume today, such as butter, vegetable oils, cacao butter, cream, coconut oil, and cheese. These foods have a nutrient composition and fat density that are very different from that of avocados, grass-fed meats, coconuts, salmon, and other unprocessed Paleo-approved foods.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should completely eliminate these foods from our diet. However, as everyone who has read up on Paleolithic nutrition knows, foods that were introduced into the human diet during the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions tend to have certain characteristics that make them “inferior” to those that have been with our species since the beginning. Evolutionarily novel high-fat foods, particularly those with a very high fat density, are no exception.
Why you should moderate your intake of evolutionarily novel foods with a very high fat density
In my comprehensive article on saturated fat for Bretcontreras.com, I took an in-depth look at what the scientific literature tells us about the impact of high-fat diets and saturated fat consumption on human health. To avoid making this article into a 6000 word post, I won’t do that again here. Rather, I’ll just provide a brief summary of some of the main reasons why it’s best not to make GHEE, oils, cream, and similiar foods with a very high concentration of fat a large part of your diet.
Non-Paleo foods with a very high concentration of fat (e.g., GHEE, cream, oils) generally have a:
- Extremely high calorie density
- Highly concentrated sources of fat such as GHEE and butter have a much higher calorie density than any of the foods our preagricultural ancestors ate. Organ meats and fatty fish, which were some of the richest sources of calories in the diet of our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors, are lightweighters in comparison to GHEE, butter, vegetable oils, and similar products introduced after the Agricultural Revolution.
- Contrary to what you might have heard from a proponent of very low-carbohydrate diets, you can’t stuff yourself with as much fat as you want as long as you limit your carbohydrate intake. Since very fatty foods are so high in calories, they take up a lot of space that could otherwise have been filled by calories from foods with a more balanced macronutrient composition.
- Relatively poor micronutrient profile and low satiety index score (poor satiating capacities)
- When compared to stereotypical Paleo foods such as fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats, and eggs, non-Paleo foods with a very high concentration of fat have a relatively poor micronutrient profile and low satiety index score (poor satiating capacities) (10).
- In general, products with a high-energy density (calories per gram of food) are less filling than foods with a low energy density, which typically contain more water, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Just imagine how much easier it is to get 300 kcal from butter (∼717 kcal/100g) than potatoes (∼77 kcal/100g), or how 300 kcal from raw coconut meat fills you up with fiber, fat, and some protein and water, while 300 kcal from coconut oil doesn’t have the same effect. While this clearly isn’t a problem for a 240 pound muscular guy who’s striving to get enough energy into his body, it can be an issue for someone who’s struggling to lose weight.
- “Unbalanced” macronutrient composition
- New food processing devices have allowed us to create food products with a macronutrient composition that isn’t found in “natural”, whole foods. This has been especially apparent during the last couple of centuries, where products with a very high concentration of either carbohydrate or fat, such as refined grain products and vegetable oils, have become important staple foods all over the world.
- High-fat, Paleo-approved foods such as avocados, grass-fed meats, and salmon have a lower fat density, higher protein content, and more balanced proportion of the different fatty acids than GHEE, butter, oils, etc. Perhaps most importantly, they tend to be higher in omega-3 and lower in saturated fats.
- Potential to promote low-grade chronic inflammation when eaten in large quantities
- As I pointed out in my comprehensive article on saturated fat, several studies (e.g., 11, 12, 13, 14) show that foods with a very high fat density – especially those that are novel from an evolutionary perspective and high in saturated fat – can contribute to the low-grade inflammation often seen after a high fat meal by rapidly increasing the production of chylomicrons that bind bacterial endotoxins and/or by promoting an environment where bad bacteria are able to thrive in the upper intestine.
- This inflammatory effect can probably be explained by the fact that many of the high-fat foods we consume in today’s society have a fat density and fatty acid profile that are very different from that of the foods consumed by our Paleolithic ancestors.
- The severity of these effects depends on several factors, such as the state of the gut microbiota, intestinal barrier function, and quantity and type of food eaten.
A healthy diet should primarily be composed of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, including high-quality animal products and fiber-rich plant foods.
There’s no reason to fear coconuts, avocados, grass-fed meat, seafood, and other whole foods that are fairly high in fat. However, evolutionarily novel foods with a very high fat density, such as GHEE, cream, cacao butter, oils, and processed fatty meats, have certain characteristics that make them “inferior” to Paleo-approved foods and are best eaten in moderation.
The exact amount depends on your goals. If you’re someone who wants to gain weight, these foods can be valuable additions to your diet, primarily because they boost your caloric intake without “filling you up”. If you want to lose weight, you should be cautious about eating a lot of these foods, as they are calorically dense and have a low satiety index score.
The bottom line: You are best off getting most of your fat from avocados, seafood, eggs, coconuts, grass-fed meat, and other Paleo-approved foods.