How Did the Paleo Diet Turn Into a Very Fatty Diet?

brunchVery recently, I published an article here on the blog entitled “Stop Bombarding Your Gut With Probiotics“. In that article I stated that one of the biggest diet mistakes I have ever made was to take in large quantities of probiotics (in the form of fermented foods and supplements) on a daily basis. In today’s article, I wanted to talk about another big mistake I’ve made on my nutritional journey, namely to take in a lot of fatty foods on a regular basis.

Did our ancient ancestors really consume that much fat?

When I first got introduced to Paleolithic nutrition many years ago, the diet that was presented to me via various blogs and videos was one that was very high in fat, in particular the saturated kind. Many of the Paleo bloggers and authors I came across made the case that fat is the superior macronutrient; a clean and perfect fuel for the machinery that is the human body. Some went as far as to say that it’s okay to eat large amounts of butter, bacon, cheese, and other similar high-fat foods on a regular basis, as long as carbohydrates are avoided like the plague.

Most of these Paleo/low-carb “experts” undoubtedly knew that the aforementioned foods were not a part of Paleolithic human diets, but they made the case that they could be consumed in large quantities nonetheless. I got the impression that some of them were more concerned with rebelling against the mainstream nutritional establishment than with finding out the truth about what is actually a healthy diet.

For decades, they’d been told that fat was bad. After having now realised that this was not the case, they started incorporating large amounts of fatty foods into their diet, perhaps thinking that if a little fat is good, more is better. I also got indoctrinated into this belief system. I obviously didn’t just eat fatty foods such as butter, sour cream, ghee, dark chocolate, and high-fat yoghurt; however, I did eat quite a bit of them. For a while, I ate these types of foods at virtually every meal, which is what most of the low-carb experts that were present on the nutritional scene back then recommended.

Although I quickly noticed that this type of diet wasn’t making my health any better – if anything, it made it worse; I could almost feel my circulatory system clog up with LDL, triglycerides, and other fatty substances that you don’t want a lot of floating around – it took quite some time before I changed what I ate, reducing my intake of very fatty foods. The reason it took me so long is that virtually every Paleo/low-carb proponent I came across were saying that it’s good to eat plenty of fat.

Seeing the truth

In the years that have passed since those early days of my nutritional endeavors, my perspective on things has changed a lot. When I first arrived in Paleo land roughly a decade ago, I got my information primarily from blogs and videos. It took some time before I traveled into the districts that hold the scientific literature. When I did, a new world opened itself up to me. I realised that much of the information I had picked up earlier on my journey was not rooted in science; rather, it was rooted in a foundation built up of anecdotes, popular opinions, and cherry-picked research.

In the 10 years that have passed since I first stumbled onto the ancestral health scene, it’s not just my own opinions on high-fat nutrition that have changed; many other people who are playing in the Paleo/low-carb playground has also adjusted their stance on this issue. There are a lot fewer people out there today who claim that it’s healthy and wise to stuff yourself with fatty foods at every meal. That said, the myth that a very fat heavy diet is a healthy diet still holds a prominent place in many parts of the ancestral health community. I would not be surprised if many of the people who enter the Paleo sphere today are exposed to a similar set of beliefs as those I were exposed to when I arrived.

In this article I wanted to briefly summarize what I’ve learned about high-fat nutrition over the year, in the hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes that I once did.

Separating fact from fiction

#1

Fiction: It’s healthy and safe to eat a lot of butter, bacon, ghee, high-fat yoghurt, cheese, and other similar high-fat foods

Fact: These foods shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities, due in large part to the fact that they have several unfavorable nutritional characteristics. Among other things, they have a very high fat density, high concentration of saturated fat, relatively low nutrient density when compared with fruits, vegetables, fish, and unprocessed meat, and low satiety index score.

#2

Fiction: Saturated fat was a predominant part of preagricultural human diets

Fact: Saturated fat did not make up a large part of the ancestral human diets that conditioned the human genetic make-up over millions of years. Our primal forebears obviously consumed some saturated fat (primarily as part of animal source foods), but since they didn’t have access to butter, bacon, ghee, coconut oil, and other similar high-fat foods, it would have been virtually impossible for them to take in as much saturated fat as many low-carb dieters do today.

#3

Fiction: It’s healthy and wise to eat a diet that is extremely high in fat

Fact: A healthy diet is synonymous with a diet that consists of a balanced proportion of the different macronutrients. Very few people, if any, benefit from eating a diet that contains a very high concentration of fat relative to protein and carbohydrate.

#4

Fiction: Low carbohydrate diets are awesome, pretty much regardless of their composition

Fact: There’s nothing inherently wrong with low-carb diets. I like low-carb diets. I recommend low-carb diets. As I see it, the term low-carb diet is a misnomer. The stereotypical low-carb diet is low in carbs when compared to the typical western diet; however, it’s not low in carbs when compared to the preagricultural human diets that conditioned the human genetic make-up over millions of years of evolution. That said, I acknowledge that not all low-carb diets are created equal. It’s not healthy to eat a diet that’s rich in very fatty foods such as butter, bacon, cheese, and high-fat yoghurt, regardless of how many carbohydrates you’re taking in.

#5

Fiction: If a diet produces weight loss, it’s a healthy diet

Fact: Very low-carb diets tend to produce weight loss. This is true pretty much regardless of how they are composed. If an overweight person goes on a ketogenic diet, he’ll likely lose weight. His cardiovascular and metabolic health will also likely improve. However, that doesn’t mean that the diet he’s eating is necessarily a healthy one. It may have been that he would have experienced better health improvements on a different diet. In the context of overweight and obesity, positive health effects almost always accompany weight loss, pretty much regardless of what type of diet that’s consumed.

Okay, that’s everything I had to say for today. Let me know in the comment section if you disagree with any of the statements I make or have any thoughts or questions related to the article.

Comments

  1. George Phillips says:

    Good sense, thank you.

  2. ” I could almost feel my circulatory system clog up with LDL, triglycerides, and other fatty substances that you don’t want a lot of floating around”

    The 1980’s Cholesterol Education Program/Scare called.
    They want you on their team

    • Haha. If you’d asked me 7 years ago whether I thought a high intake of saturated fat adversely affects the blood lipid profile, I would have probably said no. Back then, I – like most other people within the ancestral health community – was convinced that the longstanding public health recommendation to limit the consumption of foods high in saturated fat was not supported by good evidence.

      Today, I know better. I certainly don’t agree with the mainstream nutritional community in everything (Far from it). However, when it comes to saturated fat, I think they are more on the right tracks than the low-carb enthusiasts.

      If you haven’t already done so, I recommend that you read my comprehensive article on this topic.

      Note: As I’ve pointed out time and time again on the blog, there’s no reason to shun saturated fat like the plague. Saturated fat is a natural component of healthy whole foods such as organic eggs and grass-fed meat. However, I think it’s both unwise and unhealthy to eat a lot of foods that have a very high saturated fat density, such as butter, ghee, bacon, cream, and high-fat yoghurt.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • How strange. I was in doubt seven years ago. Now I am rather convinced that CVD and atherosclerosis has nothing to do with saturated fat. At least not from diet. Although I might agree that it is no need to gorge on saturated fat, it is probably the most stable fat to use for energy.
        It’s hard to imagine someone going the opposite direction considering all the evidence that hear emerged that contradicts the diet heart hypothesis.

        • Did you read my comprehensive article on saturated fat? In that article I describe why my opinion on saturated fat is as it is. If you’re still convinced that it’s healthy to regularly eat moderate-high quantities of butter, bacon, cheese, cream, etc. after reading that article, then I certainly won’t be able to convince your otherwise.

          Thanks for your comments!

  3. what testing did u do that would indicate you were becoming more “unhealthy” when eating more saturated fat?

    • Hi James,

      I didn’t say in the article that I did any testing. I said that I didn’t feel like the very fatty diet I was eating back then agreed with my body. On the contrary, it seemed to worsen my health. I quickly noticed that I felt better when I reduced my intake of butter and other foods heavy in saturated fat.

      Keep in mind: This is just an anecdote. By itself it doesn’t prove much. As you know if you’ve read my articles on this topic, my opinion on saturated fat doesn’t rest on this anecdote; it rests on a solid foundation of scientific research.

      It wasn’t until I fully delved into the science on saturated fat and examined the evolutionary evidence that I realised I had been lead astray.

      • you remarked “Although I quickly noticed that this type of diet wasn’t making my health any better – if anything, it made it worse”
        what tests did you do that indicated worse?

        • As I said in my previous reply, I didn’t do any medical tests. I was just explaining my personal experience. When I say I felt better I’m mainly referring to my general health/physical fitness condition (athletic performance, libido, immune function, and the like). You can learn a lot by paying attention to the signals your body is sending you.
          It’s difficult to explain, but I truly felt like the high intake of saturated was indeed harming my cardiovascular health and messing with my blood lipid profile.

          Again, this is my personal experience. By itself, it obviously doesn’t constitute proof that it’s unhealthy to eat a lot of saturated fat.

  4. Hi Eirik. In general, I agree with you. I adhere to a mostly Paleo diet (80/20) but I’ve never gone high-fat. I prefer fatty meat to lean meat but that’s where it stops. I don’t eat any more butter, etc. than I ever did–which wasn’t very much. As with you, it just doesn’t feel right to me to load up on fat, particularly to the exclusion of other foods.

    Don’t expect the diehard Paleo types to climb on this bandwagon, however. One high-profile doctor, in particular, pushes a very high fat diet. I’m sure you know who I’m referring to, and I’m sure you are aware that he has many clueless followers who are unable to think for themselves. Once a notion becomes entrenched, it’s very hard to change it. Take, for instance, the many people who continue to insist that bone broth is a miracle food, even though that idea has been completely and publicly debunked. Sure, it’s somewhat beneficial from a collagen standpoint, but it’s no superfood. It’s the same thing with people who are utterly convinced that very high fat and very low carb is the answer to perfect health. It will take time for those people to see the light, if they ever do.

Leave a Reply

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: