What We Can Learn From the Saturated Fat Controversy

bacon-stickIt doesn’t necessarily take a big event or incident for us humans to get agitated and take up arms. Sometimes, a small thing or disagreement can cause a large fight. This is particularly true if the controversy has to do with something that a lot of people have an opinion about, such as nutrition.

At the center of a battle that has recently unfolded within the world of nutrition is something as small and innocent as a dietary nutrient; more specifically saturated fat. On one side of the battlefield you’ll find an army composed of people who rebel against the status quo and argue that the nutritional establishment’s vilification of saturated fat is unfounded, whereas on the other side you’ll find people who urge caution and make the case that saturated fat is not benign. Both armies fight ruthlessly and “the rebels” do everything in their power to overthrow the nutritional establishment.

Personally, I don’t support all the dietary recommendations that are put forth by government agencies; however, as I’ve explained in previous articles (e.g., this one, this one, this one), when it comes to the healthfulness – or unhealthfulness – of saturated fats, I think the nutritional establishment is more on the right tracks than the low-car enthusiasts. I have nothing against low-carb diets. I think the vast majority of modern humans would benefit from eating less carbs. However, I’m not a fan of low-carb diets that contain a lot of butter, bacon, cheese, and similar foods that are very high in saturated fat.

This is something I’ve talked a lot about in the past, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. Instead, what I thought I’d do in today’s article is to discuss what we can learn from the war that has developed as a result of the disagreement about how saturated fat affects human health and well-being.

A war without rules is the worst kind of war

Unlike the war on terror and other battles that have left a trail of dead bodies and damaged infrastructure in their wake, the aforementioned war that is fought among nutrition enthusiasts is not fought with guns, armed planes, ships, drones, or other deadly weapons, but rather with words in the form of vociferous Twitter posts, message board comments, newspaper articles, scientific opinion pieces, e-mails, and other forms of online communication. Another thing that sets this war apart from “real wars” is that everybody gets to participate.

If you’re going to take part in a real war, you’ll have to first go through an intense training period in order to learn how to fight and handle yourself on the battlefield. It could be argued that similar requirements should be in place for those who wish to participate in the battles that take place within the world of nutrition. Obviously, you don’t need to know how to use a gun or be physically robust in order to be able to bring something useful to a discussion about nutrition; however, you should possess some basic knowledge about the things that are being discussed.

Unfortunately though, there are no requirements as to who gets to take part in nutritional warfare. You don’t have to be trained in the science of nutrition or know anything about statistics or biology in order to speak your mind about nutrition online; all you need is an opinion. Furthermore, perhaps more concerning, you don’t need to know anything about the evolution of the human diet.

A lot of people, including many nutritionists and dietitians, who take part in debates about diet and health know little or nothing about evolution, which isn’t really surprising, seeing as evolutionary biology and ancestral health principles have not yet been incorporated into the curricula of nutrition studies or been widely exposed to the public via the media. I find this very concerning, seeing as it is, in my experience, impossible to make sense of human nutrition if you don’t know how the human diet has changed throughout time.

The fallacy of “RCT-based nutrition”

The scientific paradigm that shapes the workings of modern nutritional science is faulty; it lacks stability and resilience, in part because it has no evolutionary foundation. The average Joe doesn’t recognize this problem; however, to the Darwinian nutritionist, it is clearly visible. As I’ve pointed out many times here on the site in the past, Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) and other similar scientific studies only tell us so much. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to piece together the puzzle of nutrition simply from doing and reading RCTs, meta-analyses, and the like, which is what a lot of people try to do. There are many reasons why this is the case, one of which is that scientific experiments such as the RCT, often consider the gold standard of experimental science, are limited by their inability to assess how various exposures affect many different types of outcomes. To illustrate this, let us dissect a typical study on protein supplements.

Let’s say that a group of researchers set out to investigate how a whey protein supplement affects muscle hypertrophy and strength development. They recruit 50 male gym goers who they randomize into two groups. The participants in group A are instructed to consume 50 grams of whey protein powder two times daily for 6 weeks, whereas the participants in group B are told not to use any form of whey protein supplement. All of the participants are instructed to follow an identical strength training program.

The researchers carry out various tests both before and after the intervention in order to assess how the intervention affects the strength and muscular development of the participants. At 6 weeks, they find, via statistical analyses, that the whey-consuming participants have gained more strength and muscle than the participants in group B. The difference is not dramatic, but it’s there. They proceed to publish these results in a scientific journal, and the study goes on to become frequently cited, not only by scientists, but also by health & fitness gurus, journalists, and other people who frequently write or talk about health and fitness.

Some of these people look at the aforementioned study and jump to the conclusion that it’s highly beneficial for strength trainees to use whey protein supplements. While it may seem logical, this conclusion is not necessarily correct. The information that can be gleaned from the trial in question is actually very limited. The study only looked at how whey protein supplementation affects strength and muscular development; it doesn’t tell us anything about how whey protein supplementation affects cholesterol levels, insulin sensitivity, gut permeability, chronic disease risk, and so forth. Basically, it tells us nothing about how the supplement affected the overall health of the participants. The fact that those who consumed the whey protein gained more muscle and strength than those who didn’t doesn’t necessarily mean that they also got healthier.

Moreover, the study doesn’t tell us whether it’s better for lifters to get some of their protein from protein supplements, as opposed to getting all of it from real food. The total protein intake was probably higher among the whey-consuming participants than among those who weren’t instructed to use a supplement (this is common is these types of studies); hence, it isn’t really surprising that the former gained more muscle and strength than the latter, seeing as protein intake is an important determinant of muscle-related adaptations to strength training. The question becomes: Would the results have been similar if the protein intake was identical in both groups? Perhaps not…

As you can see, one should be very cautious about drawing firm conclusions pertaining to the link between diet and health from these types of studies. Unfortunately, though, this is something a lot of people do. They find one or a couple of studies that seem, upon first inspection, to support their opinions and beliefs, and then go on to cite those studies repeatedly in support of their statements.

Similar types of caveats and limitations as those mentioned above apply across the board with regards to nutritional research. The science on saturated fat is no exception.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the RCT-based system that modern nutrition is built upon is flawed. We should obviously continue to conduct RCTs; however, I would argue that before we direct our attention towards these types of experiments, we should retrace the dietary journey of our species. Only then can we fully understand what it takes to build a well-nourished, robust human.

My impression is that a lot of people think that modern nutritional science, with its RCTs, meta-analyses, and so forth, have completely revolutionized our understanding of nutrition. In some ways, it undoubtedly has; however, in others, it hasn’t. The fact is that nutritional science, in its current form, is a fractionated and chaotic field that lacks a sturdy foundation. In my opinion, a lot of money and resources are being spent on unnecessary research projects.

Evolutionary nutrition: A new paradigm that could bring order to the chaotic enterprise that is nutritional science

We’ve gotten so hung up on the details with regards to how different nutrients and foods affect various hormones and processes in our bodies that we’ve completely forgotten to ask the most fundamental question of all: What did we evolve to eat? We look at other animals, such as lions and gorillas, and quickly understand what they should be eating: the body of the lion does best on a meat-heavy eating regime, whereas gorillas are healthiest and happiest when they are given a plant-based diet rich in leaves and fruit.

We tend to forget that we humans are also animals. We are a part of the biotic ecosystem of the world. Just like gorillas and lions, we do best on a diet that is similar to the types of diets that contributed to sculpting our biology over millions of years of evolution. This is something a lot of people, including many nutritionists, don’t seem to recognize. They don’t know or forget that it’s ultimately the genetic make-up of an organism that determines what type of diet it should be eating.

Since our genomes were sculpted over millions of years in response to environmental pressures, it follows that we need to examine the characteristics of the environments in which we evolved in order to understand what types of behaviors and conditions we’re genetically adapted for. The nutritional milieu is obviously an important part of the larger milieu in which an organism lives; hence, it goes without saying that it’s important to establish what the nutritional environment of our ancestors looked like if we are to determine what type of diet we have evolved to eat.

There would undoubtedly be much less controversy and war within the world of nutrition if evolutionary nutrition concepts were widely incorporated into nutritional science!

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