A Review of Low Fat Diets
The Low-Fat Diet is the mother of all fad diets. In many ways, other diets have emerged out of necessity, as a response to the epic failure of the Low-Fat approach. But it has also been the most societally-pervasive dietary tenet of all time. The tenuous link between dietary fat, weight gain, high cholesterol and heart disease has had almost everyone convinced… for about four decades!
Why The Western World Has Gotten So Fat & Sick
The tide is just beginning to turn, but only if you actively seek out the information. It hasn’t quite become mainstream yet and it hasn’t yet translated to the foods on our supermarket shelves. Perhaps this is because the Low-Fat tenant or ‘Lipid Hypothesis’ has been backed by the medical fraternity for so long, it is more than a little embarrassing for them to now admit they’ve been wrong all along. Or worse, to admit the low-fat approach may have actually contributed to our increases in heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Like most of us, I grew up with Low-Fat/Low-Calorie Diets. I witnessed my mother go on and off of them for years and I joined in at the tender age of 15. My first diet quickly morphed into a restrictive eating disorder which took many years to recover from…so this review isn’t just professional, it is personal.
Although I’m not an ambassador for any fat-related food products and don’t get paid in any way to promote the eating of fat, I have been on a quiet crusade for about 10 years now to get people (especially women) eating more fat, particularly in the form of ghee. So I’ll confess from the get go that it will be difficult for me to remain objective on this subject.
Why did we give up fat in the first place?
The idea that dietary fat leads to weight-gain, high cholesterol and heart disease began in the 1950s after epidemiologists observed heart disease rates plummeting during WWII. It was concluded this reduction was due to the rationing of meat and dairy products. Simultaneously it was observed that other cultures consuming traditional diets based mostly on plants had remarkably low rates of chronic disease.2 From these two large-scale patterns the ‘Lipid Hypothesis’ was born, despite very little scientific evidence.
In 1961 the American Heart Association began recommending a diet low in saturated fat from animal products and as a result, low-fat products began appearing on supermarket shelves. At this stage, however, they had to be labelled ‘IMITATION’ products (if the fat had been removed and replaced with something else) which naturally affected sales. But in 1973 this rule was revoked by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, opening the door for all manner of low-fat ‘fake foods’ to be produced by the food industry.3
At about the same time, LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) were discovered. A few years later, in the mid-1970s, it was found that dietary fat raises LDL levels and that high LDLs correlate with cardiovascular disease. So it was concluded dietary cholesterol causes cardiovascular disease.3
But the Low-Fat approach didn’t really take off until 1977 and it was all thanks to a ruling by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Need, chaired by South Dakota Senator George McGovern. The Committee was charged with the responsibility of eliminating malnutrition but went beyond its mission to consider the epic issue of diet and chronic disease. After hearing just two days of testimony, the Committee issued a set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to ‘eat less red meat and dairy products’. BUT…. this statement prompted enormous criticism from the meat and dairy industries of the time and huge political fallout. Many of the big players in the industry lived in South Dakota so McGovern’s Committee promptly re-wrote the guidelines, changing them to ‘reduce your saturated fat intake’. But the damage had been done and three-time Senator elect McGovern was thrown out by the beef lobby in the very next election. This was a pretty clear message to politicians from that point on to tread very carefully with their dietary recommendations – to only ever refer to nutrients rather than whole-foods connected to a profitable industry.2
The Low-Fat message peaked in 1984 with the National Institutes of Health recommending that ‘all Americans over the age of two eat less fat’. They recommended this despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on six large-scale scientific studies which all failed to prove the link between eating fat and heart disease.1
And so the association between Low-Fat Diets and healthy eating began. Basically we gave up fat because politicians discovered you don’t get re-elected by suggesting people reduce their consumption of dairy products and meat. So saturated fat became the fall-guy instead. Everyone knew the scientific evidence was lacking but considered, ‘what could be the harm in people eating less fat?’.2 And besides, they weren’t even sure if people would follow suit… But we did.
After 40 years, the evidence is still inconclusive. In his book, “In Defence of Food”, Michael Pollan reports on a recent study by a group of prominent nutrition scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health titled, “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review”. He writes,
Only two studies have ever found a ‘significant positive association between saturated fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease [CHD]’; many more have failed to find an association. Only one study has ever found ‘a significant inverse association between poly-unsaturated fat intake and CHD’. Let me translate: The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little, if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce the risk is slim to nil. As for the dangers of dietary cholesterol, the review found ‘a weak and non-significant positive association between dietary cholesterol and risk of CHD.’ [Also,] although ‘a major purported benefit of a low-fat diet is weight loss,’ a review of the literature failed to turn up any convincing evidence of this proposition. To the contrary, it found ‘some evidence’ that replacing fats in the diet with carbohydrates will lead to weight gain.2
What are fats anyway?
Before we go on, here is a quick lesson on the complex subject of dietary fats…
Types of Fats
When people talk about dietary fat, they are usually referring to triglycerides of which there are several kinds – saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and transfats. The other type of dietary fat we know well is cholesterol.
Basic Chemical Composition
Triglycerides are made up of glycerol (a simple sugar alcohol) and three fatty acid chains (chains of carbon and hydrogen). The glycerol is in the middle and the three fatty acid chains are connected to it like a little spider, explaining the term tri-glyceride.
Saturated vs Unsaturated
Saturated fats don’t contain any double bonds in their fatty acid chains so all of the carbon molecules are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen. Unsaturated fats contain double bonds so the carbons are not saturated with hydrogen. Monounsaturated fats contain just one double bond while polyunsaturated contain more than one.
Cis vs Trans bonds
When you get a double bond in a fatty acid chain, it can cause the chain to kink or bend, if it is a cis bond. ‘Cis’ comes from a latin term meaning ‘on the same side’ so a cis bond occurs when the hydrogen atoms within a fatty acid are on the same side of the chain. The other option is a trans bond, ‘trans’ meaning ‘on the other side’, which occur when the hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides of a double bond. As a result, trans bonds are straight.
This is important to know because when fatty acid chains are straight, they can stack up against each other neatly with ease so are usually solid at room temperature, have higher melting points, higher smoke points, longer shelf life and greater stability. This is why naturally occurring saturated fats (like coconut oil and ghee) as well as man-made semi-saturated transfats (like margarine and shortening) are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Meanwhile fatty acid chains that are kinky (i.e. full of cis bonds) don’t stack up nicely so are liquid at room temperature and have much lower melting points. All naturally occurring unsaturated plant oils contain cis bonds so are liquid at room temperature.
Oils with a higher ratio of monounsaturated fats are generally more stable than those with more polyunsaturated fats (i.e. more double bonds) but both kinds have a tendency to go rancid through exposure to air – called ‘oxidative rancidity’. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are the most stable and will only go rancid through exposure to water (called ‘hydrolic rancidity’). This is why it’s so important when clarifying butter to cook all of the moisture out and to not keep your ghee or coconut oil in the fridge (which causes condensation inside the jar).
When saturated animal fats became unfashionable in the 1970s, the food industry got busy producing plant fat replacements that looked and behaved in a similar fashion – semi-solid at room temperature, with similar mouth-feel, melting points, greater stability and longer shelf-life. As a result, transfats were created through the partial hydrogenation of plant oils – basically adding hydrogen atoms to the plant oils to reduce the number of double bonds. In turning these unsaturated fats into partially-saturated fats, many cis bonds turned into trans bonds. So transfats were really just a side-effect of making fake fats. And these transfats were added to…. EVERYTHING!
Transfats do occur naturally in trace amounts in meat and dairy products (2-4% of total fat) but weren’t really consumed in large quantities until the Low-Fat Diet approach set in. In foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, up to 45% of the total fats are transfats.4
Short vs Long Chain Fatty Acids
Fatty acid chains can vary in length dramatically, from 4 carbons to 28. The shorter the chain, the easier it is to digest.4 Short and medium chain fatty acids (like those found in ghee and coconut oil) are absorbed directly into the blood through the intestine and travel to the portal vein along with all other absorbed nutrients while longer chain fatty acids have to be broken down and then rebuilt, entering the blood at a much later stage of digestion.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) cannot be synthesized in sufficient amounts within the body so have to be consumed through the diet. There are only two known EFAs – ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid and LA (linoleic acid), an omega-6 fatty acid.
ALA is used to help synthesize the other two omega-3 fatty acids required in the body known as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). Most of us now associate omega-3 fatty acids with fish oil but they originally come from the leaves of plants (they play a role in photosynthesis) so are found in butter from pasture-fed cows and the meat of grass-fed animals. Fish become filled with omega-3 from eating algae (or eating other fish who have eaten algae). Some plant oils are also rich sources of omega-3 including hemp, flaxseed/linseed and chiaseed oil.
Cholesterol is the most sophisticated molecule in the biological world and is an essential component of all complex living beings.7 It is predominantly created in our livers, from amino acids, carbohydrates and fatty acids. In fact, only about 15% of the cholesterol in our bodies comes from our diets while some 85% is produced by the body.7
HDL and LDL lipo-proteins
You often see cholesterol referred to as LDL or HDL but technically, these terms don’t refer to cholesterol at all. They refer to the lipo-proteins that transport cholesterol and other fats around the body.6 Because fat isn’t soluble in water (or blood) it needs to be specially packaged up and ferried along to make its way through the blood vessels with ease. High Density Lipo-proteins (HDLs) transport fats from the cells back to the liver while Low Density Lipo-Proteins (LDLs) do the opposite.
The theory is that HDLs are ‘good’ because they take cholesterol out of the blood to be eliminated. LDLs on the other hand are considered ‘bad’ because if large amounts of LDLs are circulating there is a higher chance of fatty substances (not just cholesterol) being deposited on the arterial walls. Both lipo-proteins play a vital role in the body but the ratio of the two, in relation to triglyceride levels in the blood, is believed to be significant.
But that is only part of the story. We now know there are actually two types of LDLs. The first are ‘Large Buoyant’ LDLs which are harmless. The second type are ‘Small Dense’ LDLs which are small, dense and do not float. According to Dr Ludwig, Harvard Professor of Pediatrics and Nutrition, these are the real bad guys – the ones that lead to plaque build up in the arteries.3
Since the 1970s, we have learned that dietary fat only raises the harmless buoyant LDLs. The thing that raises dense LDLs is fructose.3 This is interesting because sugar was also rationed during WWII and fruit was in very short supply….
Why is fat important?
It is actually very important to eat fat. Fats are one of the building blocks of life, performing both structural and metabolic functions. At a minute level, all of our cell membranes are made of phospholipids and fat provides the structural components of the myelin sheath that surround our nerve fibres.
At a grosser level, fat is important for insulation and maintaining body temperature and for cushioning and protecting our vital organs against external shocks. It also protects the organs from harmful substances. When toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) or viruses accumulate in the blood, they can be temporarily stored in new adipose tissue until it is safe for them to be metabolised or excreted, protecting the organs from their damaging effects.
Fat also plays a vital role in our storage of energy. Fat is stored in adipose tissue and when required for energy is broken down into fatty acids and glyercerol. The Glycerol is then converted into glucose by the liver. Just as fat contains more calories than carbohydrates or protein, it also produces more energy – 9cal/gram of fat stored vs only 4cal per gram of carbohydrate or protein.
Fat is necessary for the digestion, absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins including Vitamins A, D, E and K and is also vital for the production of certain hormones including prostaglandins and sex hormones. This is why ladies who lose too much weight can experience a disruption to their menstruation cycle (or it may cease altogether) and compromised fertility.
As many people are now aware, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids also have important roles the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in neurological development and processing, visual acuity, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose, the calming of inflammation, the slowing of the clotting response and in regulating heart rhythm. In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids are involved in fat storage, the rigidity of cell walls, increasing the clotting response and exciting the body’s inflammation response.2
Cholesterol plays a particularly critical role in the body. It is the precursor of many substances essential to life including every sex and steroid hormone in the body as well as certain stress hormones; bile acids for digesting fats; cortisol for regulating blood sugar levels; and Vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption and bone strength. It is also part of the structure of every cell membrane, has a key role in repairing cell damage and the highest concentration of cholesterol is found in the brain.7
What happened when we gave up fat?
When Americans actually followed the McGovern Senate Committee guidelines to eat less saturated fat, they also ended up eating more refined carbohydrates and more transfats. Why? Because the Low-Fat/Low-Calorie message came hand-in-hand with the boom in food manufacturing and the Western world’s total embrace of convenience food.
When fat is taken out of home-cooked meals, they can still taste okay but when fat is taken out of processed food, it tastes like cardboard. So when the Low-Fat/Low-Cholesterol message took hold, the food industry responded by adding more sweetness (generally in the form of high fructose corn syrup which became readily available in the 1970s), more salt and more transfats. They also took out the fibre (fibre causes food to spoil so is often removed during food refining process to improve shelf-life).3
Through the general shift from saturated fats of animal origin (like butter) to poly or monounsaturated plant oils of seed origin, we ended up eating far more omega-6 and far less omega-3 fatty acids. Due to their tendency to go rancid, omega-3s were also systematically removed by the food industry to improve shelf-life long before we knew the essential role they played in our health.2
And finally, it should be mentioned that through the increased industrialization of agriculture, mono-culture and the general dramatic loss of biodiversity in our food, we’ve also ended up eating foods severely depleted in micro-nutrients of all kinds. For example, you now need to eat three apples to get the same amount of Vitamin C you’d get from a single apple in 1940.2
Unfortunately this highly-processed, highly-refined, high-sugar, high-salt, low-fibre, low-fat, high-transfat, high-omega-6/low-omega-3, low-nutrient diet that most Westerners have been eating ever since has taken its toll.
Nearly four decades on, the results of this great social experience are as follows:
- Heart disease rates have increased
- Obesity rates have become epidemic, and
- Diabetes rates have also become epidemic.3
And not just in America but in every single country that has adopted the ‘Western’ diet. Australia has not been immune. We are now ranked one of the fattest nations in the developed world, with the prevalence of obesity more than doubling in the past 20 years. More than 60% or 14 of our 22.5 million people are overweight or obese and if weight gain continues at current levels, by 2025, close to 80% of all Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese. And, on the basis of present trends it has been predicted that by the time our kids reach the age of 20, they will have a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations simply because of obesity.10
About 1.7 million people currently have diabetes in Australia and it is estimated this will grow to 3.3 million by 2031. It is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia and the total cost to the Australian economy of Type 2 diabetes alone per year is $10.3 billion.11 Meanwhile, cardio vascular disease is the leading cause of death in Australia, killing about 45,000 people a year or one every 12 minutes. According to the National Heart Foundation, it is considered Australia’s largest health problem and remains one of the biggest burdens on our economy.12
Needless to say, this Low-Fat Western Diet of ours has not worked so well! But hopefully you can see it isn’t just because of the Low-Fat message. It is mainly because we stopped buying and cooking real food for ourselves at the same time.
Why has this happened?
The reasons why the Western world (and anyone else following its diet) have become so much fatter and sicker are rather complex when considered from a Western nutrition model. But I’ll have a go at explaining it from a few different angles, based on my understanding.
Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Have you heard of the GI? GI stands for ‘Glycemic Index’ which is a measure of the effect of dietary carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. It is a scale from 0-100 that estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate in a food raises a person’s blood glucose level in the two hours after eating, relative to the consumption of glucose.
When we eat carbohydrates, they are absorbed by the gut and glucose is released into the blood stream. There is a homeostatic mechanism controlling the level of glucose in the blood stream so it doesn’t get too high or too low – and the hormone, insulin controls the mop up job. When blood sugar gets too high, insulin is produced by the pancreas and is released into the blood. Insulin tells our cells to take up excess glucose and use it as energy, tells our liver to take up excess glucose and store it as future energy in the form of glycogen and tells our fat tissue to store it as fat. When insulin levels decrease, it is the absence of insulin that leads the cells, liver and fat tissue to release its stores of glucose into the blood once again.
The faster and higher our rise in blood sugar, the more excessive the response and the more dramatic the clean up. This is why we can swing from high blood sugar to low blood sugar in a matter of hours. When glucose is released more gradually, the clean up is also more gradual and relaxed and the variation in blood sugar less intense.
The four things that slow down the metabolism of sugars or rather, slow down the raising of blood sugar levels for each gram of carbohydrate eaten are:
- and ACIDITY (e.g. lemon juice in a meal).
By taking the fat and fibre out of our food and by increasing the refined carbohydrate and sugar content, food processors have basically been producing very high GI foods. This has lead to a society cursed with huge blood sugar swings, worn out insulin receptors and Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes basically occurs when we still produce insulin to mop up the excess glucose in our blood but our insulin receptors no longer recognize it (insulin resistance).
High GI diets also have an impact on our waistlines. If we eat high GI meals all the time, we produce more insulin which tells our fat tissue to store more glucose as fat. If our insulin receptors are a bit worn out we need even more insulin to mop up excess glucose in the blood, which can result in even more glucose being turned into fat. The fatter we are in this particular cycle, the fatter we get. This is a situation known as Syndrome X.7 So you can see that fat-free, fibre-free refined carbohydrates are a problem.
Having said that, for every 100 calories of glucose we eat, apparently only about 2% are turned into fat.3 The same cannot be said for fructose. As mentioned, High Fructose Corn Syrup became available for the first time in the 1970s and was about half the price of sugar. It was also nearly twice as sweet so you’d think the food manufacturers could use less in their products. Think again… they used more, much more.
Fructose, Obesity and Cholesterol
Fructose is metabolized in a completely different way to glucose. When we eat fructose, insulin isn’t released. Fructose is either bonded to cellulose and transported out of the GI tract or processed by the liver into uric acid (which causes gout and hypertension), citrates (acids), aldehydes (toxic to the body), lipid droplets (fat) and free fatty acids. Unfortunately, these particular fatty acids affect the insulin receptors in the liver and can directly lead to insulin resistance in the liver.
As mentioned, fructose metabolism also leads to the formation of Small Dense LDLs – the type that create plaques in the arteries. For every 100 calories of fructose we eat, about 30% is turned into fat.3 So you see that high-fructose foods have been a big problem too.
Transfats and Heart Disease
Next, lets consider the issue of transfats. Scientists can’t really agree on many things when it comes to fat but the one thing they do agree on is that transfats are bad. Really bad. Although they’re not entirely sure of the metabolic mechanism yet, transfats have been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease in part by lowering HDL levels, increasing triglycerides in the bloodstream and promoting systemic inflammation throughout the body. They’re also quite competitive with other fats. It has been shown that the metabolism of transfats can actually inhibit the metabolism of other essential fatty acids (like omega-3) leading to changes in the cellular phospholipid construction in the aorta.8
The most comprehensive study on transfats began in 1976, following 120,000 female nurses and their ‘coronary events’. The study determined that for every 2% increase in transfat calories consumed, the risk of heart disease doubled – increased by 200%! So replacing saturated fats with transfats wasn’t such a great move either.
In Australia, transfats have been removed from margarine since 1996 but they still exist in many other food products. Food manufacturers are only required to list the presence of transfats if the product makes a nutrition claim such as ‘no cholesterol’ or ‘low in saturated fat’. Meanwhile, in America, transfats have been banned in several states, including California.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Disease
Transfats aren’t the only competitive fat. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids also compete; for space in cell membranes and for conversion enzymes…2 so the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids that you eat is now considered very important. Before the low-fat message took hold and plant seed oils were widely consumed, the average ratio of omega-6:omega-3 consumption was about 3:1 but these days is more like 10:1 or even 20:1 for some individuals.2 The exact role these nutrients play in our health is not yet entirely understood but many researchers believe our very high level of omega-6 (and very low levels of omega-3) are partly responsible for many of the chronic diseases related to the Western diet – including heart disease and diabetes.2
Micronutrient Depletion and Chronic Disease
It is yet to be strongly supported by evidence but some scientists believe our consumption of foods deficient in micro-nutrients may also contribute to obesity. The theory, put forward by a renowned Berkley biochemist, Bruce Ames, is that ‘a body starved of critical nutrients will keep eating in the hope of obtaining them.2 As a result, despite eating a meal containing enough calories, we don’t feel satisfied or satiated and look to eat more.
So just from the very brief considerations above, we can see that from what we know now, a Low-Fat Highly-Processed Western diet isn’t good for our health!
Does that mean Low-Fat/Low-Cal Diets don’t work?
If you go on a Low-Fat/Low-Calorie weight-loss diet that is predominantly home-cooked (so avoids most of the issues outlined above) and contains a little good quality oil (rich in omega-3) it may indeed be successful. That is, you may very well lose weight. But, it all depends on what you eat, of course!
I tried the Low-Fat/Low-Calorie/High-Exercise approach several times throughout my teens and twenties and it often worked. BUT… I found it pretty unsustainable as a long-term approach. When on a strict weight-loss diet, I usually suffered from certain side-effects including dryness, moodiness, cravings and a general feeling of deprivation and hunger. They also promoted a certain level of obsessiveness – all that counting of calories and grams of fat. They tended to turn my relationship with food into a business transaction rather than a loving exchange.
But the worse thing was, whenever I moved off of a strict diet towards more of a relaxed maintenance approach, I immediately started gaining weight and would just keep gaining weight until I went on a strict diet again. I found the diet wreaked havoc with my digestion and metabolism, leading to a weight-loss/weight-gain merry-go-round I felt I might never get off of. Perhaps this has been your experience as well? I never understood why this might be happening, until I studied Ayurveda…
The Ayurvedic Perspective
Unlike Western nutrition, Ayurveda views all food in terms of qualities and considers the effect these qualities will have on the body/mind. There is a general rule in Ayurveda of ‘LIKE INCREASES LIKE’ meaning if you eat food of a certain quality, that same quality will be increased in your body/mind.
Ayurveda teaches that each and every individual will thrive on different diets based on many variables. The one we hear about most often is ‘constitution’ or ‘body type’ but there are other significant factors to consider including someone’s current state of imbalance, the climate they live in, their time of life and the strength of their digestion to name a few.
So the first thing we need to recognize is that everyone is different so some people do well with less fat in their diet while others need much, much more. The general rule is: where there is dryness, fat and oils are the perfect anti-dote.
For example, people with a predominance of Kapha (Water/Earth) already have a tendency towards dampness and oiliness so don’t need a lot of oil. People with a predominance of Pitta (Fire/Water) can either be more oily or more hot and dry so some might need more oil while others need less. For folk with a predominance of Vata (Air/Ether) or Vata imbalance, fats and oils are like medicine, anti-doting their tendency for dryness and depletion. When we’re older, in our Vata time of life, we need more fats and oils than when we’re younger, during our Kapha or Pitta times of life. When we live in a dry climate (either hot or cold) we will benefit from eating more fat and the same is true during drier seasons or at the change of seasons, when Vata is generally aggravated.
Having said that, Ayurveda teaches that a little good quality oil in the diet is important for everyone because it actually helps to promote strong, balanced digestion and metabolism. Oil is the fuel that keeps the light of digestion burning bright – like the oil in an oil lamp. Without it, the fires of digestion and metabolism can become compromised. Fats and oils also help to lubricate the digestive tract, the joints, organs, tissues and channels of the body, keeping them soft, supple and flexible. Where there is flexibility there is movement, and where there is movement, there is life!
However, not all oils are the same! Every plant and animal has different qualities so the fats they produce also have different qualities. As a result, certain fats suit certain people (and certain climates and certain season) better than others. The table below (click on it for a larger version) summarises the qualities of some common fats and oils and when they are best used.
It should be noted that ghee (clarified butter) is particularly revered in Ayurveda because it is suitable for all constitutions and has the special quality of enkindling our digestive fire or metabolism. It is believed it also directly nourishes the subtle foundation of our immune system (Ojas) and also helps to promote peace in the mind (Sattva). It is very easy to digest due to its short-chain fatty acids, has a good omega-3:6 ratio (if from pasture-fed cows) and is also by far the most stable unrefined cooking oil with a super high smoke point. So no matter what your constitution, your age or where you live, eating a moderate amount of ghee will aid digestion and assimilation and may even decrease your Small Dense LDL levels.13
Why You Can Lose Weight on Strict Low-Fat Diets
Before I finish, I’d like to share with you from an Ayurvedic perspective why low-fat diets can produce the side-effects and the weight-loss/weight-gain merry go round cycle I mentioned above, particularly for people with Vata in their constitution or already suffering from a Vata imbalance (which most of us are).
Apart from the odd exception, fats and oils are predominantly sweet in taste and smooth and oily in quality. Both of these attributes pacify Vata or Air/Ether in the body mind. Vata or the Vata dosha is a functional intelligence in the body that is responsible for coordinating all movement, communication and elimination. It if goes out of balance, we are inclined to experience imbalances in our nervous system, muscles, endocrine system (i.e. hormones) and excretory systems in particular. Vata is also associated with catabolism or the breaking down of tissues. When trying to picture the qualities of Vata, think of air moving through space. It is DRY, ROUGH, MOBILE, COLD and IRREGULAR.
So why might a Strict Low-Fat weight-loss diet work, from an Ayurvedic perspective? If you eliminate most fats and oils from your diet, your food tends to be more dry and rough in quality. Particularly if you’re eating a lot of salads. As a result, Vata may increase in the body/mind and catabolism may occur, leading to the depletion of tissues, including fat tissue. However, increased Vata creates a host of other side-effects including increased dryness, roughness, mobility, coldness and irregularity in the body/mind and depletion of all of the tissues, not just fat tissue. So aggravated Vata may indeed lead to weight-loss but may also cause one or more of the following: constipation, dry skin and hair, cracking lips, brittle nails, weakened teeth, brittle bones, muscular twitching or spasms, muscular weakness, joint pain, poor circulation, cold hands and feet, low energy, menstrual or other hormonal abnormalities, moodiness, an excessively busy or mobile mind, anxiety, light-headedness, light-sleeping, disturbed sleep or insomnia to name a few.
Why You Might Rapidly Gain Weight After A Strict Low-Fat Diet
Aggravated Vata will also eventually affect your digestion and metabolism, causing an Irregular or Variable digestive fire, like a fire blowing in the wind. How does this feel? Well, one moment it flares up and you are starving hungry; the next moment it is blown out and you’re left with very little appetite at all…and if you’ve just eaten, no capacity to digest your meal. Variable digestion is characterised by these big shifts in appetite, but also by increased pain, bloating and gas after eating. Wind literally increases wind! When food is put on a Variable digestive fire, it never ‘cooks’ properly and you’re left with undigested food wastes or toxins (known as ‘Ama’ in Ayurveda). Over time, Ama will accumulate in the digestive tract, eventually overflow into the tissues and channels of the body and become the root cause of all cause of disease. (Interestingly, high LDL and triglyceride levels are a symptom of Ama in the blood from an Ayurvedic perspective).
When the body is full of Ama, the digestive fire will be affected further and will eventually be put out or become ‘Dull’. A Dull digestive fire is characterized by very little or no appetite at all. When digestion is dull, you can eat very little food and still gain weight easily. This is because the central metabolic fire isn’t the only dull or low fire. The metabolic fires in the liver and tissues are also compromised – affecting sugar, fat and tissue metabolism.
So strict Low-Fat weight-loss diets have a tendency to aggravate Vata and may leave your digestion and metabolism compromised, leading to post-diet weight gain. This has certainly been my experience!
I should mention that the above explanation only applies to moderate weight loss and gain. Things like extreme depletion, obesity and diabetes are more complex metabolic disorders.
Whichever way you look at it, the Low-Fat approach isn’t great, but… the Highly-Processed Low-Fat Diet is far, far worse. In just forty years it has created societal health problems beyond our wildest dreams.
As I boldly stated at the beginning of this article, its monumental failure has, in many ways, led to the popularisation of most other dietary approaches. As mentioned, Highly-Processed Low-Fat diets are high GI, high in fructose and low in nutrients but are also generally high in gluten, high in lactose high in refined carbohydrates and also acidic. In response to these issues and the problems they have caused, people have turned to a variety of diets over the years as potential solutions including:
- Low GI
- Alkaline Diets
- Raw Food
- Low Carb/High Protein, Paleo
These alternative approaches have perhaps helped so many people because most of them involve giving up processed foods, at least to some extent. But you don’t necessarily have to follow any of these strict approaches to solve the problems created by the modern Western Diet. You just have to give up the modern Western diet. Here are three simple steps:
- Slowly eliminate ALL highly–refined, processed foods and drinks from your diet
- Make more home-cooked meals from scratch, with seasonal wholefoods (choose organic, if you can afford it), herbs and spices
- Include a little good quality oil in your cooking (like ghee).
Which kind of boils down to one step really: LEARN TO COOK.
It might seem like a drag at first, but it is the best possible thing you can do for your health and the health of your family! And, it doesn’t have to be all the time… just more often. The quality of your ingredients is EVERYTHING so try shopping at your local wholefood store and farmers markets a little more and at the supermarket a little less.
Once you’ve taken these steps and would like to go deeper, I encourage you to explore the vast wisdom of Ayurveda and its simple, sustainable suggestions for promoting balanced digestion through what you eat and how you live. Afterall, good digestion is what it’s all about – it is the very foundation of good physical (and mental) health.
1 “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”, New York Times Magazine 7/7/2002, by Gary Taubes
2 “In Defence of Food” by Michael Pollan
3 Lustig, Robert H., MD. “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 July 2009. Web. 07 July 2017.
4 Wikipedia – fats, fatty acid, triglyceride, glycerol, transfats, cis-trans isomer
7 “Fats Are Good For You and Other Secrets” by Jon Kabara PhD
8 Booyens, J., C. C. Louwrens, and I. E. Katzeff. “The Role of Unnatural Dietary Trans and Cis Unsaturated Fatty Acids in the Epidemiology of Coronary Artery Disease.” Medical Hypotheses. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1988. Web. 07 July 2017.
9 Hu, Frank B., MD, Meir J. Stampfer, MD, JoAnn E. Manson, MD, Eric Rimm, ScD, Graham A. Colditz, MD, Bernard A. Rosner, PhD, Charles H. Hennekens, MD, and Walter C. Willett, MD. “Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women — NEJM.”New England Journal of Medicine. Massachusetts Medical Society, 20 Nov. 1997. Web. 07 July 2017.
13 Sharma, Hari, Xiaoying Zhang, and Chandradhar Dwivedi. “The Effect of ghee (clarified Butter) on Serum Lipid Levels and Microsomal Lipid Peroxidation.” Ayu. Medknow Publications Pvt Ltd, 2010. Web. 07 July 2017.