- Nutrition -

Big Fat Controversy

Expert fats researcher Dr. Mary Enig offers surprising insider views on good fats, bad fats and the food police.

olive oil pouring from jar

In July 2002, author Gary Taubes, a correspondent for Science journal, penned a piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he concluded that when it comes to the subject of fat and carbohydrates, the American medical establishment may soon have to eat its words. “If the alternative hypothesis is right – still a big ‘if’ – then it strongly suggests that the ongoing epidemic of obesity in America and elsewhere is not, as we are constantly being told, due simply to a collective lack of will power and a failure to exercise,” wrote Taubes, who signed a $700,000 book contract on the subject 10 days later. “Put simply, if the alternative hypothesis is right, then a low-fat diet is not by definition a healthy diet. In practice, such a diet cannot help being high in carbohydrates, and that can lead to obesity, and perhaps even heart disease.”

The story, billed as an overarching defense of the controversial Atkins diet (low carbohydrates, high protein and fat), was bound to kick up more controversy, in no small measure because the Times put it on its magazine cover, which featured a glistening piece of sirloin topped with a pat of butter. The newspaper was flooded with letters; Dr. Dean Ornish showed up to debate Taubes on Charlie Rose; Sally Squires, a health writer for the Washington Post, wrote a sizzling low-fat rebuttal; and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., began distributing a newsletter debunking Taubes’s conclusions, even questioning his journalistic ethics.

While monitoring the hubbub from her home in Beltsville, Md., Dr. Mary Enig, an internationally renowned nutritionist and lipids biochemist, says she couldn’t help but empathize with Taubes. Known in clinical circles as a bit of a rabble-rouser herself, the 72-year-old cancer survivor and author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, knows all too well that when you question the status quo – whether it be the medical establishment or food and advertisement industries – there’s bound to be resistance. Especially when, like Taubes, you dare suggest that consuming fat is not only less harmful than our weight-obsessed, albeit overweight society, is led to believe, but that it is essential to our health.

While Enig agrees with the overall thrust of Taubes’s argument – that low-fat diets could very well be the death of us – her personal crusade, driven by hard data instead of headline-friendly speculation, is not the stuff of six-figure book deals. Still, in certain circles, her conclusions are considered no less sweeping or divisive.

In her book, published in 2000, Enig argues that the research she’s been doing at the University of Maryland since the mid-’70s proves that saturated fats, energetically demonized in the media for nearly 30 years, have not only gotten a bad rap, they’re actually necessary in moderation – as are cholesterol and omega-3 fats.

The real health culprit, according to Enig, is not saturated fats but rather trans fats, which were introduced into the food supply in great quantity by the soy industry in the 1950s. This is when partially hydrogenated fats were developed to imitate naturally saturated fats and to expedite the production of processed foods.

To create the solid substance, manufacturers typically take vegetable fats and bombard them with hydrogen, turning them into the solids used in commercial baked goods or to make shortening from vegetable oil. “They have a different shaping than the normal kind of fatty acids that are in the food supply or in the tissues of the body,” Enig says. “Trans fats also have a higher melting point, all of which can make them very harmful to the system.”

The food industry has so cleverly marketed these trans fats, insists Enig, and so regularly bad-mouthed saturated fats, that in the last 30 years their dogma has been accepted as gospel by the medical establishment – and, by extension, the general public, which is why low-fat, processed foods are so prevalent and popular these days.

In conventional circles, such perspectives are often met with skepticism, or even scoffed at. But whether people perceive that Enig’s overarching industry and media analysis is a far-flung conspiracy theory or just the tip of the iceberg isn’t terribly important to her, she says. What’s crucial, in her eyes, is that people educate themselves about fats and adjust the way they think about them. Which is why the majority of her densely packed book is dedicated to scientific data about the different types of edible fats and oils, what the body uses them for, and how she believes we can incorporate the best of them into a diet that is as satisfying as it is sensible.

So put down that low-cal, low-fat frozen pizza pocket and read on. Whether or not you adopt Dr. Enig’s perspectives, you can’t help but be intrigued by what she has to say.

EL | You have been researching fats and oils for years. What finally made you decide to write a book on this subject?

ME | I wrote Know Your Fats because so many people I know, including practicing dietitians and people who are working to reform the food industry, kept asking me to suggest a book that would answer their questions. I honestly couldn’t come up with anything to recommend. So I decided to write one myself – to correct all the misinformation that’s been published, and to provide people with a basic primer on fatty acids.

EL | What are the most common misperceptions about fat?

ME | The most common misperception, the one that is most important, is that people should avoid fat. That’s really unfortunate, because that type of thinking leads to eating behaviors that are actually causing an increase in obesity. The other misperception, invented by the food industry, is that saturated fats are all bad and that trans-fatty acids are okay.

The human body does not benefit from the total absence of saturated fat; that is something that the dietitians and the medical clinicians need to learn. The heart, the kidney and muscles preferentially use saturated fats; that’s their normal energy source. The lungs need it, as does the immune system.

Now in Europe and Canada and, finally, in the United States, people are beginning to recognize that if you don’t get some saturated fat in your diet, that can cause health problems, especially because your body can’t make saturates out of trans fat. If you’re getting all of these artificial fats in your system and no saturated fats, you’ll end up with the wrong fatty acids in the membranes. It’s simple, really: Whenever you start to replace the natural fats people were eating 150 to 200 years ago with the things the food industry started manufacturing after World War II, you tend to get into trouble.

EL | What about the cholesterol in meat and eggs?

ME | The most common misperception is that there’s something inherently wrong or unhealthy about cholesterol. Cholesterol is one of the body’s repair substances: Its elevated presence in your system tells you that your body is trying to heal something – like inflammation – which is probably the source of the real trouble. Cholesterol is necessary for hormone function, particularly the kind that the body needs when under stress. When cholesterol is lacking in adults, especially those who are taking medicine to reduce what years ago would have been accepted as a normal level of cholesterol, it can cause muscles to deteriorate.

EL | In interviews and toward the end of your book, you are quite critical of the food industry. Why?

ME | I believe the food industry is actively perpetuating a lie: that processed food, imitation food, is just as good as real food. The reason they’re doing this is that there are billions of dollars to be made selling that food. But to make those billions, you have to spin things so that people don’t really know enough to question or change their behavior. If you keep on repeating a lie often enough, you end up with a lot of people believing it. For instance, the medical profession bought into the industry’s myths about cholesterol and fat; then they started pushing low-fat diets into the population without really investigating the science. That helped the food industry put all of these artificially manufactured fats into the food supply. And the more of that that went into the food supply, the fatter people became and the more they thought they needed a low-fat diet.

EL | How much of America’s current obesity problem can be attributed to this confusion?

ME | People disagree about that, but I’d say a great deal. It was in the early ’80s that the food industry really started pushing low-fat products, and that’s when we saw a great increase in obesity. When people don’t get fat in their diet, they’re hungry, and they eat more food more often. When you eat 500 calories of low-fat food instead of 150 calories of food with natural fat, you end up gaining weight. If you don’t have the right kind of natural fat coming into your diet, you’re going to be hungry and eager to overeat other things.

EL | Does the media deserve a share of the blame?

ME | Certainly, but in most cases, like much of the medical profession, they don’t even understand what the misstatements are. The media frequently consults so-called experts who are “consumer advocates” but who have a very narrow agenda, or they go to the food industry, where people have an entirely different agenda. But they all tend to repeat information that is neither scientifically proven nor scientifically sound. When I’m interviewed by most publications, they typically wind up doing one of two things: they either say, “That’s not the popular view now, so we can’t say that,” or they get totally thrown off by how unfamiliar this message is, and even if they’re willing to print what I’ve said, they get it wrong.

There are also a lot of misguided assumptions about which sources of information are likely to be objective and reliable. I think it’s interesting, for example, that often the first place newspaper writers go for nutritional information is the American Dietetic Association, an organization which tends to walk in lockstep with the USDA and big food companies. Or they go to the Center for Science in the Public Interest – an organization known by some as “the food police.”

The folks at CSPI put out some useful information, but in my view, they also have some very inaccurate and unscientific perspectives. They’ve taken extreme, sensational stands on the dangers of saturated fats – particularly tropical oils. They’re the ones who got all the coconut oil out of movie popcorn – and it turns out that coconut oil is actually good for you in many ways. They [CSPI] used to call us at the University of Maryland for information, but then they didn’t like the scientific answers we were giving them, so they just quit calling.

EL | At some point, though, don’t you have to worry about how much fat you’re eating?

ME | Moderation and balance is always important. You really shouldn’t go gobbling down too much of anything. I’m just saying people shouldn’t be afraid of including natural fats in their diets or ignore their nutritional importance. Basically, I think people should be a lot more worried about partially hydrogenated vegetable fats – the trans fats.

The thing is, when you are healthy and eating healthy, your body simply won’t prompt you to eat more than you should. I believe that when properly nourished, your body will tend to regulate itself. I mean, look – at the end of a good meal I might be able to eat a quarter cup of ice cream. But I certainly couldn’t eat a whole quart – the idea of it would just make me sick. And the trouble is, the people who eat whole quarts of fat-free ice cream after their fat-free dinner are still going to be hungry before bedtime.

EL | Let’s go back to meat for a moment. The fat in meat is where a lot of toxins are held. Should meat-eating consumers be concerned about that?

ME | Yes. I advise people to seek out meats from animals that have been properly raised: Ideally, that means that they’ve been feeding in organic grass fields in humane circumstances. Grass-fed meats have been shown to be leaner overall, yet they offer higher levels of beneficial fatty acids and other nutrients. Right now, organic, grass-fed and free-range meats can be more expensive and more difficult to find, but that is beginning to change because of consumer demand.

People are getting more interested in high-quality foods these days. They don’t necessarily just want the maximum quantity and minimum price any more, and they’re questioning the wisdom of factory farming. To get the lowest possible prices and highest yields, we’re raising animals in an unnatural way, and the nutritional and environmental trade-offs haven’t been worth it. We’re ending up with fewer nutrients, more bacterial and viral infections, and a lot of antibiotics in the environment. Politics aside, if I had to choose between eating meats that had been raised in an unhealthy way and not eating meat at all, I guess I would probably not eat much meat. You just don’t know what you’re getting.

EL | So what goes on in your kitchen? Any special cooking techniques you advocate?

ME | If I’m making lamb chops or rack of lamb and some potatoes or rice and vegetables, I’ll use the fat from the lamb to cook the potatoes or add to the rice. I’ll also save the extra lamb fat to add to other dishes. I’ll use chicken fat to cook things I’m serving with chicken.

When I’m cooking, I often make a mixture of coconut oil, olive oil and sesame oil. The reason for that is the coconut oil has virus-fighting properties, the sesame oil has an antioxidant in it, and the olive oil (or peanut or sunflower oil) adds a flavor complexity. You end up with a product that actually makes potatoes taste like potatoes. I’m always interested in bringing out the natural flavors of the food.

EL | So it sounds like you agree with Gary Taubes on several points. If you were to advocate any sort of “diet” to lose weight, would it look something like the Atkins diet?

ME | Not necessarily. I don’t advocate popular diets in general. I also think eating a balanced, wide range of foods is very important. Most people could benefit from eating far more fruits and vegetables. I do agree with Taubes that natural saturated fats are not the enemy. On carbs, though, I would just say that if you’re carbohydrate sensitive, you may have to moderate your carb intake and choose your carbs more carefully. But if you reduce carbs and you want to have a normal number of calories, what are you going to replace those carbs with? There are only two other things: fat and protein. Your body needs protein to build muscle, and you make up the rest of your calories with the normal fats that naturally go along with it. At the end of the day, you need a balance of healthy carbs, protein and fat from your food – it’s that simple.


David Schimke is a freelance writer and editor.

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