The Complicated History of Fat

Anyone who’s been around long enough remembers the days when eating fat — any kind of fat — was bad, period. It all started when Ancel Keys published a now famous study out of the University of Minnesota in the 1950s linking fat to heart disease. “Of course Keys’ study had some flaws. It linked saturated fat to heart disease, a connection that has been re-studied, and we now know isn’t as clear as it seemed,” says Doug Mashek, a professor at the University of Minnesota. The problem that stemmed from Keys’ study was that, rather than deciphering between good and bad fat, people simply demonized all fat and avoided it altogether. This meant leaving out the kinds of fat that we now know are good for you and central to a healthy, nutritious diet.

“As a result of the connections [Keys] made, we went through a low-fat phase of diet recommendations, which, in retrospect, was bad,” Mashek explains. “In any diet, when you take something out, you have to replace it with something else.” So most people just shied away from all fat in general and began replacing fat with refined carbohydrates. Avocados and nuts became bad. Olive oil became bad. The food industry exploded with low fat products that were highly processed and white-flour based.

That said, not everything that came from that study was bad. “I think he had good intentions, and he was pioneering in so many ways. The positive thing that came out of his work was the spotlight it put on the Mediterranean diet, namely olive oil,” Mashek says. As we now know, olive oil and fish, the staples of a Mediterranean diet, are both great sources of healthy fats.


Despite scientific revelations, most people still aren’t sure exactly how to manage fat, and it makes sense because there’s a lot to consider: poly-, mono-, hydrogenated, good fat, bad fat and the list goes on. What it boils down to is this:


Unsaturated, mono- and polyunsaturated fats (particularly those containing omega-3s). Found in vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, and fish.


Saturated fats (found in meat and dairy products) and artificial trans fatty acids that hide in anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, found in packaged foods and anything fried.


Coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil (the so-called tropical oils) are all plant-based fats that contain high concentrations of saturated fat. Palm oil and palm kernel oils are used in many processed foods that tend to be high in calories, sugar, salt and refined carbohydrates. When it comes to plant-based fats, choose those that are naturally liquid at room temperature like olive, sesame and other nut-based oils.

However, even though the food-science community now knows that animal fat isn’t great for you, it’s not as much of a villain as it was once painted to be. “It’s still recommended, and I agree, that it’s best to choose olive oil and fish, but if you have a piece of meat it isn’t going to kill you,” Mashek says. “It’s about creating and maintaining eating patterns and a healthy lifestyle that focuses on fruit and vegetables and whole-grains rather than elimination.”


Now to put this knowledge into action. If you’re inching your way toward fitness goals or have weight loss on your mind, when it comes to integrating good fat into your eating plan, Megan Morris, a certified clinical nutritionist at Prescribe Nutrition, cannot stress personalization enough. “Everyone is different, so no one diet works for everyone because it really depends on your unique metabolic profile,” she notes.

While figuring out your specific needs is paramount, according to Morris, the way to make sure you’re getting the right amount of healthy fat in your diet is to take a whole-foods based approach and focus on the right balance of macros (fat, protein, carbs). “The one place that most people can start is with a whole-foods diet. Eliminate hydrogenated oils and make sure there’s about 20 grams of protein at every meal,” she explains. Additionally, Morris offers a few more tips and tricks:


Morris explains that the best rule of thumb for getting healthy fat into your diet and avoiding the bad kind is to focus on sources that are natural and not processed — think: butter or olive oil, not margarine.


“A lot of good dietary fat comes from nuts and seeds, so opt for nut and seed butter,” she notes. The important thing to note nere is to opt for the unsweetened kinds, otherwise sugar creeps in and detracts from the healthiness of the fats by tossing unnecessary carbs into the mix.


“You can still have animal fats from time to time, just try not to rely on them. Try for things like avocados, olives, olive oil and unrefined coconut oils instead,” Morris concludes.

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A History of Dieting as Told Through GIFs

In a lot of ways, we should consider ourselves lucky that many of us are trying to watch our weight. For the majority of human history, getting enough to eat has been more of an issue. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the ideal figure evolved to something noticeably more svelte.

And thus, we have been dieting ever since. But were these diets ever really effective? From slimming potions to green juices, here are a few highlights of some of the most interesting diet trends over the past 200 years, told in that oh-so-modern of ways: through GIF’s.


Before it became integral to America’s favorite campfire treat, the graham cracker was one of the first diet foods. Created by a New Jersey minister — the not-so-coincidentally named Rev. Sylvester Graham — these yummy snacks were made with whole-grain flour instead of the refined white flour that was popular at the time. Graham created a heartier, nutritious biscuit with unsifted flour and no additives, which he believed to be far superior to white bread. He wasn’t wrong. But sorry, campers: That still doesn’t make s’mores a health food.


In the 1800s, pills, tonics and potions containing arsenic became increasingly popular due to the claim that they cleared the complexion and helped boost the metabolism. Though the amount of arsenic used was small, people tended to take more than the recommended dosage so it would work faster. Side effects included hair loss, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea and that irreversible condition known as death.


Long before Khloé Kardashian started publishing her workouts on Snapchat, the famed poet Lord Byron also worked hard to maintain his physique: pale and thin, considered “fashionable” during the early 19th century. He claimed he had a “morbid propensity to fatten,” according to “Calories & Corsets” by Louise Foxcroft. Absolutely terrified of being fat, Byron weighed himself regularly and began to starve himself, sticking to foods like biscuits and soda water, potatoes drenched with vinegar or simply a bit of claret instead of food. He was so culturally influential that he was accused of encouraging young people to not only worry about weight but also to follow his strange diet patterns — including drinking vinegar to drop pounds.


In the 1860s, a London carpenter named William Banting suffered from poor eyesight and hearing, knee problems and other health issues he believed stemmed from his weight. His diet strategy focused on consuming vegetables and meat, while avoiding bread, pastry and potatoes. He managed to see results within just a few days, eventually losing 50 pounds and vastly improving his health. He then published his regimen in a book titled “A Letter on Corpulence,” and, for many years after, “dieting” also was known as “banting” in England and the U.S.


At the turn of the 20th century, American entrepreneur Horace Fletcher advocated chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times per minute, in the hopes of extracting every bit of nutrition from it, before swallowing. This became known as “Fletcherism,” and he earned the nickname “the Great Masticator.” That must explain all those fantastic jawbones in early silent movies.


In 1925, advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes sported the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” to discourage people from consuming too many calories. Thanks to the appetite-suppressing power of nicotine, smoking became all the rage among those who wanted to watch their figures. MyFitnessPal endorses pretty much nothing in this paragraph.

In the 1930s, the Grapefruit Diet (also known as “the Hollywood Diet”) called for eating half a grapefruit before every meal. The fruit’s fiber and liquid helped to fill you up, and you’d eat less, lowering your calorie intake. The downside? Grapefruit with every meal got uber boring, and many dieters had a hard time sticking to it.

In the 1950s, the Cabbage Soup Diet promised people could lose up to 15 pounds in a week by eating cabbage soup every day — similar to the Grapefruit Diet, fiber and liquid played a part in preventing you from eating too much. This still remains a popular diet fad today — although you’re probably more likely to clear a room than lose weight.


Beginning in the ’60s, pills began emerging as a favorite diet tool — the “Sleeping Beauty Diet” advocated sleeping up to 20 hours a day to avoid eating, thanks to the use of sedatives. (Elvis Presley was supposedly a fan.) In the ’70s, Dr. Sanford Siegel introduced the Cookie Diet to Hollywood, where six cookies containing a special blend of amino acids would make up your day’s calorie intake. The SlimFast diet helped its followers create a calorie deficit by replacing breakfast and lunch with their shakes. By the end of the decade, shelves began to fill with Dexatrim, a diet pill made with phenylpropanolamine (which eventually was linked to an increased stroke risk, resulting in a formula change 20 years later).


The awesome ’80s saw an uptick in aerobic exercise, thanks to videos from Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons, and the opening of Jazzercise studios in all 50 states. The diet trends of the prior decade carried over, and the ’80s also saw a surge in the popularity of low-fat and cholesterol-free foods like margarine and fat-free cookies. Studies later questioned the validity of the fat-free ideology — America saw a rise in obesity and diabetes toward the end of the decade and into the early 1990s. Totally bogus.


Dr. Robert C. Atkins created his eponymous diet in the early ’70s, but it didn’t go viral (in a pre-viral world) until he published an updated version of it in his 1992 book, “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.” The Atkins Diet was one of the modern proponents of a high-protein approach and sparked the “low-carb” fad, along with the South Beach Diet and Zone Diet. When “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston showed off a more svelte physique in the late ’90s, it was largely attributed to the Zone Diet. (Kitchen obsessive-compulsiveness, meanwhile, is still largely attributed to Monica Geller.)


Celebrity-endorsed diets really took center stage in the new millennium, with Gwyneth Paltrow accrediting her slim figure to the high-fiber, low-fat Macrobiotic Diet: carefully designed meals of whole grains, vegetables, beans and sea vegetables. In 2004, Mireille Guiliano, then CEO of the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot, published the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” giving hope to women everywhere that they could be thin while still enjoying cheese and wine. (There is a God!) In 2006, Beyoncé Knowles admitted to using the Master Cleanse — a diet comprising solely of a drink made of hot water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper — to aid her in losing 20 pounds for her role in the movie “Dreamgirls.” And in 2009, the Kardashians endorsed QuickTrim, a diet pill that claimed to boost weight loss.


Finally, we’ve arrived at our current diet landscape. There are still a handful of questionable trends on the market — like the controversial HCG diet, which uses a fertility drug and extreme calorie restriction, or juicing popularized by the movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” which documented Joe Cross’ own 60-day juice fast and subsequent weight loss.

Thankfully, many of today’s diets for weight loss are more lifestyle changes that are geared toward overall health, clean eating and well-rounded nutrition. Kale became the poster vegetable for anyone who wanted to eat healthier. Raw foods have become increasingly popular as they are unprocessed and uncooked. Gluten-free and vegan diets have proliferated. And the CrossFit crowd popularized the Paleolithic, or “Paleo,” diet, emphasizing eating natural, noncultivated foods: meat, nuts, eggs, vegetables, fish and fruits — but no grains, dairy or refined sugar.  

So what have we learned through all this? Dieting trends will come and go, but there is no single formula for losing weight that will work for everyone. Regular exercise and nutrition play key roles in our overall health — not just our waistlines — so it’s a great idea to do a little bit of research to find out whether that new diet is just hype.

Need help figuring out where to start? Check out this article on How to Eat Like a Successful MyFitnessPal User.

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