How fat went to hell and back. A timeline.

June 30 2015

1950s. The fat hater

The birth of the fat fallacy dates back to the 1950s when an American scientist, Ancel Keys, started promoting a low-fat diet to lower cholesterol levels. Keys then published a highly influential paper which supported the idea that dietary fat, particularly the saturated kind, could raise cholesterol levels and, as a result, cause heart attacks. As years went on, the fear of saturated fat gradually built up and was further compounded by studies showing a positive link between dietary fat, obesity and some cancers in the early 90s. By this time the public perception of fat completely shifted – in other words, all fat was basically considered bad.

1970s. Calories exploded

In the 70s, the US government started encouraging farmers to convert their mall landholdings to big farms to keep food prices (and inflation) down. This led an explosion in cheaper cuts of meat and refined carbs from grains, cereals and sugars from corn. It also enabled fast food chains to start offering “supersized” versions of everything. The overall effect was that Americans simply started eating more and the resulting junk food culture was exported around the world.

1980s. People got fat

The wider availability of cheaper foods and sugary soft drinks in the late 1970s saw obesity and chronic disease rise, so the US government set up a commission in 1978 to set up dietary guidelines for Americans which recommended they base the bulk of their diet on carbs and almost eliminate fat. This set the pattern for the next three decades.

1980s-90s. The rise of low fat

Overnight, the low-fat message sunk in. But the food industry saw it as an opportunity and began creating processed low-fat foods that substituted fat with sugar to even out the flavour and texture. In other words, fats were replaced by even more problematic ingredients.

As consumers, we got hoaxed by the claims and wrongly embraced low-fat products thinking they were better for our health and waistline. Instead the overemphasis on reducing fat lead to an overwhelming consumption of refined carbohydrates (including sugar), as well as calories. This is not what Ancel Keys had in mind when he recommended we cut down our fat intake. He had wanted us to eat more vegetables.

2000s. Fat not as evil as we thought

The first major study to question the link between saturated fat with cardiovascular disease was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010. This study concluded that there was no significant evidence for the association between fat and the increased risk of heart disease. This was followed another meta-analysis, recently published in March this year in the Journal Annals of Internal Medicine. This study showed people who ate the most saturated fat had the same incidence of cardiovascular disease than those who at the least.

However, what this study doesn’t say is that saturated fat is good for your heart health; it only tells us that it might not be as damaging as we thought.

So does this mean we can cook with butter again?

Health authorities aren’t so sure. The Heart Foundation still maintains there is a clear link between saturated fat and an increased risk of heart disease. The recommendation to replace saturated and trans fat with unsaturated fat is based on high-level evidence including meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and observational data. This position is also supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other leading International Heart Associations such as the American Heart Association.