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In the latest science shocker, researchers discovered that a number of people around the world are eating food such as cheese, butter and full-fat yogurt without doing deadly harm to their bodies. This was treated as health heresy, yet this study’s findings weren’t all that out of line with previous research on moderate consumption of so-called saturated fats, found primarily in animal products.
But people tend to greet any study with scepticism if it suggests a food that tastes good might not be killing us. There’s something about deprivation we seem to associate with health and virtue.
It’s hard to find commentary about nutrition that doesn’t feature some version of the trope that we humans evolved in a state of semi-starvation, scrambling for whatever we could scrounge up. And now that food is abundant, the story goes, our innate wiring compels us to commit the deadly sins of gluttony by stuffing ourselves with globs of fat. It’s like a version of the expulsion from Eden for the science literati. But it doesn’t quite square with the data.
This recent fat-exonerating study, led by researchers from McMaster University in Canada, followed 135,000 people in 18 countries for around seven years. Its conclusion: Those who ate the most fat lived the longest. And it didn’t seem to matter whether they ate saturated fat or the unsaturated kind, which is found in vegetable oils, fish and nuts.
Nutrition researcher Russell de Souza, who was involved in a previous analysis out of McMaster, said many doctors still believe in eliminating saturated fats because there have been several clinical trials on heart disease patients comparing a standard diet to one in which saturated fats were replaced by vegetable oils — so-called polyun-saturated fats. The people whose diets were changed did suffer fewer heart attacks than the control group.
These are controlled studies, which makes them very credible, he said. But their results don’t back the conclusion that saturated fats are evil. In a subsequent study tracking 20,000 nurses, he said, some were asked to follow a normal diet of around 37 per cent fat, and others were asked to cut that to 20 per cent. What they found was that lowering fat didn’t make the nurses healthier. Still, some noted that low-fat group only got down to 29 per cent, leaving open the possibility that had they been more diligent about starving themselves of fat, they would have reaped great health benefits.
But such assumptions aren’t particularly scientific. Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia, said that indeed, food gets tied up with people’s suspicion of pleasure and desire. That’s a central premise in his recent book, The Gluten Lie and Other Myths about What You Eat. Food fads and fears, he said, can stem from the same human cravings that underlie religious beliefs — myths, sin, ritual and the promise of salvation.
“Ultimately, people want to believe that our problem is our sinfulness and our sinfulness can be indexed to our choice of impure foods,” he said. He sees a religious parallel in the culture surrounding the so-called paleo diet.