No matter what you think of the current crop of presidential candidates, you have to admire their intestinal fortitude. And I mean their literal intestinal fortitude. In their attempts to demonstrate they’re just plain folk (a.k.a. pandering), they have to eat a lot of crap. Deep-fried pork chops on a stick. Deep-fried butter. Dirt. Chairs.
This post is the next in a series concerning the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I chose this subject after putting a selection of topics to a vote. The Dietary Guidelines won, but many of the losing topics were closely related. That’s how the topic turned from an individual post about the guidelines to a series. The first post looked at the big picture. The rest of the series looks at individual dietary components, what the guidelines say and what they really mean. This post examines the changing view of fat. Looking at the title of this post, the relevance of deep-fried butter on a stick is probably obvious. But dirt? Chairs? Don’t worry. I’ll explain.
And I have to say, hold on tight folks. By the time you get through this whiplash of a post, you’ll be convinced my brain was also deep fried.
In The Beginning, There Were Dangerous Goods
If you do an “internet search” (which is what people in denial call “Google”) of the term DGAC, the top hits are for the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council in Greenbelt, Maryland. Just 5 miles down the road, you’ll find the United States Department of Agriculture, the sponsor of a different DGAC know as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Coincidentally, both are keenly interested in potentially dangerous goods.
As people who read the first post in this series know, The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a contingent of competent and well-meaning nutrition experts who are tasked with analyzing the latest nutrition research and trends. From this analysis, they create an initial set of recommendations to their sponsors and to Congress (who are totally not biased by corporate contributions, they swear). Congress then beats the sponsors of the guidelines into submission so that the final release insults the fewest amount of large donors. Unfortunately, Congress’ sensitivity to insults is not as strong when it comes to our intelligence.
And so we have the story of fat. Here is a summary of the relevant recommendations that pertain to fat:
- We overdo it with red and processed meat – They are dangerous goods. Suggestions to reduce consumption are liberally sprinkled throughout the report
- Dietary cholesterol is OK – Dietary cholesterol is no longer considered a dangerous good. It does, however, tend to hang around with a bad crowd (red and processed meats, for example) so it’s best to not overindulge.
- Reduce saturated fat and replace with unsaturated fat – On the one hand, saturated fat is considered a dangerous good. The specific statements are that we eat too much, that we should not let saturated fat exceed 10% of our calorie intake and that we should replace saturated fats with their unsaturated relatives. However, in the entire 571-page report from the committee, a report that mentions saturated fats in a negative light over 250 times, there was this one subtle but important concession:
In low-fat diets, fats are often replaced with refined carbohydrates and this is of particular concern because such diets are generally associated with dyslipidemia (hypertriglyceridemia and 460 low HDL-C concentrations). Therefore, dietary advice should put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat.
This is the first time ever that the DGAC recognized that fat is not really a dangerous good. It is the out-of-balance way that we consume fat which is the problem.
- Don’t eat trans fat – No! Eww! Gross! These are all technical terms that the DGAC cannily avoids in order to appeal to those of you who aren’t as attune to nutrition lingo as I am. But the end result is the same. Don’t eat them, ever! Our bodies were not built to ingest these synthetic fats.
A Tangent on Trans Fats
A reader of the L4 blog asked me about a popular meme regarding margarine. You may have seen something like this on Facebook.
The post goes on to discuss how margarine is only one molecule away from plastic and that alone was enough for the writer to give up margarine forever. It’s really a fascinating story. Fascinating but false. Margarine was not invented to fatten turkeys, it was invented in France in the mid-19th century to, of all things, serve as a replacement for butter.
What about this claim that margarine is one molecule away from plastic? Frankly, I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t really care.* It’s irrelevant. Lots of perfectly healthy foods are one molecule away from dangerous goods. For example, sodium chloride (NaCl) is only one molecule away from hydrogen chloride (HCl). Sodium chloride (NaCl) is ordinary table salt, a delicious and healthy food additive when eaten in moderation. In humid environments, NaCl clumps together but remains harmless. Hydrogen chloride, however, becomes hydrochloric acid when exposed to humidity and can cause injury, organ failure, and death upon contact with the moisture on and in your body.
I get annoyed when people trump up the dangers of various foods when facts are good enough. Margarine is full of trans fat. Trans fat is bad. They’re well-known contributors to heart disease and diabetes. The reason to stop eating margarine is that compared to butter, it doesn’t taste that great and is worse for you. That’s all you need to know.
On the Second Day, the USDA Pandered to Big Food
Here is what the guidelines ultimately say:
- Red and processed meat is kinda cool- Red meat especially can be part of a healthy diet and are classified along with fish, dairy and other protein sources as good to eat. Thanks to the beef and pork lobby, requests from the DGAC to reduce consumption are toned down in the final guidelines. They’re there, but the wording has less teeth.
- Dietary cholesterol is OK- The guidelines are consistent with the council’s recommendations. Dietary cholesterol is not really a dangerous good.
- Reduce saturated fat and replace with unsaturated fat – The guidelines are consistent with the council’s recommendation. But, because the recommendations to reduce red meat are softened, saturated fat becomes a replacement term for red meat. Meanwhile, remember the small hint given by the council that the real problem with fat in our diet is not that certain natural types are bad, it’s that we don’t eat them in the right balance? Not a word.
- Don’t eat trans fat – Still gross.
For the most part, the council recommendations and the final guidelines are consistent. The council’s version is more direct and useful to us average folk. Therefore, going forward in this series, I’ll focus on the council’s recommendations and ignore the final guidelines except to point out the times that sensible recommendations were flat out ignored. It happens.
How Can I Figure Out What I Should Do?
Without Reading 571 Pages of Council Recommendations and 209 Pages of Final Guidelines (Shameless Huckstering)
There is a book that I’ve heard of called The Karma Sense Eating Plan. While this book is still a whopping 327 pages long, it presents excellent nutritional advice, including things the government is still too shy to say, in a way that entertains and educates at the same time. So that instead of having to read a passage like this:
Trans fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more 153 isolated (i.e., nonconjugated) double bonds in a trans configuration.
You can read passages like this:
Trans fats are substances that were invented by innocent scientists who were kidnapped by shell corporations created by aliens to destroy the human race. They are one of the few things I ask you to never, ever eat. Other things on this list include arsenic, hemlock, cyanide, ricin, and Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby. The last item has special disposal instructions. If you have any, just send it to me, I am a licensed Chubby Hubby disposal expert.
And a cool thing about this book, is that if you read it and start to follow some of its advice, you’ll be healthier. You’ll be happier. You may even save the world! But, perhaps its best feature is that I donate all profits from the sale of this book to charities that fight poverty and hunger.
The Karma Sense Eating Plan is available in multiple formats including a special edition full color version. Select the button below to purchase your copy. Heck, why not order all three versions?
(black and white)
But Where Do Dirt and Chairs Fit Into All This?
OK, they really don’t. But there is a television show that in my opinion does about a better job of social commentary than anything on the air. It also does a great job with poopy jokes but you might not be as into those as I am. This program is called South Park and in a recent episode, it did a great job of satirizing the typical reaction to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
In that episode, the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack tries to undo some of the damage done by previous versions of their recommendations. His solution? Take the current version of the food pyramid that says we should eat lot’s of grain and avoid fat and turn it upside down. This one simple reorientation causes everyone in town to eat nothing but butter on a stick.
Proud of his accomplishment, Secretary Vilsack exclaims, “We are the USDA! Without us, people would be eating dirt—and chairs!”
And there you have it, the typically confused muddle of obscure references with some very good advice inside. Next time in this series we’ll talk about protein.
*To tell the truth, as with any piece of useless information I actually do care so I researched this. Plastics are a class of material that contain such a wide variety of chemical compositions, it would be inaccurate to deny that plastic and margarine are one molecule away from each other. However, it is very unlikely that any kind of plastic that currently exists is only one molecule away from any brand of margarine.