The Big Fat Lie of the High Fat Diet

Around six months ago a very highly regarded professor of nutrition from a very highly regarded Cape Town institute came by our place of work to deliver a quite astonishing message. And what he said to the hundred-plus women (mostly young) was that pretty much everything we have ever been taught about food, dieting and weight loss was garbage. All those salads, all those dry crackers and all that low-calorie everything? Throw it in the bin and start all over because (cue: drum roll) fat was the new skinny. Yes, folks, you heard right – FAT was the new SKINNY.

While this wasn’t entirely news to some of us chronic dieters who had the Atkins/Dukan/whatever-that-other-guy’s-name-was T-shirt in a crumpled heap at the bottom of our cupboards, somehow hearing it told again by this passionate, inspiring man whose family history of diabetes was eradicated by replacing all carbs with fats brought the theory to life again in a new and novel way. And what’s more – not only did he assure us that replacing our cos lettuce lunch with crispy bacon would melt away those unwanted kilos, he also said that, contrary to what we had long been led to believe, exercise is not the way to go. Because why? It makes you hungry and then you eat more. That’s what he said.

Now, when you tell a bunch of weight-conscious women that the answer to their lifelong battle with muffin tops lies in skipping the gym and lolling about on the couch with a bowl of lamb chops fried in butter, you can practically hear the chorus of angels singing their symphony of hallelujas. It’s a beautiful sound. We stared at each other in incredulity and shock. Where had this man been all our lives? How was it possible we had gotten it so wrong? Because, as the theory goes, it is not, in fact, fat that makes us fat, it is carbs and the way our body converts them to sugar. It’s not the T-bone steak that’s the baddie, it’s the spud you eat with it; it’s not the brie cheese we need to get rid of, but the ciabatta it melts over. That old calorie-in, calorie-out thing we’d been honouring since time immemorial? Not so, friends. Not so at all. Because, contrary to age-old wisdom, all calories are not, in fact, created equal.

So, armed with this incredible, breakthrough advice, we all hastened to the nearest supermarket where, instead of our normal, sad selection of All Bran Flakes and fat-free cottage cheese, we joyfully filled our baskets with all the things we’d been denying ourselves – blocks of Irish butter (grass fed cattle, you see); full fat Greek yoghurt; salmon-flavoured cream cheese; thick, fatty hunks of meat. Oh, in the space of 45 minutes the world had become a marvelous place. And off we went to be happy and get skinny.

At first, it was quite mind-blowing eating all that stuff – Greek yoghurt tasted very, very creamy, and while fat is deliciousness itself, it’s still pretty fatty when you’ve spent the last twenty years of your life avoiding it like it’s poison. But, I soldiered on, adding butter to my already buttery scrambled egg, buying the streakiest streaky bacon and even making myself what was apparently the number one breakfast of choice, ‘bullet proof coffee’ (a mixture of melted butter – really – coconut oil and coffee). It tasted oily and odd, but hey, getting skinny can’t be all fun. And at least I was having pork rind for lunch.

Except I wasn’t really getting skinny like I expected. In fact, my skinny jeans were feeling rather tight around the thigh. But never mind, I told myself – it just hadn’t kicked in yet. Let me have a few more helpings of deep-fried chicken to get my weight loss on its way. Okay, not really, but the man said eat until you’re full, so I did. After three weeks, I noticed my face was looking rather moony so I thought it might be time to weigh myself – just to make sure it was actually working. Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised to learn I had not lost a jot but, in fact, gained a hefty 4kgs. Which was really rather a bummer because eating that way is fabulous.

So I gave the yoghurt and the cream cheese to my kids, sadly fished out my lycra pants and took myself off to the gym. I went back onto salad and being hungry until the weight slowly and painfully came off. And here’s the thing: I’m not saying this way of eating won’t work for everybody. I’m sure the diet worked brilliantly for the dude in question whose health improved radically and blood sugar went back to normal. But it didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for a number of my friends who ended up fatter than they’d ever been. And mad as snakes as a result. And we all followed it exactly like he said.

Which leads me to believe that this one-size-fits-all solution to eating right isn’t all it’s cut out to be. I mean, for fifty years, after countless studies and huge amounts of money being spent on telling us how and what to eat, we were still taught that a diet of mostly carbs was the way to go. And now we have to shirk them entirely. How is that possible? How unreliable were the studies that were conducted? Or, was there something more sinister going on? I get that this diet about-turn is probably a move in the right direction, and we do eat too many refined carbohydrates and that probably is the reason why people are obese, but telling people to replace with carbs with limitless amounts of fat isn’t the answer either.

An announcement came out a few days ago that Sweden is the first country in the world which will officially be changing the old ‘healthy eating’ pyramid from high carbs to low carbs and high fat, and I’m not sure it’s the wisest move. By all means replace your morning muffin with a boiled egg, up the good oils and skip the French fries, but that’s not (ask me) how people tend to interpret eating plans. We’re silly and greedy and given half the chance we’ll start adding cream cheese to our tea. Fat people the world over are testimony to the fact that moderation is not our strongest point. We like to not exercise, and we like to eat a lot of tasty food.

I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m a lifelong dieter who’s read every book and study going and who’s been researching and writing articles on food and eating for fifteen years, and what I understand after trying countless fad diets in an attempt to fool my genes is that there are no shortcuts or tricks or schemes. Wanna be thin? Take in fewer calories and get into that spinning class. It’s immensely, mind-numbingly boring, but it’s the conclusion I’ve had no choice but to reach. And it just doesn’t make sense, this high fat thing. That old saying about when something seems too good to be true it more than likely is? It doesn’t sound right to me that eating a bunch of animal fat can be good for you. When, in evolutionary terms, did we ever eat that way? We know the cave dudes had a diet which consisted predominantly of lean protein and whatever greens and fruits they could scavenge.

So my question is this: if the researchers got it so wrong for so many years, how are we to know they’re not getting it just as wrong now? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Eating some carbs and eating some fats, but being moderate with both. As Sweden has started what will no doubt be a world wide trend it will be interesting to see what happens to global obesity rates. I, for one, will be surprised if they improve.

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