Rude Health: Ghee without guilt
You can butter that toast. And you can smear ghee on that chapatti. Don’t worry too much about affording expensive olive oil. It turns out that good old dairy fat may not be so bad for you after all.
It is a measure of how little we understand about our bodies, especially when it comes to nutrition, that scientists are on the verge of changing their minds again about dairy fat. New research suggests that the fat in cheese and butter may not be bad for you at all. In fact, it may even—gasp!—be good for you and may help reduce the risk of getting a heart attack.
As you probably recall, in the second half of the 20th century, a consensus developed that all animal fat was bad for the human body. This was dressed up in technical language about saturated fats and unsaturated fats but, basically nobody was sure of the science. This led to unfortunate consequences. We were told not to cook with ghee or butter. Instead, we were told to use dalda or vanaspati.
Many heart attacks later, the scientists changed their minds again. It turned out that vanaspati was actually much worse for you than ghee. A new villain emerged: transfat. This was a fat that science had not worried about too much earlier but now began to target in a global campaign.
While all this was going on, a US government body suggested that perhaps olive oil was the healthiest oil of all. Look at people who survived on a Mediterranean diet, we were told. Aren’t they the healthiest of us all?
On that half-truth was built what today is the multi-billion dollar olive oil industry. Millions of people all over the world buy olive oil, often at very high prices, only because they believe that it is the healthiest oil of them all. In fact, while olive oil will do you no harm, it is by no means the only (or even the best) option for people looking for a healthy fat.
However, the olive oil legend is so firmly entrenched that the so-called virtues of olive oil are used to explain everything. One such phenomenon is the French paradox, which was much discussed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Put simply, the French paradox is that even though the French prefer a diet that is rich in animal fat (cheese, cream, butter, foie gras), they have never had rates of heart disease that are as high as, say, America. How can this be possible?
The explanation that some doctors finally settled on is: olive oil. It was said that even though the French ate lots of Camembert and foie gras, they cooked in olive oil. And it was the olive oil that kept them from getting heart attacks.
This sounded vaguely plausible until you looked closely. In fact, the regions with the lowest rates of heart disease were those where they cooked with lard or with butter. Olive oil had nothing to do with it.
Since then, the French paradox has been less startling—rates of heart disease are actually rising in France. But the olive oil orthodoxy still reigns supreme.
Over the years, however, the butter-is-bad-for-your-heart formulation has come under more and more attack. One pillar of the old formulation was cholesterol. It was said that if the food you consumed was fatty, then it would raise body cholesterol and clog your arteries. Scientists now accept that a) the simplistic plumbing model of the heart in which heart attacks are caused when arteries get clogged by grease and fat may not tell the full story, and that b) dietary cholesterol does not have a huge effect on body cholesterol.
Even the US government, which used to warn about the dangers of dietary cholesterol, is now biting its tongue and reversing its recommendations on dietary cholesterol.
New research suggests that dairy fat, far from being a killer, may actually be good for us. A 2018 study conducted in 21 low and middle income countries found that consumption of dairy products could well protect people from heart attacks and strokes.
There is also the problem of the selective nature of the Mediterranean-diet-is-good-for-you prescription. Italy, the country we think of most often as epitomising Mediterranean styles of eating, is not the non-fat paradise that Americans sometimes portray it as. While olive oil is a staple in the south, northern Italians consume as much butter as, say, the French. And all Italians, whether in the North or the South, eat a lot of cheese, which is rich in dairy fat.
Besides, how does one explain Scandinavia? People in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are much healthier than Americans. But their diets are full of dairy fat and they drink a lot of milk.
The latest study which has made the world sit up and and take notice was conducted by an international team of experts who assessed dairy fat intake among 4,150 Swedish people. They followed the participants in the study for sixteen and a half years recording how many had heart attacks, strokes or died of cardiovascular ailments. Because people don’t always remember what they eat, the study measured their levels of dairy fat acids.
They found that those with the highest levels of dairy fat acids actually had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease. Far from damaging the heart, dairy fat was actually protecting it.
Scientists have seized on these results to offer a new explanation for the French paradox. The old formulation was that though the French consumed large quantities of butter and cheese they had low rates of heart disease. The new formulation is quite the opposite. It is because the French consume large amounts of cheese and butter that they have low levels of heart disease.
It is hard to argue with the results of this study because it was rigorously conducted over 16 years. But the fact remains that while the statistics send out an unmistakable message, scientists still don’t understand the mechanics of heart disease. How does dairy fat prevent heart attacks? What is it about fatty acids that helps the body?
We simply don’t know.
What we do know is this: it is crazy to believe that cream, butter and ghee are the enemy. Even if you don’t accept that cheese helps prevent heart attacks, it is hard to argue any longer that it is bad for you.
In a sense, these findings are in keeping with a more general trend. Numerous surveys throughout this century have suggested that fat is not the villain that scientists have made it out to be. We know that high-protein diets that allow you to consume animal fat do work. You won’t put on weight just because you consume fat. Carbohydrates and sugar are far more dangerous.
It is also time to accept that when it comes to nutrition, the medical profession is usually a decade behind the scientists. So, don’t worry too much if your doctor tells you to give up cheese or to never cook in ghee. Your doctor is almost certainly wrong. But, on the other hand, the scientific wisdom changes so often that it is unwise for us to pay too much attention to any single trend.
Don’t give up dairy. But don’t gorge on it either. As with everything else, eating in moderation is the key.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, October 10, 2021
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