In Defense of Low Fat: A Call for Some Evolution of Thought (Part 1)

Not a typo.

Not April Fool’s Day.

Not a spontaneous and mystical possession by the spirit of George McGovern.

Not even a social experiment to see how many people I can get to unsubscribe from this blog in the span of a day (PLEASE STAY, I LOVE YOU).

Maybe a little bit of this, though:


Oh, Homer!

Over a year ago, I gave a presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium called “Lessons From the Vegans: What the Paleo Movement Can Learn From the Success of Plant-Based Diets.” In retrospect, I probably should’ve called it “Lessons from the Low-Fatters: What the Paleo Movement Can Learn from the Success of People Who Eat Ridiculous Amounts of Carbs and Don’t Keel Over,” but that was too long for the conference brochure. And for my verbally dyslexic mouth. And also, I didn’t know it was really going to be about fat until I fell down an extended PubMed rabbit hole and, upon regaining consciousness two days later, realized I had found the Nerd Project to end all Nerd Projects.

In truth, though, this post started brewing long before my talk. Having witnessed some pretty impressive healing when I noshed among the low-fat raw vegans (and, after a decade of self-experimenting, concluding I do best on a lower fat diet myself), I just can’t get on board with the categorical “Fat rules, carbs drool!” trend infiltrating both mainstream and alternative nutrition. There are too many exceptions to the rule, too many gaps in the theory, and too many skinny fruitarians frolicking in the sun-dappled fig orchards.

But even beyond that, this post is born of a belief I hold dearly—one that guides my approach to research and underlies the very mission of this blog:

We can’t ignore evidence in order to preserve an ideology.

At least not under the guise of “science.”

When confronted with something that challenges our belief system, the worst possible thing we can do is clamp our hands over our eyes and say, “You do not fit into my understanding of reality; therefore, you do not exist. BE GONE, NON-EXISTING ANOMALY.” Yet that’s what so many of us do—often without even realizing it—when faced with outcomes our chosen philosophy can’t explain. On the flip side of cherry picking, we cherry-throw-out: selectively deleting data that threatens our version of the truth, nipping any cognitive dissonance in the bud before it has a chance to rattle our worldview. It’s easy to be “right” when we’ve shoved all competing evidence into the wood chipper!


For a long time in the nutrition world, our thrown-out cherries were the ones challenging the low fat ideology. We discarded the high fat Inuit cherries and the milky, bloody Masai cherries; the coconut-filled cherries of the Tokelau; the cherries of the traditional reindeer-herding Sami; even the smothered-in-butter French cherries—just to name a few.* It didn’t make sense that these populations could exist and be healthy with their fat-gorging ways, so we slapped them with a “paradox” sticker and deemed them weird exceptions to the Dietary Laws that govern the rest of us.

* For the record, all these examples come with some major caveats, and I don’t think they should be used as evidence to support the kind of high-fat diets many people are eating today (though they don’t necessarily stand as counter-evidence either). More on that in an upcoming post!

Only in more recent years have those cherries been rescued from the compost bin and plopped back into the world’s collective fruit bowl (please wash before consumption). Bestselling books like “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “The Big Fat Surprise” carved new histories in which fat was an innocent bystander, dragged into the mud by bad science and even badder scientists. The phrase “healthy fat” moved from oxymoron status to popular catchphrase. People whir 80 grams of butter into their coffee and call it breakfast. Apparently Bob Dylan had it right in all but plurality: Time, it is a-changin’!


As awesome as the pro-fat movement has been for challenging outdated beliefs and reviving some truly nutritious foods, there’s been a dark side to the process as well. All of a sudden, the same rhetoric once leveled against high-fat diets is being slung against low-fat ones. Not only is low fat (and by consequence, high carb) not the dietary angel we once thought, the new story goes, but it’s actually the source of all edible evil: the driving force behind our obesity epidemic, a major contributor to heart disease, the puppet master pulling those blood-sugary strings of insulin resistance and diabetes. If only the USDA had recommended 6 to 11 servings of bacon instead of 6 to 11 servings of grains, we wouldn’t be in this mess!

See the problem here?

In the process of redeeming fat, we traded one form of oversimplified blame for another. And it’s led to a brand new wave of cherry genocide. We now dismiss (or paradox-sticker) high-carb populations in the same way we justified ignoring the high-fat ones. We snub decades of clinical success involving fat reduction (to the point where you might think such evidence doesn’t even exist—in which case, you’re in for a surprise with this post!). We deny the potential for low-fat diets to be anything other than a metabolic train wreck, ending in a smoking heap of shrapnel and insulin injections. “Surely those low-fatters are starving all the time,” we proclaim. “Surely they’re making themselves diabetic! They might feel okay right now, but won’t those carby diets go all Cujo on them as the years progress, eating their souls and whatnot?”


Let me be frank here.

If we’re really after the truth, we can’t keep throwing away perfectly good cherries. Seriously. It’s gotta stop. When we censor data we don’t like instead of revising our theories accordingly, we perpetuate the same problems we’ve been battling for decades: partial truths treated as gospel; public policies that do more harm than good; baffled consumers who can’t figure out if it’s the omelet that’s killing them or the OJ they wash it down with.

Do we really want to keep heading down that road? It probably goes somewhere awful! Like Stockton. (Sorry, Stockton.)

Hence why we’re gathered here today, around this massive compilation of pixels, delving into a decidedly hot topic. This post is my attempt to rescue some discarded cherries and return them to the Fruit Bowl of Our Lives. Which, if nothing else, will one day make a fantastic soap opera.

I do want to make one thing abundantly clear before we continue, though. The title “In Defense of Low Fat” doesn’t imply its inverse, “In Attack of High Fat.” Quite the opposite! My goal here is to create a space where two very different dietary approaches can sit down for tea, respectfully coexist, and interact without any subsequent homicide investigations. In fact, I’ll be arguing for a more panoramic view of nutrition where the success of both high-fat and low-fat diets are compatible, and maybe even make sense. It just requires zooming out farther than we’re used to looking, and acknowledging that our ever-rivaling communities could actually learn a lot from each other.

For the sake of reading ease, this sucker is divvied up into two parts: this one, which discusses the crazy-huge body of research behind truly low-fat diets (especially the really obscure stuff!), and the upcoming Part 2, which ties everything together with science, and whatnot. And because this post is long even by my standards, I’ve created a clickable Table of Contents to help you navigate the labyrinth. Good luck! (You’ll need it…) (more…)

My Un-Vegetarianniversary, Announcements, and Being a MTHFR Mutant

Ten years ago last month, after a decade of meatless-and-fishless youthhood, I took a bite of salmon sashimi and never looked back.

It was a very good day.


Actually, that’s not true. It was a very conflicted day. I was seventeen, stubborn, malnourished, college-brain-overloaded, and really flippin’ hungry. I’d spent a good two hours prepping for an English Lit class potluck—carving a watermelon into the shape of a peacock and adorning it with skewered melon balls, assuring myself that even if the rest of the party was a terrifying apocalypse of pizza and cheese cubes, at least I could eat my fruit bird.

It turned out the pizza was a no-show, but someone had the genius idea—and I say that without a shred of sarcasm—of bringing a huge takeout platter of sushi. I spent some time gnawing on a cantaloupe ball, glancing furtively at the fish display, admiring its arrangement in the way one might admire a Van Gogh: with aesthetic awe, but no desire to shove it into my mouth and chew. (more…)

How I Un-Ruined My Teeth

Howdy doo!

Shortest-update-on-this-blog-ever alert: I wrote a guest post for Mark’s Daily Apple this week, and plumb forgot to share the link with y’all. It’s about mouth things.

Beyond Sugar and Soda: Nutritional Cures for Damaged Teeth

Also, in the likely event that I continue to write in other places and forget to post links here, I just made a new page called Elsewhere where those links will eventually go to live. I’ll also have a list of upcoming conferences I’ll be speaking at, and whatnot, if you would like to come give me a hug.

That is all!

Why I’m Not Dismissing the Latest “Animal Protein is Bad” Study (But Not Losing Sleep Over It, Either)

I keep doing this thing where I stand in the shower writing blog posts in my head, emerging from the suds giddy and prune-fingered, feeling strangely accomplished about the words I have not yet typed. And then I squeegee the fog off the bathroom mirror and tell myself you can do it Denise! and think about how awesome it will be to actually update my blog after so much horrible silence. And then I load WordPress and think I’m blogging, I’m blogging, I’m finally blogging, it’s really happening.

And then suddenly it’s three hours later and I’ve opened 800 new browser tabs in Firefox and have become distracted by something shiny, Facebooky, or delicious, at which point all hope is lost.

This madness must end. Today, we blog.

So now I stand before you here in Cyberland, up on my soapbox, rantin’ muscles ready to flex. In case you haven’t heard, the world just got slammed with a new “meat is bad” tsunami—and it’s a doozy. We’ve got the familiar swirl of headlines designed to strike fear in our hearts (“That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette!” – The Financial Express), and pretty much every mainstream outlet caught it on their radar (hello ABC, Fox, The Guardian, Scientific American, Washington Post, and any other big-hitters I left out). The actual study, which is decidedly less popular than the press releases heralding its existence, is available here: Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population. Go take a gander. The gist is that animal protein will (purportedly) shorten your life and increase your risk of chronic disease—at least if you’re eating a bunch of it before you turn 66. (Once you’re in your golden years, though, the study implies animal protein is a good thing. Tricky, eh?)

So what’s really going on here? Should we all go vegan until we retire?


I Made a Book

When I was little, I wanted to be a cat when I grew up. I used to meow in response to questions and decapitate Barbies so that I could bat around their heads with my paw-hands. When Cat stopped seeming like a viable career goal, I decided I wanted to be an author instead.* I could think of nothing more magical than making words happen. And if I was stuck with my opposable human thumbs, I might as well put them to use.

*This is actually kind of a lie. In preschool, I learned the words “author” and “pilot” around the same time. Neither one made much sense (does an author “auth”? Does a pilot “pile”? What kind of convoluted language is this?), and I spent a while confusing the two. The worst was when a local news channel came in to interview my preschool and ask all the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was going to say “cat,” but my mom told me she would give me all my Hanukkah presents early if I didn’t say “cat,” so I decided to say “pilot,” which I thought was the word for a person who writes books. People kept giving me toy airplanes after that, which I tried to flush down the toilet. I never got my early Hanukkah presents, and it was the last time my mother succeeded at gift-bribery (hi Mom I love you!).

Anyway, I thought I’d open with that anecdote to distract you from the fact that I haven’t updated this blog in seventeen months and I disappeared without warning and it was weird and horrible. I’m sorry. But let’s not think about it that way. The real issue here is that I was a really messed up kid, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.

That said, I have some news! The reason I dropped off the face of the earth was this:


This is a book. Some of you know about it; some of you don’t. I started writing it in March of 2011. I thought I’d be done by September of that year. To which my now-older-and-wiser self responds, (more…)

Are Low-Carb Diets Killing Sweden? (Also: New Interviews and Raw Vegan Immortality)

I’m occasionally stricken by a wave of crippling, all-consuming terror. Sometimes it’s because I can’t find my wallet. Sometimes it’s because I hear the unmistakable sound of Smitty throwing up on my bed. Sometimes it’s because I take a few wrong turns on Youtube and accidentally learn what Piccinini animal-human hybrids are (what is seen cannot be unseen). But these days, it’s usually because I’ve looked at the calendar and realized that—along with being 25 and really old now—I haven’t posted anything on this blog in almost four months.

What madness!

As most of you probably know, I’ve been chugging away on an upcoming book called “Death By Food Pyramid,” which is the main reason Raw Food SOS has been hosting more tumbleweeds than blog entries lately. Thanks to finding some unexpected political shenanigans to investigate (which I’m really excited to tell you guys about), the release date for “Death By Food Pyramid” is now September 2013. More details to come.

Earlier this month, I recorded an interview that touches upon the USDA’s seamy, pyramid-shaped underbelly (mostly in the second half):

I’ll be writing more about the book soon (and resuming my previous rapid-blogging schedule of six posts a year instead of four), but in the meantime, here’s a new installment of Bad Science Du Jour!


Interview, New Stuff, and Proof of Aliveness

All has been quiet on the Raw Food SOS front lately, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t shenanigans-a-plenty brewing backstage. The recent silence here is mostly because I’m spending 22.5 hours a day finishing my upcoming book “Death by Food Pyramid,” which should be available towards the end of this year. More on that soon!

In the meantime, if only to drown out the incessant chirping of blog crickets, here are some things. (more…)