Personal Health

Could a High-Fat Diet Make You Healthy and Prevent Cavities?

A controversial organization promoting foods high in animal fats has some ecstatic. Others think they're whack jobs.

What if the secret to better health isn't so much a matter of more fruits and vegetables, but a steady flow of butter and lard?

Sally Fallon founded the Weston A. Price Foundation 10 years ago with the goal of "providing accurate information about nutrition and showing scientific validation of tradition foodway," she said. 

Specifically, her foundation advocates for diets high in animal fat and stresses the importance of it particularly for pregnant women and young children.

Bring on the butter! And no, this isn't your typical low-carb, Atkins-diet-style approach (although there are similarities). Her organization is based on the work of Weston Price  (1870-1948), who was a Cleveland dentist. He spent the later part of his life traveling the world in search of remote populations so he could study their teeth and find out what ultimately leads to dental decay.

Along the way, his dental research became enmeshed in studying diet, and he came to some controversial findings, which are recently beginning to see the light of day again. His work, which touts the benefits of high-fat foods, has some foodies ecstatic and others screaming "whack job."

The Case for Diet

Price's research led him all over the world -- to Gaelic communities in the Outer Hebrides, isolated villages in Switzerland, native peoples in North and South America, as well as aboriginal Australians, the Maori in New Zealand, Polynesians and various African tribes.

"Wherever he went, Dr. Price found that beautiful straight teeth, freedom from decay, stalwart bodies, resistance to disease and fine characters were typical of primitives on their traditional diets, rich in essential food factors," the Weston A. Price Foundation reports on its Web site.

According to his research, the closer these groups got to so-called civilization and the more they came in contact with sugar, white flour, pasteurized milk and processed foods, the worse their health and teeth. He documented that within one generation after switching from traditional diets, there were obvious differences in appearance and facial structure, including narrower faces, crowded teeth and lower immunity.

In light of his research, and other studies since, the foundation recommends a diet that includes raw, whole milk, butter, egg yolks, organ meats and cod liver oil. Fallon warns against vegetable oils (with the exception of olive oil).

"The good fats that you should be eating are mostly saturated animal fats, the stable fats," she said. "The bad fats are the trans fats, which are much worse than people think. And the liquid oils -- the polyunsaturated oils are a disaster."

Although Fallon says she likes eating fruits and vegetables, they aren't essential. "My order from the farm each week is half fruits and vegetables, but I'm under no illusion -- they're not nutrient-dense foods. There's 10 times more nutrients in meat, and 100 times more nutrients in liver compared to fruits and vegetables," Fallon said.

A diet high in animal fat is definitely not recommended by most doctors.

"In a country where the entire orthodox health establishment condemns saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources, and where vending machines have become a fixture in our schools, who wants to hear about a peripatetic dentist who warned about the dangers of sugar and white flour, who thought kids should take cod liver oil and who believed that butter was the number one health food?" Fallon wrote on the foundation's Web site.

"The vital research of Weston Price remains largely forgotten because the importance of his findings, if recognized by the general populace, would bring down America's largest industry -- food processing and its three supporting pillars -- refined sweeteners, white flour and vegetable oils," she continued. "Representatives of this industry have worked behind the scenes to erect the huge edifice of the 'lipid hypothesis' -- the untenable theory that saturated fats and cholesterol cause heart disease and cancer.

"All one has to do is look at the statistics to know that it isn't true. Butter consumption at the turn of the century was 18 pounds per person per year, and the use of vegetable oils almost nonexistent, yet cancer and heart disease were rare. Today, butter consumption hovers just above 4 pounds per person per year, while vegetable oil consumption has soared -- and cancer and heart disease are endemic."

Surely, many people would agree that lots of sugar and processed foods are not good for you, but is eating tons of butter and meat the best alternative? Some definitely disagree with this one.

Quack Alert?

Price's ideas about health and dentistry definitely have their share of critics.  One of them, Dr. Stephen Barrett, posted information about the Price Foundation on his Quack Watch Web site. 

"Price made a whirlwind tour of primitive areas, examined the natives superficially, and jumped to simplistic conclusions," Barrett wrote. "While extolling their health, he ignored their short life expectancy and high rates of infant mortality, endemic diseases and malnutrition."

Barrett doesn't mince words in his critique of the "holistic dentistry" world, but there are other concerns with some of Price's findings.

"WAPF [Weston A. Price Foundation] correctly points out that processed foods, sugar, corn syrup and white flour are harmful, but nutritional deficiencies caused by 'junk foods' are not remedied by a diet high in meat and butter, animal products that are devoid of plant-derived photonutrients, which promote health and slow the 'aging' process," Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, wrote. "By contrast, the saturated fat in meat and butter raises cholesterol and is one of the significant causes of heart disease."

Fuhrman has devoted much time on his Web site to countering the ideas of the Weston A. Price Foundation. He wrote:

They promote a range of irresponsible and potentially dangerous ideas, including:
  • Butter and butter oil are "super foods" that contain the "X factor" discovered by Weston Price.
  • Glandular-organ extracts from animals promote the health and healing of the corresponding human organs.
  • Poached brains of animals should be added to other ground meats for better nutrition.
  • Raw cow's milk and meat broth should be fed to newborns who don't breast-feed, rather than infant formula.
  • Regular ingestion of clay (Azomite Mineral Powder) has detoxifying effects because the clay particles remove pathogens from the body.
  • There are benefits to feeding sea salt to infants and babies.
  •  Fruits and vegetables should be limited in children's diets.
It can be argued that few scientific researchers in the 1930s would have understood the complexity of multifactorial causation of health, disease and longevity, and Price should not be held to today's higher standards. But the same cannot be said for his followers today. To advocate eating a diet high in saturated fat is to ignore all of the nutritional research -- especially of the past 40 years -- that links this diet to shorter life spans and higher rates of heart disease and cancer is unconscionable.

Of course, those promoting a vegetarian diet are also among the ranks that would take issue with the foundation's health views. And there is ample evidence that eating no meat can actually be quite healthy. The American Dietetic Association concluded that vegetarian diets are associated with lower cholesterol and lower risks of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

The Weston A. Price Foundation actually has a "tour" set up on its Web site for vegetarians. But its position remains that, "Strict vegetarianism (veganism) is detrimental to human health. Vegetarianism that includes eggs and raw (unpasteurized) dairy products, organic vegetables and fruits, properly prepared whole grains, legumes and nuts, and excludes unfermented soy products and processed foods, can be a healthy option for some people."

Price's Popularity

Even though there's ample medical research about associating high-fat foods with health problems, the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation is still attracting attention. In a 2008 story about Fallon in the Washington Post, Jane Black writes:

Such ideas have been considered heretical by modern American public health policy that promotes a low-fat, low-sodium diet. But increasing interest in sustainable, local foods, combined with industrial-health scares such as the recent salmonella outbreak, has put the spotlight on the foundation's unorthodox ideas about healthful eating.

Fallon puts the group's membership at 11,000 and more than 400 chapters worldwide.

One of the main draws for some people interested in healthy eating and food politics, may be the foundation's support for small farmers and for eating meat and dairy that comes from grass-fed animals, which is increasingly becoming popular as backlash to industrial agriculture grows.

And then there is thenew research that not all fats may be totally bad for you. Omega-3 oils, often found in fish, walnuts and flaxseeds, are coveted as "good fats" because they have been shown to be good for both the heart and the brain and potentially even for warding off cancer. Another source of omega-3s are pasture-fed animals (instead of the grain-fed animals from feedlots that make up the majority of our meat and dairy).

Research from the University of California Cooperative Extension and California State University, Chico found:

Cattle fed primarily grass have 60 percent more omega-3 fatty acids and a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent heart disease and arthritis. Omega-6 promotes inflammation, blood clotting and tumor growth. Because the two substances work together to promote good health, it is important to maintain a proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The essential fatty acids are also highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be particularly important for cognitive and behavioral function.

Raising cattle on grass boosts the beef's level of a conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a lesser-known but important group of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in beef, lamb and dairy products. Over the past two decades, numerous health benefits have been attributed to CLA in animals, including a reduction in cancer, heart disease, onset of diabetes and accumulation of body fat.

 

In recent years, there has been more research that makes the whole discussion of fat not so black-and-white. In 2006, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute funded a $415 million study, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers found that "low-fat diets do not protect women against heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer or colon cancer," the Washington Post summarized, "contradicting what had once been promoted as one of the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle."

This finding basically undermined a huge industry that has made a fortune selling low-fat versions of every kind of food you could want -- from cookies to sour cream.

Jennifer McLagan has added to the literature defending fat, with her book, Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes.

In an interview with Salonshe explained the premise: "Eating less animal fat hasn't made us healthier or thinner. We have reduced the amount of animal fat we eat, but statistics show the total amount of fat in our diet has increased. Vegetable fats have replaced animal fats, which has resulted in a huge increase in polyunsaturated fat in our diet (which can depress your immune system). We've also added man-made trans fats to the mix, which everyone now agrees are not good for us."

McLagan underscores the importance that it's not just what you eat, but how you eat it. As a culture, Americans have lost an appreciation for food -- we simply want it fast and cheap. As a result, we've sacrificed quality, and in the litany of packaged products that we encounter all day long, we've become confused about what's good to eat.

"Because people have become so disconnected from their food, they fear it and continually break it down into good and bad elements," said McLagan, who advises people to get back into the kitchen and learn to cook for themselves.

It's not likely the war over fat will come to a definitive conclusion any time soon. But it may make people pause a moment to consider some of our modern customs around food and to consider the channels through which we receive our information about what's good to eat and what's not.

And even if you're not ready to embrace the butter with Fallon and her foundation, her ethic around eating is worth considering regardless.

"Eating is a political act," she said. "We just urge people to buy 50 percent of their food directly from a farmer -- it will change your health, and it will change the economy. It makes the power less centralized, and it gives much more wealth back to rural communities."