By Coach KB
Over the past century-ish, human nutrition has undergone a dramatic change (#understatement). Advanced techniques in food preparation, processing, storage and distribution allowed people to shift away from traditional “local farmer/hunter-gatherer” eating habits to the modern western diet. At the onset, this looked great because it provided us with freedom of choice in food selections, but the unintended consequence has been that it reduced the nutritional integrity of many of the food we consume today. Fat-soluble vitamins are one of the biggest losses. Fat-soluble vitamin deficiency in modern nutrition is widespread and has big impacts for our health.
With the advancement in conventional medicine, the number of death from infectious disease decreased significantly, but the number of degenerative diseases continues to increase… What gives?!! The change in our diets has been well linked to the rise of these chronic disease such as coronary heart disease, cancers, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletal problems and dental issues (side note - my dentist has a candy bowl in the waiting area for Halloween… WTF?!!). One of the major differences between traditional and modern diets is the quality and quantity of various fats consumed. Hydrogenation of fats started in the early 1900s and industrialization promoted mass production of oils from vegetable sources. Efforts were made to replace animal fats with vegetable fats and, at the same time, the agricultural revolution changed the nutritional value of foods, including quality of dairy products available. More recently, low-fat diets have been popular due to the misinformation that fat causes heart disease. Because fat-soluble vitamins rely on fats for their absorption, all of these changes factor into today’s fat-soluble vitamin intake.
The fat-soluble vitamins (meaning they need to be digested with lipids to be available to the body, so a low-fat diet may result in deficiencies of these vitamins) are vitamins A, D, E, and K. They are really important for a properly functioning body; here are just a few examples of what they can do for our health: Vitamin A is required for a healthy immune system, vision, growth and reproduction; Vitamin D regulates mineral balance in the body, which is necessary for building strong teeth and bones; Vitamin E is an important lipid antioxidant; and vitamin K is required for blood clotting. Dr. Weston A. Price conducted a world-wide study of diets in indigenous populations in the 1930s and found that the healthiest groups consumed ten times more fat-soluble vitamins than the typical modern American diet. He studied both populations that only ate their own traditional foods and populations that had been touched by modernization and at a mix of their traditional diet and what he called “foods of commerce.” The groups that ate exclusively their own foods maintained their vibrant health and the groups that ate the “foods of commerce” had developed health problems along with dental and structural deformity. These “foods of commerce” are our Standard American Diet (SAD) and one of the ways they are most harmful to us is their lack of fat-soluble vitamins… and also a lack of fats for the vitamins to be soluble in!
Sadly, the SAD is afraid of foods that are naturally high in fat-soluble vitamins, like butter, whole milk, and eggs because we have been taught that fat and cholesterol are bad. From 1910 to 1970, butter consumption dropped from 18 to four pounds per person per year while vegetable oil consumption increased about 400%. One might assume that the incidents of cardiovascular disease went down given that butter was replaced with margarine and lard/tallow were substituted with canola, corn or other vegetable oils, but the number of coronary heart disease cases actually increased. Currently, cardiovascular disease accounts for as much as 40% of death in America.
In 1900 when people consumed more of these fat-soluble vitamin rich animal products, heart disease was medically rare. Mary Ening, Ph.D. and Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, analyzed cookbooks from the time and figure that fat constituted about 35-40% of the daily calorie intake, and those fats came from butter, cream, whole milk, and eggs. Dr. Price found healthy tribal diets contained anywhere in the range from 30-80% of their caloric intake from fat, mostly from saturated and monounsaturated fats from animal sources. Dr. Dudley White, a cardiologist with the American Heart Association, commented on a TV broadcast, “Back in the MI [myocardial infarction]-free days before 1920, the fats were butter and lard and I think that we would all benefit from the kind of diet that we had at a time when no one had ever heard the word corn oil.” Though concerns were addressed, voices of such doctors and scientists opposing the hypothesis that lipids were bad diminished as the food processing industry flooded the media with the self-funded lipid hypothesis studies.
The lipid hypothesis led to a decline in fat-soluble vitamin consumption because it advertised that animal fats were bad while vegetable oils were good. Nature has a way of providing all that we need and when we eliminate a group of food we evolved to consume it only stands to reason that our health would decline. Cholesterol is one “demon” of the lipid hypothesis that everyone started cutting out but cholesterol serves many important roles in our body, including building a healthy gut lining and nervous system producing hormones, and regulating growth. Saturated fats are another controversy, but they are very important in maintaining a healthy immune system, liver, and heart, and building solid cell membranes. It even has antimicrobial properties. Never before have we consumed polyunsaturated oils (like vegetable oils) in the quantity that we do today (around 30% compared to what is estimated to be around 4% around the time of the cookbooks analyzed). Excessive polyunsaturated oil intake replaces the saturated fats of the cell membranes which reduces the integrity of cell membranes.
Sadly, like most SAD foods, many oils are produced for profits, not for nourishment today. High heat, pressure, and additives applied in conventional oil extraction to yield maximum amounts of oil destroy the nutritional value of the oil. In fact, they are toxic to the body. Margarine production is an excellent example - the cheapest vegetable oil already rancid from the extraction process goes through numerous processes such as: adding nickel as a catalyst, applying high pressure and heat for hydrogenation, steam cleaning to remove odor, bleaching to remove the original unappetizing grey color, and adding artificial flavors, colors, and vitamins to imitate butter. This process of hydrogenation creates trans-fats, which are highly toxic to the body. Still, trans-fats are technically unsaturated—margarine therefore maintains its status as a “health food.”
It’s a little off topic of vitamins, but relevant to low- and non-fat diets... In addition to contributing to fat and fat-soluble vitamins deficiencies, there are even more consequences when people don’t consume adequate amount of fats over prolonged period - people’s ability to digest fat is minimized significantly. Meals low in fats do not promote the mechanisms of fat digestion. The bile, which is released to emulsify fats when fats are ingested gets thicker and thicker without the cue for its release. Stagnant bile turns into stones in the gallbladder. Some people even have their gallbladder taken out as a result of this painful condition. Minimized gallbladder functions make fat digestion extremely difficult, leading to further fat and fat-soluble vitamin deficiency.
Lastly, but most importantly, the modern farming methods deplete nutrients from foods that are naturally rich in fat-soluble vitamins. The butter and eggs we commonly find at grocery stores no longer contain the same amount of nutrients that spring butter made with raw milk from pasture-fed cows once did. Additionally, steroid hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals fed to animals have horrendous effects both in animals and their byproducts. Sigh.
Traditionally, people held those foods rich in fat-soluble vitamins sacred because they couldn’t sustain their lives without them. We have shifted long way away from the traditional wisdoms regarding the foods we consume. I feel there is a movement that is returning to the ways of our ancestors which sustained healthy lives for generations, but it seems to be a rare privilege. I felt compelled to write this to give information but also to inspire you to stay connected to your food. While we have evolved to use food for convenience, pleasure, and connection to each other in many positive ways, we need to also stay connected to using our food for health; food is quite literally the only reason we stay alive and the more diverse and nutrient-dense our diet is the more quality we will bring to our lives… and the less time we will spend being SAD!