Growing up, I thought ghee was dangerous. Aunties would say, “We don’t use ghee anymore, it’s bad for you.” Soon I learned doctors had been urging everybody to drop ghee because something in it, called saturated fats, was causing heart attacks. And desis were vulnerable to heart attacks. It seemed somebody in our community had a heart attack every month. So knowing what caused the heart attacks was a big deal, and all fingers were pointing at ghee.
But what if this is wrong? What if ghee doesn’t cause heart attacks, but is actually a good food?
Research this past decade suggests we were wrong to think badly of ghee. And we weren’t alone.
While we were abandoning ghee, Americans were skipping butter, a natural food product, and eating margarine, which was processed from butter but with added oils. This switch from a traditional source of fat to an artificial one was part of a bigger trend:
the widespread adoption of a “low-fat diet.”
Blame the “lipid hypothesis.” Starting in the 1950s, experts began to believe diets high in fats (cholesterol and saturated fats) caused coronary heart disease. The research wasn’t entirely convincing, but this idea—that fats cause heart attacks—became accepted as fact.
By the 1970s, the U.S. government, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and others, hoping to slow the rise in chronic diseases, began a massive campaign to convince the public to stop eating fatty foods. This is why doctors told us to stop eating ghee.
And we listened to them. Americans at large were dropping high-fat foods and buying anything that had a “low fat” label.
According to the U.S.D.A., the average American now eats less dietary fat than he did in 1965. During the same period, the average American ate more refined grains, a source of easily digestible carbs (“bad” carbs). Guess what also went up during that time? The percentage of Americans (including Indian Americans) with obesity and diabetes. Also, the percentage of people with coronary disease and heart attacks stayed the same, even though experts predicted they would fall as people were eating more low-fat foods.
The experts were wrong. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they began to change their tune. Prominent researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health wrote in a widely read 2001 review published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition: “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.” And in 2010, researchers from Boston and Oakland concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease like strokes).” In other words, the previous experts were wrong to say low-fat foods were better for our hearts, and saying so may have caused more harm than good.
Newer evidence shows that eating bad carbs (which is what people did as they began eating low-fat foods) have been behind the increasing numbers of people with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. A 2008 New England Journal of Medicine study showed people on low-carb diets (which have the most fat, including saturated fat) actually had the best blood cholesterol levels. In contrast, people with the worst blood cholesterol levels were those on a low-fat (and high, bad carb) diet. This is the opposite of what earlier experts would have predicted. Yet, despite the new evidence linking bad carbs (not fats) to bad health, scientists at food companies continue to take out dietary fats and add processed carbs such as high fructose corn syrup and plain white sugar. The companies then slap the label “low fat” on and sell them in droves.
Companies catering to Indian Americans are doing the same, using oils that are sometimes harmful, namely hydrogenated vegetable oils that contain trans fats (which are banned in New York and San Francisco because studies show they promotes heart disease), instead of ghee or butter.
It is important that the South Asian community understands how the things we eat influence our health because those of us in the West have among the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes.
Patel’s second part to this article, which will run in the February issue, will discuss ghee’s potential benefits when we eat it in moderation.
Niraj “Raj” Patel, M.D. is the author of The Healthy Indian Diet, which explains why modern diets are bad, and how traditional Indian diets are good. It contains recipes by Anuja Balasubramanian and Hetal Jannu of ShowMeTheCurry.com. The book is available on Amazon in paperback and all major e-readers including the Apple iPad. Read Patel’s blog: