‘High-Fat’ Diets: Of Mice and Men

Take a look at these headlines from reports of a study that recently made a splash in the media.

From Science Daily:

Eating a High-Fat Diet May Rapidly Injure Brain Cells That Control Body Weight

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Fat affects brain’s ability to control weight: study

From Stuff (New Zealand):

Fatty foods may damage brain

Pretty scary, huh?  There you are, trying to lose weight on a low-carb/ high-fat diet, and now media headlines are warning that you may be damaging the part of your brain that controls weight.  Two of the articles were also accompanied by photos to represent the brain-damaging high-fat diets.  Here they are:

A cheeseburger, fish and chips.  Just keep those images in mind.

If you actually read the articles, you’ll quickly discover that the subjects of the study were mice and rats, not humans:

Thaler and his colleagues studied the brains of rodents for the short-term and long-term effects of eating a high-fat diet. After giving groups of six to 10 rats and mice a high-fat diet for periods from one day to eight months, the researchers performed detailed biochemical, imaging and cell sorting analyses on the animals’ brains.

If you keep reading, you’ll also discover that the brain-banging diet wasn’t exactly what you or I would consider high-fat:

Researchers studied rats and mice fed a high-fat diet – that is, one with a similar fat content to the average American diet – for periods varying between one day and eight months

Within the first three days of consuming a diet that had a similar fat content to the typical American diet, rats consumed nearly double their usual daily amount of calories, Thaler reported. Rats and mice fed the high-fat diet gained weight throughout the study. These rodents developed inflammation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain containing neurons that control body weight.

So “high fat” in this case means “similar fat content to the typical American diet.”  That would put it somewhere around 40%, which also happens to be around the same percentage of fat in many traditional diets around the world — diets that somehow failed to induce obesity or brain damage among the populations consuming them.

When readers began sending me links to articles about this study, I remembered that somewhere in my folders of downloads and bookmarks, I had a PDF document listing the ingredients in the “typical American diet” fed to laboratory rodents.  Took some time, but I located it.  The lab-animal diets are produced by TestDiet.com.  This description is from their own literature:

Western Diet For Rodents

A “Western” diet for rodents based on AIN-93G, providing 30% of fat from lard, 30% from butterfat, 30% from Crisco (hydrogenated vegetable oil), and for EFA, 7% from soybean oil and 3% from corn oil.  Approximate energy from fat 40%, carbohydrate 44%, protein 16%.

That’s not a high-fat diet by my standards — I probably get 60% of my calories from fat– but it’s certainly a high horrible-fat diet.  Of the fat calories, 40% come from hydrogenated oil, corn oil, and soybean oil.  In other words, oils that wouldn’t exist without the wonders of industrial extraction.  That may indeed represent the fat content of a typical American diet, but it sure doesn’t represent anything close to what typical low-carbers or paleo dieters would consume.  Nor does it represent the fat content of a cheeseburger.  (I don’t know about the fish and chips in Australia.  One of you down-under types can fill me in.)

The protein in this “typical American diet” comes almost entirely from casein.  That’s the isolated dairy protein T. Colin Campbell fed to rats to induce cancer, which inspired him to take an extreme leap in logic and declare that animal proteins (all of them, mind you) are bad for human health.  Rats, of course, don’t naturally consume dairy products … and they certainly don’t isolate one dairy protein and eat it.  They’re too lazy.

The carbohydrate in the lab-rat diet is nearly all corn starch, with the remainder consisting of sugar.  Other than that poor soul featured on Freaky Eaters who’s addicted to corn starch, I don’t believe this in any way represents a typical American diet.

So the headlines warn us a “high-fat diet” injures the brain cells that control weight.  In reality, it’s a diet in which nearly half of the calories come from sugar or corn starch, the protein is nearly all a single isolated dairy protein already known to cause cancer in rats, and 40% of the fat is industrial-grade vegetable sludge, most of it hydrogenated.

Sounds just like a cheeseburger, doesn’t it?

p.s. — I looked up the ingredients for the “Atkins diet” the company produces for rodent experiments as well.  The breakdown on the fats is the same:  30% lard, 30% butterfat, 30% Crisco, 7% soybean oil, 3% corn oil.  The protein is nearly all casein, all the carbohydrate is nearly all corn starch.  Same junk, different proportions.


68 thoughts on “‘High-Fat’ Diets: Of Mice and Men

  1. Mike S.

    @Firebird I read somewhere online that you need to lower your meat intake to 6 oz or less in the 24 hours before a creatinine test, to avoid a false high reading. My creatinine level is also high. I plan to do a 24 hour fast before my next test.

    @Alexandra You may be able to find canola mayo in a health food store. Canola is probably the least offensive of the industrial veg oils. Or you could make your own mayo from a more healthy oil. I used to make it at least twice a month with canola, but now I use lots of butter instead. I may have to try making mayo with shmaltz. Mmm…

  2. cnico

    While the purported results from this “study” are indeed atrocious..

    The thing that saddens me the most is that the rats and mice were essentially tortured for no good reason.

    Many, many rodent studies, even if performed correctly (assuming any are performed correctly… which may not be true) often don’t translate to human beings. So the poor lab rats and mice suffer very much for nothing.

    I am a huge LC/HF proponent and first time visitor to your blog (it’s awesome)… but just had to throw that in… a NIH “study” is underway to determine if it is really necessary for chimpanzees to be tortured for scientific experiments that also are not translating to similar results in humans.

    But I can’t help but feel sad for these poor little guys, housed in horrible laboratory conditions and tortured by idiots for nothing.

    I read in an HSUS publication not too long ago about researchers who were trying to create better environments for laboratory animals… and the two who worked with rodents responded that yes, they would indeed like to provide a more humane environment for them, eg tunnels and places for them to burrow… but in reality, they were just struggling to keep them fed, watered and alive. What a horror.

    I can see where some animal studies are useful, but feeding mice and rats corn starch and Crisco and then attempting to translate those results to humans strikes me as grant money wasted.

  3. Robinowitz

    Alexandra-I’ve never been able to find a store mayo that’s not made with some soybean oil, and I’ve really looked. But I’ve read about some brands available online made with coconut oil as the oil. There are also some easy recipes online to make it with either coconut oil or light olive oil. I’ve never tried making it myself but I hear it’s great but lasts only a week before spoiling. You can cook the eggs or do the raw way that some recipes use. I used to keep Hellmann’s for the occasional mayo need but have stopped buying it due to the crappy soybean oil in it. Made me mad because it’s so darn tasty! Maybe if we all write a letter to the company they’ll make a version that’s made with only olive oil as the oil. I’d be willing to pay a bit more per jar to not eat industrially extracted waste oil and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

  4. Firebird

    @ Mike S. a friend of mine also told me to take a week off from training, that the creatinine is also caused by waste material from working out. I’m not sure that creatinine levels dictate % of kidney function. My concern is getting the creatinine levels down yet still see the kidneys are operating at 40%.

  5. Walter

    ABC News Attacks Scientist Who Exposed Bias In Obesity Research


    Is ‘Big Food’s’ Big Money Influencing the Science of Nutrition?


    Junk Food Companies Pay For Junk Science


    Will the last honest scientist please turn out the lights before leaving … ?

  6. Ricardo

    Well what you say is logical as well and actually sounds more logical. Also i usually go to the gym and workout with weights and do cardio workouts cause i am trying to lose fat mostly belly fat while maintaining muscle mass. Ive cut out all Grains and proceeded starches but i still eat low sugar fruits and vegetables. But i was just wondering if Beans and Legumes are ok to eat while on a carb cycle cause i find when i cut carbs out a lot for weeks i lose a lot of strength and muscle mass. So i was just wondering is it ok to have carbs on workout days to fill glycogen levels and have low glycemic ones like Beans and on non workout days have little to no carbs like vegetables and certain fruits? Ive read alot about Carb Cycling and seems to be of good use.

    I haven’t tried carb cycling, but apparently it works for some people. Beans are in the “slow carb” category Tim Ferriss recommends in “The 4-Hour Body.” I’m not a big fan of beans, so I’d say eat them if they’re not bothering you but make sure they’re soaked.

  7. Mark

    I just had to chime in about Freaky Eaters since I have never heard of it until you mentioned it. I looked it up on youtube. Interesting thing was this. Girl addicted to french fries, depressed and overweight. Girl addicted to tarter sauce, depressed and overweight. Guy addicted to pizza, depressed and overweight. Guy addicted to meat, looked pretty darn happy, appeared to be in good shape and of normal weight. His crying, brainwashed girlfriend however is terrified of the horrible fate that lies ahead. Would it be good if he threw a few veggies in there? Definitely. But it seems if you are going to be addicted to anything, don’t make it french fries, pizza, or tarter sauce.

    Funny how the only partner/spouse who seemed to be freaking out was the one who’s partner didn’t look ill.

  8. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    @Robinowitz, you’re not being cynical enough. If Hellman’s made a may with olive oil, there’d be just enough in there that they could legally print “Real Mayo MADE WITH OLIVE OIL” on the front of the jar in inch-high letters. Then you’d look at the back and olive oil would be listed somewhere between the sorbic acid and the oleoresin.

    Oh wait, I just checked: http://www.hellmanns.us/products/mayo_olive.aspx They get around that one by listing “oils” as the second ingredient, with “SOYBEAN OIL, EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL*” in parentheses after. And what is that asterisk for? “Ingredient not mayonnaise.” Well it’s in this mayonnaise, isn’t it? And it’s in my home-made mayonnaise.

    And check out this rant about their “natural” claims: http://www.iheartfarms.com/small_farms/2010/03/the-hellmans-you-say-defining-real-ingredients.html

    You want mayo without soybean oil, best make it yourself. I tried one all-natural brand that uses olive oil, but didn’t care for it.

  9. Aaron Curl

    “But i was just wondering if Beans and Legumes are ok to eat while on a carb cycle cause i find when i cut carbs out a lot for weeks i lose a lot of strength and muscle mass.”
    Carbs won’t help build muscle from the biological standpoint. They will help you retain water and make a muscle look fuller I believe. Perhaps you should check out Martin Berkhams website called leangains.com. He has a greater knowledge of carb cycling than I.

  10. Auntie M

    If I hear news reporters say one more time….”Fatty foods like pizza….” I swear I will strangle someone! Misplaced macronutrients, anyone?

    However, I just found this article, which found that potatoes and hearthealthywholegrains caused weight gain. At least someone is talking about insulin and the lack of evidence for “calories in, calories out”.


    Unfortunately, it’s another of those weak observational studies. Stay tuned.

  11. Alexandra

    Drew, Erica, Lori.. thank you.. I will try some homemade cracklins and mayo and also buy some canola mayo to try. I went over 6 hours between breakfast and lunch today.. not a bit hungry. I know LCHF is science, but it feels like magic!

  12. Max

    I don’t know about Scince Daily, but the SMH and Stuff are just trash-news sites (same with their paper versions). There is no editorial oversight or fact-checking, stories are often just copied from elsewhere without verification and a lot of the content is just opinion pieces or blogs portrayed as news.
    A big giveaway is the frequency of bad puns in headlines or the word ‘sex’ to grab attention.
    Unfortunately it’s getting really hard to find legitimate news sources, someone who just reports what happened. I’m sure reporters pressure the scientists to sum-up studies into a shocking revelation. Those of us who learned a bit of science should remember that a scientific study never reveals the ‘answer’, each one is just a little step along the path.

  13. Robinowitz

    Drew-You’re totally right…about the mayo part, at least (not my lack of cynicism;). I sometimes like to imagine that the companies will some day realize that people are demanding higher quality ingredients and perhaps someday they’ll deliver. But I’m not holding my breath, of course. I read all ingredient labels with a critical eye and always find mystery ingredients in just about every packaged food. My solution is to mostly avoid packaged food.

  14. tracker

    “…30% of fat from lard…”

    Was the lard hydrogenated? LOL We have to go out of our way to find lard that isn’t hydrogenated. The grocery stores around here don’t even sell the natural kind.

    Somewhere in our freezer, we have slabs of pork fat that we intend to render into our own lard.

  15. Firebird

    @ Aaron, you are correct. Bodybuilders in pre-contest mode will go zero carbs for a period of three days. Then, one or two days prior to their competition, they will re-introduce carbs into the diet. The water gained gives the bodybuilder a fuller, more vascular appearance. It’s tricky and has to be timed, otherwise a bodybuilder who carb loads too soon will look bloated and puffy. If they wait too long, then they look flat.

  16. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    @Alexandra, remember how we’ve all learned our whole lives that breakfast is the most important meal? Turns out it depends on what you’re eating.

    If I know I’m going to be in meetings through lunchtime, I’ll double up on breakfast — adding the leftover pork chop that was going to be lunch to the two eggs I normally eat. Do that, and I’m not hungry until dinner time. So I haven’t really eaten anything different from a normal breakfast and lunch, but I saved an hour in the middle of the day without getting hungry.

  17. Alexandra

    @Drew…It is amazing.. in those dark days, I could easily eat a bag of candy totaling 2000 calories and feel hungry right afterwards (and full of shame and guilt too) so I still marvel at the fact that a 400-500 calorie meal can keep me going along happily for 4-6 hours, and longer. I hope anyone who is fat and/or sick makes the change to LCHF so they can experience the relief of no more hunger for themselves. Of course, as a bonus, they will lose weight and improve their health too. I am down well over 100 lbs!

    Chips, fries, popcorn, pasta … I could put away HUGE amounts before feeling satisfied.


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