HILDA LABRADA GORE: Our guest is Dr. Stephen Hussey. Stephen is a chiropractor, a functional medicine practitioner and an online coach who focuses on helping people create high-performing hearts. He is also the author of The Health Evolution: Why Understanding Evolution is the Key to Vibrant Health. Today we spend a lot of time chewing the fat, literally. If fat is really so good for us, as the Weston A. Price Foundation teaches, why are we still warned to avoid it? Many heart experts wave us away from fat. Why is that? Stephen brings clarity to the conversation. He discusses why fat is actually good for the heart, and animal fats especially so. He also addresses the environmental stressors that negatively affect heart health and offers concrete advice for adopting a heart-healthy diet.
Stephen, in your book, you said that your health story was kind of a train wreck. When you were twelve, you had many conditions. Can you elaborate on that for us?
STEPHEN HUSSEY: Yes, what got me interested in this topic in the first place was my own story. When I was two years old, my parents noticed that I was coughing and wheezing for whatever reason. My dad had asthma, and so he diagnosed the asthma right there. He took me to the doctor, and the doctor diagnosed me with asthma. He recommended inhalers and a nebulizer. From that point on, I started getting more and more inflammatory chronic conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome. I used to break out in huge hives all over my body. I had terrible allergies. Ultimately, I ended up with autoimmune type 1 diabetes.
That is not to say that my childhood was terrible. I lived a great, normal childhood, but I had all these inflammatory conditions, which were treated with allergy medications and even steroids at one point, like prednisone. It wasn’t until I grew up, went to college and got interested in health that I started to see that the way I lived my life actually affected these conditions. I started to put that together, and that’s what spawned this health journey I’ve been on. I’m happy to say that all of those inflammatory illnesses are gone, except for the type 1 diabetes and its collateral damage.
HG: That’s amazing. And now you’re a chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner and have a specialty in heart health. What got you into that?
SH: I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of nine. I’d have to go to the endocrinologist every three months. As I grew up, I started noticing the educational posters in the doctors’ offices, which said that diabetics have a two to four times higher risk of heart disease, and they’ll have kidney issues and eye problems. They’re at higher risk of having things amputated. I asked the doctor why that was, and he said most of it was due to vascular damage because of higher blood sugar over time. So, throughout my education and my own research, I kept asking, “How can I prevent heart disease or cardiovascular disease?” Any time I heard anything about that, my ears would perk up and I would dive in and try to figure it out. That’s what created my passion for heart health.
HG: There’s a lot of conflicting information about how to take care of our hearts. Is lowfat still recommended for a heart-healthy life?
SH: If you’re in a conventional hospital or talk to most dietitians, probably yes. It’s still what’s taught in most medical schools—if nutrition is taught at all. I think that’s what is taught in most master’s in nutrition programs. That’s kind of dogma. I think it started a long time ago when some very bad epidemiology research came out that associated fat with heart disease or eating saturated fat or eating cholesterol and heart disease. The problem with that research is that it was epidemiology, so it showed an association that should have had randomized control trials designed to test that association. But instead, the government guidelines were developed and shared with the nation based on that association alone. We see the result of that, which is increased heart disease—and increased disease altogether—when humans started avoiding saturated fats in their diet.
HG: So, Stephen, how did you avoid buying into that dogma?
SH: I was pretty clueless in the first part of my life. I had no idea that any of these things mattered. I was never told. I think that when I was diagnosed with diabetes at age nine, I should have been told to eat a low-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet. I was intolerant of carbohydrates, yet I was never told that reducing carbohydrates, especially processed ones, would help. So, I had to figure that out on my own through a lot of trial and error, with self-experimentation and being in touch with my body. Because of the immediate response I get, since I don’t make insulin, it helped me figure out what was best for me. When I dug into it, I found that it’s probably what’s best for most people even though they don’t have type 1 diabetes. Maintaining lower insulin levels is best for most people. The way you do that is restricting carbohydrates and eating higher fats. The benefits of it are amazing.
HG: When he traveled the world, Dr. Price found that every indigenous group he encountered had varying levels of fat in the diet, but they all certainly ate more fat than we do in our standard American diet. What fats do you include personally, and what fats do you recommend that we all include?
SH: We’re told that vegetable oils are “good fats,” but they’re unnatural fats. If we talk about how processed carbohydrates are bad—because they’re very simplified—that’s exactly what a “vegetable oil” is, meaning a seed oil like canola or corn oil. We should completely avoid them, but unfortunately they’re in all kinds of convenience foods that people eat. The fats we do need are the ones humans have been eating for millions of years. These fats drove our evolution and made us human. Those are saturated fats from animal products. I think the most important thing about them—this is something Dr. Price talks about in his work—are the fat-soluble vitamins. Those are incredibly important to our health and physiology. When you look at many chronic diseases we’re seeing today, you can trace them back to being deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, which come from saturated fats in animal foods. We’re talking about grass-fed butter, bone marrow, fatty cuts of meat, fish (sardines are my favorite), lard and beef tallow. All those fats are the best for us.
HG: Whenever I talk to Sally Fallon Morell, she talks about how important those fats are for our brain and our cellular function. How do those fats help our heart in particular?
SH: I think there are two separate things we can talk about here. With cardiovascular issues in general, first if we’re talking about atherosclerosis, that’s damage to a blood vessel; the body tries to repair it using cholesterol and some minerals, and we end up with hardened arteries. One of the fat-soluble vitamins that comes in these fats is vitamin K, specifically K2, which is really high in animal products and is responsible for depositing minerals in the bone where they’re supposed to go and not in other tissues. If we want to prevent calcification in our arteries, then getting lots of vitamin K2 from animal fats is really important.
The other aspect of this, the other part of heart disease that is really important, in looking at heart attacks (the Weston A. Price Foundation and Dr. Cowan speak a lot about this): the heart, interestingly enough, prefers to burn fat for fuel—fatty acids and ketones—which is different from the rest of the body, where if glucose is present, it will burn that first. I have countless studies that show that even in the presence of glucose, the heart will choose to burn fat over glucose. One study showed that when glucose is present and they put ketones in there, the glucose utilization of the heart went down by 30 to 60 percent because the heart wanted the ketones.
The heart is a special organ. If the heart is forced to burn carbohydrates more than it wants to because we’re not providing it with the fats it needs, bad things can happen. One of those things is a heart attack. Special circumstances cause heart attacks. One of these special circumstances is the heart being forced to use more glucose than it wants.
HG: I think you break this topic down in a way that’s easy to understand. Every time I turn around, I see people carb-loading. And these people are not runners. These are just people who have a tendency to eat a carb-heavy diet. They’re young people, so they don’t seem to show a lot of the negative effects that might be coming down the pike. Are they still doing damage to their heart?
SH: I think so. They’re training their bodies to be dependent on carbohydrates. Even in the presence of glucose, our hearts will prefer to use fatty acids. But if we’re setting up our whole system for burning carbs as we age, and our body is not able to burn fats readily, then when other things happen, like oxidative stress and imbalances in our autonomic nervous system, and we’re not fat-adapted and can’t easily burn fats for fuel, that sets us up for heart attacks because the heart is being forced to burn a fuel source it doesn’t want to.
HG: Can you explain about free radicals and why we need more fat in relation to that?
SH: There are a lot of problems with free radicals. Every time our body burns a fuel source, whether carbohydrate, protein or fat, it makes energy, but it also makes waste products. Water is a waste product. That can be helpful for our body—we can use it in other places or we can breathe it out. We make carbon dioxide, and we breathe that out as well. But we also make free radicals. I call them the “exhaust” that we make—like when a car burns fuel, it has a waste product. Free radicals are supposed to be taken care of by the endogenous antioxidants that our body makes. And the two main antioxidants that it makes are glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase. So those are made in our bodies.
What’s interesting, though, is that when we look at burning a carb versus burning fat, or having a carbohydrate-burning metabolism versus a fat-burning metabolism, we actually get less energy from burning carbohydrates. That’s why, when we eat carbohydrates, we’re hungry two hours later—because we don’t make as much energy and we burn through it quicker. The fat gives us more energy, more molecules of ATP. With carb burning, we also get more exhaust—the free radicals. This has been shown in muscle cells. The heart is a muscle. If we’re getting more exhaust, and we’re relying on endogenous antioxidants to take care of that, and we’re getting more free radicals building up, and the antioxidants can’t take care of it, we get what is called oxidative stress. We get too many free radicals running around. They’re like the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. They’re running around looking to get paired. A free radical molecule is an unpaired electron. It wants to be paired and will steal a “partner” from anywhere. If the antioxidant doesn’t give it an electron, it will steal it from somewhere else, including from your tissue. It will damage the tissue to get that electron. That causes a whole host of issues.
HG: That’s a good illustration. Fat is so satiating. I think people crave it but some people are afraid of animal fats. For so long, they’ve been told that animal fats can cause cancer or other problems so they would be better off avoiding fats. What do you think of that? Are animal fats preferable to the processed oils we were talking about earlier?
SH: Yes, definitely. There’s a whole lot of research that shows that saturated fat is not associated with heart disease. And then there’s research that shows it is associated with it. When that happens, we can’t draw any conclusions. The fact that our governments and our academic institutions have drawn the conclusion that saturated fat causes heart disease is irresponsible because there are conflicting findings. When you look at people who eat more saturated fat—and I see this every day with clients—you see their health turn around. Those observations tell me we should not be scared of saturated fat. Humans have been eating it for millions of years, and we’re still here. If it were causing heart disease, then why is this heart disease epidemic a relatively new thing? Within the last two hundred years, it has skyrocketed. But we’ve been eating saturated fat for millions of years.
HG: Is that why you say we have to understand evolution to get a better grasp on our health?
SH: Yes, that’s the premise of my book, and I think that it’s important to understand where we came from evolutionarily. This is the fundamental argument: there’s a mismatch between the evolved physiology that we have as humans—although there are variations among us, at our core, we’re all pretty much the same—and our modern way of life. When we look at the evolution of humans, we were eating a lot of animal fat and animal protein, and it’s only in the last ten thousand years or so that we’ve had these drastic changes not just in our food but in our way of life—the amount of toxins and stress we experience. Those things happened very quickly. There’s no way that evolution could keep up with those changes. Now, we’re living this way of life that’s not necessarily suited to our physiology. I tell people that our chronic disease epidemic is thought of as a problem, but it’s not really a problem. It’s the symptom of human beings living away from their natural way of life they evolved in for millions of years.
HG: Given where we are today, how can we help ourselves? Will eating fat help solve all these other problems?
SH: I think it’s a good place to start. The benefits of burning fat for fuel and giving your body those fat-soluble nutrients are very well-documented on an anecdotal level and on a research level. Obviously we can’t ask people to go back and live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or live in the wild. But we can do things that will allow us to get ourselves closer to that way of life. The biggest lever is food—eating something that’s much more compatible with our physiology is the biggest lever you can use. Eating is something people do every day. For some people it’s once a day, if they’re fasting, while for others, it may be three times a day. Either way, it has a huge impact on your health.
There are all kinds of other things people can do. People can look at the toxins in their life. Avoid all the toxins you can avoid, but don’t freak out about the ones you can’t. Also, look at your stress and how you interpret stress and manage your stress response. We live in a world full of unnatural stressors. Our stress response is not well-suited to deal with them on a daily basis. Managing our stress response is important. We can take life within the confines of modern-day society and make it more compatible with what our physiology has evolved to. Looking at heart rate variability is really important, too.
HG: You’ve tossed so many terms around, but I get the idea that we need to nourish ourselves deeply using fat, but also be aware of the stressors in our lives and look for ways to simplify. I guess that’s why it’s good there is this minimalist movement. There’s this sense we can shed some of the things that are weighing us down.
SH: I’m a huge fan of the minimalist movement. I think our lives have become very complicated. It may sound like I’m against modern society. I’m not. You see what happens when people don’t make enough money in society. They don’t know what to do to survive. They end up homeless or starving. That’s very stressful. Humans have lost the knowledge of what to do. Even when they have money, they do not know what to do to get healthy. We’ve outsourced even our health to medicine. It all becomes something that we can use our dollars to buy rather than knowing internally what we need to do to maintain health and be free of disease.
HG: A farmer comes to mind who I met in Cuba. He was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He was self-sufficient. “If the electricity blows, we’ve got our own manure-powered generator.” He had gotten everything we ate that day for lunch from his own farm. He was nourishing himself on so many levels. It wasn’t just one thing. He could do anything.
SH: Even if we’re talking about hunter-gatherers in the distant past before traditional populations were around, they probably knew multiple places where they could get food and water. And they knew how to do it, and they were good at it. Even if animal food wasn’t available, which I think is the best source of complete nutrition, humans evolved this ability to eat plants when we needed to. We’re obvious omnivores, and there are better foods than others, but it wasn’t stressful. If that waterhole was dried up, you just knew where the next one was. If you didn’t catch that animal, there were others, and you’d get another chance. Whereas if you don’t have money, you don’t know what to do. You don’t have many options unless someone helps you.
HG: If I want to start adding more fat in my diet, what should I start with?
SH: Some people don’t like some of these fats, or it takes a learning curve. But I think most people like egg yolks. It’s one of the most nutrient-dense fats. But it’s important that eggs come from a hen that is pasture-raised. They will be much more nutrient-dense. I think we should also include bone marrow. People can make bone broth. You don’t have to eat the straight marrow. As long as you get the marrow bones and you’re making bone broth with them, the broth will be incredibly rich in nutrients. Finally, I like beef tallow. It took me a while to get used to that one because it has a different flavor. But I usually just cook with it.
HG: What would you cook in it, for example?
SH: I cook everything in it. I cook my eggs in it and all my meats and organ meats. But I usually just put a little water in the pan, too, so I’m not burning stuff. I think it’s great for cooking because it’s going to be less damaged by heat than any plant oil, whether it’s processed vegetable oil or even olive oil. Tallow can hold up to heat much better. So, we won’t be getting those damaged fats with it.
HG: I hope people are persuaded to add more fat to their diet after this conversation. Now I want to wrap up with a question I often pose at the end. If you were to recommend just one thing to improve our health, what would you recommend?
SH: I think it would be teaching your body to have a fat-based metabolism. I think it’s really important to have a metabolism that can easily burn fats when it needs to. Generally, ketogenic is what you think of. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be on a strict ketogenic diet, but I do think the benefits of fat-based metabolism and being able to use ketones, as shown by research, are phenomenal. Train your body to do that. Once you’re trained to do that, you can go back and forth between fats and healthier carbohydrates. But you have to make sure you get back into that by restricting carbohydrates. It’s a kind of mental flexibility. That’s key. That’s where I start with my clients. You have to fix your metabolism first. After we do that, if there are still issues, we can address those. But because I don’t know whether these issues you’re having are based on metabolism or something else, we have to correct the metabolism first.
HG: Would people need to consult with a naturopath or a functional medicine practitioner to be able to figure that out, or could they do it on their own?
SH: I think that it can be useful to consult with someone, especially if you have different ailments or chronic diseases. But if you’re just looking to start the diet because you want to improve your health, there are a lot of resources out there. There are many great books on fat-based metabolism and higher-fat diets that can get you started, and you can go from there.
HG: Do any resources come to mind right away?
SH: There are two people I’ll give a shout-out to. One is Maria Emmerich. She’s written guidebooks for fat-based metabolism. I think her stuff is great. And the couple, Matt and Megha of Ketoconnect. They do a good job of keto or fat-based for average people who just want to learn how to do this diet even though they are very busy. Ketoconnect is good at showing people how to do that.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020