A few months ago Liz Moody, the Senior Food Editor at Mind Body Green, interviewed John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods.
A little background. Much of Whole Foods’ healthy aura stems from brilliant branding (with prices to match), and they’ve cultivated that branding with clever but applaudable tactics like banning artificial sweeteners among their products. (1)
As you know, just because Whole Foods sells it doesn’t make it healthy. Processed foods – much of what populates the center aisles – will always bring in more money than fresh produce or even what you find in the meat department or salad bar, and Whole Foods is no exception.
Mackey made it clear early in that Mind Body Green interview he’s a vegan and eats a plant-based diet. Most of his advice throughout sounded pretty solid. “Eat real, whole foods,” he replied when Moody asked the best diet advice he’d ever received. “The best definition I’ve heard of what a whole food is: ‘Nothing bad has been added, and nothing good has been taken away.’”
Hard to argue with that whether you’re Paleo, vegan, or somewhere in-between, right?
In fact, I found myself agreeing for the most part, with a few caveats: I don’t think low-carb/ Paleo is overrated as Mackey claims, and find it ironic despite his claims the Whole Foods hot bar contains many Paleo-based foods like “Paleo rice” (cauliflower).
But fine, whatever; everyone’s entitled to their opinions, he’s got a Paleo-loving market to cash in on, and those are minor quibbles.
What really struck a nerve was towards the interview’s end, when Moody asked Mackey, “What so-called healthy food do you think is actually unhealthy?”
I expected Mackey to go off about something like agave-sweetened chocolate chip cookies or soy ice cream sandwiches – unhealthy foods with a health-food aura – but he took an entirely different route.
“People are so willing to condemn sugar, but they don’t condemn oil, which is pure fat,” he said. “I’d actually argue that oil is less healthy than sugar. Neither of them has any nutrients in them—if you look at them they’re devoid of minerals and phytonutrients. The oil has twice the calories of sugar, so you’re getting twice the calories of sugar, with no nutrients or benefits.” (2)
Mackey’s answer left me feeling disgruntled even as it nailed an important point: Despite its vindication during the last decade or so, most people are absolutely confused and even afraid about dietary fat.
Mind you, his comment proved erroneous on several counts. Some oils do provide health benefits. Coconut oil, for instance, is loaded with immune-boosting lauric acid and anti-fungal caprylic acid. Extra-virgin olive oil is high in oleic acid, a fatty acid studies show benefit heart health.
But Mackey buys into the calorie-is-a-calorie perspective, and from that yes, sugar only has four calories per gram whereas fat has nine per gram. If your idea of being healthier and losing weight involves cutting calories, reducing fat would maybe (logically) seem the way to go. Most mainstream diets like NutriSystem, in fact, are simply reduced-calorie – and hence reduced-fat – diets.
Condemning something you’re selling also seems like bad business. After all, Whole Foods carries its own brand of many oils – even its own MCT oil, which is a heavily processed distillation of coconut oil – and uses canola oil in many of its products.
In all fairness, Mackey owns a grocery store chain; he isn’t a scientist or nutritionist. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but his comment sadly captures the erroneous thought pattern even some experts and organizations subscribe to: Dietary fat will make you fat, and from that perspective we – the media, some so-called experts, and people like Mackey – dramatically dumb down and oversimplify the dietary fat debate.
This despite that many studies and numerous well-regarded experts now show fat – even saturated fat – isn’t the enemy and can actually be good for you. “Unfortunately, not everyone is getting the message about the importance of fat, and we still have a ways to go,” says Dr. Mark Hyman in his book Eat Fat, Get Thin.
No kidding. While that view is shifting, it’s hardly the seismic shift that fat-phobic-dispelling experts hope will occur as we see sugar (in all its many disguises) rather than fat as the true enemy.
Part of the confusion stems from the word fat. As fat-free zealot Susan Powter (of “Stop the Insanity!”) used to say, Fat makes you fat. Duh. It sounds so obvious. What if we said “lipids” (as some countries’ nutrition information calls dietary fat) instead of fat? Would that change the perspective? Maybe.
Recent years has seen several well-researched books about dietary fat, including Hyman’s aforementioned book, Fat for Fuel by Dr. Joseph Mercola, and Smart Fat by Drs. Steven Masley and Jonny Bowden. If you want to break through the misinformation, confusion, and hoopla that surrounds dietary fat even today, I highly recommend these books.
Most people don’t. They get their nutrition information from dumbed-down media clips that either ignore or don’t understand dietary fat studies. And with inflammatory headlines like USA Today’s recent “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy,” it’s no wonder people feel confused.
I follow this stuff very closely: The studies themselves, experts’ interpretations of these studies, study rebuttals (which sometimes appear in even prestigious journals), and the mainstream press who often (but not always) dumbs this information down or gets it incorrect.
From that massive amount of information, I’ve dispelled 13 popular truths, half-truths, and downright erroneous misinformation about dietary fat to better understand this often-maligned macronutrient.
1. Fats Come in 3 “Flavors.”
True, with a massive caveat. If you want to oversimplify things, dietary fat indeed comes in three “flavors”: Saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated.
Most foods contain a combination of these flavors: No food is entirely one “flavor,” and often contain some combination of all three types.
You’d be absolutely correct to see fat as being three “flavors,” yet within those “flavors” comes many, many sub-flavors.
Butter, for instance, is about 61 percent saturated fat (that makes it about 39 percent unsaturated fat, by the way) in several “sub-flavors” including palmitic acid, myristic acid, stearic acid, and lauric acid. (3)
Every one of those sub-flavors differently impacts your body. Saturated fat in meat, processed meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter is predominantly palmitic acid, stearic acid, and myristic acid (in that order).
Stearic acid and palmitic acid have a neutral to favorable impact on serum lipid profiles compared with lauric acid and myristic acid. Stearic acid seems to be more beneficial than palmitic acid, and stearic acid can significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. (4)
Are you confused yet? Then you’re onto something: If you can recall your college biochemistry classes, you’ll remember dietary fat is way more complicated than most people think. It isn’t as simple as saying “saturated fat is bad” or “you need to eat more omega 3s.”
2. Saturated fat often unfairly gets a bad rep.
True, as the hoopla over coconut oil with the American Heart Association (AHA) that I discussed in a recent article made abundantly clear.
Indeed, the AHA recommends (especially for people trying to lower LDL cholesterol) reducing “saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day that’s about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat.” They also provide ways about “How to eat less saturated and trans fats.” (5)
Lumping saturated fat (which can be healthy) and trans fats (which absolutely are not healthy) together is vastly unfair, yet other organizations like the American Diabetes Association (ADA) follow that same thinking.
“To lower you [sp.] risk of heart disease, try to eat less saturated and trans fat — the unhealthy fats,” they say, followed by a list of saturated fat foods. The ADA either ignores or misunderstands that most foods, as I mentioned before with butter, actually contain a combination of different fats. (6)
Not every organization is adamantly on the anti-saturated fat bandwagon. The Harvard Health Publications, for instance, take a more nuanced view, classifying saturated fat as “in-between fats.”
“One meta-analysis of 21 studies said that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, but that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may indeed reduce risk of heart disease,” they argue. “Two other major studies narrowed the prescription slightly, concluding that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils or high-fiber carbohydrates is the best bet for reducing the risk of heart disease, but replacing saturated fat with highly processed carbohydrates could do the opposite.”
As you might guess, trans fats fall into their “bad” category, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats fall into the “good” category. (7)
If only it were that simple. If you line up all the saturated fat studies, they would probably be all over the map. Some show benefits while others don’t. At the same time, studies couldn’t fully encompass all the other variables that play into, say, cardiovascular disease.
If you’re gorging on fast-food cheeseburgers, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and staying mostly sedentary, those things will all contribute to cardiovascular disease and other problems. The saturated fat in extra-virgin coconut oil is a whole different thing than what you get in a cheeseburger.
Controversy exists, but the tide is slowly turning. We’ll probably never have conclusive evidence that saturated fat is perfectly fine, but at least critics are acknowledging more nuances within the saturated fat debate.
To be fair, that eating saturated fat is perfectly healthy has sometimes been a hard sell to in-the-know experts like Hyman (a medical doctor), so you can imagine why the public has a hard time accepting it.
“Eating a high-fat diet—especially a diet high in ‘dangerous’ saturated fat—sounds crazy, and up until ten years ago, I would have told you it was a health hazard,” he says. “But my own body, my own blood work, and thousands of my patients and tens of thousands of others who have followed this approach in my online community all tell the true story. They all report the same benefits from welcoming fat back into our diets. And the emerging research on fat and health… supports these benefits.”
3. You Need About 90 Percent Fat to Do a Ketogenic Diet
Maybe. Ketogenic diets, which are about 80 – 90 percent fat with adequate protein and very few carbohydrates, (8) have become mainstream for their purported benefits to lose weight and reduce disease risk, plus just about every other cure-all you can imagine.
I’ve talked about ketogenic diets in past blogs. While for some people they can help lose weight, they aren’t the “perfect diet” some people see them as, and too many calories from any source (even healthy dietary fat) can get stored if your body can’t utilize it.
But what even does an 80 – 90 percent fat diet look like? After all, something like a steak contains about 25 grams of fat roughly per four ounces, making it about 65 percent fat. To “amp” up that fat content, ketogenic devotees add something like butter, which is indeed 100 percent fat and could increase that steak’s fat content to about 80 – 90 percent fat.
Adding fat to fat has become the keto rage. If you want to “rev up” a ketogenic diet, pour some MCT oil or Dave Asprey’s Brain Octane Oil to your food. Could fat-burning really be so simple?
While increasing dietary fat could increase fat burning, you’ve got to look at the source of those fats. Pouring a heavily processed oil onto your fat-rich meal simply provides more calories with few additional nutrients. On the other hand, adding a nutrient-rich whole food fat source like avocado provides fiber, nutrients, and additional healthy fat.
I’ve found people can “get away” with much less than 90 percent fat and still “flirt” with or even get keto’s benefits. Especially if you’re transitioning into a higher-fat diet, you’ll want to start with much less. Your biochemical individuality means everyone does differently on various amounts of dietary fat – and pretty much every nutrient, for that matter – and aiming for about 50 percent while dialing down your carbohydrate intake might be a good start. Even then, you’re getting an impressive amount of dietary fat.
Of course, equally important to quantity is quality including avocado, pasture-raised eggs, nuts, seeds, and coconut. You needn’t go overboard here when you focus on smart fat choices, and you needn’t obsess about whether you’re hitting your 90-percent goals or in ketosis when you focus on whole, quality food sources.
4. Vegans and Vegetarians Can Get Sufficient Omega 3s from Plant Foods
An emphatic maybe, with the caveat if you want to rile up your vegan bestie, bring this up during your next conversation.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the omega-3 fatty acid (which is anti-inflammatory) in plant foods like flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Soybean and canola oil as well as some leafy veggies also contain a little ALA.
Theoretically, your body has the enzymes to convert ALA to the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in wild-caught fish and other animal foods, but that doesn’t always happen.
“Although technically the body can make these two omega-3s from ALA (the first, ‘essential,’ one), it doesn’t do a real good job of it,” says Jonny Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. “That’s why it’s such a good idea to obtain these incredibly important fats “ready-made” from fish like salmon. They’re just so critically important to our health.”
If you’re a vegan or strict vegetarian, that can become a problem since you avoid animal foods. While plant-based ALA sources can help a little, you still might be deficient in these essential amino acids.
“A common misconception is that we can meet our omega-3 needs by taking flax oil or eating plant foods containing ALA,” writes Chris Kresser in The Paleo Cure. “It’s true that the body can convert some ALA to EPA and DHA. But that conversion is extremely inefficient in most people. On average, less than 5 percent of ALA gets converted into EPA, and less than 0.5 percent of ALA gets converted into DHA. Since this conversion depends on adequate levels of nutrients such as B6, zinc, and iron, these numbers are likely to be even lower in vegetarians, the chronically ill, and the elderly.”
That doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you refuse to consume animal products. One study compared docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in algae-derived DHA capsules and cooked salmon and found both provided about equal amounts of DHA. (9)
Along with supplementing (an algae-derived DHA plus micronutrients you might not be getting sufficient amounts of in your diet), vegans and vegetarians will want to eat plenty of plant-based ALA sources. If you’re a vegetarian, omega-3 enriched eggs are also a good choice; if you’re willing to occasionally eat wild-caught salmon and other fish, even better.
5. If you don’t like fish, you can get those same omega 3s from fish oil.
But a few caveats. Whole sources will always be better than processed ones. In other words, you’re better off eating wild-caught fish than swallowing a few fish oil softgels. An inflammatory (read: omega 6 fatty acid-heavy) diet will override many benefits a few grams of EPA and DHA can provide. And especially if the fish oil you’re taking is rancid, you’re likely to create more problems than benefits with supplements.
“Why not just take twenty grams of fish oil per day to change your tissue levels of EPA and DHA as quickly as possible? The answer is that all polyunsaturated fats are highly vulnerable to oxidative damage— a process associated with cancer, heart disease, and other inflammatory conditions— and EPA and DHA are no exception. In fact, they are the most vulnerable of all fats,” Kresser says. “Supplementing with fish oil should be reserved for therapeutic purposes and should usually be short-term and limited to two to three grams per day, depending upon background fish intake.”
I don’t necessarily agree with Kresser about short-term supplementing (or his 20-grams-daily hyperbole: who takes 20 grams of fish oil daily?). For most people, I recommend a quality fish oil regularly to counteract the inflammatory foods most of us consume. Ultimately, the key becomes quality: A junky, rancid fish oil supplement with low amounts of EPA and DHA can create more harm than good.
If you’re not a fish fan for whatever reason, fish oil or krill oil (which also contains EPA and DHA along with the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin) make smart alternatives. Just don’t think swallowing a few softgels will “undo” the problems a crappy diet or less-than-stellar lifestyle creates.
6. The essential fatty acid ratio our ancestors ate is far different than what we do today.
True. “One of the most profound differences between traditional, ancestral diets and the modern, industrialized diet is the balance of essential fatty acids consumed,” writes Kresser. “Today, Americans’ intake of omega-6 fat is far higher than the evolutionary norm, primarily due to increased consumption of industrial seed oils. In addition, we’re eating much less omega-3 than our ancestors used to.
Over the past 100 years especially, we’ve radically increased intake of inflammatory omega 6s. Whereas our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate about an equal ratio, today researchers estimate we eat up to 50 times more omega 6s than omega 3s. (12)
Most of this shift occurred when we went from a whole foods diet to a more processed-foods diet. Think about what your grandparents or great-grandparents ate. They probably had a garden and maybe even a farm. They weren’t stocking up on cookies, frozen entrees, and the tons other processed, sugar-loaded, vegetable-oil-containing foods you find at grocery stores today.
Oils played a big role in that omega-6 shift. Whereas we once cooked in animal fats like butter and lard, going from saturated to unsaturated fats (which, in effect, meant trans fats) meant we eventually started using vegetable oils for their so-called health glow, at the expense of our health.
Studies show between 1909 and 1999, soybean oil consumption increased over 1,000-fold, decreasing tissue concentrations of the anti-inflammatory omega 3s EPA and DHA in the bargain. (13)
“Thanks to farm subsidies and the power of Monsanto’s global soybean monopoly, Americans now consume about 18 billion pounds of soybean oil a year,” says Hyman. “About 20 percent of our calories come from soybean oil, which is 50 percent linoleic acid, an inflammatory omega-6 fat. Check your grocery store labels; soybean oil is in almost everything.”
Think about that: 20 percent of your total calories sounds like lot, but if you eat out, you’re almost certain to get soybean oil. (You can always ask your server, but soybean oil is cheap, odorless unlike coconut oil, and prevalent, making it a restaurant staple.)
It isn’t just oils. Grain-fed meats and fish also provide higher amounts of omega-6, and unless you’re super vigilant, you’re going to probably get more in your diet. Inflammatory omega 6s are way more prevalent in today’s diet, even if you’re eating super healthy.
A chicken breast might seem perfectly fine, for example, but if you consider that chicken was fed grain and soy and then cooked in soybean oil, you can understand the amount of inflammatory fat that lurks within even healthier foods.
That doesn’t mean you need to be obsessive to lower that ratio. Some easy ways to get more omega 3s include:
- Eating wild-caught fish several times a week and/ or take a high-quality fish oil
- “Edging out” inflammatory foods with other anti-inflammatory foods like grass-fed beef, walnuts, freshly ground flax seeds, and chia seeds
- Eating tons of leafy and cruciferous veggies with your meals
- Workout regularly, sleep well, reduce stress, use spices like turmeric, supplement smartly with curcumin and other anti-inflammatory nutrients, and take other measures to reduce inflammation.
7. Saturated fat behaves differently depending on what you eat with it.
Probably true, although we aren’t entirely certain how.
For one, consider the quality: Saturated fat you eat from a fast-food cheeseburger will be vastly different from what you get from extra-virgin coconut oil. Remember too what I said before: No one food is entirely any type of fat, including saturated fat.
Beyond that, what you eat saturated fat with can impact how it works. “Saturated fat behaves differently in the body depending on what it’s eaten with. If you’re eating a crummy, typical American diet high in processed carbs, starches and sugars, you probably should eat a low-fat diet,” writes Bowden. “But you shouldn’t be eating that kind of diet in the first place, at least not if you care about your health.” (14)
In other words, if you eat that burger on the bun with fries and a soda, it will have an entirely different effect than if you eat the burger without the bun and with a salad. And on that echelon, grass-fed is far superior than grain-fed beef (and actually lower in saturated fat).
Like cholesterol, saturated fat has been oversimplified and misunderstood. But critics also neglect that it has a different effect depending on how you eat it.
“Dietary saturated fats don’t raise blood saturated fats,” Hyman says. “It is carbs and sugar (and excess protein) that cause your liver to produce the saturated fats found in your blood. Higher levels in the blood of stearate and palmitate are associated with increased cardiac risk. But these are produced mostly from eating carbs or sugar, not fat. In fact, eating foods with these types of fat—like meat or palm oil—has very little impact on your blood level of saturated fat; as it turns out, they are not associated with increased risk of heart disease.”
And then there’s inflammation: Some studies show saturated fat can increase your risk for chronic inflammation, which is indeed a real concern. One review of 15 studies about saturated fat and inflammation yielded mixed reviews. (15)
Again, while various variables contributed to those erratic results, researchers didn’t always account for what people ate with saturated fat and how those other things could affect inflammation. “Saturated fats cause inflammation only when eaten with refined carbs or sugar or when you don’t consume omega-3 fats,” says Hyman. You’ve got to wonder too whether it was the sugar and not saturated fat that increased inflammation.
8. Quality meats have a superior fatty acid ratio.
For the most part, true. I’ve talked about how grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon contain a superior nutrient ratio compared to their grain-fed brethren in this blog. One study, to recap, found grass-based diets elevate precursors for vitamins A and E, as well as cancer fighting antioxidants like glutathione, compared with grain-fed diets. (16)
That makes sense when you consider cows should eat grass, not grain or soy. Fish should eat algae and plankton, not grain. Animals that eat their natural diet will become meat more nutrient-dense, including being higher in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids.
“A steady diet of grain, not grass, results in meat and dairy that’s full of inflammatory omega-6 fats, adding to the imbalance between inflammatory omega- 6s and anti-inflammatory omega-3s—an imbalance that makes us sick and keeps us from losing weight,” say Bowden and Masley in Smart Fat.
Vegans and vegetarians might seem worlds apart from Paleo eaters, but they have more in common than you might imagine: Both camps find factory-farm industrial meat and farm-raised fish atrocious. As humans, we’re better than to raise our animals in squalid conditions, and we certainly deserve better healthwise than to eat these inferior meats.
Demand better. Yes, grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish cost more than grain-fed versions. Buy them anyway, and if budget becomes a concern, focus more on plant-based foods. More restaurants offer grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish these days. Ask for it and let your favorite places know how important quality meats mean to you.
9. To lose weight, you need to increase your protein and decrease fat (or vice versa).
Maybe. In their book The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek argue during the beginning of a fat-loss diet, low-carbohydrate dieters consume more protein, whereas during maintenance they shift to a higher-fat and more moderate-protein intake.
That makes sense from a caloric perspective, since protein has fewer calories than fat per gram but becomes more satiating than carbohydrate.
Regardless, endless experts debate exactly how much protein and fat you should eat to lose weight. For decades, most agreed more protein made a better fat-loss option, hence the popularity of skinless chicken breasts and protein shakes. Yet as higher-fat ketogenic diets become more popular, protein proponents are losing ground. The tide will probably eventually shift again to higher-protein diets.
You might do better on a higher-fat diet to lose weight. Or you might feel sluggish and shift to more protein. Or you might just throw your hands up at the debate and stick to whole, quality foods.
In reality, your mileage will vary according to a multitude of factors, including your biochemical makeup, and very few people micromanage their dietary fat and protein intake when they want to lose weight.
Instead, they focus on downgrading sugar (including sneaky sugar sources) and focusing instead on whole, healthy food sources. When you do that, you needn’t obsess about macros. You eat well, feel satisfied, and usually lose weight.
10. You can live without carbohydrates but not without dietary fat.
True. Scientists have identified nine essential amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine, histidine, and perhaps cysteine – that diet or supplements must provide because your body cannot adequately make them.
Just like we have these nine essential amino acids, we have two groups of fatty acids – the aforementioned omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – appropriately termed “essential” because your body can’t make them so they must be supplied from dietary or supplement sources.
“Between 1929 and 1978, two essential fatty acid families (the omega-6 and omega-3 classes) were defined,” write Phinney and Volek. “If these polyunsaturated fats are not sufficient in the diet over months (omega-6) or over decades (omega-3), then overt disease and dysfunction occur. Omega-6 deficiency causes skin rash, growth stunting and sterility. Omega-3 deficiency causes heart disease (and possibly dementia) in the first generation, plus impaired neurological/visual/intellectual development in the second generation.”
So you need certain dietary fats and amino acids, but carbohydrates? Zero “essential” requirements. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them, or even base a good amount of your diet on them, because carbohydrates provide nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber that protein and dietary fat just can’t provide. Just opt for the right – read: whole foods, low-sugar – carbohydrates.
11. Whole foods will always be your best fat sources.
True. Whenever possible, opt for whole fat sources rather than oils or other processed foods.
Wild-caught fish will always prove superior to fish oil because you’re getting an array of nutrients (plus satiating protein and dietary fat) that supplements just can’t provide. Whole coconut will always be better than coconut oil, but among oils, coconut oil is probably least processed and a good option. Raw nuts will be better than nut butters because they’re not processed, plus you might be getting added sugars and even trans fat in nut butters.
Nutrition always presents an echelon, but simply put: Nature always wins, and less processing is almost always better.
12. You can trust that “zero grams of trans fat” claim on the label.
False. I want to be cynical and say be skeptical about any health claims on the front of the box, but especially with trans fats.
Trans fats occur when a lab chemically adds hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fat, eliminating the double bonds between carbon atoms and making them essentially saturated. That process (called hydrogenation) extends shelf life, reduce rancidity, and increases a fat’s melting point (making it more suitable for frying). (17)
“Fats that have been partially hydrogenated have very, very long shelf life, unlike the original, highly unsaturated oils they were made from,” says Dr. Mary Enig in Know Your Fats, the primer about dietary fat. “The unsaturated fats can become rancid easily if they are not stored properly. The proneness to rancidity is due in part to the fact that some of the natural antioxidants usually found in the seed oils are lost when these seed oils are extracted with solvents, and since these oils are so highly unsaturated, they really need the antioxidant protection.”
The process probably sounded wonderful on paper. “In the early 1900s there was an abundance of soy and a shortage of butter. The creation of margarine from soybean oil solved this problem,” Hyman says. “Food producers had found a fat that was inexpensive to produce and had a long shelf life.”
Because trans fats were unsaturated, by the 1960s experts began arguing margarine – traditionally a trans-fat fueled food if ever there was one – was healthier than butter.
Yet as time moved forward, we realized that wasn’t the case and these perfectly healthy unsaturated fats were entirely unhealthy.
In 2006, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) required manufacturers to list trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. (18) While that sounds good in theory – finally, you can see how many grams of trans fat your food has per serving – manufacturers quickly found a way to work around that “problem.”
“Through a loophole in the regulations, [manufacturers are] currently allowed to say ‘zero trans fat’ if the product in question has less than one-half gram per serving,” write Bowden and Masley in Smart Fat. “By making ‘serving sizes’ unrealistically small, they can claim ‘zero’ trans fat. Meanwhile, you, the consumer, can easily consume a couple of grams in a real-life serving of their product. Multiply this by a few products a day, and before you know it you’re consuming trans fat grams in the double digits. Remember that the ideal daily amount of trans fats in the human diet is zero.”
The easiest way to get zero grams? Stick with a whole, unprocessed foods diet. Since trans fats are man-made (with one exception that I’ll explain in a minute), skipping processed foods means you’re not getting any of these truly damaging fats in your diet.
If you do eat processed foods – we all do occasionally – skip whatever the front label says and look at the ingredients. If you see partially hydrogenated on those ingredients, put it back. That means it contains trans fats.
13. There’s an exception to almost every dietary fat rule.
True. That’s what makes nutrition so complicated (and compelling), why journalists and even scientists oftentimes get dietary fat wrong, and ultimately why food becomes so complex and fascinating.
Omega-6 fatty acids get a bad rep as being inflammatory, but not all of them are. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), usually derived from borage seed oil, is actually anti-inflammatory (19) and benefits various conditions from skin health (20) to diabetic neuropathy. (21)
Healthy fats can become unhealthy when they’re oxidized or damaged (think of a car rusting; that’s oxidation). Eggs, for example, provide high-quality fat with about equal amounts of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats (the “three flavors” of fat I mentioned in the beginning).
They’re one of nature’s perfect foods, unless you have a food intolerance (usually to albumin, a protein in egg whites).
You also want to eat them freshly cooked (hard-boiled would be one exception). When scrambled eggs sit under a buffet-table heat lamp for hours, that otherwise-healthy fat becomes oxidized, making it very unhealthy.
Even trans fats on that very rare occasion get a free pass. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a naturally occurring trans fat (BIG difference there between man-made trans fats) found in full-fat dairy and meat products, can actually help you lose weight (in therapeutic doses at least) (22) and even fight cancer. (23)
(For what it’s worth: Some studies show supplementing with CLA can increase oxidative stress and insulin resistance, (24) again proving my point that you’re far better getting nutrients from whole food sources rather than nutrients.)
5 Ways to Get More Healthy Dietary Fat in Your Diet
From this information, I hope you’re able to see how dietary fat is nothing to fear and that the right fats can make you lean and healthier.
With all the hoopla and frenzy about adding butter to your steak or whatever, simply adding more fat into your diet intelligently can feel daunting, especially if you’ve long subscribed to the fat-is-bad dogma that’s slowly dying but still prevails. (Hey, it takes a long time to reverse decades of fat-phobic conditioning.)
If you want to increase fat without going whole hog (pun intended), these five strategies can help you ease into a healthy, higher-fat diet without the gimmicks.
1. Upgrade your oils.
Dump the vegetable oils and cook with regular olive oil for sauteing and extra-virgin coconut oil for medium-heat cooking. Research heat points for different oils and experiment with a wide range, since every type of oil delivers different flavors. I’ve recently discovered that avocado oil has a very high smoke point, and started experimenting with it. If you really want to be cautious, you can just use water, then drizzle in an oil once things have cooled down.
2. Start with breakfast.
One of my favorite, easiest ways to step up healthy fats is at breakfast. Throw healthy fats like avocado, sprouted seeds, cacao butter, and freshly ground flaxseed into your morning smoothie. They taste great and keep you full longer. I find that people easily get hungry by mid-morning if they didn’t consume enough fat at breakfast.
3. Find ways to incorporate fat throughout your day.
The little things add up. Add some sliced avocado to your salad. Have a handful of raw nuts or a spoonful of nut butter for a snack. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil onto your asparagus at dinner.
4. Experiment with how you feel.
Some people do better with dietary fat than others. There is no one absolute for everyone. Some people can eat a grass-fed ribeye and feel amazing. For others, a little dietary fat goes a long way. Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all field.
5. Go for the full-fat version and eat less.
Count the number of low-fat or fat-free products in your grocery store. Yogurt is a good example. The full-fat version will usually be more satisfying, have less sugar, and you’ll probably eat less of it. Better yet, skip those processed foods and stick with whole ones. You’ll never see a “fat-free” sticker on a food grown in nature.
How have you done incorporating fats into your diet? Do you do better with higher fat intake or lower-to-moderate fat intake? What’s been your experience on high-fat and on low-fat meal plans? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!