Friday, March 11, 2011

Fat Free-dom. Fats Don’t Make You Fat!

And other lessons from the new 2011 Dietary Guidelines

Who knows what to believe any more. One day, you’re told to lower your intake of fats, all fats, and another you are told to increase omega 3 fats, because they’re healthy. Margarines—the spread of choice? Perhaps in my parents’ generation, but not these days. Now they are equated with poison in our bloodstream, full of trans fats, those plastic-like substances worse than saturated fats. Fatty fish are fine, but fatty meats are not. Nuts? Peanut butter? Avocado? Good for us? Or fattening?

If these questions have overwhelmed you, like most of the public trying to make sense of the ever-changing nutrition guidance, read on.

Like carbs, fats have developed a bad rep. Partly, for good reason, I might add. Compared to protein and carbohydrate, they have more than twice as many calories per unit. Yes, 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram. And over the years, in an effort to lower high cholesterol and heart disease risk, nutrition messages became inaccurately oversimplified. Saturated fats remain linked with high cholesterol and heart disease risk. But in our effort to reduce the saturated fats, somehow the “saturated” got dropped, and the message became “eat a low fat diet”. 

Well guess what? That message backfired. Even with a reduction in saturated fats, heart disease levels remained high. The problem was that we were substituting fats, all fats, with carbohydrate, with high intakes of refined carbohydrate. Remember the post Why Carbs Got a Bad Rep? As you may recall, when people started banning fats, they were eating large quantities of carbohydrate from all sources. This diet led to higher levels of triglycerides, another risk factor for heart disease.

Feeling like you can’t win? There is a solution.

The message needs to change from eat low fat, to eat less saturated fat. And, we need to increase the non-saturated fats we’ve omitted from our diets for the past years. Our current approach isn’t working—not for heart disease prevention, and not even for weight management.

Yes, you heard me. A low fat diet doesn’t improve your weight, compared with a higher fat diet with the same amount of calories.

The 2011 Dietary Guidelines For Americans

Why should I now trust this source of nutrition information when I have been wronged before?

First some background info. These guidelines come from the top nutrition experts in the US who form committees every five or so years to update us on the facts. They are not paid by food companies, so no need for that paranoia. Any personal interests must be disclosed, to prevent bias in their conclusions. They do a complete review of the research, eliminating the studies that are poorly done or not statistically valuable. Each group of experts tackles a specific nutrition area, such as fats, to address a range of questions related to the type and amount, as it impacts our health. Weight and heart disease are among the topics explored.
Then they analyze the results of the combined studies, the most up to date information available, and present us with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So yes, they are quite trustworthy.

And what do these results about fats say?
The full report can be found at, but here’s a summary with quotes from the report:

Eating fat doesn’t make you fat

“Strong evidence shows that there is no optimal proportion of macronutrients (protein, fat, carboydrate) that can facilitate weight loss or assist with maintaining weight loss." It all comes down to the total calories. "In adults, moderate evidence suggests that diets that are less than 45 percent of total calories as carbohydrate or more than 35 percent of total calories as protein are generally no more effective than other calorie-controlled diets for long-term weight loss and weight maintenance.”

Fats should not just be tolerated, but included for health!

“Fats supply calories and essential fatty acids, and help in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Acceptable ranges for total fat intake for children and adults allow for a total fat intake up to 35-40% in children (depending on age) and up to 35% for adults.
These ranges are associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, while providing for adequate intake of essential nutrients. Total fat intake should fall within these ranges.”

Increase the typically low intakes of healthy mono and unsaturated fats in your diet!

“The types of fatty acids consumed are more important in influencing the risk of cardiovascular disease than is the total amount of fat in the diet.
Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible, especially by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.”

Translating it into foods

“Animal fats tend to have a higher proportion of saturated fatty acids (seafood being the major exception), and plant foods tend to have a higher proportion of monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids (coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil being the exceptions).

Most fats with a high percentage of saturated or trans fatty acids are solid at room temperature and are referred to as “solid fats,” while those with more unsaturated fatty acids are usually liquid at room temperature and are referred to as “oils.” Solid fats are found in most animal foods but also can be made from vegetable oils through the process of hydrogenation....”

Include oils such as canola, olive, walnut, sunflower, safflower and corn. Choose lean meats, but include fatty fish, whose fat is not saturated. Choose foods that are full flavored, to allow for more modest portions, for the sake of energy balance and weight management. Nuts and nut butters, avocado, and oils are healthy, but should be eaten mindfully to control portions and total calories.

My personal favorites

I love walnut oil ( and have recently needed to work more hours to support my truffle oil habit. Absolutely divine! I love good cheese, the full fat types, but yes, they are high in saturated fat. So I grate them, cheeses like Asiago and Manchego, rather than add thick slabs onto my entrées. I choose strong cheeses, and dark chocolate, because a little goes a long way to satisfy. As a result I could keep my saturated fat intake in range, without compromising on flavor. And trust me, I never feel deprived.
If you are still overwhelmed by the idea of adding fats to your diet, start slowly. Add a small amount of nuts or a tasty oil just to test it out. When you see that your worst fears don’t come true, you’ll start to trust these guidelines. Because even though the word is the same, fats don’t make you fat!


  1. I loved this post! I do admit that fats are very triggering for me, and for that, if I do eat any fats, I only eat fats that are 'good' for you. For example, right now I can only handle eating almonds. I am recovering from my 4th year of bulimia/anorexia and also over exercising, and right now I am trying to restore my weight. My question is, is consuming too much non-saturated fats healthy? The other day I realized I stepped over my fat limit, I had about 2 full servings of almonds, used coconut oil for my stir fry twice (I dont know if youve looked at the label but a serving of coconut oil is about 60% of your daily saturated fat) and a serving of salmon. Unfortunately the trigger was too unbearable and I relapsed. I regret relapsing and wished that I would just trust my body! Sorry this was kind of a long reply! -Anna

  2. Thanks for this article. It is so difficult to make sense of what is "good" vs "bad" for us! I love the way you commit yourself to sharing this myriad of information! And help us to decipher it! Clarify it!

  3. I admit I do eat a very low fat diet, but have recently switched from margarine to spreadable butter because I thought this was a more 'natural' choice (simply contains cream and canola oil - no colours, flavours, preservatives or 'numbers').
    Was this then the wrong thing to do? Is it in fact a healthier option to go with margarine? (I'm sitting here checking the numbers and the margarine I was using has 18.2% saturated fat vs 40.9% for the butter) - based on this, and since this is the spread I use for my whole family, it would be a better choice to swtich back I'm assuming.
    It's all very complicated!

  4. I think I am adding too much fat "good fat" to my diet. I am trying to restore weight and eat foods that are not refined or overly processed. This means for me foods with few ingredients and foods that are closely associated to the land, such as nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, and unrefined carbohydrates. I am also a vegetarian. These past few days I feel I have been having too many fats in comparison to the other food groups. For example, I just had 1/2 of an avocado for lunch with fruits, vegetables, beans, and brown rice cakes. I also eat a a lot of nut butters throughout the day. I am not sure if all this fat is going to help me reach my ultimate goal: restore lean weight in a healthy way.

  5. Anonymous,
    As long as your protein and calorie intakes are adequate, you will restore lean mass. Inclusion of fats as you describe is healthy and appropriate!

    Many of the tub spreads are now trans-fat free and lower in saturated fat compared to butter, so those are still the healthier choice. From a weight stand point, it doesn't matter.

    Don't worry about "too much" of these healthy fats if your overall intake supports your weight in a healthy range.

    Quincy Carole,
    So glad you are enjoying these posts.

    All I ask, is that you spread the word so it makes my time feel well spent! Consider a post on or stumble upon...Thanks!

  6. I also post your newest article link weekly to my Facebook page hoping it will inspire others interested to join!

  7. If you’re trying to restore weight and recovering from anorexia, healthy fats in WHOLE FOODS are definitely appropriate! Almonds and walnuts in particular contain good amounts of healthy fatty acids AS WELL AS good amounts of protein, vitamins, and fiber...all very necessary for healthy weight gain! The fats in fatty fish are some of the best fats for a healthy body, not to mention fatty fish is high in protein. Avocados and olives are also good sources of healthy fats, fiber, and vitamins. If you want to seriously do your heart good, gain healthy weight, and keep lean muscle mass, eat your healthy fats in whole food form!