Rethinking Fat:  The good, the bad, and the ugly

Rethinking Fat: The good, the bad, and the ugly

It is a well-established fact that too much body fat i.e. being overweight or obese, has serious health consequences and is a risk factor to the onset of many serious diseases.

Historically, we’ve blamed high dietary fat intakes for our growing overweight and obese population. It seemed like a good conclusion since fat has a higher calorie count per gram than other dietary elements, and visibly, our country was getting fatter. While this could be partially true in certain cases, fat is not the villain that we once thought.screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-3-48-09-pm

Over the last few decades, food manufacturers leveraged our fat-phobia by marketing low-fat, no-fat, fat-free, lite, etc. options of foods they wanted us to continue buying: potato chips (remember Olean?), baked potato chips, low fat/fat-free ice cream, cookies, and cakes, low fat/fat free sour cream, yogurt, cheese, drinks, colas, and the list goes on and on. Need proof? Go down any grocery store aisle.

So why, with all these ‘improvements’ to our food, are we fatter than ever? The overweight/obese population of the U.S. has continued to increase yearly: over two-thirds of all women and three-quarters of all men are overweight and/or obese. Additionally, our teens have now hit the one-third mark with 18% of them now clinically obese. Since the activity levels of the US have not shifted much, culpability goes to diet.


Is dietary fat really the problem? Or is it something else?

Our newest research indicates that dietary fat per se is not the problem, but the kind of fat ingested, the volume ingested, and the volume of foods that are made with sugar and sugar substitutes such as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 156 pounds of sugar are consumed per person each year. Imagine 31 x five-pound bags of sugar sitting on your kitchen counter. Sixty of those pounds are from HFCS. About 30 of those pounds are from traditional table sugar. The remainder is scattered throughout processed foods that we now consider staples; sugar hides in yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, peanut butter, crackers and more obvious products like sodas and junk foods.


Compare that to this: less than 100 years ago our sugar intake was less than 4 pounds per person per year.

There are 120 teaspoons in 1 pound of sugar. Can we really be eating 18,720 teaspoons of sugar per year? 52 teaspoons of sugar daily?

A teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. Or to put it another way, 16 grams of sugar on a food label means that 4 teaspoons of sugar were added to it. For example, a 6-ounce cup of Yoplait has 26 grams of sugar (not to pick on Yoplait particularly; other yogurt products are similar). Just ONE 6-ounce cup of Yoplait has 6.5 teaspoons of added sugar. For just one product, that puts a pretty good dent in the 52 teaspoons that we are currently eating per day per capita.

The astonishing increase in sugar consumption is due to the heavy consumption of processed foods. When manufacturers of processed foods saw that the consumers demanded low-/non-fat versions of foods, they responded but encountered a problem when they eliminated or reduced the fat in their products. The products either did not process well, or did not taste as good. The solution: add sugar.


So what is it? Is dietary fat good or bad? As research expands, it has become clear that certain fats help in the quest for good health and a healthy weight, and other fats are harmful. GOOD FATS are generally liquid at room temperature, are from plant sources and are called unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats have been traditionally labeled BAD FATS. They are solid at room temperature and are usually from animal sources. Researchers have recently put animal fat in the EAT IN MODERATION category, rather than the BAD FAT category. TRANS FATS are arguably the ONLY BAD FAT. They started out as vegetable oils (GOOD FATS), but were modified to be solid like a saturated fat (shortening is a good example of something that started as a vegetable oil. Hydrogen was then added to the structure to make it solid, making it TRANS FAT). To identify a TRANS FAT, look for the words HYDROGENATED or PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED fats.


Trans Fats – Ditch it.

If you make one dietary change to your diet, make it this one: eliminate Trans Fats completely from your diet. The process of hydrogenation was developed to make liquid vegetable oils a solid. Why? It was a cheaper solution for baked goods; butter was expensive and increased production costs. Additionally hydrogenated vegetable oil has a long shelf life (thus less spoilage, i.e. better profits). Products made with butter, beef tallow or lard went stale quicker.

Trans fats, although chemically close to saturated fats, have been shown to increase levels of the lipoprotein LDL (so-called “bad cholesterol, Low Density Lipoprotein), decrease levels of the lipoprotein HDL (the “good cholesterol, High Density Lipoprotein), increases triglycerides in the blood stream, increases free-radicals in the body, and promotes systemic inflammation.

The nutritional community agrees that trans fats are not recognized as safe, are harmful for health, and should be removed from all processed foods.

Sources of Good Fats: Unsaturated Fats

Under the heading of unsaturated fats are 2 main groupings that are slightly, chemically different: Monounsaturated Fats and Polyunsaturated Fats.

  1. Monounsaturated fats include:
    1. Olive Oil
    2. Canola Oil
    3. Peanut Oil
    4. Nuts
    5. Avocadoes
  2. Polyunsaturated Fats – Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into 2 main groups: Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats
    1. Omega-3 Fats
      1. Fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring
      2. Eggs and some lean meats such as lean beef and chicken
  • Plant sources such as linseed, flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans, canola oil
  1. Omega-6 Fats
    1. Sunflower Seeds
    2. Sunflower, soybean, sesame oils
  • Nuts such as walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts and pine nuts

There is overlap in some of the fat sources: some foods have both monounsaturated oils as well as polyunsaturated oils. The trend is clear however; a diet rich in fats from plant and/or fish sources is the overall healthiest diet.


Fats, like other nutrients, have DRIs (Dietary Reference Intake recommendations). The recommendation for fat consumption is between 20-35% of total daily calories from fat. For a meal plan of 1200 calories, you should be eating 27 to 47 grams of fat. For a meal plan of 2400 calories, you should be eating 53 to 93 grams of fat.

A diet rich in GOOD FATS is your best bet.

Dietary recommendation for fat for optimal health:

  1. Stay within the DRI recommended range of fat consumption: 20-35% of total daily calories
    1. Risks of Eating Too Little Fat Include:
      1. Poor vitamin absorption. Fat Soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K depend on adequate dietary fat intake. These vitamins are essential to growth, immunity, cell repair, and blood clotting.
      2. Excessive Appetite. Fat provides satiation, which helps relieve hunger pangs, an important factor in dietary control and weight loss.
  • The feel-good chemicals of the brain, serotonin and dopamine, can only be produced with adequate fat in the diet. Low levels of fat in the diet can result in depression, foggy memory, and the inability to concentrate. Recent studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids can relieve mood swings and depression.
  1. Eliminate Trans Fats completely from your diet
  2. Reduce your intake of “Bad” fats (most animal sources).
    1. When eating any meat or fowl, remove visible fat
    2. Choose lower fat versions of milk and milk products or swap them out for plant-based products.
  3. Eat Omega-3 & 6 Fats every day
    1. These essential fatty acids found in fish, nuts, seeds, and oils are essential to good health.
    2. Additionally, these sources of fat that have lots of fiber such as nuts and seeds, should be eaten daily.

The bottom line:

Research is clear: vegetable based fats are good and the preferred source of dietary fat. Saturated fats, which had received a bad rap in past years are not bad – closer to neutral when eaten in moderation. If they are eaten in excess and without the balance of good fats, they won’t get any gold stars; research certainly suggests that saturated fats in excess are detrimental to your health. TRANS FATS are BAD. Eliminate them.

JAMA co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, Dr.PH, dean of the Friedman School sums it up beautifully: “Placing limits on total fat intake has no basis in science and leads to all sorts of wrong industry and consumer decisions. Modern evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthful fats like nuts, vegetable oils, and fish have protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. Other fat-rich foods, like whole milk and cheese, appear pretty neutral, while many low-fat foods, like low-fat deli meats, fat-free salad dressing, and baked potato chips, are no better and often even worse than full-fat alternatives. It’s the food that matters, not its fat content.”

Ultimately realigning our health will center around the healthy food choices we make, focusing on plant based fibrous foods such as veggies, nuts, beans and legumes, seeds, unprocessed whole grains, and fruit, as well as moving more every day.

Stay tuned for more information about the latest in dietary research, health, and fitness. For more articles and information, go to and browse our library of cutting edge, current information.

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